Rowan Williams on Climate Change: the Part He’s Missing

Posted on April 4, 2014

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I applaud Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, for warning us that climate change is real, that it is devastating, and that the continued burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor. I agree with him that we desperately need to get off fossil fuels (for security reasons as well as environmental ones), but that’s about as far as my agreement with him goes.

Dr. Williams essentially blames wealthy nations for polluting the atmosphere and thus destroying the environments of the poorest nations. What he’s leaving out is the climate-change factor that no one wants to talk about, that is somehow taboo, and yet is THE single biggest factor in the destruction of the environment as we know it: overpopulation. And human population can destroy environments all by itself, with very little “carbon footprint.”

There are plenty of places on Earth where the poor (or at least, those who live simply) have much smaller “carbon footprints” than their wealthy Western counterparts, but their sheer numbers can and do overwhelm their delicate local environments.  Livestock mismanagement and overgrazing leads to desertification. Aquifers are overdrawn for drinking water, with devastating results as we see now in Mexico City. The Amazon is felled to make pastures and short-lived, nutrient-poor farm fields. The Aral Sea has been virtually drained to fuel water-intensive cotton agriculture in semi-arid Central Asia.

NASA images of the Aral Sea, 1989 to 2008.

Wealthy Western countries and people with big carbon footprints did not cause these things; local people and local governments did and do. What they all have in common is a very shortsighted human attitude that the resources are infinitely renewable or so huge that we won’t ever use them up. The Amazon was huge. The Aral Sea was huge. We think we can use these plentiful resources to bend the desert to our will, or to provide hardwoods and then the plentiful land can be used for productive farming. It all sounds so reasonable, until we discover – too late – that those resources do indeed run out. The menhaden are disappearing from the ocean as surely as passenger pigeons disappeared from our skies.

Why do resources run out? Because there are too dang many people (or their livestock, or their crops) using them. That’s it. It really is that simple. It is the reason that the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.

Back to Dr. Williams’ assertions about fossil fuels: yes, we do need to stop using them. But the biggest issue now is that many, many, many more people are burning fossil fuels now than ever before. Check out the smog in Shanghai or Beijing or Delhi. Does anyone really believe that the sheer number of vehicles has nothing to do with it? Then why do all three cities combat the pollution problem partly by restricting the number of vehicles?

So while Dr. Williams’ call for action is welcome and necessary, it does not go nearly far enough. I guess it’s sort of politically incorrect to blame poorer nations for their part in environmental disasters – they’re just simple folk trying to survive, after all. But multiply those simple folk into several billion or so, and we have a problem. I mean, chimps and orangutans live very simply – they don’t even build houses! – but can you imagine the devastation if there were seven billion of them? Humans are all the worse for the fact that we have homes, farms, clothing, cars. When you’re dealing with a planetary scale, the combined environmental burden of all those simple folk cannot be ignored.

To combat this, Lila is a big proponent of education and female empowerment worldwide. It has been proven that when men and women are educated and given the opportunity to use birth control, they overwhelmingly choose fewer children and space their pregnancies farther apart. Population growth slows, and the people are healthier.

So let the wealthy nations create and implement alternative energy sources. Let the less-developed populations educate their people, empower their women, and make birth control readily available. We need to get moving on this, and the sooner the better.

I suspect, though, that… probably in my lifetime or soon after… Mother Nature will control our population for us, and quite brutally.

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