New Internationalist

Garbage Galore

Issue 235

new internationalist
issue 235 - September 1992

Pylons on the march. Coal-fired power stations in Calcutta add to global warming.
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
Garbage galore
The trail becomes choked with rubbish and carbon monoxide fumes. Negotiating her bicycle through the debris our investigator detects a group of experts hurling garbage at each other. Between throws, one expounds. 'We humans use the earth as a dustbin. The South must slow down its population growth or the Earth is doomed!' Anuradha ponders this, then comes up with a more interesting suggestion...

Once upon a time, back in the 1970s, when people used to wonder whether population was a problem or not, the worry focused mostly on consumption-levels. But environmental fears of the 1980s centred on pollution - especially after the recognition of the ozone hole. Widespread fears about global warming added to this anxiety about waste.

Some discomforting facts emerged. A survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 20 industrialized countries found that municipal and industrial waste amounted to an average of some 1.6 tons per person each year - approximately 10 times the level per person in developing countries.

Sir Crispen Tickell, Chair of the Climate Institute, states quite clearly: 'Problems of the environment are not, as many like to think, a problem of the poor: they are substantially a problem of the rich... The primary responsibility for [the] accumulating changes in the environment rests directly or indirectly with the industrialized countries. To take one example, over 70 per cent of current carbon emissions come from them - and 23 per cent from the US alone.'1

The United Nations confirms that the industrialized countries are 'overwhelmingly responsible for damage to the ozone layer and acidification, as well as for roughly two-thirds of global warming.'2

What's more, people in the North also persist in choosing the more wasteful option even when a less wasteful option is available. According to Barry Commoner: 'The richer the country, the more natural products - soap, wood, leather, cotton, paper - are replaced by synthetic petro-chemical products. In agriculture, organic fertilizers have been displaced by chemical ones, and natural methods of pest control, such as crop rotation, have been replaced by pesticides. In transportation, convenient truck freight is being favoured over less polluting rail freight. In commerce, reusable goods have been replaced by throwaways such as plastics which will be around 100 years from now - and longer.'

Flexible control is what we gain. But how often am I conscious of the enormous ecological consequences I set in train? How often do I weigh them against the trivial advantages I have gained? And how much information am I given to enable me to make these choices well? Because of our thoughtlessness, the small population in the North creates far more environmental damage than the large population in the South.

What if the South followed the North's example? If the South chose to go full-tilt down the Northem economic road, building highly polluting factories, making CFC-ridden refrigerators, surely then the population numbers in the South would start to count. Imagine if everyone in China wanted a refrigerator...

We know what happened. Between 1981-1986 the proportion of Beijing households with a refrigerator leapt from two per cent to sixty-two per cent. Through carelessness an energy-hungry design was chosen - thereby committing China to wasting millions of dollars of electricity. And this energy bill can easily be blamed on the number of consumers rather than on a bad-choice of design.

Refrigerators could also be designed to stop them spewing CFCs. And if technologies were stripped of these polluting elements then population would be irrelevant as a factor in global pollution.

In fact, if a government of a developing country fiercely curbs population growth and enables its people to have a 'higher standard of living' - in the sense of buying more high-pollution consumer goods - this is likely to increase rather than reduce the country's pollution output.

And yet many population experts still cling to the idea that human numbers are the most decisive factor in increasing pollution. Some lazily list large population figures followed by descriptions of large environmental hazards, cavalierly implying that the first 'obviously' causes the other.

Sometimes these experts will acknowl edge in passing that consumption and technology are complicating elements - but little more than that. And in one UN report, we are told that we should choose to lower population because it is less 'painful' than reducing polluting technology, even by five per cent.

This is very odd. First of all, it doesn't even mention the possibility of us lowering consumption. Second, it says that the benefits of reducing technology would soon be wiped out by population growth anyway. But it would be extremely easy for me to lower my consumption and technology levels by five per cent - cutting down on animal-based foods would be enough - though this the report dismisses as 'painful'.

Cars, cows and chainsaws; the three c's threatening the environment. These cars have been dumped in the countryside near Melbourne.
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES

Third, and oddest of all, it doesn't find 'painful' the prospect of lowering population. I wonder why. It is not implying, is it, that persuading poor people to have fewer children causes less pain than persuading rich people to buy fewer luxuries? If I were a woman who had almost nothing in my life except the hopes I placed in my children, I would find it very painful if a woman who had everything roared up to me in her gas-guzzler (as, regrettably, they do) to tell me I should have no more than one child for the sake of the planet.

If we insist on lowering population as the way forward, then logically we should begin by lowering population in the North, since an average child in the North will consume 20 times as much and pollute 10 times as much as a child in the South. Perhaps several households in the North could share just one child between them... I'm not being serious. But if we don't want to be told to have fewer children, we must, ethically, cut down our super-luxury-level consumption and pollution before preaching population reduction to anyone else.

The North has margin enough to make painless cuts. According to Alternative Nobel laureate Amory Lovins, 'The energy wasted in the US today costs ... more than the entire $9,000-a-second military budget'.3

The South, which is not yet as enmeshed in dirty technology as the North, has an ideal opportunity to learn from the North's mistakes and go straight for clean-tech. Why suffer through a period of 'dark, satanic mills'? Lovins believes that poor countries by using energy efficiency methods could fuel their economic growth tenfold and yet use no more energy. And, of course, the North should follow suit.

The scale of the North's fossil fuel mess took me by surprise. Just listen to this: to stabilize the global climate, a UK citizen like myself would have to reduce my carbon dioxide emissions by 92 per cent.4

But will the North bite the bullet and stop making so much mess? The resistance is formidable. For example, the Audubon Society says: 'It would be foolish and risky for mankind [sic] to count on expensive, untested "future" technology to solve problems when we can prudently and inexpensively address the problem of human numbers with simple tools.'5 They mean contraceptives. The same group produces the weirdest argument of all for focusing on population control: 'It is also one of the solutions with the most affordable price tag.' So we should compromise the human right of people in the South to choose how many children to have rather than clean up our act in the North - because it is cheaper?

Even if it were, it is pretty steep to argue that we should be allowed to spew CO2 or CFCs into the stratosphere while insisting that others should forgo the fundamental human right to choose how many children to have.

But it isn't cheaper. As demographer Basia Zaba explains, to dish out contraception with no health care backup may be cheap but is ineffective; to do the job properly is not cheap. It certainly can't be cheaper than saving money by saving energy.

1 Crispen Tickell, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1992 vol No.1
2 UNFPA State of the World Report, 1990.
3 Amory Lovins, Energy, People and Industrialization.
4 Intergovernmental Panel on climate Change.
5 Audubon Society, Why Population Matters, 1991.

 

IPAT-omania

KORKY PAUL Experts have come up with a number of equations for examining the impact people have on the environment. The most common one is called PAT and it goes like this:

I=PxAxT

'I' stands for the 'Impact on the environment'. 'P' stands for 'Population'. This is multiplied by 'A' - the level of 'Affluence'. It is multiplied again by 'T' - which stands for 'Technology', as some technologies are more environmentally damaging than others.

What it means is that the environmental impact can be increased by multiplying any of these factors: Population, Affluence or Technology. Northern population experts often emphasize the Population factor- and downplay Affluence and Technology.

And the IPAT formula leaves out many other important factors which also impact on the environment - like the unequal global economic system.

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