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Who's really destroying the earth?

The perception of population growth in developing countries as the culprit of worldwide environmenta

The human population is reaching such proportions it is feared that it will exceed the capacity of the planet to sustain it.

More than 80 per cent of the human population is in developing countries. Population growth is also concentrated there. Of more than 90m people who engross the human population every year, about 90 per cent is expected to live in developing countries. The problem seems clearly to be in the developing world.

According to present tendencies, by 2050 the human population would reach 9,000 million, of which 7,500 million would live in developing countries. The population increase implies additional demands on natural resources and ecosystems, which in turn would magnify the environmental and social degradation affecting humanity today.

The solution is then to control, through whatever means possible, the population of these countries.

The massive and free flow of contraceptives, mass sterilization, cultural disruption, and even genocide has been proposed to achieve this goal.

All in the name of the environment and "sustainable development".

However, most of these arguments, as well as most of the proposed solutions, are only a reflection of the ignorance, racism and prejudice that permeate the debate on population and the environment.

Some effective measures against population growth in developing countries have been rhetorically supported in international negotiations, such as badly needed improvements in education, health care and nutrition; the creation of productive jobs; the diversification of economic output, and the export of processed or semi-processed products instead of raw materials.

But in practice, such measures have been taken with a considerable dosage of apprehension. It has been argued that they would imply improved standards of living for the people affected. This might in turn lead to higher levels of consumption of resources, as well as to the production of larger amounts of waste and pollutants.

The environmental argument has thus been used to strengthen the already mighty interest in avoiding any disruption of the established international economic order.

The result has been a dramatic collapse of education, health and nutrition indicators throughout Latin America and other developing regions in the last 20 years; the massive growth of unemployment; further dependence on the export of raw materials, and growing masses of people living in extreme poverty.

In the meantime, the gap between the standard of living of industrial and developing countries has reached staggering proportions.

The main impact of people on the environment is related to two fundamental variables:

  • The consumption of resources
  • The production of waste and pollutants

In the year 2000 there were approximately six billion people on the planet, 21 per cent in industrial countries, and the remaining 79 per cent in developing countries. Nevertheless, industrial countries accounted for nearly 80 per cent of all resources consumed. They were also responsible for the production of nearly 80 per cent of all waste and pollutants.

If we were to measure the environmental impact of human population with a uniform yardstick, such as the amount of resources consumed by the average person in developing countries, or the amount of waste and pollutants produced by the same average person, we would then conclude that while in 2000 there were 4.7 billion people in developing countries, the population-equivalent of industrial countries would amount to 19 billion people.

From the point of view of environmental impact, where is then the real population problem?

If we consider the long history of slavery, abuse, exploitation and misery that, for centuries, have been imposed on developing countries by the main industrial nations, we could conclude in a gigantic environmental, economic and social debt, with which industrial countries have so far got away with.

The unsustainable growth of the population of developing countries is closely related to the extreme levels of poverty they must endure, partly a consequence of the established international economic order, designed by industrial nations at Bretton Woods to enhance their own interests, and then imposed upon the rest of the world.

Environmental devastation is related to international economic and political relationships. Developing countries must play the role of exporters of ever-larger amounts of ever-cheaper raw materials [natural resources], to maintain the industrial output and wealth of the "North".

The depletion of resources, and the environmental and social costs involved, are deliberately ignored by the established economic system.

Developing countries are the most affected by the growing social and environmental damages derived from decades of imposition of the established international economic order. Most of their economies are based on the ruthless exploitation of both people and natural resources, to feed industrial processes mainly driven by industrial nations.
Nearly three quarters of all people in developing countries are already below the poverty line. Over 14 million children, under the age of 5, die each year from hunger, thirst, malnutrition, or from easily curable or preventable diseases. An average of 26 children per minute.

At the same time, nearly 14 million hectares of natural tropical forests are destroyed every year, also in tropical developing countries. 

A massive and irreversible destruction, mainly due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, in order to accommodate growing numbers of people in extreme poverty, practicing survival agriculture.

The growing numbers of people involved are not only due to the increase in population. It is mainly driven by rampant unemployment and a dramatic economic impoverishment.

Nearly 70 per cent of the accumulated emissions of carbon dioxide in the last 50 years have come from the excessive consumption of energy of industrial countries.

Carbon dioxide emissions are among the main culprits of global warming, now threatening the stability of people and ecological processes all over the world, particularly in tropical developing countries.

Population growth is certainly one of the key problems facing developing countries. Decisive and effective action is necessary to address it, with due respect for the cultural, ethical and religious differences between diverse sectors of humanity. The lack of democratic processes of governance, and the profound social inequalities evident in most developing countries, are part of the array of issues where fundamental changes are required.

But the population dilemma should not be isolated from the political and economic context it which it has thrived. The perception of population growth in developing countries as the culprit of worldwide environmental damage is a fallacy that deserves to be eradicated. It is, nevertheless, at the very bottom of foreign policies in most industrial nations, as part of the overall attempt to preserve the established international economic order, regardless of how profoundly unfair it may be to the majority of the human race.

Julio Cesar Centeno – Professor of the University of the Andes, Venezuela.  Venezuelan delegate to international negotiations on climate change, biodiversity and forestry. Invested by Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands with the Golden Ark Award.