The environmental movement can be extremely successful when it concentrates on a single issue. The ban on the pesticide DDT is one example. Reducing sulfur dioxide gas emissions to prevent acid rain is another. And then there's the global ban on ozone-layer depleting CFCs that appears to be working, gradually making the world's beaches safe again for bronzing.
These days the main issue is climate change, which is a little tougher to solve because people aren't capable of wrapping their heads around the idea of gradual change. Nobody panics that average temperatures have increased by around one degree Celsius, even if that's enough to speed the melting of glaciers, the thawing of permafrost, the greening of Greenland, the de-iceberging of the Arctic and disintegration of Antarctic ice shelves.
Still, thanks to the likes of Al Gore and Dr. David Suzuki, the world is at least aware of the problem and is taking steps, albeit gradually, to fix the problem. The fact that we're depleting our cheapest and most accessible fossil fuels is probably doing more to spur change than any enviro campaign, but progress is progress.
Unfortunately, climate change is just one of a growing number of issues facing humanity where the needle is hovering between orange and red on the disaster meter. There's the issue of deforestation, especially in the oxygen-producing Amazon basin, which has more to do with raising cattle for meat than harvesting trees. There's the issue of collapsing fish stocks through over-fishing and the use of "technologies" like bottom dragging nets that kill off fish habitat. One recent report suggested that the blue fin tuna fishing industry is three years away from complete collapse.
Then there's the issue of growing deserts, droughts and depleted farmlands, even as farmers use more chemical fertilizers to grow their crops and their collective run-off creates huge dead areas in the ocean that are depleted of oxygen. Some scientists feel that the changing ocean chemistry is the biggest risk of all.
There's the issue of fresh water, as the world's aquifers run dry, glaciers melt, and average rainfalls decline.
Toxins and chemicals are building up in our soil, water, and bodies with unpredictable consequences for our health. Our dependence on antibiotics is creating strains of viruses that are resistant to treatment, ushering in the real possibility of a new global plague.
My intention writing this isn't to bum anybody out. I think everyone knows what's going on by now, even if we can choose to ignore it for the sake of being happy. Given the scale of these problems it's impossible to feel anything but helpless.
In a sense we are, as long we continue to overlook the 6.5 billion tonne elephant in the room. All of these problems are the symptoms of one larger problem, and that's our out of control population.
For only a few generations has humanity succeeded in conquering nature and the checks and balances that kept our population to around a billion people at the start of the 20 th century. Five billion people were added to the planet over the next 100 years.
That type of growth can't continue indefinitely because at some point nature will reassert itself. One bleak assessment predicts that the world's population will climb to 10 billion people by around 2050, then drop to one billion survivors of a global collapse by 2100.
People have been aware of the population issue for a long, long time. Growing up, I wondered why practically all of my friends were from families with one or two children, and my mom explained that it was an environmental choice, that parents stopped after having two children. The result was a declining birth rate in Canada, similar to other developed countries - two children is less than the replacement rate because a certain number of those children will die young or choose not have children themselves.
Unfortunately our economy can't exist in a state of negative population growth, so we turned to immigration to bolster our workforce, boosting our population with people from the developing world where huge families are still the norm. The result? Canada's population continues to grow, even as families shrink.
The UN has hosted a few international conferences on population, but nothing has been resolved at any of those meetings that would limit our numbers in time to save the world. Culture and religion are obstacles that are still too big to overcome, not to mention our general ignorance of the choices we all make in any global context. And until we invent an economic model that can function in a declining population, Canada will continue to grow its numbers one way or another.
Within my own family, my brother and his partner have decided not to have children, while my sister-in-law and her partner had one child. My wife and I have one child, and are considering the second very carefully.
Whatever happens, within one generation our combined families will have decreased from 10 children to three or possibly four.
If the rest of the world could say the same then we wouldn't be in this mess. Either way our population seems destined to decline, but I'd rather it was by choice than by ecological disaster.