As we face 1 million Covid-19 deaths, can some climate change benefits come out of the pandemic?
In a previous posting, I discussed some of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that occurred during lockdown and how these were very temporary. In this post, I want to look at population statistics and how these might be influenced by coronavirus deaths.
We have known for many years that human population growth has been in exponential territory for many years and is rapidly approaching 8 billion worldwide, as shown in the graph below, which shows the world population increasing ever since the industrial revolution began.
Many people have written at length about population growth; for example, the eugenicists love to speculate on how we might improve the genetic make-up of the entire human population, usually by ethnic cleansing. I believe this to be a distraction from the real issues associated with population growth.
However, human population growth does need to be addressed. The more people that live on the earth, the more crowded the planet becomes and the less food there is for everyone. With increases in consumerism, fuelled by big business and rampant advertising, there is also more waste and fewer places to dispose of it safely, so that we are filling oceans with junk, affecting marine life, as well as contaminating the countryside with land-fill sites. Over-crowding is also causing increases in migrants, seeking a better life elsewhere, where they think food and jobs will be more available. Over-crowding also means that humans are encroaching on the habitats of the creatures we share this planet with, leading to their extinction and possibly also, the release of killer viruses like Covid-19, as we come into closer territorial contact with wildlife.
The Chinese addressed their high population increases in recent years, by limiting each family to the birth of one child. However, this policy created other problems, such as an age imbalance in the country and a shrinking work force. So it was abandoned but the birth rate there has continued to decline (see the yellow line in the graph below).
The relationship between human population size and climate change is discussed in chapters 5 and 9 of my book, where I include population growth as one of 10 interrelated factors which are working together to exacerbate climate change and the consequent destruction of all life on the planet.
So, if there are too many people already living on this planet, should we not embrace a reduction in numbers caused by deaths from the coronavirus, however tragic that might be for the families and communities who have lost their loved ones? The saddening fact is that the loss of one million people to the virus, is not enough to make a significant impact on the overall numbers of humans on the planet. The tragic loss of 20 million people during World War I had little impact on the overall population number, which soon continued on its relentless upward trend.
So, the reality is that 1 million Covid-19 deaths, will have little impact on human numbers, unless of course the pandemic cannot be controlled and the coronavirus continues to wipe out huge numbers of people worldwide. Statisticians are already predicting that there will be 2 million deaths before a vaccine becomes available.
In a related way, the lockdown introduced by many countries to control the virus, did, for a short period, reduce greenhouse gas emissions in industrial areas, but these too have continued on their upward trend, as lockdown is eased. As we rebuild the economy, there needs to be a determined effort to stop using fossil fuels, alongside properly thought-out strategies to reduce the other factors which work together to exacerbate climate change, shown in the graphic above.
One of the things that the pandemic is demonstrating is the Darwinian principle of “Survival of the Fittest”, for it is the old and frail and those with underlying health conditions, that are most likely to succumb to the virus. Some people are advocating that we allow “herd immunity” to develop, even though there is evidence that people who contract the virus do not develop immunity and may catch it again later. The herd immunity idea is a corollary to the “survival of the fittest” principle, though relying on it shows little compassion for those in society who are not fit and who succumb to the virus.
So, there are a number of issues here and questions that need to be answered. Over the last century, there have been huge breakthroughs in medical care, surgical and intensive care practices and the production of antibiotics and other life-saving drugs. These have allowed us to keep people alive for longer, with more and more people living into their 90s and 100s, whatever their quality of life may be. This has all contributed to the surging population numbers. And so, we have created a society in which the age balance has changed and the financial burden of caring for the frail elderly has become phenomenal. Is Covid-19 bringing that balance back to what it was in the last century? Should we be keeping people alive in care homes and hospitals beyond their normal life expectancy, especially if dementia has taken hold and they lose their dignity and no longer know who they are or even where they are? No, I am not supporting the “right to die” or “assisted dying” movements – the arguments for this are very different and the movement already has its vocal advocates.
But, in a way, the coronavirus has created an irony where, to a large extent, children and the youngest members of society are hardly affected by it and the old are disproportionately targeted. So, gradually it is moving the age profile downwards to a younger society. There is evidence that younger people are very aware of climate issues, as the “Fridays for the Future” movement takes off across the globe. So, one good thing may have come out of this terrible pandemic – that the ardent young will be able to bring about the changes needed to address climate change and the sustenance of all life on this planet.