Forests and Human Population
by George Plumb
New England Coalition for Sustainable Population
Our precious forests provide many benefits to the human population. They help clean our air, protect our watersheds, are one of the most important renewable resources for meeting many human needs, and provide the place for much of our outdoor recreation. For many of us the forests are a place of spiritual renewal where we go to get away from the business of every day life and connect with the mysteries of the universe. Without our forests human life would be much different. Yet because of the size and growth of the human population we are placing tremendous stress on them. Climate change, acid rain, development, fragmentation, conversion of forest land to agricultural land, and industrial-type forestry practices are all changing the quality of our forests and, in many areas, the quantity of our forests.
There are three basic root causes for the degradation of our forests which are best summarized in what is known as the foundation formula or the IPAT formula (I=PxAxT). What this formula says is that any environmental impact (I) is the result of population size (P) times the affluence or wealth of that population (A) and the technology (T) that the population consumes with its wealth. As an example related to our northern forests, lets take the practice of burning wood to heat our homes, as many of us do and more will likely do as the cost of heating oil rises as a result of the leveling off of oil production. If there is a theoretical town in Maine with two-hundred homes (P), and they are all heating with 1950-era Franklin wood stoves (A&T), these two-hundred homes would be burning a fair amount of wood and sending a variety of pollutants into the air (I). However, if they were to convert to modern day stoves that meet EPA standards, they would burn far less wood and produce far few pollutants.
However, if those two-hundred homes were then to increase to two-thousand homes, even though they were using modern day technology, they would still be burning far more wood and producing more pollution then the original two-hundred homes using old technology. The point being that both population size and consumption are important, and one can not be separated from the other.
But many people ask, isnt population size and growth more of a global problem than a U.S. problem? The answer is NO!
The U.S., with over 300 million people, has the third largest population in the world behind China and India. Growing at the rate of approximately 3.5 million annually it is by far the fastest growing of the industrialized countries. And as we all know, with our highly consumptive lifestyles we use much more of the earths resources and produce much more pollution than other countries. Look at any environmental indicator for the U.S. environment, from the loss of open land to sprawl to the cutting of old growth forests, and they are almost all headed in the wrong direction and will continue to do so as long as the population is growing.
Other people say it is really our consumption habits that are the problem and not population size and that if we just reduce our consumption and all practice simple living then everything will be ok. This is an unproven theory and people have never dramatically reduced their consumption to the levels needed to deal with our environmental problems. However, many nations have reduced their population size and the people of the U.S. can voluntarily stabilize our population once they fully understand the need.
So what can you as an individual concerned about our forests do about population?
First, begin to think about population when you read or hear an environmental story and make the population connection because this connection is rarely mentioned in the media but it is the underlying story with many of our environmental problems. The massive Plum Creek urban sprawl development planned for the Moosehead Lake is certainly caused in major part by population growth. People in other over-populated and over-developed areas want to flee there to be closer to the natural world. Sure, there are other factors also involved such as profit in land speculation or more people becoming very wealthy and being able to afford such homes, but population growth is a major underlying factor.
Second, begin to learn about population growth and what is causing it and what can be done about it. This is a complex and emotional issue and it takes some level-headed thinking to begin to understand it. There are some population related links on the links page that will be of help.
Third, have the courage to speak out and to take whatever personal actions you think are appropriate. When the modern day environmental movement began in the 1960s and 70s population growth was very much a part of this movement. However, for several reasons we stopped talking about it. With global climate change, peak oil, and all of our other very serious environmental problems, it is time to start talking and acting again.
Our human population is impacting our forest ecology and that in turn is impacting our larger ecosystem. We need to protect our forests which are the source for so many benefits for humans as well as wildlife, especially if we want future generations to have the benefits from them that we enjoy today.
As Henry David Thoreau, who spent a lot of time in the woods, said, What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on? These words of wisdom, although a bit cynical, were written back in the middle of the 1800s when there was relatively little development compared to today. With every passing year we can see how true and prophetic those words were. Forests are essential to preserving the ecology of the world and the spiritual health of human kind.
Yes, in the short term we must work to prevent the destruction of the forests by massive development, but in the long term we must also work to stabilize and eventually reduce the size of the U.S. and global population if we are to truly preserve our forests.
P.O. Box 2118, Augusta, Maine 04338 phone: 207-628-6404 fax - 207-628-5741 email: firstname.lastname@example.org