No comfort from the UN

UN buildingIt’s not uncommon on the Web or in the popular press to see authors referring to United Nations population projections in arguing population growth isn’t a problem. Blogger Michael Kruse, writing from a particular Christian perspective, suggests the projections mean we will likely top out at a population which is “hardly a catastrophic number.” Writers such as neo-con, Ben Wattenberg, are similarly dismissive of any population problem and go on to fret over possible population declines in Western countries.

Projections, not predictions

Almost three months ago I posted an essay on the UN’s 2004 report, World Population to 2300 (large pdf). In it, I showed that the UN’s population projections are widely misinterpreted as predictions when in fact they are merely illustrative scenarios. That is one reason we cannot take much comfort in the UN’s projections; they don’t even pretend to be predictions we can count on. They are simply examinations of possible futures given assumptions based on observations of recent history. The authors concede they cannot begin to predict the social events which will influence future fertility rates. (Nevertheless, almost everyone, including writers of UN documents, talk about the projections as if they were predictions.)

But, as I hinted at the end of the previous essay on the UN report, there is another problem with statements relying on the UN projections to dismiss population as a problem. This will be familiar territory for regular readers and commenters here, but it’s an important piece of the rebuttal of the arguments of population deniers.

What if they were accurate predictions?

Though the projections aren’t predictions, what if we knew world population growth over the next half century or so would, in fact, match them perfectly? Could we feel some relief as a result?

The latest UN projections are in their 2006 revision. (pdf) It offers a medium variant showing world population reaching 9.2 billion by 2050. (This is up from 8.9 billion in the original 2004 report and 9.1 billion in its revision. [large pdf]) Assuming a current world population of 6.6 billion, that would mean an increase of just under 40% in the next 43 years. That might not be a problem were we now far below the Earth’s human carrying capacity or if our current global ecological footprint had us using far less than the resources of one earth. Sadly, that is not the case.

Overshooting Earth

Estimates of carrying capacity vary, but reviews of the literature show many experts suggesting we are now near or even well beyond the number of humans the Earth can sustainably support at a decent standard of living. Gigi Richard provides a succinct review of the topic.  Joel Cohen, author of How Many People Can the Earth Support?, has written the longest treatise on the subject. He concludes, “[T]he possibility must be considered seriously that the number of people on Earth has reached, or will reach within half a century, the maximum number the Earth can support in modes of life that we and our children and their children will chose to want.” (emphasis added, p. 367)

Turning to a newer measure, the developers of the global ecological footprint measure tell us humanity’s use of the Earth’s resources now exceeds by 23% what our planet can sustain. An effort at a more comprehensive footprint measure from the Redefining Progress group indicates the number is closer to 40%.

These indications that we are near or even considerably beyond the number of humans the Earth can support should be a clear indication that growth from 6.6 billion to 9.2 billion people is nothing to dismiss. Already, we are faced with one grave ecological problem after another. We see climate change, species extinctions rates as much as 1000 times normal (see the recent post on biodiversity at Trinifar), extreme overfishing of both the oceans and fresh water environments, deforestation, massive “dead zones” in the oceans, extensive loses of coral reefs, the global spread of chemical toxins (e.g., fire retardant in the bloodstreams of polar bears, who are themselves threatened), the likely peaking of world oil production, and projections of serious water shortages to come. Human population growth is linked to all of these problems.

With much damage already done, and some of it permanent, how will the Earth handle a population continuing to grow, whether by another 40% or some other amount? [1] What will be the human toll? Can we realistically expect to avoid conflict, death, and pervasive suffering as our resources dwindle and our ecosystem further erodes?

And that is only to think ahead to 2050. Any humane actions we can take to help reduce that growth and hasten population stabilization should mean a better future for our descendants.

In that light, it’s hard to imagine how some can brush off future population growth as a non-problem. When political and corporate agendas enter the picture, though, perhaps it’s not so hard to understand. Nevertheless it should be clear there is nothing in the UN report to warrant relaxing our concerns about population growth.


[1] Though the UN report is not meant to be read as a set of specific predictions, its data on past growth make clear we can expect substantial further growth in the coming decades. At some point population will stabilize. Unfortunately, many who study the topic fear that may result not from a a gentle landing through “demographic transition,” but from the tragic consequences of our overshoot the Earth’s carrying capacity.


Image source: stevecadman, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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16 responses to “No comfort from the UN

  1. Magne Karlsen


    “Even though renewables will grow rapidly, because they’re starting from such a tiny share of the overall market, EIA projects that oil, coal, and natural gas will provide roughly the same 86% share of the total U.S. primary energy supply in 2030 as they did in 2005.”

    “Coal is projected to play a growing role particularly for electricity generation. Coal consumption is projected to increase from 22.9 quadrillion British thermal units (quads) in 2005 to over 34 quads in 2030, with significant additions of new coal-fired generation capacity over the last decade of the projection period. The projections for coal use are particularly sensitive to the underlying assumption for the reference case analysis that current energy and environmental policies remain unchanged throughout the projection period.”

    “Total energy demand is projected to increase from 100.2 to 131.2 quads between 2005 and 2030, an average annual increase of 1.1 percent, in a scenario where the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) grows at an average annual rate of 2.9 percent.”

    – —

    I really don’t know what to say. – ‘Cause here we are, trying to think ahead, some of us worrying ourselves with the prospect of ecocide, not only because of fossil-fuels, but also as the possible (some would say “most probable”) result of a long range of other unfortunate facts of human environmental misconduct, including over-consumption of natural resources like water, forests, fish and other forms of food-supply; land-use being an issue of particular concern. The human population is bound to keep on growing – consequently, all sorts of DEMAND will also keep on growing. If this is not to be considered a serious problem, hey? I wonder: what is?

    But when it comes to the issue of how to satisfy the growing number of consumers’ demand, the people (of institutions) are not exactly in the business of ensuring sustainability. They are solely in the business of taking it very easy while dreaming of future technologies that will come to our rescue. Not thinking ahead, just sitting around dreaming, while making sure that the status quo stays in balance.

    Like you lamented in a comment to a previous post: “… how is that not homicide?”

    I’m thinking: what is the use of a scientific fact which states that “fossil-fuels are destroying the atmosphere of this planet” when political and industrial administrators do not care to act on the information?

    And with reference to the above linked article from SustainableBusiness, on the findings of the AEO2007 report, my first question is: HOW ON EARTH do the suddenly so climate-concerned politicians of our era expect our societies to cut emissions by 20 – 30 percent by the year 2020 / 2030, so long as they’re not ready to make any cuts in oil, gas, and coal consumption? No: to the contrary: they’re actually making plans for a future of higher coal consumption than today!

    I may be a little off topic here. I’m sorry about that. – But I mean: given the fact of population growth, and given the other fact of gross over-consumption, and given the fact that fossil-fuels are extremely dangerous toxins, and given the fact that industrial farming gives rise to extreme methane pollution, and given the fact that we’re depleting all other forms of natural resources at a very high speed, and so on and so on, I mean: damn! Shouldn’t we be making plans for a future of less (and greener) energy use, less (and more sustainable) general consumption, and less (oh shit, I don’t know what to say) …?!!

    – —

    John: “Assuming a current world population of 6.6 billion, that would mean an increase of just under 40% in the next 43 years. That might not be a problem were we now far below the Earth’s human carrying capacity or if our current global ecological footprint had us using far less than the resources of one earth. Sadly, that is not the case.”

    – —

    And on top of that: you do not have to spend a lot of time thinking about it, until you realise that the current development is going bonkers! Those people who are, as of today, so poor that they’re effectively leading a sustainable life, are poised to enjoy a much higher standard of living than they do today. It’s called development, it’s called progress.

    All the while, people in the western world may be thinking, once in a while (to the very least) that “something ought to be done about these climate change issues we’re faced with here,” … but not in such a way that the measures taken interfere with their modern lifestyles. –

    We want change, but we don’t want change, if you know what I mean?

  2. Magne Karlsen

    John: “What will be the human toll? Can we realistically expect to avoid conflict, death, and pervasive suffering as our resources dwindle and our ecosystem further erodes?”

    – —

    Good question! – – And as I realize that there is hardly any real reason to hope for a future of more cooperation, at the expence of the present era of competition – which easily can only lead to enmity amongst ourselves, violent crime and control measures, suspicion, fear, suffering and despair, war, more war, and the introduction of even more strict forms of control … hell, I really don’t know how to respond …

    As I see it (but hey: I’m a humanist, a moron, do not worry about my ideas!), we’re in a terrible position here, of worldwide ecological stress; an historical phase which really (really!) leaves us with no other option than to start to co-operate, in ways that we’ve never even thought of, ever before. – Which doesn’t mean that perpetual war isn’t an option. No no no, of course not.

    Hmmmmm? Come to think about the expected growth in climate refugees. What’s the servants of the military-industrial complex going to do? – – Stand at the border and shoot, I guess.

    Only kidding. ;-/

  3. “They are solely in the business of taking it very easy while dreaming of future technologies that will come to our rescue. Not thinking ahead, just sitting around dreaming, while making sure that the status quo stays in balance.

    Like you lamented in a comment to a previous post: “… how is that not homicide?” ”

    There it is. As long as there are people making a lot of money (and who therefore have a lot of power) under the status quo, there will be powerful resistance to anything which threatens it. They may be amenable to alternatives if they see them as highly profitable, but that idea doesn’t seem to be working terribly well so far for those greens trying to sell the corporate world on the profits to be made fighting climate change.

    It’s late and I’m tired, but my blurred thinking right now tells me we’ll either have to see massive movements of common folk demanding change or those few in power who actually see the big picture ( I think there must be a few, mustn’t there?) and actually have some compassion will have to pull their colleagues along somehow, undoubtedly kicking and screaming. Otherwise we watch ’em stand at the border and shoot. ;-/

  4. Magne Karlsen

    Magne: “Those people who are, as of today, so poor that they’re effectively leading a sustainable life, are poised to enjoy a much higher standard of living than they do today. It’s called development, it’s called progress.”

    – —


    Me writing a little faster than the speed of my thoughts. 🙂

    I’m not trying to say that people should not be allowed to release themselves from the poverty trap. I mean: I’ve lived in an African slum area, and know very well what that’s all about.

    What I am trying to say is that the affluent few might have something to learn from the poorest of the poor, in terms of making do and getting by on a much lower consumption scale than what is common in the western world.

    Heh! – But again: I’m a stupid, stupid … ape …

  5. I agree with Magne, we have much to learn from the poor. Being poor materially does not necessitate being poor in spirit.

    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.

  6. Magne Karlsen

    Yeah: “Stand at the border and shoot, I guess.”

    – —

    Quote: “”There is a clear and present danger. An increasingly marginalised majority are living in an environmentally constrained world, where military force is more likely to be used to control the consequences of these dangerous divisions,” wrote lead author Chris Abbott.

    “Add to this the disastrous effects of climate change, and we are looking at a highly unstable global system by the middle years of the century unless urgent action is taken now.”

    The [Oxford Research Group] said its report, ‘Beyond Terror: The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World’, was its most outspoken so far.”

  7. Good people,

    Please consider that the “demographic transition theory” is DESCRIPTIVE and, as we know and UN scientists are quick to point out, NOT PREDICTIVE. The UN Population Division provides PROJECTIONS. Ok.

    Next, let us also share an understanding that the DEMOGRAPHIC TRANSITION THEORY is based in preternatural thought and not sufficiently grounded in scientific evidence.

    The predictive scientific evidence regarding the population dynamics of the human species comes to us, unexpectedly, from Hopfenberg and Pimentel. Because their evidence is difficult to refute, SILENCE appears to have overtaken the scientific community.

    Although mostly unacknowledged and widely unaccepted because demographers and population scientists can neither believe nor rebut the research by Hopfenberg and Pimentel, I suppose, we find that our colleagues are adopting different approaches to the apparently unforeseen research. Among the ways the Hopfenberg and Pimentel evidence is being presently denied by so many of our colleagues in the scientific community, we can take notice of the head-in-the-sand approach, willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism.

    Just for a moment, consider that the growth of absolute global human population numbers will NOT stabilize in the middle of this century as virtually all of the UN projections indicate. Imagine that the numbers of the human species on Earth will continue skyrocketing upward just as they have been doing for the past several hundred years. Thanks to Hopfenberg and Pimentel, we now have scientific evidence that indicates with remarkable clarity that human population dynamics are common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species. It is that simple.

    At least to me, the unwelcome scientific evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel appears to indicate that the human population worldwide will NOT somehow magically or automatically stabilize around 2050, if, and I add, IF humankind decides to keep propagating the species as it has been and continues to do to this very day. As many scientists have already recognized and reported, humanity is called upon to accept limits to the presently unchecked growth rate of certain of its activities: that is, the human production, consumption and propagation activities that are rampantly overspreading the surface of Earth.

    If the research by Hopfenberg and Pimentel is found to be on a track that one day will be recognized and widely accepted as somehow correct, then humanity would be well-advised to change immediately certain of its behaviors. That is to say, we could choose to carefully and humanely REGULATE the currently unbridled growth of the human species worldwide; to sensibly CONTROL the present unrestrained rise of per capita consumption of limited resources; and to democratically GOVERN the seemingly endless expansion of economic globalization on the small, finite planet God has blessed us to inhabit.

    Thanks always,


  8. Magne Karlsen

    Very descriptive, indeed.


  9. Magne Karlsen

    Steve: “Because their evidence is difficult to refute, SILENCE appears to have overtaken the scientific community.”

    – —

    Huh, that’s one extremely good post, Steve. I’m with you: it’s har to accept the silence with which new truths about the population dilemma is received. But I do believe I know exactly why this is so. This is, and remains, a taboo topic of sorts, and that’s the problem. Reproduction … hey, talking about God …

    As it is (oh, I hate to say this): we can actually talk about humankind as a paracitic species, quite able to ovverwhelm the Earth by shear numbers. – Be afraid. 😦

  10. Dear Magne,

    Please, please understand me now when I report that the human species IS NOT like a parasite. No way. The human species is splendid and constituted with many wondrous attributes that ready us to adequately respond to the practical requirements of reality of the natural world: requirements made known to us through the goodness of science, thanks to God.

    There is nothing whatever that I can see to keep us from accepting, addressing and overcoming any of the global challenges presented to us. Because the predicament before us results from distinctly HUMAN influences, I suppose we can work together to take the measure of the problems presented in these early years of Century XXI and to make necessary adjustments in our behavior.

    Do not be afraid.

    As ever,


  11. Magne and Steve,

    I say you’re both right about the human species. 🙂 I see Magne’s comments as the kind of thing we need to consider to wake us up, to recognize the kind of mess we’re in and the damage being done. I see Steve’s comments as an affirmation of hope, of human capabilities and the human spirit, if you will. Seems to me we need the first to appreciate the gravity of the problem, and the second to have any decent chance of tackling it successfully. Bravo to you both. 🙂

  12. Steve,

    Because their evidence is difficult to refute, SILENCE appears to have overtaken the scientific community.

    Well this has perked my interest now. I have little doubt some tough questions will be put to Russ here (I’ve got a few percolating myself, and really can’t form a position on the work until I understand their answers.), but it would certainly be nice to see critiques from scientists working directly in fields relevant to population.

    Jason C. Bradford came up in our other comments, I googled him and found that he’s a Biologist, taxonomist, and ecologist. So his endorsement of the Hopfenberg Pimentel work is meaningful.

    But if there really haven’t been any serious critiques in the professional literature, that is indeed frustrating. This may prompt me to email a few people in the next two weeks to see if they have anything — even informally — to say about it.

  13. Dear John and Magne,

    Please go forward with what you are doing and hoping to do.

    Both of you and everyone else who is willing to focus on the scientific evidence from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel are invited to become involved in the discussion now.

    If these two great scientists are not on a research track that is somehow sound; if their work is not an example of good science, then I would like to be among the first to know of the flaws in what looks like elegant science to me.

    Please be assured that at the moment when the evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel is refuted, you will not hear me speak of their research again.



  14. Today in the Chapel Hill(NC)Newspaper appeared my tribute to Dr. Rachel Carson. It follows.

    Your Letters

    Humans still face looming challenges

    May 27 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rachel Carson, a woman of distinction who is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant and brave scientists in modern history.
    Some people have called Carson the mother of the contemporary environmental movement. She could rightly be compared to other great 20th-century women like Rosa Parks, the mother of the racial equality movement, or to Maria Montessori, a mother to teachers of children.

    If, as Carson and so many other great scientists have courageously held forth, human beings evolved on Earth (did not descend from heaven or come here from some other place in the universe) and the emerging data of the environmental destruction of the planetary home God has blessed us to inhabit are somehow on the right track, then humanity could soon confront daunting global challenges.

    Scientific research from Chapel Hill’s very own Russell P. Hopfenberg indicates population scientists, demographers and economists in our time could be widely sharing and consensually validating inadequate understandings of the way the world in which we live works. By so doing, they appear to have failed to appreciate and communicate to the human community the necessity for regulating certain global human “overgrowth” activities. That is to say, humanity could soon be presented with an unacknowledged, unannounced and abhorrent predicament produced by increasing and unchecked per capita consumption of limited resources, seemingly endless expansion of production capabilities in a finite world, and unbridled species propagation.

    Perhaps these unrestrained activities are occurring synergistically at a scale and growth rate that result in the needless loss of wildlife and wilderness, the reckless consumption of scarce resources, and the pernicious destabilization of the global ecosystems.

    Huge and leviathan-like are the potential threats posed to humanity by certain unregulated, distinctly human consumption, production and propagation activities now overspreading our planetary home. Even so, we can take the measure of whatsoever the looming global challenges and find solutions to our problems that are consonant with universally shared values. — Steve Salmony, Chapel Hill

  15. Thanks for that, Steve.

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