Population bomb

I feel compelled to reply to Keith Lockitch's misguided, misinformative, irresponsible and unsubstantiated Guest Viewpoint (Oct. 27). I have seldom come across such a baseless argument, with the exception, perhaps, of Rush Limbaugh's diatribe against Democrats. Lockitch bases his argument on a two tenets: 1. "environmentalists are against buying anything" and 2. "the goal of environmentalism ... is to preserve nature untouched". For the first, he presents not a single shred of supporting evidence. For the second he totally ignores that most who speak on environmental matters are aware that we are part of the global ecosystem; the only way for humans to leave nature untouched is for us all to leave. I have yet to hear the environmental movement promoting this course of action. Let me come clean: I have serious concerns regarding the ever-growing impact of the increasing human population on the rest of the natural world. My standpoint is not party-political. I shall, unlike Mr Lockitch, present one figure to support my contention that we all have an obligation not only to the rest of nature but also to future generations of humans. The sunlight absorbed by plants and algae in photosynthesis is called gross primary production. What remains after those organisms have used what they require to live, grow and reproduce is called nett primary production. This is the energy supply which supports almost all of the remainder of the organisms on earth, including humans; it is the energy which fuels food chains. As of 1996, humans were responsible for using approximately 40 percent of global nett primary production (Source: Friends of the Earth). Yes, I'm aware that my source will probably be interpreted by many readers as a bunch of lefty tree-huggers, but no-one, with or without a political agenda, has discredited that figure in the last 11 years. One species on Earth takes about 40 percent, leaving about 60 percent for all other species. During those eleven years, the human population has grown by close to one billion (about 18 percent), and this growth is not yet slowing. Couple that with the enormous increase in industrialisation in China and other Asian countries, raising material standards of living towards what we in the west have enjoyed for several decades, and the scale of human impact cannot be ignored, in terms our consumption of nett primary production, our increased use of fossil fuels, and our generation of undeniably enormous mounds of waste which are accumulating faster than they can be decomposed. Any high school biology student is (or should be) aware of the concept of sustainability. If we are turning natural resources into landfill which is not going to become available for re-use in the foreseeable future, such a system is unsustainable. Where shall we turn when the natural resources run short? Shall we then regret the short-sightedness promulgated by Mr Lockitch and others ("stop buying ... their ideology"), the fact that recycling of materials is often dismissed as an insignificant drop in the ocean, making any efforts in that direction pointless? So what are we to do? It is true that there are difficult choices to be made. Shall we use water, a natural resource whose supply is becoming ever more stretched, to wash cloth diapers, or shall we use disposables which take a few centuries to break down in landfill (a rough estimate)? Shall we use compact fluorescent light bulbs to use less energy, even though they contain mercury, requiring extra packaging and careful disposal? Where choices exist, what we can do is to try to choose options which impact the environment less. We can all avoid products which are over-packaged in non-recyclable materials. We can, when it comes time to replace our cars, opt for more fuel-efficient models. Manufacturers will soon get the message - a free market economy can drive change (I'm not totally left-wing!) We can turn our thermostats down a degree or two and wear a little extra clothing. We can turn down the air-conditioning in summer (those who have it) and accept that it's that brief time of year in Vermont when we can actually enjoy some warm temperatures. The list goes on. What of Mr Lockitch's assertion that environmentalists are now disparaging "light greens"? I fear he is mistaken. It is true, and several environmentalists have said, that merely to purchase the occasional organic vegetable or to decline the occasional supermarket carrier bag will have little impact. The warm fuzzy feeling of the "would-be-green" achieved by so doing may not be totally justified. But Mr Lockitch implies through his use of the term 'backlash against "buying green"' that true environmentalists condemn those who make an effort. Far from it - all who make an effort are applauded. There is, however, the proviso that token gestures, sometimes interpreted as profound, can be likened to bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon (my analogy - no calculation performed!) If small efforts to be environmentally responsible are criticised, the likely backlash is that those being criticised will cease to bother. Anyone who promotes such a cause is in fact advocating that we change nothing, that we keep marching irresponsibly along our path of over-consumption, whatever that may bring. Oil will run out. What mode of transport will Mr Lockitch then use? Space for landfill will become ever harder to find. Will Mr Lockitch object to the latest landfill site being developed adjacent to his house? I do not pick on him alone; I face the same questions. In all likelihood, neither he nor I will have to live with the answers - our time may have come and gone. In the meantime, though, I shall consider not only future generations of humans but also the wider health of the natural world, and shall continue to take whatever small steps lie within my power to reduce my impact, to reduce how much I impoverish the natural world, to reduce the problem that I bequeath to the next generation. I alone cannot solve the problem, but that does not excuse me from contributing to the solution. If a few billion people each make a small difference, the combined effect may yet prove powerful Peter Macfarlane

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