[Coral-List] girl power, human population size and reef decline

John Bruno jbruno at unc.edu
Fri Sep 12 10:05:26 EDT 2008

Dear Alina and friends, it is funny, but when I read Stephen's essay I  
had the opposite response, something like "thank goodness, not another  
crazy and misinformed argument about saving reefs by passing out  
condoms."  I interpreted (perhaps wrongly) Stephen's point being that  
the ultimate causes were not the proximate mechanisms most of us study  
(e.g., nutrient pollution, temperature, disease, etc.) or human  
population density but instead the policy and cultural choices  
societies have made.

Sarah is exactly right, the only effective way to reduce human  
population in non-totalitarian societies is to empower woman by  
increasing their societal and household influence by increasing their  
earning power (of which education is a good predictor, although note,  
increased education reduces family size via increased female salaries  
and career opportunities, not because woman become more enlightened/ 
educated or because the availability of condoms increases).

But, the obvious shortcoming of this solution in regard to solving the  
coral reef problem, and more broadly the climate change problem, is  
that it is counter-productive; increasing female education and  
earnings, particularly in developing nations, strongly increase their  
carbon footprints (hence the blank stares).  More educated woman make  
more money and have fewer kids, but they also spend more money, demand  
more services, own cars, buy home appliances, travel, etc.  The net  
result is increased per capita fossil fuel consumption and also higher  
total family consumption, even as the size of families shrinks.   
Wealthier families also eat more processed food (which is based on  
corn syrup and thus oil), higher on the food chain, less locally  
produced foods, etc.

The other tricky thing with this solution, at least for those of us  
that are western liberals, is that it brings two of our primary social/ 
policy goals into direct conflict.  We hope to reduce human misery,  
poverty, and generally increase human education, health, wealth, and  
well-being, but doing so inherently increases fossil fuel and protein  
consumption, etc.  Boxed into this construct, we either save the  
planet or help people in need.

The bottom line is that the problem cannot be solved simply by  
reducing population size.  But this is where the points in Stephen's  
essay offer us a way out of our dilemma.  In arguing that the  
underlying causes are poor policy and social decisions, he offers us a  
realistic solution (if from a pessimistic perspective).  The negative  
environmental impacts of a family, community or nation are largely  
decoupled from the number of human members.  Families and communities  
can and do have zero, small or enormous negative impacts based solely  
on their choices and behaviors.  It is quite easy for a middle-class  
individual to (often unknowingly) have a far larger carbon footprint  
than a family of 4, simply by taking an airplane flight or two a  
year.   Per capita, North Americans have by far the world's largest  
carbon footprints (despite enjoying a relatively low human population  
density at the continental scale).  Over the next 50-100 years we  
(North Americans) could virtually eliminate our bulk output of  
greenhouse gases or increase it by a factor of 10.  Which of these  
extremes is realized will have little or nothing to do with human  
population trends, but will instead be driven by federal, state and  
local policy choices and also more locally by personal and family  

Sincerely and respectfully,


John Bruno
Associate Professor
Dept of Marine Sciences
UNC Chapel Hill

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