Overpopulation, food waste and climate change

The house, our house is literally burning, and, despite millions of people screaming for change, the behavior, and ways of living that ignited the fire continue unabated.


In 1960 there were around 3 billion people on Earth, by December 2020 the number had leapt to 7.8 billion. The world is wildly overpopulated: with every day that passes the numbers grow, and the collective human impact on the environment intensifies.

If the current rate of growth continues the UN estimates that by 2050 there will be 9.8 billion of us. Growth is fastest in Africa, where the agency “expect more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 to occur.” In other parts of the world, Europe and China for example, the birth rate is falling.

Population increases create greater demand on natural resources — water, food, fuel, land/space, the need for health care, education, housing, travel, goods and services grows. And even though it’s the rich and multi-national corporations that are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, adding 2 billion people, even in poor nations, increases them and fuels climate change

But lets be clear, excessive consumerism is the wind driving greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the poor consume little. Its the rich that greedily devour (multiple houses, boats, cars, private jets/air travel, loads of stuff) followed by the consuming masses in developed countries. Conspicuous consumerism is a man-made disease; an artificial ideologically induced virus enflamed by desire. Raw materials, production and transportation are required to subdue the discontent, the machinery of business turns, GHG emissions are spewed out, disrupting the natural order, sowing chaos, perpetuating unhappiness.

And while the rich shop and waste, the poor and marginalized look on, angered, embittered and drained by the injustice and brutality of it all. Confined to the shadows where they can be disregarded, it is they who are buffeted most by ecological vandalism, intense heat, droughts and flooding. They are the first to lose their homes, their livelihoods and their futures to climate chaos, triggered by wealthy nations who lit the fuse of destruction and continue to fan the flames.

In order to stop climate change its broadly acknowledged that GHG emissions must be drastically reduced, with the aim of stopping them completely, and sequestration (through photosynthesis) maximised. Green, or greenish pledges are routinely made by governments, but the level of political duplicity in relation to climate change is shocking, and action seldom follows such rhetoric. After the Paris Agreement in 2016 e.g., commitments to limit temperature rise to as close  to 1.5ºC (by 2100) were made which, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “were far from enough to get there, and even those commitments are not being met….I [December 2020] call on all leaders worldwide to declare a state of climate emergency.”

When a national state of emergency is called, in response to say a pandemic, an earthquake, or terrorist attack, all government agencies are, or should be, galvanized, working cooperatively to respond to the demands of the hour; civil society and businesses contribute to the national effort — producing a vaccine in record time e.g., distributing aid, or setting up food banks. Climate change and the broader environmental emergency is the most serious ‘state of emergency’ humanity has ever faced, yet the response by governments, businesses, and large swathes of the population is half-hearted at best. In many areas the causes of the crisis are being stoked, complacency reigns and The Crisis  of the Age intensifies.

Surprising solutions

It was the lack of climate change solutions that inspired the founding of Project Drawdown in 2014. Set up to “uncover the most substantive solutions to stop climate change, and to communicate them to the world.” Their vision is a refreshingly positive one: Stopping global warming, they say, “is possible, and with solutions that already exist.” In 2017, ‘Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming’, was released. A comprehensive solutions table was compiled, based on reducing rising temperatures by 2100 to 2ºC and the less impactful 1.5ºC, which should be the minimum target of our collective efforts

Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, empowering women tops the chart of solutions. Family planning coupled with educating girls (could together prevent 120 gigatons of GHGs by 2050, more than on and offshore wind combined), specifically in developing nations, “is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth”. It has high community benefits as well; educated women are unlikely to marry young or enter into forced marriages, and access to family planning enables them to decide when to have children and to have less. “They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished.” In addition, they are more resilient and resourceful and are better able to deal with the impacts of climate change. As the co-founder of Drawdown, Paul Hawken put it, the answer to climate change is — “not a solar panel it’s a woman.”

Another major area of GHG emissions Drawdown discusses, and one that we can all act on, is food waste and the environmental and health benefits of adopting plant rich diets. Roughly a third of the world’s food is wasted,  — approximately1.3 billion tons a year. This in a world where an estimated 800 million people are hungry or malnourished. Not only would reducing food waste be good for the planet is could help end hunger; figures from the UN Environment (UNE) reveal that: “If just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people.”

Wastage in developing countries is mainly unintentional, food rotting on farms or during distribution for lack of refrigeration. Improvements in storage, processing and transportation are needed, all of which developed nations could provide. In wealthier nations food is thrown away by consumers, supermarkets and restaurants. This can easily change; national/international public awareness campaigns and the establishment of national food-waste targets would help shift behavior. 

Then there’s animal agriculture, which, in addition to a range of other environmentally destructive impacts, is a major source of GHG emissions (mostly from dairy and meat production). Drawdown note that, “If cows were their own country, they would be the third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.” Research shows that eating a diet free from animal produce is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact (cutting emissions by up to 70%); it’s also a healthier way to live.

Solutions to global warming do exist, but they need to be implemented and the pervasive complacency overcome with coordinated, consistent action. If temperature increase is to be limited to 1.5ºC by 2100, the IPCC state that emissions must “decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.” Given the fact that GHG emissions continue to rise this requires urgent coordinated action: large scale investment in renewable sources of energy; drastically reducing consumption and tackling inequality; reforesting; moving away from industrial-scale animal agriculture and curbing population growth — brought about by empowering girls through education and access to family planning.

For any of this to happen and at the needed pace, the crisis, which is the greatest test humanity has ever faced, must be approached as an international state or emergency. Overseen by the UN Environment agency national governments together with big business, must lead the way and be pressurized to do so by an aware responsible public. The house, our house is literally burning, and, despite millions of people screaming for change, the behavior, and ways of living that ignited the fire continue unabated. If action isn’t taken now, much like the death of a neglected parent or friend, time will run out, and no matter how loud the cry, it will be too late to express the love we always said we felt but rarely displayed and were not prepared to sacrifice anything for.


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