OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Economic progress key to overpopulation threat?

04/20/1998

CORVALLIS, Ore. - As Earth Day looms, one agricultural researcher at Oregon State University says the real key to stabilizing global population and protecting the Earth's environment is to raise the global standard of living and give the Third World a taste of the affluence enjoyed by developed nations.

Free trade, improved agricultural productivity and more sophisticated, aggressive land management will accomplish more than "nearsighted" approaches to environmentalism that take valuable lands out of food and lumber production without considering the global impacts of local actions, he said.

"Overpopulation is clearly one of the greatest threats facing mankind and our environment, but the only clear correlation anyone has ever found to controlling population is a high standard of living," said Gary Reed, a professor of entomology. "Population may not follow the simple geometrical charts often used."

Many developed countries, including the U.S., are already at or near a stable population, studies show. And as living conditions improved in parts of the Third World during the past 40 years, its rate of population growth dropped by about half. That trend must continue if the most ominous threats of environmental degradation and out-of-control overpopulation is to be avoided, Reed said.

Reed, who recently outlined some of these concepts in a professional publication, hopes to create more public debate on an enlightened approach to global environmentalism, and said he is available to speak to interested groups on this topic.

"A frequent admonition of environmental groups is that people should 'think globally, act locally,' and that's quite true," Reed said. "But it seems that when this goal is translated into local actions and policies we quite often accomplish just the opposite of our intention."

Environmental restrictions that remove western Oregon forests from timber production - which are among the most productive in the world - don't stop the demand for building materials, they just shift it to less environmentally-friendly products or increased logging elsewhere, particularly in tropical rainforests.

Losing the use of prime farmland due to irrigation restrictions or urban growth doesn't lessen the demand for food around the world, Reed said, it just increases prices, world hunger and places extra pressure on marginal lands elsewhere to take up the slack.

"The reality is that what happens in Oregon affects what happens in Africa or Asia," Reed said. "Too many of our actions are making the problems in those areas worse, not better. Our problems are increasingly global, and if the world's environment degenerates, we go with it."

The issues involved are complicated and defy easy solutions, he said, but the pressures of a growing population are urgent. The Earth supports almost six billion people and within 50 years that number is expected to rise to between 8.3 billion and 15 billion, depending on which studies or assumptions one uses.

"Many respected experts say world population is already completely out of control, but others suggest that population growth routinely slows to a stop when people enjoy more economic progress, affluence and education," Reed said, and he believes the world is already moving in this direction.

The most appropriate policies to accomplish this are those that encourage and allow each nation to use its human or natural resources to do whatever it does best, Reed said, and use aggressive, free international trade to raise the global standard of living.

"In the Willamette Valley or, with irrigation, parts of eastern Oregon, we can use an acre of land to feed 30 people," Reed said. "Not very many places in the world can do that. So the best use of that land is agriculture and we should take advantage of that, rather than reducing farming here and thus forcing subsistence farming in poorer nations."

If every place in the world had to become essentially self-sufficient in all products, Reed said, the pressures on many marginal lands would become intolerable and they could literally be turned into deserts, as has happened historically in many areas of Africa or the Middle East.

"Environmental protection is something people care about when they are well fed, have a home and can afford to care about larger global issues," Reed said. "You can't accomplish much when people are hungry and homeless. Do we seriously expect people to care about protecting habitat or endangered species when their children are starving?"

The U.S., Reed said, probably will shoulder a disproportionate share of the world's food production because it has a disproportionate share of the best agricultural and forest land, plus the water and resources to produce food or forest products in an environmentally-sensitive manner. Right now, 2 percent of the U.S. population is able to produce all the food needed by the other 98 percent, and still export tremendous volumes of food. Some developing nations need 50 percent of their population to feed their country, and in other countries the population exceeds that which available farm land will feed.

If we are serious about "thinking globally, acting locally," Reed said, our actions might include:

  • Continue to find new ways to soften the environmental impacts of agriculture and forestry, and use our best farm and forest lands aggressively for that purpose;
  • Consider the global impacts of local land use decisions and include that as a factor in debates over resource use and endangered species protection;
  • Encourage more free international trade policies and remove as many barriers as possible;
  • Increase support for scientific research on food, fiber and other material production.