Ron Webb wrote:I was writing in opposition to the original Hawting article, in particular to what I saw as his assumption that we should simply accept continued population growth and reduce our consumption accordingly. Your responses, in (apparent) opposition to what I was saying, gave me the impression that you too accepted population growth as inevitable and/or self-limiting, and that large families are simply a lifestyle choice with no ethical implications.
Well, I did keep saying that it wasn't an either/or issue, and that could aim to do both, i.e. reduce population, or at least slow down its growth, and reduce consumption, at least in the developed world, not only of meat and other animal products but of other resource-intensive foods and other goods. (I could have added that, by reducing consumption of meat and other animal products, we would also be reducing population — but the population of livestock animals rather than of humans.) I do find this issue a very thorny one. But in my view population and consumption have to be looked at together. We can't come up with figures for "optimum" or "sustainable" populations without looking at patterns of consumption and distribution of wealth and how they might change in the future, and how we want
them to change. Even the Optimum Population Trust
is at pains to emphasise that. That's one reason I'm wary of specific claims that we need to reduce the world's population to 4 billion, or 2.5 billion, or whatever. The other reason is that I can't see how the population can be reduced to any of the levels deemed sustainable, in a time scale short enough to mitigate against catastrophic climate change, without some kind of apocalyptic event and resulting mass human die-off. Therefore I want
to be more optimistic about what we can do to sustain the planet even if the population does nothing better than peak at 9.5 billion by 2050. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to have a little faith in human ingenuity. Not so much faith, though, that we dismiss concerns about population (and consumption) entirely. If you have the stomach for an argument against population control of any kind, and an entirely secular one, have a look at Frank Furedi's article in spiked
Ron Webb wrote:There is probably no humane and democratic way to reduce global population rapidly; but in my opinion, there is no humane and democratic way to reduce meat and dairy consumption rapidly either. (Hence my concern that population may ultimately be reduced drastically and in some inhumane or undemocratic way.)
Yes. A concern I share. But I do think that the consumption of meat and dairy, and other resource-intensive foods and other goods and services, will be reduced pretty rapidly if the prices go up to reflect environmental impact. Perhaps something similar happens to the birth rate; when having another child becomes an expensive business rather than a new source of income and labour, then increasing numbers of people stop at one or two, or don't have any at all. (That seems to be what has happened in Spain and Italy, countries that have the lowest two birth rates in the world, despite the prevalence of Catholicism!) But the time scale for those kinds of change would be much longer. It may be unlikely that consumption can be increased swiftly, but it is at least possible. And when you consider that the ecological footprint
of an average American is more than twice that of an average Netherlander, even though the two countries have a similar Human Development Index
, and the carbon emissions
of the average Canadian are more than twice that of the average Briton, it does at least seems feasible that the environmental impact of some individuals could be decreased quite substantially without damaging their quality of life.
Ron Webb wrote:As individuals, we should try to do whatever we can, so that at least we can claim to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem; but there are limits to how far I am willing to go as in individual.
Interesting change of language there. Should we try to do whatever we can
, or just whatever we are willing
to do? For example, I know that I can live a perfectly happy and rewarding life without ever taking another trip in an aircraft. But am I willing to do that? As you pointed out earlier, so much depends on what everyone else does. If I give up flying, but everyone I know is still whizzing off to interesting places at the drop of a hat, and telling me all about it in great detail, then denying myself the pleasure of flying is a bit of a trial. If the true costs of flying were reflected in the price, though, then others would be less likely to fly, and deciding not to fly on principle might be an easier decision to make.
Ron Webb wrote:I suppose the most ecologically friendly thing I could do would be to kill myself, and that too is a "lifestyle choice" that in my opinion I should have the right to make; but it's too much to ask of myself, let alone anyone else.
We have to go a long way before we can claim to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, but we don't have to go that far! Even though I don't agree with Frank Furedi's conclusion that there's no such thing as "too many people", I do agree that human lives are valuable in themselves. And I also think it's important that people who do care about the ecological impact of their lifestyles stick around, if only to lead by example. I am inspired by people who manage to make their homes carbon-neutral, for example, especially if they're retrofitting an existing home rather than building one from scratch. As soon as I can afford it, I'll try to do it myself, taking advice from those who have done it before. The more people who change their behaviour in ways that help make their lives more sustainable, the more feasible and attractive such changes seem to others. I don't proselytise for veganism, but at the same time the fact that I've been a vegan for twenty-three years with no apparent negative consequences to my health, and that I clearly enjoy my food, and my life in general, as much as the next person, could at least help anyone already leaning towards veganism or near-veganism to take that step.
Of course, we all have different personal preferences. But it is important to recognise, I think, that personal preferences can change. Sometimes, making a choice to change something because you think you ought to and you think you can, rather than because you're particularly willing to, can lead to a desire to carry on that way. When I first became a vegan, I wasn't optimistic that I'd be able to stick at it. Now, I can't imagine living any other way. The cravings for bacon and Stilton ended long ago ...