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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that human overpopulation isn’t such a big issue any more as numbers are expected to start declining in a few decades? -- Melinda Mason, Boone, IA


Ever since Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, positing incorrectly that humans’ proclivity for procreation would exhaust the global food supply within a matter of decades, population growth has been a hot button issue among those contemplating humankind’s future. Indeed our very success going forth and multiplying, paired with our ability to extend our life expectancy, has meant that we are perpetually pushing the limits of the resource base that supports us.

When Malthus was worrying about the planet’s “carrying capacity,” there were only about a billion of us on the planet. Today our population tops seven billion. While better health care and medicine along with advances in food production and access to freshwater and sanitation have allowed us to feed ourselves and stave off many health ills, some so-called Neo-Malthusians believe we may still be heading for some kind of population crash, perhaps triggered or exacerbated by environmental factors related to climate change.

But others are less concerned given projections that world population will likely start to decline once the world’s less developed nations urbanize and start lowering their birth rates, as has already happened in Europe, the U.S., Australia and parts of Asia. For example, Europe’s “fertility rate” between 2005 and 2010 was just 1.53 live births per woman (the standard replacement rate to maintain a stable population is 2.1). Without immigration, Europe’s population would already be shrinking.

Of course, the immigration that continues to fuel population numbers in developed countries is coming from somewhere. Indeed, population numbers are still growing in many of the world’s developing countries, including the world’s most populous nation, China, and its close rival, India. Also fertility rates in Africa continue to be among the highest in the world, as many countries there are growing fast, too. Poverty and health problems due to poor sanitation, lack of access to food and water, the low social status of women and other ills continue to cripple these regions. Overpopulation could plague us indefinitely if fertility rates don’t drop in these areas, especially as they ramp up their Western-style development.


Globally, the United Nations estimates that the number of humans populating the planet in 2100 will range from as few as 6.2 billion—almost a billion less than today—to as many as 15.8 billion on the high end. Meanwhile, other researchers confirm the likelihood of world population levels flattening out and starting to decline by 2100 according to the lower UN estimate. To wit, the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) recently unveiled research showing that if the world stabilizes at a fertility rate comparable to that of many European nations today (roughly 1.5), the global human population will be only half of what it is today by the year 2200, and only one-seventh by 2300.

It is difficult to say which way the global population pendulum will swing in centuries to come, given ever-changing cultural, economic and political attitudes and the development demographics they affect. As such the jury is still out as to whether human overpopulation will become a footnote in history or the dominant ill that stands in the way of all other efforts to achieve sustainability and a kinder, gentler world.


CONTACTS: Thomas Malthus, www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf; United Nations, www.un.org/esa/population/?; IIASA, http://webarchive.iiasa.ac.at/Admin/PUB/Documents/IR-08-022.pdf.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the new documentary film A Fierce Green Fire about and what does the title refer to? -- Gloria Howard, Washington, DC

A Fierce Green Fire is a new film documenting the rise of the modern environmental movement from the 1960s through the present day. It premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be playing at select theaters across the country beginning in September 2013. Educators, environmental groups and grassroots activists also will be showing the film at small and large events from coast to coast over the course of the fall. Written and directed by Mark Kitchell, Academy Award-nominated director of Berkeley in the Sixties, A Fierce Green Fire (the film) is based on the 1993 book of the same name by environmental journalist Philip Shabecoff.

The phrase “a fierce green fire” refers to a longer passage in one of the seminal environmental books of the 20th century, 1949’s A Sand County Almanac. In the famous “Think Like a Mountain” section of that book, author Aldo Leopold relates his experience as part of a predator extirpation team that shoots a wolf in the New Mexico desert: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.

I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Kitchell’s film shows how this passage and other writings were instrumental in raising awareness about the importance of wise stewardship of the natural environment and as such played a crucial role in the re-birth of the environmental movement in the 1960s.

Featuring five “acts,” each with its own central story and character, the film depicts a central environmental conflict of each decade since the 1960s. The first act, narrated by Robert Redford, focuses on David Brower and the Sierra Club’s battle to halt dams in the Grand Canyon in the 1960s. Act two, narrated by Ashley Judd, tells the story of Lois Gibbs and other Niagara Falls, New York residents’ struggle against pollution buried beneath their Love Canal neighborhood in the 1970s. Act three is all about Greenpeace and efforts by Captain Paul Watson to save whales and baby harp seals, as told by Van Jones. Chico Mendes and Brazilian rubber tappers take center stage in Act four, as narrated by Isabel Allende, in their fight to save their Amazon rainforest. Lastly, Act five focuses on Bill McKibben, as told by Meryl Streep, and the 25-year effort to address the foremost issue of our time: climate change.

Intertwined within these main stories are strands including the struggle for environmental justice, getting “back to the land,” and sustainability efforts in the developing world. The film ends on an optimistic note, driving home the point that environmentalism is really about civilizational change and bringing industrial society into balance with nature and that each of us can make a difference with a little effort.

Those interested in seeing the film should check out the schedule of theatrical releases at the film’s website, afiercegreenfire.com. The website also features more information on the film and features historical photos of some of the scenes and events depicted in it. Anyone who wants to find out more about the the makings of the modern environmental movement should be sure to see A Fierce Green Fire.

CONTACT: A Fierce Green Fire, www.afiercegreenfire.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that American kids are going through puberty earlier today than in previous generations, and are there any environmental causes for this? -- Paul Chase, Troy, NY

Research indicates that indeed Americans girls and boys are going through puberty earlier than ever, though the reasons are unclear. Many believe our widespread exposure to synthetic chemicals is at least partly to blame, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why our bodies react in certain ways to various environmental stimuli.

Researchers first noticed the earlier onset of puberty in the late 1990s, and recent studies confirm the mysterious public health trend. A 2012 analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that American girls exposed to high levels of common household chemicals had their first periods seven months earlier than those with lower exposures. “This study adds to the growing body of scientific research that exposure to environmental chemicals may be associated with early puberty,” says Danielle Buttke, a researcher at CDC and lead author on the study. Buttke found that the age when a girl has her first period (menarche) has fallen over the past century from an average of age 16-17 to age 12-13.

Earlier puberty isn’t just for girls. In 2012 researchers from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) surveyed data on 4,100 boys from 144 pediatric practices in 41 states and found a similar trend: American boys are reaching puberty six months to two years earlier than just a few decades ago. African-American boys are starting the earliest, at around age nine, while Caucasian and Hispanics start on average at age 10.

One culprit could be rising obesity rates. Researchers believe that puberty (at least for girls) may be triggered in part by the body building up sufficient reserves of fat tissue, signaling fitness for reproductive capabilities. Clinical pediatrician Robert Lustig of Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco reports that obese girls have higher levels of the hormone leptin which in and of itself can lead to early puberty while setting off a domino effect of more weight gain and faster overall physical maturation.

Some evidence suggests that “hormone disrupting” chemicals may also trigger changes prematurely. Public health advocates have been concerned, for example, about the omnipresence of Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical in some plastics, because it is thought to “mimic” estrogen in the body and in some cases contribute to or cause health problems. BPA is being phased out of many consumer items, but hundreds of other potentially hormone disrupting chemicals are still in widespread use.

Dichlorobenzene, used in some mothballs and in solid blocks of toilet bowl and air deodorizers, is also a key suspect in triggering early puberty. It is already classified as a possible human carcinogen, and studies have linked prenatal exposure to it with low birth weight in boys. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently made screening Dichlorobenzene for hormonal effects a priority.

Parents can take steps to reduce our kids’ so-called “toxic burden”: Buy organic produce, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat and dairy and all-natural household cleaners. And keep the dialogue going about healthy food and lifestyle habits so kids learn how to make responsible, healthy choices for themselves.

CONTACTS: CDC, www.cdc.gov; AAP, www.aap.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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