The scientists’ “bottleneck to breakthrough” theory posits that if global society continues to become increasingly urbanized, fertility rates decline (and eventually fall below replacement levels) and extreme poverty vanishes, then nature will have a chance to make a comeback. Not on a global scale in any of our lifetimes (those of us around today will likely be left in the bottleneck), but certainly our children’s children could inherit a much more promising world than we have today.
“It is not inconceivable that two centuries from now, the population could be half what it is today and the long-cherished goals of a world where people respect and care for nature may be realized,” the researchers write. “Especially if we act now to foster this eventuality.”
The trinity here is population, poverty and urbanization.
It’s easy to see how population decline benefits nature: fewer humans means a smaller overall human footprint. Forests and other ecosystems will return; species will rebound. Such occurrences have already been seen in areas where human populations have stabilized or fallen.
Urbanization amplifies this trend. According to the researchers, urbanization not only clumps people into smaller, more efficient areas, but urban residents also tend to have fewer children. This is due to the fact that women in cities generally have more autonomy, education and opportunity, leading to fewer children. Better health care in cities also means lower infant mortality rates, resulting in couples deciding to have fewer children because they do not fear for a child’s survival.
The increasing agglomeration of humanity into cities won’t necessarily mean higher environmental impacts either, the researchers say. City dwellers tend to spend significantly more of their wealth on housing, transport and investing. They also tend to live in a more efficient system, consuming less energy and water and producing less waste per capita compared to rural communities. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas.
At the same time, the percentage of those living in extreme poverty continues to decline. While the elimination of poverty is, of course, a noble endeavor, it also arguably benefits nature as those living in extreme poverty often depend directly on exploiting nature to survive. At the same time, the researchers argue that “education, regulation, economic policy, or social norms” can help decouple rising wealth from natural resource extraction and environmental impacts.
“This piece of work is not in order to raise people’s spirits,” Walston says, “it’s because we think there is a massively underestimated or lack of awareness over these macro drivers.”
He adds that the same forces that are “driving down nature” today are “forming the foundations of the ultimate circumstances [where] nature can rebound and recover.”
The scientists are by no means denying the current dire reports about wildlife and biodiversity today, but they see a potential different future ahead if we support these macro patterns, some of which are connected, ironically, to development, globalization and market forces.
“That’s the fundamental … reason why people can’t get their head around it, because, at the same time, it’s getting towards its darkest point,” Walston says.
From Japan to Sub-Saharan Africa
In May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fertility rates in the country had dropped to their lowest rates ever: 1.76 babies per woman. This is well below the 2.1 births per woman that is considered replacement level, i.e. the rate at which the population holds steady. Of course, the U.S. is not going to see its actual population decline anytime soon for two reasons: built-in momentum of past birth booms, and immigration.
But the news shows that even the U.S. can’t escape the inevitability of fertility decline. As nations emerge into advanced economies, poverty declines, populations urbanize and the rate of fertility drops until eventually populations will stabilize.
The final part of this transition, actual population decline coupled with low (even non-existent) extreme poverty and high urbanization, has been observed in a number of nations, like Japan and Portugal. With fewer people, ecosystems can make a comeback.
This story first appeared on Mongabay
South Africa Today – Environment
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