7 Billion: The View from Southwest New Mexico
The consequences of overpopulation can be felt
even in our sparsely populated corner of the Southwest.
by Torie Grass
This past fall, the earth's human population reached 7 billion. The United Nations projects that by 2050 the earth's population will reach between 8 and 11 billion. Living in southwest New Mexico, overpopulation and its consequences for the planet seem like someone else's distant problem. We live in small communities surrounded by thousands of acres of open space and beautiful public lands, clean air and the Gila, the last free-flowing river in New Mexico. For many of us, these are the very reasons we live here, far from cities and their associated problems.
According to the US Census Bureau, New Mexico is the sixth most sparsely populated state in the nation. Grant County has a population density of 7.8 persons per square mile, Doña Ana 46 persons per square mile, Luna 8.4, Catron 0.5 and Hidalgo 1.7 persons per square mile. Our two largest cities are a long drive away, which can be an irritation for those seeking big shopping malls, international airports and medical specialists.
Earth Day in Silver City
Despite our apparent remoteness, we are completely interconnected with the world. Events, government policies and attitudes in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia impact us all in innumerable ways. For example, the recent debt crisis in Greece has created serious worries for the European Union and the stability of the euro. Subsequently, this has heightened concerns for the US financial market, which affects job creation, borrowing and lending rates in the US, potentially taxes and the age at which you can afford to retire. Environmental events can also be felt globally: A volcano erupting in Southeast Asia can affect the climate in North America and therefore impact food production, food prices and what you can afford for dinner tonight.
Human population growth, even on the other side of the world, has far-reaching effects on our well-being in Southwest New Mexico, our society and personal lives. An ever-expanding population with limited world resources is a recipe for increased human suffering and resource wars that impact all of us. Our 7 billion neighbors all need food, clothing, a home and clean water. If their economic situation improves, so does their consumption of resources. Like most of us in the US, they then want more… cars, refrigerators and flat-screen TVs. This requires increased resource extraction, be it copper, water or oil. If nations don't have the needed resources, history demonstrates, they will buy them from someone else, if they can, or start a war to take it from someone else. As food, water and energy resources are strained by an ever-expanding global population, conflict, civil war and environmental degradation increase. In response, the number of political and environmental refugees increases, whether they are fleeing civil war in the Sudan or the heat and sandstorms in Phoenix.
Water wars have been common in the western US since the early days of European settlers. Conflicts increase as population grows, groundwater is depleted and the climate changes. Water scarcity is now a huge source of conflict between states in the eastern and southern US as well as the Southwest.
In Southwest New Mexico, planning and discussion continues regarding the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004 (AWSA — see our February 2010 and September 2011 issues). AWSA will eventually determine the use of 14,000 acre feet per year of water for Southwest New Mexico that was authorized by the Colorado River Act of 1968. By the end of 2014, the Interstate Stream Commission will make its decision for water usage based on input from four counties, passing on that decision to the Secretary of the Interior.
Globally, the water consumption rate doubles every 20 years. But Southwest New Mexico is projected to have adequate water for many years under moderate growth. But that, of course, depends on maintaining good water quality, free from industrial or agricultural pollution. Southwest New Mexico gets its water from the Gila and Mimbres Basins. Currently, approximately 64% of this water is corporate owned, primarily by mining interests.
Mining is the major economic driver in Southwest New Mexico. It provides jobs and an important tax base. You can't eat copper, however, and resource extraction must be done responsibly, in order to protect our groundwater from contamination. Strong legal safeguards and watchdog organizations are crucial to holding all corporations accountable. History has shown that mining corporations, motivated by profit, will not take steps to protect natural resources unless forced to do so. Throughout New Mexico, including the Southwest corner, there are many instances of historical and current contamination of groundwater from resource extraction.
Poverty, food and water shortages and deforestation are all intensified by the addition of nearly 80 million people a year to the world's population, as estimated by the Population Instititute. Deforestation includes the removal of trees and native vegetation that results in soil erosion and destabilization. Even back in 1902, deforestation and overgrazing helped create the conditions for a huge flood that washed away downtown Main Street in Silver City, now know as the "Big Ditch."
Besides the environmental impacts of overpopulation, the personal and practical consequences of overpopulation for women, children, families and society are enormous. According to estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, 215 million women in the developing world want to delay or end childbearing but have no access to contraception. Half of the pregnancies in the US each year are unintended. In 2006, 24,000 New Mexican women had an unintended pregnancy.
Unwanted pregnancies take a heavy toll on mothers, children, families and society. Spacing and planning pregnancies and early access to prenatal care decreases a woman's risk for pregnancy and birth-related medical complications. It also protects an infant from the many physical and developmental complications of prematurity and illness related to poor maternal health. Many of these health complications for mother and baby can last a lifetime and carry high financial, emotional and psychological costs. Pregnant women, especially teens, often interrupt or end their education, which frequently results in increased family poverty and stress.
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