You’re an ape, okay?

One of us.

For my own clarity of thought, I like to find ideas which are both simple and have lot of explanatory power. The notion of the trio of interacting problems, population growth, per capita consumption growth, and economic growth, is an example. It’s a relatively concise construct which helps us understand the causes of the ecological crisis we face. (Perhaps that is to galmorize what is merely a list of three exceptionally important, related phenomena. Still, it’s an important list.)

An idea to guide our actions?

Are there any similarly simple yet powerful ideas which can help us find ways to overcome the ecological mess we’re in? I believe one might be the concept of biocentrism. Tonight I attended a talk given by ethologist Marc Bekoff. He’s done a great deal of important work on animal cognition and emotion, and spoke engagingly about the mounting evidence that animals feel a range of emotions little different from our own. This is of course part of the larger body of evidence which is fast erasing whatever qualitative differences we thought existed to separate humans from other species.

Though he did not use the term, Dr. Bekoff made a good case, I thought, for the biocentric view. It holds that humans do not have a special place in the animal kingdom, that we’re just one more species, all of which have value. The implication is that we humans have no special privileges. As the late environmental activist Judi Bari put it, “Biocentrism, is the belief that nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are part of nature, one species among many. All species have a right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans. And biodiversity is a value in itself, essential for the flourishing of both human and nonhuman life.”

This view makes sense both scientifically and in logical, common sense terms. Science is indeed telling us that our long held vision that we are “special” or “different” among living creatures is false. We are one of the great apes, not some unique, qualitatively different creature. (I might add, however, that our activities have driven every one of the other great apes to the brink of extinction. How will we humans feel if our actions cause any of them actually to cease to exist?) Using simple logic we can ask as well, how, even if we were qualitatively different, that would give us some special privilege among species. It wouldn’t, of course.

No special privileges

It follows that we have no special right to plunder and degrade the environment. Simply put, it is not ours to destroy! What would be the expected human response if, somehow, some other species began seriously damaging the ecosystem, killing us, and eliminating our towns and cities to populate the same spaces? I suspect humans would destroy that species in short order. Yet we feel we have a right to disregard and even eliminate other species in that very way. Why?

I hope that in just these few paragraphs I’ve begun to make a case that the biocentric view is both more sensible and more ethical than an anthropocentric (human-centered) view. Given the reasoning I’ve presented, it is surprising the biocentric view is not more widely held. For some, no doubt, religion stands in the way. That’s too big a topic for this post, though it’s worth a mention that some people of devout religious belief are able successfully to reconcile such a view with their religious practice. But it may also be that some people shy away from biocentrism because of its association with groups such as Earth First!, activists whose tactics they view as extreme or destructive and unwarranted, and who are known for their biocentirc philosophy. If so, that’s a shame. For regardless of one’s opinion of Earth First! or similar groups, I do not believe the biocentric view dictates any particular course of action. It does not specifically dictate Earth First!’s tactics. Though they obviously see their actions as consistent with biocentrism, different actions could be consistent with it as well. A far less confrontational group could as easily hold a biocentric view.

Biocentrism does dictate many things we shouldn’t do — such as kill other species, destroy their habitat, or destroy the ecosystem on which they (and we) depend for life. If policy decisions were made with such a view in mind, it would go a long way toward ensuring decisions which better preserve our ecosystem, thus benefiting ourselves and other species.

So I’d like to suggest the reader consider that we humans are one of the great apes, with no special privileges on this planet. In that spirit, I present the following video from Ernie Cline. I first bumped into it on The Solemn Monkey, and couldn’t resist:

Image source: Mely-o, as posted on flicker under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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57 responses to “You’re an ape, okay?

  1. The portion of humanity living in urban areas recently (last year?) crossed the 50% mark (meaning more than half of us are now urban dwellers). I have to think that doesn’t bode well for a more biocentric outlook. Large cities, nearly by definition, are the ultimate symbol of anthropocentrism. There are usually just three species — humans, pigeons, and rats — and if we could get rid of the latter two we would.

    Our large industrial-style, monoculture agriculture sector, essential to feeding billions of people, is another example.

    If there were fewer of us, we’d have so much more ability to become a harmonious, constructive members of the biosystem.

  2. Magne Karlsen

    … I like monkeys.

    Have fun.

  3. Trinifar,

    Good point about urban living and that a smaller population would make it much easier to live harmoniously with other species in the ecosystem. These things just interact and snowball, don’t they?

    I’m away from home this week, using a relative’s laptop and a *very* slow dialup connection. So I’ll be slow tending to GIM, but will tend. 🙂

    Magne — Thanks for the link. Right now this slow connection won’t seem to load it, so I’ll check it out when I can get on something faster.

  4. Magne Karlsen

    Hey. I don’t know anything about your sense of humour. Mine is a bit bizarre.

    No offence.

  5. “…give any one species, too much rope and they’ll f**k it up….”
    – R. Waters

    Warning, I do believe I am feeling rather cynical today. Though, in re-reading this blog, the question you asked “What would be the expected human response if, somehow, some other species began seriously damaging the ecosystem, killing us, and eliminating our towns and cities to populate the same spaces?” was *slightly* answered by ” kill other species, destroy their habitat, or destroy the ecosystem on which they (and we) depend for life. ”

    Talk about snowballs, John – please bear with me… (and well put Trinifar)

    I was pondering the following a little while back both while thinking again of the Optimal Foraging Theory’s falacies (archaeologically) as I brought the idea a little closer to home: Why to people (i.e., me) engage in self-defeating behavior? It’s crazy, right? Eating high fat, high sodium foods, while being sedentary, smoking a handful of cigarettes, and snorting half of Peru, with a little dash of anti-depressants, neurological stimulants, and a plethora of tranquilizers are ingested.

    Psychotic, really.

    But, it’s all around us. Everyday. And we worship it. I could see the Manhattan skyline where I grew up, and I could see the destruction that multi-national corporations wreaked on small, former farming towns in Jersey, lured by tax-breaks and abandoned just as fast when they had to pony-up. My friend’s childhood park in Northern NJ was listed as a superfund site; no wonder “The Toxic Avenger” was filmed in his town. I felt PROUD when my father told me when I was a child that I lived in “the most densely populated state in the nation,” because that WAS (and is) a source of pride for many. In Portland, parts of the Willamette River are among the filthiest of any river in the world (also superfund); swaths of forest are cut in the coast range (leading to Mountain Pattern Baldness), replaced with homogenous strains suceptible to devestating diseases that could wipe out hundreds of acres – dieases that would be resisted with more diverse speciation, but risked in the hopes of weed-free profit.

    It’s crazy, isn’t it, that anyone would engage in such self-defeating behaviors?

    Well, maybe not after all, when that strange species mouths the words “for the shareholders” and “third quarter profits are up” it begins to make sense. It makes sense when I hear those alien words “value-added,” and “shareholder equity,” and someone else says “well, that’s just the way it is.”

    So my question is, when are we going to force that species into submission? John, you wrote ” I suspect humans would destroy that species in short order. ”

    I wonder….

    “Reproduction, evolution, and perfection of any hegemonic structure is inevitable, left to its own devices. Ultimately, what emerges is a sense of triumphalism among the dominant population which is so seamless, pervasive, and pronounced, that previously inadmissible facts can begin to be reintegrated with the record, reconciled to and incorporated into the prevailing mythology.”

    ‘A Little Matter of Genocide…..’
    -W. Churchill

  6. I fail to see, why it should be important, if humans are apes or not. I doesn’t collide with biocentrism, since it’s against self-proclaimed superiority of humanity, not difference itself. You’re saying for yourself the reasoning holds true “even if we were qualitatively different”.
    Taxonomy is a neat way to file species, but it doesn’t say much about philosophy.

    From here it just looks like you are fed up with people denying links between humans and apes, which tend to be the ones believing in human superiority.

  7. Magne Karlsen

    Links to the Scandinavian documentary “The Planet” – on human misconduct in general; not only on global warming / climate change. It’s a series in four parts. Thus far, only the first two parts have been published on the internet.

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

    Okay. Yesterday, the first part of the series was broadcast on the Norwegian state’s broadcasting system (NRK). Before that first show, they broadcast a “Norwegian environmentalists’ message to the general public”, on the severity of the state of things these days, the planet, the atmosphere, the nature and all, you know: stuff. 😉

    After the show, here’s what happens:

    Evening News. Weather Forecast. Sports News.

    The newws was on the shutting down of a local hospital, and the relocation of nurses, all for reasons of revenue costs. Then there was a story of how the government is planning to import a lot of nurses from Africa and Asia, because of an expected lack of nurses in the future. That’s it for nursing! Next up was a story about a great Norwegian Ski Resort, which – because of the shortened winter seasons (climate change) is losing a lot of money. But they are planning to do something about that. The idea is to invest in plastic carpets that can be rolled down barren ski slopes; thus the downhill crazy will be able to spend both time and money in the Ski Resort in November (like they’re used to), even if there is no snow. Excellent! Now: on with The Weather Forecast. It spells out “Sunny and warm all over the country; Mars temperature records broken here, there and everywhere.” – The ever-smiling TV host comments: “We can all look forward to a lot of good weather.” Sports: football (soccer).

    Anyway. … 😀

    – —

    Tim: “So my question is, when are we going to force that species into submission?”

    Hmmmm? I wonder: Who are “we”?

  8. Magne Karlsen

    “Mars temperature records broken …”

    Heh! That’ll be the month of March. 🙂 And it is true, by the way: temperature records are broken all over the place. The weather is just fantastic! We had no winter this year, really – and now we’re not going to have an ordinary spring, either. We go straight from automn to summer here.

  9. trinifar’s comment on 50% urban year of 2006 is one that we should continue to remind ourselves.

    Urbanization has simply made us forget not only about nature and how we depend on it for our food, health and shelter, but actually remembering that outside the unnatural man-made urban environment is largely nature which is the real environment, that we account for only a fraction of the world we consider not real or unrelated to man.

    I doubt the trend towards urbanity will stop anytime soon, especially looking at India and China’s trends now.

    We should remember that even if seventy-five percent of all life is wiped out from the planet it can still recuperate. It has done so in the past due to natural phenomenon so this should not change due to “unnatural” phenomenon.

  10. S.K.,

    You’re right. I don’t think it should matter, actually, whether or not we’re qualitatively different from other species. The biocentric view should still hold. But I think the observation that we’re not actually very different may help persuade some who would not otherwise consider it to do so. I would hope they would then go on to question why any qualitative difference should matter to begin with.

  11. Tim,

    “It’s crazy, isn’t it, that anyone would engage in such self-defeating behaviors?
    Well, maybe not after all, when that strange species mouths the words ‘for the shareholders’ and ‘third quarter profits are up’ it begins to make sense. It makes sense when I hear those alien words ‘value-added,’ and ‘shareholder equity,’ and someone else says ‘well, that’s just the way it is.'”

    Those words seem to be powerful enough even to be clung to in the face of self destruction.

    “So my question is, when are we going to force that species into submission?”

    Well, unfortunately we are that species, eh? No one’s around to force us into submission. With any luck, maybe that segment of us which believes there could be a better way may be able to use words to effect change. There are those, of course, who would favor more forceful solutions. And, truth be told, I think they’d be every bit as justified in employing them as governments often have been in initiating wars. But, you know, I’ve virtually never agreed with any justification for those wars. (I realize I may have strayed from what you were saying. :-/)

    I don’t know what should be done in the event that attempts to convince fail to prompt sufficient action as we head closer and closer to the point of maximum damage to the ecosystem, ourselves, and other species. I wouldn’t worry as much if we had centuries to change things. But it seems our time for that is much more limited.

  12. Magne,

    Your description of the documentary followed by the contents of the news is a great example of the problem that’s going on today: No one wants to think about what we’re doing to the earth or what we need to do about it. Not only would they rather hear about importing nurses and light hearted adjustments to climate change, but they’re far more willing to think even about he Iraq war than some future degradation which seems vague though possibly catastrophic.

    The reality of it is that it foretells tragedies on a much larger scale than even todays wars. People need somehow to make room for more within their spheres of attention.

  13. signature103,

    “We should remember that even if seventy-five percent of all life is wiped out from the planet it can still recuperate. It has done so in the past due to natural phenomenon so this should not change due to “unnatural” phenomenon.”

    I guess that is the final bit of comfort we can take. But we’re talking about a very, very long time to recuperate, I believe. It’s on the order of millions of years, no? Well, of course that is already what will be required to undo the losses we’ve already brought about. But man, I sure hope it doesn’t get to a point like the 50% loss of species often projected just for this century if current trends continue. What will upcoming generations think of us?

  14. I hope upcoming generations are able to say the following honestly.

    “In the 20th century people began to exploit the full potential of fossil fuels and scientific knowledge to produce the Green Revolution. In the later half of that century some of them saw the problems that result from uninhibited use of fossil fuels and the vast expansion of human population enabled by the Green Revolution.

    “Then, in the beginning of the 21st century, they began to notice what was happening and took drastic but compassionate steps to curtail both their own tendency to procreate at an unsustainable rate and reduce the consumption of irreplacable resources like fossile fuels/water thereby providing us with as much of the planet’s biodiversity, fertile land, and sustainable climate as possible.

    “The first couple of generation of the 21st century took dramatic, selfless, intelligent steps to ensure their progeny could still live well and prosper on this planet.”

  15. Magne Karlsen

    Honestly speaking! You should all invest a few hours of your time, and watch the documentary series which I provided a link to. It is extremely good, and it’s all in English, no problem. And I mean this: now that the Americans of this world are fully allowed brag about “An Inconvenient Truth” – … .. I’m telling you: the Scandinavian documentary series linked above is much more educational than the Oscaer-winning movie. Oh yes! You just don’t want to miss it.

  16. John: “What will upcoming generations think of us?”

    The same thing our generation has thought about past generations. Whether our voice could be heard is a matter of who will pick up on our rhetoric and give move us towards a new paradigm.

    Actually I do have faith in future generations, because I do not think I will see the fruits of our labour but fruit there will be. I am not overly worried. Sometime in the distant future someone will remember the name John Feeney.

  17. Although it is not yet widely noticed by those people who are intoxicated with power and wealth derived from the global political economy, our children are beginning to look back in anger at the way the elders of my not-so-great generation have mortgaged their future, recklessly devoured resources they will need for survival, and for so much else we have done poorly…..and failed to do…..that we have falsely construed as exercises of virtue.

  18. Pingback: Two little nuggets « Verdurous

  19. A “thought experiment” follows to which I would like very much to have comments.

    IMAGINE for a moment that we are looking at an ocean wave, watching it move toward the shore where it crashes finally at our feet. The wave is moving toward us; however, at the same time, there are many molecules in the wave that are moving in the opposite direction, against the tide. If we observe that the propagation of the human species worldwide is like the wave and the reproduction numbers of individuals or certain countries are like the molecules, it may be inaccurate for the latter to be looked at as if it tells us something meaningful about the former.

    Abundant research indicates that most countries in Western Europe, among many other countries globally, have recently shown a decline in their rates of human population growth. These geographically localized data need not blind us to the fact that the absolute global human population numbers are skyrocketing. The world’s human population is like the wave; the individual or localized reproduction numbers are like the molecules.

    Perhaps a “scope of observation” problem is presented to everyone who wants to adequately understand the dynamics of human population numbers.

    Choosing a scope of observation is a forced choice, like choosing to look at either the forest or the trees, at either the human species (the wave) data or reproduction (molecular) data. Data regarding propagation of absolute global human population numbers is the former while individual or localized reproduction data are the latter.

    From this vantage point, the global challenge before humanity could be a species propagation problem. Take note that global propagation numbers do not vary with the reproduction data. That is to say, global human propagation data and the evidence of reproduction numbers of individuals in many places, may be pointing in different directions. The propagation data are represented by the wave; the reproduction data are represented by the molecules moving against the tide.

    In the year 1900 world’s human population was approximately 1.2 to 1.6 billion people. With the explosive growth of the global human population over the 20th century in mind (despite two world wars, ubiquitous local conflicts, famine, pestilence, disease, poverty, and other events resulting in great loss of life), what might the world look like in so short a period of time as 43 years from now? How many people will be on the planet at that time? The UN Population has recently made its annual re-determination that the world’s human population will reach 9.2 billion people around 2050, and then somehow level off. No explanation is given for how this leveling-off process is to occur.

    Whatever the number of human beings on Earth at the end of the 21st century, the size of the human population on Earth could have potentially adverse impacts on the number of the world’s surviving species, on the rate of dissipation of Earth’s resources, and on the basic characteristics of global ecosystems.

    For too long a time human population growth has been comfortably viewed by politicians, economists and demographers as somehow outside the course of nature. The potential causes of global human population growth have seemed to them so complex, obscure, or numerous that a strategy to address the problems posed by the unbridled growth of the human species has been assumed to be unknowable. Their preternatural, insufficiently scientific grasp of human population dynamics has lead to widely varied forecasts of global population growth. Some forecasting data indicate the end to human population growth soon. Other data suggest the rapid and continuous increase of human numbers through Century XXI and beyond.

    Recent scientific evidence from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel appear to indicate that the governing dynamics of absolute global human population numbers are indeed knowable, as a natural phenomenon. According to their research, the population dynamics of human organisms is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other organisms.

    To suggest, as many politicians, economists and demographers have been doing, that understanding the dynamics of human population numbers does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics have so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, seems not quite right.



  20. Steve, your little essay seems to me to be spot on. Well said.

  21. Yep, very well said Steve. It is always a bit strange to see people dismiss the population problem on the basis that some countries have seen a leveling off of their population growth. It’s frustrating as well to hear people constantly misuse the UN’s projections. (Even the UN does it!) At the same time, I agree that the UN report’s projection of a stabilization is based on a rather tenuous foundation. (The assumption that recent trends in many countries will spread smoothly and without a hitch to all other countries.) I think there’s too much comfort taken in a report, and not enough energy invested in stepping back, looking at humans as a species whose population has been growing extremely rapidly on a small planet, right through the present. We have to move beyond saying, “Gee the report says it will stabilize, so that means it will.” (It’s important to add, though, as I pointed out previously, the report doesn’t really even say that. But it’s almost always interpreted that way.)

  22. Dear John,

    You report: “I think there’s too much comfort taken in a report, and not enough energy invested in stepping back, looking at humans as a species whose population has been growing extremely rapidly on a small planet, right through the present.”

    John, I agree wholeheartedly; and, still, there is something more that has to do said in the firmest and clearest possible terms.

    Please forgive me, but I think you have not yet grasped the profound implications of the research by Hopfenberg and Pimentel. If you had, your statement above would appear as an introductory sentence to which could be added the following.

    You would ask what possible chance is there for the population trends in rich countries in which millions of overconsuming human beings in the developed world live to “spread” to billions of people in poor countries in the under- and un-developed world between now and 2050.

    We hear a great deal in our time about a “demographic transition.” You would ask where are we to find economic structures to “transition” substantial resources to billions of impoverished people.

    You would then ask who among the millions of overconsumers will share their overly abundant resources with those billions of people who are now destitute. {We are not even considering 2.5 billion people who will likely be added to the human community by 2050, according to the UN Population Division estimates.}

    I do not want to play with words here, but in order to share an understanding about what looks to me like daunting global challenges are soon to be posed to humanity by the human population, challenges that are already visible on the far horizon. Some tough questions have to asked of our brothers and sisters who work in the field of human demography.

    Of course, no can foretell the future. On the other hand, I believe it is permissible for me to say the great preponderance of population data indicate that there will be more human beings living on Earth next year than lived on Earth last year, barring expected or unexpected, intervening variables.

    For example, without doubt, if the bird flu sweeps over the Earth this year and kills, let us say, 3 billion people, then there would be fewer human beings on Earth next year. Indeed, anything is possible.

    If we choose to consider and carefully examine the emerging scientific evidence of human population dynamics, it becomes evident that nothing more or less than magical and wishful thinking is being reported by human population experts in our time. Unfortunately, they could be mistaking the illusory for what is somehow real by consensually validating outdated, specious, preternatural views that indicate the skyrocketing global growth of absolute population numbers of the human species we can see exploding in some parts of the world now suddenly “will stabilize” worldwide in the middle of this century.

    Thanks, John, for this astonishing opportunity to communicate in a meaningful way.



  23. Steve,

    You’ve prompted me just today finally to read Hopfenberg’s 2003 article on carrying capacity and food availability. I’m pressed for time at the moment, but will return in a couple of hours with some questions and comments. Thanks.

  24. Steve,

    Okay, first, I found some helpful discussions of Hopfenberg and Pimentel’s work by none other than you. 🙂 I’m referring to this and this.

    So I’m getting a clearer idea of the things you’re referring to. But I still need to read their jointly authored 2001 article.

    I found Hpfenberg’s 2003 article very interesting, but was unable to understand certain details of the math. (Basically, I didn’t understand the way by which he converted food production data to maximum population values, the reason for his use of r=0.03 as the rate of population growth, or his multiplying food indices by 2.487 “to generate a good fit with actual population data.” In other words I didn’t get some of the math as he didn’t explain a couple of bits for those of us who wouldn’t instantly recognize what he was doing, and didn’t explain some of it in a way that was clear to me.) But I have no reason to doubt his procedures.

    Now, he doesn’t really get into the implications of his conclusion that increasing food supply leads to population growth, but you do in the first link I provided above. And if I understand correctly the idea is that we could go a long way toward stabilizing population growth simply by ceasing increasing food supply. And Hopfenberg’s finding and your discussion make clear that this would not equate to withholding food from starving people. Instead, given the observation that populations always tend to grow toward their associated carrying capacities, it would be more like taking away the magnet of increasing carrying capacity that pulls population ever upward. Though this is sure to be misinterpreted as the very thing I just said it wasn’t (taking food away from starving people) I do think it’s fascinating.

    By the way, I do agree with everything you wrote above, even before having absorbed much of Hopfenberg and Pimintel’s work. I just tend to be a bit cautious in my wording sometimes, especially when I’m treading in areas where I still have a good deal to learn. 🙂

    I’m going to see if their 2001 article is online somewhere. If not, I’ll get it soon from the library. Edit: Okay, I’ve found it online. Here’s one source for anyone interested:

    Here’s the Hopfenberg, 2003 article online as a pdf:

    Click to access hopfenberg2003.pdf

  25. Hi guys, I’m playing catch up and have some thoughts I’ll share tomorrow — opps, it’s midnight. Later today then.

    Nice to see all the thought you’ve put into this, Steve.

  26. ENJOY………………..Doonesbury on………. controversial science.


  27. From the Doonesbury strip:

    “Situational science is about respecting both sides of a scientific argument, not just the one supported by facts!”



    “The Day will come when our children and grandchildren will … ask one of two questions. Either they will ask,

    “What in God’s name were they doing? Didn’t they see the evidence? … What were they thinking?


    … How did they find the uncommon moral courage to rise above politics and redeem the promise of American democracy — [to] do what’s right?”

  29. Magne Karlsen

    Yesterday evening, I watched Part 2 of the (above linked) documentary “The Planet”.

    Interestingly: the obvious limits to growth takes up prominent space in this series. Such a lot of the the topics discussed here, are also discussed by the various scientists who appear here. – I’m actually quite amazed. Among the multitude of problems adressed and questions asked, are the most important one: “What should a sustainable economic future be all about?”

    I wish I had the script. 🙂

    And I wish I had the power to force every TV-owner of this world to watch this series, but I can’t. There are too many TV channels, and we sure know how to ZAP.

  30. Regarding the Hopfenberg and Pimentel papers mentioned above….

    In “Human Carrying Capacity Is Determined by Food Availability” (2003) Hopfenberg shows a strong correlation between world population and food supply. He says

    food supply is proposed as the variable which best accounts for the human carrying capacity


    …the problem of human population growth can be feasibly addressed only if it is recognized that increases in the population of the human species, like increases in the population of all other species, is a function of increases in food availability.

    In “Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply” (2001), Hopfenberg and Pimentel write:

    …the evidence indicates that the human population will increase until further food limitations are reached.

    My thoughts:

    I’ll certainly buy the bit about the strong correlation between world population and food supply, but that is not to say population is determined by food supply. (Correlation does not mean “caused by” yet that seems to be Hopfenberg’s position.) In an obvious way an upper bound on population is determined by food supply but you don’t need a research paper to show that. So I think I’m missing something in understanding what he’s trying to do in the 2003 work.

    In the 2001 paper by H & P they say quite clearly “increases in food availability cause increases in population growth.” But the USA, EU, and Japan show that’s not true for large portions of the world — and known when this paper was written.

    So I can’t buy this (also from the 2001 paper):

    Thus, there appears to be two available systemic methods of population control. One is to continue to fuel population growth through increased food production and allow biological mechanisms such as malnutrition and disease to limit the population by means of an increased death rate. The other is to cap the increases in food production and thereby halt the increases in population by means of a reduced birth rate. Instead of depending on malnutrition and disease to limit human numbers, a social mechanism in response to a stable food supply, might be for humans to limit their numbers democratically or consensually or to employ incentives.

    That seems an incredible leap. Family planning, education, free contraceptives, and empowering women are methods that has been shown to be effective. (See the work I wrote about here for example which is taken from Lester Brown’s Outgrowing the Earth.) Why does the paper not mention them?

    Hopfenberg is new to me but I’ve read Pimentel before and liked what he had to say. It’s almost as if these papers zoom out too far. By looking at only world-scale numbers they miss the vast differences between Europe and Africa for instance.

    Sorry, I need some help to make sense of this.

  31. Magne,

    I’m definitely going to watch that documentary. Just need to carve out a little time.


    I haven’t read the H&P, 2001 article yet. I’ll get to it soon, I hope, and review the other one too, and see what my impressions are concerning the points you raise.

  32. There’s a discussion of the food supply/carrying capacity hypothesis here:

    I’ve only skimmed it, but it looks interesting.

  33. I had a look at that, John. It assumes Hopfenberg is correct (which I think is a mistake) and does not try to present a compelling argument. To be blunt, it seems to be the sort of alarmist rhetoric that serves to rally like-minded troops (of which I am one) but doesn’t advance the case in a sound and rational way that might sway a skeptic which is my immediate interest.

    I hope Steve stops back since he had a hand in reviewing/contributing to the papers. I assume he can respond to the issues I raised above.

    In the meantime, I’m more than happy for anyone to take a stab at improving my understanding. 🙂

  34. Trin,

    Okay, having read the Hopfenberg & Pimemtel (2001) article, I’ll just try to respond to a couple of your comments and offer the gist of what I think they’re saying. I’ll have to investigate what their peers have said in other articles in criticism or support of their views before reaching any real conclusion of my own.

    In an obvious way an upper bound on population is determined by food supply but you don’t need a research paper to show that. So I think I’m missing something in understanding what he’s trying to do in the 2003 work.

    I think they’re saying that food supply not only determines an upper bound, but that it acts kind of like a magnet in pulling population up toward that bound. i.e., as long as food supply grows (and barring other barriers, I think) population will grow, always approaching an upper limit determined by food supply.

    There is some sense in this, I think, when you look at the animal studies. As an animal population approaches the limit determined by food, population growth slows (I guess because per capita food supply goes down) and declines. Then, with more food available per capita, it cycles back up.

    I wish they’d be a little more explicit in their explanations of this. I’m thinking the idea is that as a population gets nearer its upper limit (determined by food supply) caloric intake per capita tends to drop a little. That, in turn, leads, through biological mechanisms, to a lower birthrate. They seem to say that it occurs with relatively small reductions in caloric intake. They’re not as clear on this element as I’d like.

    In the 2001 paper by H & P they say quite clearly “increases in food availability cause increases in population growth.” But the USA, EU, and Japan show that’s not true for large portions of the world — and known when this paper was written.

    They just barely touch on this in the ’01 paper:

    P. Waggoner (personal communication, April 1, 1998) stated that “Because people stabilize and even shrink their numbers in wealthy, well-fed countries and multiply in poor, hungry African ones, food supply seems not to determine human population.” Abernethy’s (1995) investigations and data contradict these opinions.

    They go on to cite the US as a contradiction as well. But I’m not sure I understand their comments about the role of immigration here.

    So it looks like it’s time to track down the Abernethy paper.

    Jason Godesky, at the anthropik link above, attributes it to globalization and the fact that the countries which have seen fertility rates come down are the heaviest food exporters. But somehow that seems to miss something. In a country like the US, is there really any biological effect of food exports on birth rates?

    Family planning, education, free contraceptives, and empowering women are methods that has been shown to be effective. (See the work I wrote about here for example which is taken from Lester Brown’s Outgrowing the Earth.) Why does the paper not mention them?

    Yeah, they don’t address that. I’ve read that the methods that improve opportunities for women stand out as the most effective. In addition to Lester Brown’s data and other references to this, it will be helpful to collect studies which have compared methods.

    It may take a while to really assess this. Maybe Steve will have some further comments. (Maybe he can nudge one of the authors to come here and fill us in? 🙂 )

  35. Dear John, Trinifar, Magne and friends,

    All of you and our friends in the Anthropik Network are due my thanks for your willingness to consider the research of Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel. While I am deeply familiar with this groundbreaking research, I feel poorly equipped and unprepared whenever trying to communicate what they are reporting to other scientists and the human community. As things have worked out, my communication skills are woefully inadequate to the task at hand.

    As you can see from other internet posts, I have been trying for several years without success to draw attention to this unanticiapted evidence and to point out its protentially profound implications for the human species and life as we know it on Earth.

    This morning I had a brief telephone conversation with Russ Hopfenberg. I will not bore you with the demands on his time and energy; but please know that he will join this discussion on Thursday, May 3rd to make comments on research we are discussing here, and once an adequate opportunity is given for responses to made to what he presents, he will then return to the discussion a second time and respond to the observations and remarks.

    Between now and May 3rd, I hope all of us will have a chance to look at Russell Hopfenberg’s work and to continue our discussion of relevant human (and animal) population data. Despite my substantial shortcomings in the art of communication, I expect to be actively involved, as I am able.

    John, please accept my special thanks to you for the “nudge” you have provided. I remain confident that the efforts made here to adequately understand the population dynamics of the human species are vital.

    Also, please note that as soon as one top-rank population scientist sensibly refutes this remarkably straightforward and, I would like to suggest , elegant evidence regarding human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth, at that moment I will keep a promise made to my long-suffering spouse and end the AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population, which was launched in 2001.



  36. Steve,

    What a nice surprise! Many thanks for making the effort to set this up. And a special thanks to Russell Hopfenberg for taking the time to do this!

    The purpose of this blog is to bring to a general readership important information on population growth and the related issues of economic growth and growth in resource consumption. There is a large gap, I think, between what the public as a whole hears and understands about population, and the analyses and findings of those engaged in research and discussion in the professional literature. This opportunity to discuss this important work in population research with Dr. Hopfenberg is just the sort of thing which may help to bridge that gap. It’s an invaluable opportunity.

    Now, we don’t need to have this discussion under this post which is slowly being buried, and by May 3rd will likely be down toward the bottom of the front page. So I will think about how best to arrange it, but my guess now is that on about May 1st, or thereabouts, I will make a special post just for the discussion. It can take place in the comments under that post. It will remain on the top of the front page for several days or more to keep the discussion as prominently featured as possible, for as long as makes sense. (It will of course remain archived here after that.)

    I will also put a notice about this in the sidebar, and will write an “announcement” post about it soon. Before that, Steve, I’ll touch base with you in email regarding details.

    Thanks again to Steve and Russell.

    Edit: Oh, let me add as well… Steve, even if a top-rank population scientist did sensibly refute H&P’s work, I don’t think that would be any reason to give up your AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population. It would only say something about evidence running counter to their hypothesis concerning the causal relationship between food supply and population growth. Population would still be a problem, and promoting awareness would still be necessary, no? Keep it up! Just try to make things easy on your “long suffering spouse.” 🙂

  37. John DeRose


    Having read this thread (without reading all available links as of yet) I would ask in regards to………

    “Human Carrying Capacity Is Determined by Food Availability”

    Is carrying capacity determined by food availability alone, or or is the issue of priority of distribution of the available food supply a more pertinent issue?

    Perhaps this issue is dealt with elsewhere, but it seems to me that the devil is in the detail in regards to who actually gets the now-limited food supply.

  38. Welcome John,

    [a couple of edits below in an attempt to clarify]

    That’s a key question, and one I hope Russell Hopfenberg will address when he comes here.

    My own understanding is that his (and Pimentel’s) work suggests that global food production itself essentially sets the bar for carrying capacity. To be sure, there are serious problems with distribution and those are apparently the main factor behind most hunger today. (There is debate about how much longer supply will remain adequate apart from distribution problems. But the H&P work assumes an abundant supply.) But the idea is that total food supply itself (prior to distribution issues) determines carrying capacity.

    I’m guessing that within the framework of H&P’s work, the effect of distribution issues is to create a kind of barrier through which a semi-fixed percentage of available food passes to food-deprived areas. I don’t know if this can be confirmed.

    This gets a little tricky, but I think the argument is that as the global food supply goes up it provides the nutritional basis for allowing population growth to occur. And population growth then does automatically occur. But because of distribution issues, areas where hunger is a real issue keep getting food (imported) in amounts increasing only enough, over the long run, to generate further population growth. Due to that growth, per capita food amounts stay the same, so the level of deprivation stays the same.

    An important point Steve made in a piece I linked to above was that if the food supply were not to increase, it wouldn’t deprive starving people of food as one might initially suppose. Since the per capita amount of food remains the same either way (in the long run anyway) the level of deprivation just stays the same. But if the food supply remained static, population growth would slow, stop, and ultimately reverse. (I think.) [1] Now, speculating a bit beyond what I read in the articles, any population shrinkage might then mean more food per capita, so less deprivation. (But maybe not, because maybe the distribution issues would mean less food would get through as the population declined. I’m not sure.)

    I’m not sure that’s very clear, but that’s how I understand it at this point. I’ll reread my comment tomorrow and see if I can make it any clearer.

    [1] I feel I’m missing something here as it seems the slowing of population growth (dropping of birth rates) would have to result from some increased level of deprivation (the effects of modest caloric reductions discussed in the H&P ’01 article). Maybe the idea is that that negative impact is minuscule compared to the longer term benefits of stopping population growth and so increasing per capita food amounts.

    Edit: Here’s a link to a brief Wiki discussion of the theory:

  39. John DeRose, “Is carrying capacity determined by food availability alone, or or is the issue of priority of distribution of the available food supply a more pertinent issue?”

    I agree with John F, that’s the key question. And, risking being overbearing, one that H&P have poorly answered. One of the natural follow-up questions is why — given they published in 2001 and 2003 — can’t I find any more papers on the subject from them?

  40. John DeRose

    Trinifar & John F…….

    It is indeed a head-scratcher, eh?.

    Just thinking about it, there are so many variables that might (or might not) have a significant effect on what ACTUALLY happens to the distribution of food, should the supply level off.

    Mitigating factors (right off the top of my head)…….

    How purchasing power (pure money) affects, or could affect a re-distribution of available food?

    How underutilized food production sources could/would play into any changing equation?

    The effects of geopolitics in regards to the potential that the perception that there would be a “food shortage” should food supplies flatten out?

    Again, forgive me if some of these variables have been addressed.

    I wish that I was more knowledgeable surrounding the specifics of how the dynamics of our food markets actually work.

    It would be interesting to get the perspective of someone who is very familiar with the supply/demand/cost metrics.

  41. Dear Friends,

    This is the communication I have hoped for since 2001. Let keep at the task at hand.

    Thanks, always, to John Feeney.



  42. Steve —

    Not to worry. There will be one, and possibly two special posts under which people can make comments and ask questions specifically about RH’s work. The comments here won’t distract from that. I have an essay I need to finish, then I’ll put together the first of those posts.

    John —

    I’m still trying to sort out my own understanding of a lot of factors that would seem possibly to be relevant to the food/population issue. With any luck my thoughts will be clearer on this in a week or so. :-/

  43. Dear John,

    Thanks for all you are doing. My words are hanging up in the threshold of language at this moment.

    Perhaps I should simply say that I believe what is occurring now, thanks to you, Jason Godetsky, Trinifar, Deborah Byrd, Magne, Bruce McClure, lhereg, Dave Iverson, David I. Pimentel and Paul R. Ehrlich is beyond praise.



  44. Steve, your appreciation is appreciated. I left this comment on another post here on Growth is Madness! You and others might want to look into it:

    I heard a fascinating interview on NPR (a national public radio provider in the USA — we do have them) . See the guy’s blog:

    It has to do with an experiment in living sustainably in the center of one of the largest urban environments in the world: Manhattan, NYC.

  45. Magne Karlsen

    PART 1 [Global transformation]:

    PART 2 [Natural resources]:

    PART 3 [Plants and animals]:

    PART 4 [Time to make a choice]:

    – —

    Yes. The whole series is now available. I can only repeat myself here: this is one awsome production, and highly recommendable.

    Enjoy the unenjoyable. … 😉

  46. Magne Karlsen

    Hmmm. I got it all wrong, didn’t I? Let me try this one more time.

    PART 1 [global transformation]:

    PART 2 [natural resources]:

    PART 3 [plants and animals]:

    PART 4 [time to make a choice]:

  47. Agh! I need to upgrade something before I can watch them, Magne. Tried to view part 1.

  48. Magne Karlsen


    I’m sitting at my friend’s computer, and realize that watching this TV series on a computer may be more of a problem than I imagined. But anyway: I just can’t tell you how impressed I am with the series! For lack of words, I mean: yeah, for lack of superlatives. – I’m absolutely amazed.

  49. Magne Karlsen

    In the fourth part of THE PLANET, a New York City hairdresser sort of spells it all out, as he says: “My feeling is that people think there’s nothing we can do about it, so they just go on with what we’re doing. And that’s my fear. Instead of trying to deal with something, they’re just accepting what we’ve got here, and we’ll just have to survive somehow.”

    As far as I’m concerned, quite frankly, I couldn’t agree more. This simple statement really gets to me. It’s the exact thing I fear the most. I fear it’s only natural that people get overwhelmed with all this troublesome information we’re recieving here, and decide to “accept fate” or something. – For the basic fact of understanding, instinctively almost, that making a real change here is going to prove too difficult to handle; an order too tall to imagine, so to speak. And therefore ignore all warnings.

  50. Magne,

    That series works online for me. There’s an initial page that has to load in for maybe 20 seconds, then the video appears and starts playing after another 20 or 30 seconds. I’m going to try to watch a lot of it in the next few days.

    As for people just “accepting fate,” well, it’s a problem for sure. So it seems the solution lies in looking for things people can do or focus on which help them feel some sense of control over what’s going on, some sense of power to have an impact. Also, anything which simply fosters hope would be closely related, I think.

    Now, just what those things might be, is a good question. If you get an internet connection at home one day, I’ll again urge you to start your own blog. 🙂 Any additional blogs that can focus on some combination of population and the economic issues we talk about here can work together and would help fill a real void. We hear so much about saving energy (consumption), but so little about population and the problem of constant economic expansion.

    Yet there are only a handful of blogs which really focus specifically on those things. (e.g., blogs with a lot of content on population are basically just GIM, Trinifar, Sustainable Population [new… see blogroll], and one I recently found – – which seems to be hiding from the world :-/ ) So, obviously I’m biased, but I think services like WordPress offer a great opportunity today, given an internet connection, for people to broadcast these issues to the world. It’s a bit of a challenge, then, to get the world to listen, but the tools are there in a way they weren’t just a decade or so ago.

    I don’t want to discount commenting here and on all sorts of other sites as well. Leaving comments in discussions and other places around the Web helps spread the word about as efficiently as anything.

    These days I tend to be kind of Internet focused when I think about things like this, but I’d be interested other sorts of ideas anyone has for helping people feel they can make a difference. I guess the first thing that comes to mind for me would involve forming groups (political activism, educational groups, etc.) to take action, so speak, etc. Any other ideas?

  51. Good people,

    Keep doing what you are doing and work hard at it.

    Tonight, for example, Jane Goodall and Al Gore will be on the same stage at an event in New York City. Things are finally beginning to happen……..

    It seems the ONE thing we cannot do is take up the position of the NY hairdresser. To me, that is simply an irresponsible non-response.

    All the best,


  52. Magne,

    I just want you to know that the 1st episode of “the Planet” just screened here in Australia on one of the public broadcasters.

    I have to say it was a brilliant documentary. Although now I know why many of your posts are a little gloomy. It made me feel so anxious ! I couldn’t sleep after seeing it. Some of the academics in interviewed where very good at encapsulating the main environemental challenges. We have some very big problems on our hands. There’s not a moment to waste.

  53. Magne Karlsen


    I guess I should say that my main reason for being gloomy, is the fact that I have, for a very long time now, been quite able to grasp – and understand – the connection between western-style capitalist consumerism and ecological devastation of great many forms. Now, – I’m a social anthropologist by education. And if there is one thing modern scholars should do, it’s to take an interest in the globalization of western capitalist cultures and value systems, and after they’ve done that, they should sit themselves down and think. After doing so, they should all sit down and think twice. — “What’s happening here, why is this happening, and what might be the likely outcome of this? Any thought? – No? Well, never mind.”

    It’s like: You do not necessarily have to be a red indian in order to understand that the white man’s lack of spiritual / intellectual connection to Mother Nature is a problem. … Sorry all; I do not know of any better analogy. 🙂

    I sincerely hope you’re going to watch the rest of the series as well. – All in all, it may come as a real eye-opener. One can only hope so, I guess.

    ‘Cause the fact remains the same as before: the globalization of western, capitalist-consumerist cultures and value systems continue. And there seems to be no stopping this development. As it is: it’s only FAIR ANOUGH that EVERYONE is to be able to enjoy the lifestyles of Americans, Australians, Japanese, and Scandinavians. This is the ultimate goal, of course.

  54. Dear Magne,

    The series on “global transformation” is as powerful a presentation of the global challenges before us as any I have seen. Thanks for sharing this remarkably effective vehicle for raising awareness and providing some understanding of the distinctly human-derived predicament in which humanity appears to find itself in these early years of Century XXI.



  55. Pingback: Coming May 3rd: Discussion with Russell Hopfenberg « Growth is Madness!

  56. Magne Karlsen


  57. Pingback: We must lose our arrogance « Growth is Madness!