The Third Revolution:
Population, Environment and a Sustainable World
Paul Harrison
Available at (£6.99 UK, $12 US, $15.99 Canada)

Executive Summary

A sample of the book comprising the first three and last four chapters,
with appendices.

Contents   Expanded Contents


Executive Summary
Chapter 1: The Great Debate
Chapter 2: Three Billion Years of Environmental Crisis
Chapter 3: The New Limits to Growth

Chapter 17: Towards a General Theory
Chapter 18: Sharing the Blame
Chapter 19: Options for Action
Chapter 20: Towards the Third Revolution

Appendix: Assessing Population Impact on Environment
Appendix 2: Population and Economic Development

  ISBN: 0140146598


Executive Summary

In the last two decades environmental problems have risen from regional to planetary in scale and scope. The 1970s fears of spreading deserts and shrinking forests were joined in the 1980s by red tides, acid rain, the ozone hole, and the threat of global warming.

The same two decades saw human populations soar from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 5.5 billion in 1992. At the same time the consumer revolution spread from the West to East Asia, and to a growing middle class in other countries.

The conjunction is no coincidence: for the environmental crisis is the outcome of the population and consumption explosion. Technology is crucial too. For each unit we consume, we are still using too many resources, and emitting too much pollution.

Yet we may be on the threshold of deeper crisis. If present trends go on unchecked, the consequences are incalculable. For in the 1990s we are growing faster than ever, adding 97 million extra people - almost two United Kingdoms - a year. The decade will add a billion people - the equivalent of four Americas.

World population is expected to grow to 8.5 billion in 2025 and could pass 10 billion by 2050. It may rise to 11.5 billion before levelling off. Consumption per person will at least double. The impact of our present population and consumption is already too high, but by 2050 it could increase by four times.

The growing environmental crisis is so deep that we need the broadest analysis and strategy to cope with it. Yet most theories in the field stress single causes - population, overconsumption, technology, inequality - and deny the importance of others. One-sided analysis leads to one-sided measures. We have to see population as one factor among many. All interact, and all must be dealt with.


Factors - direct and indirect

Three factors work directly on the environment. Population - the number of people. Consumption - the amount each person consumes. Technology decides how much space and resources are used, and how much waste is produced, to meet consumption needs. These three are never found apart. Environmental impact is the result of all three multiplied together:

I = P x C x T

The three factors exist everywhere. Excess consumption in the rich countries bears the main blame for damage to global commons. The average person in a developed country emits roughly twenty times more water and climate pollutants than their counterpart in the South. Hence the 57.5 million population growth in the North expected during the 1990s will pollute the globe more than the expected extra 911 million Southerners.

But population growth even at modest consumption levels leads to deforestation. And the global consumption balance is changing as both incomes and populations grow in the South. By the year 2000, developing countries will account for 60% of fertilizer use, and by 2025, for 44% of carbon dioxide output from fossil fuels.

Many other factors affect the environment indirectly. They include factors stressed by the Left, like poverty and inequality; by the Right, like the degree of democracy, market freedom, or property rights; and by feminists, such as women's rights. A comprehensive analysis and strategy must include all of these.

By comparing the annual rate of change in our three direct elements, we can find out their relative importance. The population impact can be expressed as a percentage of the overall environmental impact. This varies widely from one field to another.

The population impact is lower where technology is changing fast, such as output of CFCs, or where population is growing slowly, as in Western countries. But with basic needs in developing countries, such as expansion of arable and irrigated land, and livestock numbers, it runs at 69-72%.


Major areas of impact


Humans use the environment in three ways: as living space, as a source of resources, and as a sink for wastes.

We need space for farms and cities. As we expand, wild habitats and the species that depend on them contract. In just 15 years from 1973 forests in developing countries shrank by 1.45 million square kilometres - six times the area of the UK. The needs of population growth accounted for 79% of the loss. If we grow to 11.5 billion, we will need at least an extra 12.6 million km² of land that is currently wildlife habitat - double the area of all nature reserves today.

Resources have been the focus of Malthusian concerns. We are not close to a crisis of non-renewable resources such as minerals or fossil fuels. Reserves of these have expanded over time. However, future demands will be vast. A world of 11.5 billion people, consuming at today's US levels, would need a new energy source equal to all the world's oil reserves every seven years.

By contrast renewable resources are already showing signs of stress. The annual fish catch in 1988 already exceeded the sustainable yield of the oceans. Between 1978 and 1989 food production fell behind population growth in 69 out of 102 developing countries. Global food production kept ahead of population growth till 1979, but since 1985 it has fallen behind.

Some 39 developing countries are already using water at a rate that causes regional problems. Without soil conservation, the developing world could lose 18% of its potential rainfed cropland and 29% of potential food production.

An even greater threat stems from our output of wastes. Increased use of fertilizers pollutes waterways and coasts. Population growth accounts directly or indirectly for 72% of the increase in fertilizer use in developed countries.

We are probably well short of the resource carrying capacity of the earth. But for many waste gases we have already passed the waste carrying capacity - the earth's absorption limits. The ozone hole shows we are beyond it for CFCs, though population growth was a weak contributor here. Industrialized areas have passed the limits on gases that create acid rain. Population growth accounted for 25% of the upward pressure on these in Western countries. It accounts for about 40% of the global increase in carbon dioxide.


The dynamics of change


Humans do not remain passive in the face of environmental problems. They adapt. They change technologies, fertility levels, and consumption patterns in response.

And they change their ways of managing the environment. For one resource after another we have begun by gathering open access resources. As our numbers and consumption grow we move on to mining or pillaging. The ensuing crisis is usually followed by a transition to more sustainable management [see Table 2, p 248].

Our management of waste sinks also evolves. We begin by scattering our solid, liquid and gaseous wastes, move on to dumping, then to spoil and crisis. The move to sustainable management has yet to happen for most types of waste.

At certain times the combined pressure of number, consumption and technologies leads to more widespread crisis. At such times human culture and social organization may undergo major revolutions.

Environmental crisis may be a key agent in biological evolution, and has driven some of the greatest leaps in human civilization. When early hunter gatherers exhausted supplies of wild game and crops, their response was to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. This was the first, agricultural revolution.

This enabled populations to grow faster. But deforestation progressed as more and more land was cleared. Western Europe plunged into an acute wood shortage, which forced the move to fossil fuels and minerals, and spurred the industrial revolution.

Each revolution solved one set of problems - but led on to others. Use of fossil fuels and minerals freed us from dependence on the land - but increased output of pollutants and greenhouse gases.

The first two crises were resource crises. But the present crisis is different. It is primarily a crisis of pollution and degradation, by nature much harder to deal with. Problems of this type build slowly and invisibly. The science and technology to understand and deal with them may yet to be developed. Often the institutions needed to take effective action do not exist - especially at regional and global levels.

Responses are often delayed and sometimes blocked for longer periods. Adaptation may move too slowly to avert severe damage. Often environmental problems have to reach these crisis proportions before action is taken. Indeed damage and crisis are the stimuli that drive adaptation.


Pulling out all the stops - a strategy for change


The global scale of our impact today means that the human race is playing with high explosives. Environmental change is not always smooth. It can pass critical thresholds where massive shifts occur. In the case of changes in climate and ocean circulation the shifts could be catastrophic. We don't know exactly where the trigger points lie: we only know that we cannot risk passing them. Survival demands that we play safe.

The scale and speed of adaptation required over the next half century are greater than any the human race has faced before. We must pass through a Third Revolution, just as momentous as the first two. It has already begun in small ways. Eventually it will affect all aspects of our lives, cultures and societies. The end result will be to reduce our impact on the environment to a sustainable level.

Somehow we must abolish poverty and achieve social and economic development for the world's majority. Yet we must do so without endangering the chances of future generations, and other species.

We cannot pick and choose which elements to work on. We must work on population, consumption and technology, and on all the factors that influence them.

The most promising solutions to start with are those that involve the lowest costs and promise the greatest combination of benefits.

Least tractable will be the level of individual consumption. The world's 1.1 billion absolute poor must increase their consumption. The rest of us will not readily reduce it. Even in rich countries consumption continues to grow. Only a radical change in values and culture can slow it down voluntarily - especially if concern for Gaia achieves religious status on a wide scale. There is at least a chance that the present crisis will evoke such a value shift.

The most promising approach for the present is to reduce the impact of consumption levels by working on technology and population.

Technology change is crucial. It will succeed best where it involves low costs and high returns - as with energy conservation, soil and water conservation, or agroforestry. But it cannot do the job alone. Energy efficiency grew in most parts of the world over the 1973-87 period - yet because of population and consumption growth, world energy use grew by 20%.


Priority for human resource development


Action on population may be the most promising avenue of all. It offers not just slower growth of numbers, and lower eventual totals. Fewer, better timed births also promise lower infant mortality, improved mother and child health, and better nutrition and education. Strong evidence suggests economic benefits, too. In the 1980s the 50% of countries with slower population growth saw average incomes grow 2.5% a year faster than the 50% with faster population growth [see Appendix Two].

This was not so much because faster economic growth leads to slower population growth. Population growth in 1965-80 explained 23 per cent of the variation in economic growth in developing countries in the 1980s. But economic growth in the earlier period explained only 7 per cent of the variation in population growth in the 1980s.

Change in reproductive behaviour can move as fast as the speediest shift in technology. In Thailand and Kerala fertility dropped from 6.5 to 2.3 children per woman in only twenty years.

But it is crucial to get the tactics right. We are not talking about coercion, nor about low-quality programmes to throw contraceptives at the problem. These approaches do not work: they abuse women's rights, spread distrust and actually slow down the spread of family planning. `Population control' is impossible without shooting people.

The fastest results are achieved through a broad combination of measures which work together to multiply the speed of change. Foremost is the extension of women's rights to property, credit, jobs, equal pay, and equal power. Equalizing female education and literacy with male, while raising both, empowers women to assert their rights. It also leads to better child health and nutrition and lower birth rates.

We also need improved maternal and child health, to reduce infant mortality and give parents confidence that nearly all their children will survive.

Fertility will decline slowly of itself when these elements are present. But it will decline rapidly only with universal access to good quality family planning. Services should be close to home, and easily affordable. There should be a wide choice of methods, with good counselling and good medical back-up in the case of problems.

There is a very strong case for making this broad package of human resource development the central priority for aid to developing countries in the 1990s. It would improve the quality of life for women and children - and men too. It would lay the groundwork for faster economic growth. And it would slow population growth and environmental damage.

At the same time we must work on all those indirect factors that keep population growth and environmental damage high. There must be an end to absolute poverty, and improved distribution of land and other assets. We must work to make the international economic order more just. We must work to spread and perfect democracy and local control over the environment. We must free markets from unnecessary controls, while making them responsive to environmental and social costs.


Making a difference


With serious efforts we could bring the population total for 2050 down to the low UN projection of 8 billion. After that world population could fall. The annual cost would be equivalent to about three days of military spending.

But the 1980s saw weak efforts. Human resources rated low in aid budgets. Government spending was hit by debt and adjustment. If these trends continue, we could see a world population of 12.5 billion in 2050, possibly rising to 21 billion in 2100. The difference by 2050 would be 4.5 billion - one whole earth of 1980.

A difference of 4.5 billion people could determine whether we cross the critical thresholds - or stay on the safe side of them. If one day we face absolute ceilings on output of pollutants like carbon dioxide or chemical fertilizers, then lower populations could enjoy higher `rations' per person. The individual `ration' in a world of 8 billion people would be 56% higher than in one of 12.5 billion.

Time is of the essence. Hamlet did not kill Claudius till his hand was forced - and lost his own life as a result of delay. If we wait till our hand is forced, it may be too late. We must act without delay.

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