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Resource Depletion and Overuse Part IV and Final

There are a number of people and organizations that feel that we must drastically reduce the human population because we will soon run out of nonrenewable resources. Behind the difficulty in  tapping resources lies the fact that too many people are accessing them. Some maintain that resources are already scarce per capita in the world at large, and, thus, the resource crises and resources wars are actually here, right now. There is no need to look very far to find evidence of frictions, conflicts, and even some wars over access to resources-especially oil and gas, water, and agricultural land. The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US military bases and support provided to local governments in the Middle East and Central Asia have been lately about access to, or control, of oil. These actions and relations are not simply about overpopulation, however, but are rather a continuation of a capitalist colonial and imperial history of exerting influence in these resource rich nations. Basic to the structure of globalized capitalism is that a small minority of the world population in the rich countries dominates large parts of the world, robbing them of their resources.

The productive aquifers on the Palestinian West Bank, for example, must be factored into understanding Israel’s reluctance to end the occupation and return to its pre-1967 war borders. In weaker countries where no ruling class is in firm control, internal conflict and even civil wars may arise as a result of efforts the exploitation of resources.

A whole host of countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia are in conflict over ownership of yet to be discovered, but promising, oil deposits under the sea floor along with other potential resources in the South China Sea. There are also disputed sea floor boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel has discovered a large deposit of natural gas. Additionally, there is the potential for conflict over the Caspian basin petroleum deposits.

Recently, the melting ice in the Arctic is opening up the Arctic waters to oil exploitation, creating an “Ice Cold War”, as it has been called, involving the United States, Canada, Russia,  Denmark, and Norway. Michael Klare, in the book The Race for What’s Left, argues that “the world is entering an era of pervasive, unprecedented resource scarcity”.

Usually such conflicts are treated a mere byproducts of growing population and international competition, but a closer analysis demonstrates that capitalism and the incessant drive for expansion that it inculcates, along with its imperialist tendencies, are mainly at fault. Attempts to reduce the environmental problems to the “population bomb” are therefore frequently crude and distorted. A variety of side issues and “straw persons” are put forward, diverting attention from potential stumbling blocks, related to population specifically, out of the way before continuing with this part of discussion. Our starting points should be:

•    All people everywhere should have access to medical care, including contraceptive and other reproductive assistance.

•    As living standards rise to a level that supplies family security, the number of children per family tends to decline. But, depending on the circumstances, there may be good reasons for poor women and men to have fewer children even before they have more secure futures and for individual countries to encourage smaller families.

•    There are poor countries where overgrazing, excess logging of forests, and soil degradation on marginal agricultural land are caused by relatively large populations and the lack of alternative ways for people to make a living except from the land. This problem may be worsened by the low yields commonly obtained from infertile tropical soils. But we also need to recognize that these problems are not only an issue of population density. Displacement of farmers by large-scale farms causes some to seek new areas to farm and graze animals-using ever more marginal or ecological fragile land.

•    Some countries have populations so large relative to their agricultural land that importing of food will be needed into the foreseeable future. One of the largest of these nations is Egypt, with population of over 80 million people and arable land of 0.04 hectares (less than one tenth of an acre) per capita. These countries are condemned to suffer the consequences of  rapid international market price hikes that occur frequently and of having to maintain significant exports just to be able to get sufficient hard currency to import food. There are other countries-such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman,, and Qatar-that have a larger population than what can be sustained by available water/food resources, but each of them can currently use oil and/or other commercial income to obtain sufficient food for their populations. Similarly, a rich developed country like the Netherlands is able to draw unsustainably on resource taps and dispose of its environmental effluents in waste sinks at the expense of much of the rest of the world.

•    All else being equal-which, of course, it never is-larger populations on the earth create more potential environmental problems. So population is always an environmental factor-though usually not the main one, given that economic growth generally outweighs population growth and environmental degradation arises mainly from the rich rather than from the poor.

•    If we assume that all people will live at a particular standard of living, there is a finite carrying capacity of the earth, above which population growth will not be sustainable because of rapid depletion of too many resources and too much pollution. For example, it is impossible for all those currently alive to live at what is called a “Western middle-class standard”-for to do so we would need more than four Earths to supply the resources and assimilate pollutants.

One of the main approaches taken by people whose primary concerns are resource use and “overpopulation” is to push birth control efforts in poor countries, mainly through programs aimed at contraceptive use by women. Since these countries in which populations are growing at fast rates (with growth in sub-Saharan Africa the most rapid), it seems at first blush to make some sense to concentrate efforts on this issue. But when looked at more deeply, it is clear that this is not a solution to the real problem-global-scale nonrenewable resource depletion and environmental degradation-that so concern these people.

David Harvey has explained the problem of concentrating on population issues as follows: “The trouble with focusing exclusively on the control of population numbers is that it has certain political implications. Ideas about environment, population, and resources are not neutral. They are political in origin and have political effects”. One of the peculiar things about those so very concerned with overpopulation and the environment is that they do not seem especially interested in investigating the details of what is actually happening. There is little to no discussion of how the economy functions or of issues involving economic inequality. Also there is apparently no interest in even thinking about an alternative way for people to interact with each other and the environment or how they might organize their economy differently.

It is only common sense that the more wealth a person or family has, the more stuff they consume and, therefore, the more resources they use and the more pollution they cause. But the almost unbelievable inequality of wealth and income at the global level has striking effects on the consumption patterns.     

Source: DIGEST, January 2014

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