There are so many environmental issues that are affecting the entire globe today. People often speak of environmental issues as if they have no control over making them better or worse, however, environmentalists feel that many if not all of the environmental problems that we are facing “are either caused or exacerbated by population growth” (West, 2009). That means that people themselves are the very ones causing harm to the environment. What we do or don’t do about the issue of overpopulation will determine the very fate of the environment in the future. This presents the need for ethical decision making.
Global environmental problems are ethical problems” (Brown, 2009). Each and every person has a moral and ethical responsibility toward the environment, the problem is that people often ignore that responsibility, especially when it presents other ethical dilemmas. Defining Ethics To begin, I would like to define ethics. A definition taken from the National Academy of Engineering states “ethics is concerned with what is right or wrong, good or bad, fair or unfair, responsible or irresponsible, obligatory or permissible, praiseworthy or blameworthy” (2006).
So what does ethics have to do with overpopulation and other environmental issues? If we know that overpopulation is the direct cause of many of the environmental issues that are affecting the entire globe, ethically, it is our responsibility as humans to come up with a solution to the problem. Population Growth “Over-population is the term that refers to a condition by which the population density enlarges to a limit that provokes the environmental deterioration, a remarkable decline in the quality of life or a population collapse” (Biology Cabinet Organization, 2003).
In around 1963, the global rate of human population growth peaked, but the number of people living on Earth has grown by more than two-thirds since then, topping out at over 6. 6 billion today (West, 2009). Every year, more than 81 million people add to the world-wide population. Every 10 years almost one billion inhabitants are added to the world’s population (BCO, 2006). By the year 2050, the human population is expected to exceed nine billion (West, 2009). What affect does this have on the environment? Effects of Over-population Global Warming
Global warming is considered to be one of the top environmental issues today. Scientists have determined that it is mostly human activities that are contributing to global warming by adding excessive amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, accumulate in the atmosphere and trap heat that would normally exit into outer space. Many greenhouse gases occur naturally and are needed to create the “greenhouse effect” that keeps the Earth warm enough to support life, but it is human use of fossil fuels that cause the excess greenhouse gases.
By driving cars, using electricity from coal-fired power plants, or heating our homes with oil or natural gas, we release carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere (West, 2009). Deforestation Deforestation is another environmental issue and is a significant source of greenhouse gases because fewer trees mean less carbon dioxide conversion to oxygen. “The most important direct causes of deforestation include logging, the conversion of forested lands for agriculture and cattle-raising, urbanization, mining and oil exploitation, acid rain and fire” (World Rain Forest Movement, 1998).
Deforestation and forest degradation occurs both in Northern and Southern countries and its underlying causes also originate in both, although with varying degrees of responsibility. Industrialized countries have not only cut down or degraded their own forests in the past; many are still doing so today. This occurs either through large-scale clear-cutting (as in many areas of Canada, the US or Australia) or through the thinning and therefore degradation of forests, reducing them to a few commercially valuable species at the expense of biodiversity (such as in Sweden, France or Finland) (World Rainforest Movement, 1998).
The root of the problem is trying to keep up with the demand of the ever-growing population. Biodiversity Biodiversity is defined by the Washington Biodiversity Council as “the full range of life in all its forms” (2003). Biodiversity loss is largely a result of deforestation. The worldwide rate of extinction of plant and animal species is estimated to be 10,000 times as rapid as it was in prehistoric times, with more than 27,000 species becoming extinct every year.
An example of the loss of biodiversity due to overpopulation is seen in the state of Washington. “Washington is one of the most biologically diverse states in the union. This is due to the state’s diverse topography, its exposure to Pacific Ocean currents and weather patterns, and its location on the migratory path of many wildlife species. ” “Washington, in fact, contains most of the major ecosystem types found in the western United States, including two found nowhere else in the world: the Olympic rainforest and channeled scablands. However, “since statehood in 1889, Washington has lost an estimated 70 percent of its estuarine wetlands, 50 percent of its riparian habitat, 90 percent of its old-growth forest, and 70 percent of its native shrub-steppe and arid grasslands” (Washington Biodiversity Council, 2003). As the smallest and second most densely populated of the rapidly growing Western states, Washington’s population in 2008 was 6. 5 million according to the U. S. Census Bureau, and is expected to add over 21 percent by the year 2020 (2009).
This puts Washington in great danger of losing much of its diversity of plant and animal life within the next few decades. Although scientists are not fully aware of all the consequences of the continual loss of biodiversity, they do know that a diversity of healthy, functioning ecosystems is essential to the environment. Water Shortages As we in water-rich countries take our daily showers, water the lawn or laze about in the pool, it’s easy to forget that fresh water is a life-or-death issue in many parts of the world.
Of a population of roughly 6. 1 billion, more than 1 billion lack access to potable water. The World Health Organization says that at any time, up to half of humanity has one of the six main diseases such as: diarrhea, schistosomiasis, or trachoma, or infestation with ascaris, guinea worm, or hookworm which are associated with poor drinking water and inadequate sanitation. About 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, poor sanitation, or a dirty home environment, often resulting from water shortage (University of Wisconsin, 2001).
The water shortages are becoming more and more evident all over the world. For example: “Mexico City (home to 20 million people) is sinking because the city sucks out underground water faster than the aquifer can be refilled; Florida wants to refill it’s over pumped aquifer with untreated surface water, despite federal regulations to the contrary; Texas is moving toward private, for-profit water sales. The water will be ‘mined’ from aquifers that are disappearing fast. No word on what the private suppliers, including corporate raider T. Boone Pickens, will do once the aquifers run dry.
Aquifers around the world are being over tapped for irrigated agriculture, which fills about 40 percent of the global larder; The Bush Administration has withdrawn a proposed tightening of the arsenic standard for drinking water. Critics say the old rule, dating to 1942, could allow thousands of cases of cancer and other diseases. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, what’s been called the ‘largest poisoning of a population in history’ has 35 to 77 million people drinking arsenic-laced water;” and last but not least, “a showdown is looming over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which originate in Turkey, then water both Syria and Iraq.
If Turkey goes ahead with a series of dams, the downriver nations could starve. There are projections that three billion people, half of today’s population, will be short of water in 2025” (University of Wisconsin, 2001). Some Recommended Solutions for Overpopulation Being that this issue is one of such great importance, we need to be proactive at finding some kind of solution. There have been many different ideas that have been presented to try to get the population under control; however, thus far, most of the ideas have been just that- ideas, with no definite plan of action.
Some of the proposed solutions, to name a few, have been: “making sure people around the world have access to family planning services; empowering women in developing countries economically, socially, and legally in a manner that results in them having an equal say (with their husbands) in reproductive decisions; modifying school curricula to include information on population levels and implications for the future; reforming tax laws in a way that encourages couples to have no more than two children. They would still be able to have as many kids as they want, but the tax code would no longer subsidize more than two)” (Jeantheau, 2005). The Need for Ethical Decision-Making People tend to be very opposed to the thought of their freedom being imposed upon, especially when it deals with the amount of children that they can or cannot have. Many people will argue from a religious standpoint that God specifically says in the Bible to multiply and subdue the earth. Some feel that the use of birth control is unethical and against Bible principles. The problem is that people do not want to do anything else about the issues at hand either.
For example: If we were still living the way our ancestors did the amount of people living on the earth would not be a problem. Unfortunately, we are polluting the earth with our technology and over consuming our resources. So the argument can also be presented to those against birth control for religious purposes, that the Bible also says that we should not be gluttonous. But again humans tend to want what they want when they want it. Most only keep the Bible principles that suit them. In any case, as in many ethical problems we are faced with a moral dilemma.
A moral dilemma is best described as when two or more obligations are in conflict. “The crucial features of a moral dilemma are these: the agent is required to do each of two (or more) actions; the agent can do each of the actions; but the agent cannot do both (or all) of the actions. The agent thus seems condemned to moral failure; no matter what she does, she will do something wrong (or fail to do something that she ought to do)” (McConnell, 2006). When presented with a moral dilemma, we need to decide which obligation is most important and give preference to the more important one.
Unfortunately, when contemplating any solution for an issue such as overpopulation, we are going to be faced with moral dilemmas. Now we have to choose the lesser of two evils. Should we practice birth control even though it violates our moral principles or continue to allow the population to grow to numbers that the earth cannot sustain? Should we object to abortion when a woman does not want to have a child? Abortion may violate our own personal beliefs; however, if it is what the woman wants for herself and it will surely decrease the number of people being added to our population, shouldn’t we support that decision?
Utilitarians view the best moral decision to be the one that brings about the maximum amount of pleasures and the least amount of suffering. They do not make decisions based on their own self-centeredness, they “insist that the joys and sorrows of others must be part of the calculation (when making any ethical decision)” (Waller, 2008). So, from the utilitarian standpoint, trying to find an answer to slowing the population growth would not be an intrusion or a violation of one’s rights, it would be welcomed to lessen the amount of suffering that is caused by the issue of overpopulation.
In the very near future, we will have no choice but to make some very important decisions as to what we will do about the issues that plague the environment. Again, environmental problems are indeed ethical problems. The only way that things will get better in our environment is if we get the rate of growth of the human population under control. We can no longer ignore the moral and ethical responsibility that we as humans have toward the environment, regardless of the ethical dilemmas that we are presented with.