It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Russ Hopfenberg to GIM. During the preceding weeks we’ve summarized and had the chance to discuss his work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth, and to comment and ask questions. In this post, Russ generously responds to our questions and comments. Feel free to post additional comments and questions below, and Russ will return later in the month (update: make that next month) for one more round of follow-up comments (Update: here is the link to those comments). Thanks so much, Russ!
By Russell Hopfenberg:
I’d like to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for inviting me to participate in this forum. I’d also like to express my appreciation to them for hand-holding me through the blogging process.
Question 1. The observation that individual countries’ food supplies don’t seem to correlate with their fertility rates as described by your hypothesis: I’ve read that one criticism of your work involves the observation that the countries with the lowest fertility rates tend to be the developed countries, and those with the highest tend to be those more deprived of food. (which would seem to contradict your hypothesis that more food means more population growth).
Response 1 – This is a very important question. It speaks to the complexity of understanding our global population difficulties. It seems that, in order to fully address the food-population issue, your question requires a thorough answer.
First, there is a biological fantasy imbedded in this question. The end of the question states “those with the highest (fertility rates) tend to be those more deprived of food.” I don’t think that this is biologically or physically possible as people are made from nothing but food. This kind of statement reveals the deeply held cultural position that humans are not subject to the same biological laws as the rest of the living community. I don’t think the questioner would ever make such a statement about another species’ population. If news came out that armadillos at the zoo had an elevated birth rate and now thousands were starving, I think the questioner would understand without hesitation that food supplies had first been elevated and then cut off. If the armadillo fertility rate continued to remain high, the questioner would understand that more food was being supplied.
Regarding humans, how is it possible that more people can be produced with less food? In reality, we have all seen the images of the UN workers handing out food. We have all seen the Sally Struthers commercials. When the crisis is over, i.e., the famine or political turmoil at least temporarily abates, there is more food available to the population in these areas. This increase in food availability precipitates an (unsustainable) increase in the population. The cycle then begins anew – another crisis, and more food is shipped in.
Second, it is true that more developed areas / countries show a lower birth rate.
This has to do with a phenomenon known as the demographic transition (DT). As you would find in a basic ecology book, it proceeds as follows: There are four stages in the classic DT model. In Stage 1, both birth rates and death rates are equivalent and high. In Stage 2, Death rates dramatically decline, but birth rates remain high. In Stage 3, birth rates begin to decline. And in Stage 4, both birth and death rates are equivalent and low. In other words, the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.
But the DT model, as it is generally understood, is limited in historical and geographical scope. First, to even be in Stage 1, food production must already be at such a high level that birth rate and population size are greatly elevated. With this large population, environmental, medical and sanitation problems increase the death rate, so that it now matches the birth rate. Once health care and sanitation improve, the population enters Stage 2. In Stage 2, the birth rate remains elevated and the death rate decreases so the population naturally increases. As average resource consumption per individual increases, the population enters Stage 3. In Stage three of the demographic transition model, the birth rate declines. As this trend continues, the population theoretically moves to Stage 4. In Stage 4, birth and death rates are low but population and resource consumption are highly elevated.
Let me take a moment to summarize Abernethy and Moses & Brown’s position on the demographic transition: In stage 1 & 2, perceptions of increasing resource availability encourage and permit high fertility rates (Abernethy, 1997). This is followed, in stages 3 & 4, by a trend of declining fertility as societal expectations for high per capita resource consumption become established and tradeoffs between the number of children and resource allocation per person, are accepted (Moses & Brown, 2003).
I think the above paragraph needs a little more explanation. First, it is the worldwide perception that resource availability will be increasing. We have national and international farming programs, farms, agricultural departments, bureaus, and institutions that have a mission to increase food production and distribution. So, the perception is that resource availability will be increasing. Therefore, fertility increases. As the population grows, and resources are further increased, with the perception that they will be increasing further, fertility begins to decline but resource use per person increases. At the end of the road, with a greatly increased carrying capacity, large population size, low fertility rates and excessive resource use, the Brundtland Report, commissioned by the United Nations, estimated that it would take more than ten planet earths to supply the required resources for the now larger, more resource-consuming population. In other words, imagine if the entire planet’s population was similar to the US in resource use and fertility.
Question 2. The question of correlation versus causation (and why no correlation coefficient?).
Response 2 – My studies are certainly correlational studies. Imagine what an ethics board would say to a proposed human food-population experiment. Much that we know about humans comes from correlational studies. Think about the cigarette smoking and lung cancer link. Until recently, the tobacco industry’s defense was that all of the scientific evidence was from lab animal, human tissue, and human correlational studies. There was (and is) no human experimental evidence that links cigarette smoking to cancer. I offer the same type of evidence – animal experimental evidence and human correlational data. Regarding the correlation coefficient, I felt that the graph was sufficient. Also, the correlation coefficient might confuse matters as the correlation would be between the actual population data set and a theoretically derived population data set.
Question 3. If population growth is a function solely of food supply, one might realistically have to expect to see a future development of a further eroding of the ecosystems of this planet. ‑ Rampant overfishing, industrial farming, deforestation, etc., all because of a growing population’s rising demand for food.
Response 3 – Your assessment is true. If we continue on as we have been, then we will destroy the earth’s capacity to sustain us. However, the “biological fantasy,” imbedded in this question, rears its head once again. Our growing population’s “rising demand for food” is due to a misconception. Remember, population is a function of food supply, not the other way around. Food supply is an ecological magnet that draws population numbers to it.
Question 4. That seems an incredible leap. Family planning, education, free contraceptives, and empowering women are methods that has been shown to be effective.
Response 4 – I would like to ask the questioner – “Where have these things been shown to be effective?” They may help some individuals, in some places and for a little while, but I think the global population is still growing at a near exponential rate. To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”
Birth control has been around since at least 1960. Since then the global population has more than doubled. Also, for every person that chooses to have one child, resources are then available for someone else to choose to have more children. In theory, it could work that individuals choose to have fewer children even though there is an abundance of food available, it just isn’t very likely. And history bears out that, as a global population, given increasing agricultural production, we choose to increase our numbers. Also, we must understand that it is evolutionarily unstable for a population to diminish in a time of abundance.
Question 5. Would stopping the increase in food production cause more people to starve?
Response 5 – First, what we know is that as food production numbers have risen, the number of starving people has also risen, almost lock-step.
Second, if 3 billion tons of food (arbitrary number) was enough to feed the current world population last month, I can’t see why any more people would be starving if there were 3 billion tons available this month. … or next month.
Question 6. If we put a cap on global food production, how soon would world population growth stop?
Response 6 – I haven’t done the math on this, but I think we currently produce enough food worldwide to support a population of about 20 billion. Of course, it’s unclear as to how long the biological community can support the current human population. Let’s remember, right now there are over 200 species per day becoming extinct as a direct result of human activity. If we don’t understand the issues and act responsibly, at some point one of those 200 species will be our own. I think that the first order of business is to understand the cause and effect relationship between food availability and human population growth. Only then can thoughtful and effective action be taken.
Question 7. But how would stopping the growth of food production interact with the social and economic issues known/thought to influence fertility rates?
Response 7 – To quote Mark Meritt (2001),
Basic population ecology models will show that population growth is simply an epiphenomenon of a particular kind of economic growth, the increase of our food supply. Ecologically speaking, population growth is thus not a sustainability problem in and of itself but only inasmuch as it is caused by, and exacerbates, increasing resource use. Theories of organization and state formation, however, show that a growing population generates hierarchy within a social structure. Population growth can therefore systematically generate inequality by increasing the complexity of social structure, perpetuating poverty, material and otherwise, even in conditions of abundance. Further, the complication process itself is systematically unsustainable in its own way…. In the end, economic growth is, in more than a metaphoric sense, the largest pyramid scheme possible.
In other words, underlying our social and economic, as well as our population issues, is food supply. Social and economic issues influence the ways that the population grows (see the response to question 1) but the ultimate causative variable is food supply.
Question 8. Over some period of history, it seems we’ve tried to “keep up” with population growth by producing more and more food. I believe your contention is that we can’t “keep up” with population growth that way. The result is just more people, and ultimately more starving people. This leads to this question: Historically, did this attempt to “keep up” with population in our food production begin around the time of industrialized agriculture?
Response 8 – The food race certainly began long before the industrial revolution. Many ancient military campaigns were driven by the quest for more resources, especially food, for the growing population. I think we’ve made the idea of the “food race” more explicit in relatively recent times. But civilizations’ answer to starvation and famine has always been to attempt to increase food production. Of course, intensive agricultural production actually precipitates famine.
In closing, I think it’s important to remember that there will never be an answer to end all questions or an argument to end all arguments. I hope that, if nothing else, I have facilitated some thought and advanced the paradigm that human population dynamics are subject to the same laws as the population dynamics of all other species. With this perspective, you will be in a better position to answer your own as well as others’ questions.
Thank you for taking the time to entertain my responses. I hope that my answers addressed the issues sufficiently.
Image source: Simone Merli, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license
[Administrator’s note:] For easier navigation, I’m going to go through this thread and bold the first few words of anything that looks like a question or comment looking for a reply from Russ. If anyone objects to some of their words being put in bold, let me know, and I’ll think of another option.
It’s a real pleasure to see a scientist willing step out of the normal academic channels and do this sort of outreach in the world of blogs. Many thanks to Russ for that and to John for providing the forum.
I have quite a few follow up questions and clarification requests but only so much time right now. Here’s a start:
Question 4 (paraphrased): Population size appears to be determined by much more than just food supply. Family planning, education, free contraceptives, and empowering women are methods that have been shown to play a large role.
Russ: I would like to ask the questioner — “Where have these things been shown to be effective?”
For instance, in Iran as described here (from Lester Brown’s work).
Russ: They may help some individuals, in some places and for a little while, but I think the global population is still growing at a near exponential rate.
For decades the world population growth rate has been declining — see for example here. As Russ says, “… the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.” It would be interesting to know how much of that decline is due to DT traversal and how much (if at all) to food supply limits.
Russ: In theory, it could work that individuals choose to have fewer children even though there is an abundance of food available, it just isn’t very likely.
Yet it occurs in DT stages 3 and 4 (as Russ notes above) and that includes the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan — a good portion of the world. Is Russ only talking about the parts of the world in DT stages 1 & 2?
Pingback: food supply, carrying capacity, and population « Trinifar
Please take note of the graph “Science Fiction” that comes from your website.
“In this scenario the world’s population keeps growing at the current rate, apparently forever. Any and all objections are answered with the mantra ‘technology will solve it.’ The less said about this, the less time wasted engaging with people with this view, the better. Not only do subscribers of this point of view know little about science, technology, and history — they are not amenable to rational discourse.”
Could you explain your meaning with regard to the graph and statement above?
It appears to me Hopfenberg’s data indicate that absolute global human population numbers will be drawn skyward as long as ever increasing production capabilities make food available. As one consequence, Ehrlich’s ‘population bomb’ has been and continues to explode on Earth.
The decline in the rate of human reproduction numbers in some countries need not blind us to the well-established fact that the growth of human numbers worldwide are increasing drastically.
Could you explain your meaning with regard to the graph and statement above?
[Steve’s referring to the five scenarios and their corresponding graphs presented here.]
If you look at my comments under the “hopeful fantasy” graph in that post I think what I’m getting at is pretty clear. The former is labeled “science fiction” because it is only in that genre that such extreme growth is possible. The latter, (the “hopeful fantasy” scenario) leads to a sustainable population is so named because it is a hopeful fanatasy of mine that we might be able to get there without too much gross suffering.
The “developed” world today is more like the logistic curve in the “realistic science” scenario and, as I say in the post, that too is not sustainable. That is, a population of 9 billion is still beyond the carrying capacity but more credible that outright “science fiction.” And reaching zero pop growth is a precursor to the negative growth required to get down to a realistic and secure sustainable level of population.
Rather than talking about the world population as a whole, however, I think it is more useful and accurate to talk about regional populations. (For me this has been a huge source of confusion in these discussions.) Then we can distinguish between what drives the “developing” countries or regions as distinct from the “developed” ones.
We agree I think that “developed” countries have something like a logistic growth curve, low population growth, way more food than they require (so much so they sell it to the developing countries), more or less easy access to family planning services, more standing for women, and a lifestyle that doesn’t motivate large families. They are DT stage 4.
Looking at countries in DT stages 2 and 3 like Nigeria, we see high population growth rate, large families, poverty, not much in the way of family planning, and low per capita food consumption along with resource exploitation by the developed nations (again Nigeria’s oil being a good example). It would be easy to read Russ and take away the message that we should not send food aid to these countries as it only encourages more growth. I’m not sure that’s the message he intends to send.
Steve: The decline in the rate of human reproduction numbers in some countries need not blind us to the well-established fact that the growth of human numbers worldwide are increasing drastically.
That’s true and Nigeria is the poster child. The question is what to do? Emphasizing this piece of Russ’s research can lead to what I think is a misguided notion that we have but one lever which which to address the problem: limiting food supply. To me that is not a humane response. Neither is it humane to “help” developing countries by getting them to do agriculture in an unsustainable way or by ignoring our own unsustainable, fossil fuel, pesticide and fertilizer driven agriculture.
We are forced to find a way for everyone to reach DT stage 4 while reducing the population growth rate. That’s a big challenge. Even then, the countries at DT stage 4 have to work getting to a negative growth rate in order to get the world population down to a sustainable level. That’s a really tall order, as Russ notes, “… we must understand that it is evolutionarily unstable for a population to diminish in a time of abundance.” Of course, by the time we are looking at a world with zero growth we are unlikely to be in a time of abundance, so negative growth might become evolutionarily stable.
What do you think Russ is saying to us, Steve?
Thanks so much, Trin, for your perspective and helpful ideas.
I am going to make not more than a series of opening comments in response to your perspicacious thoughts.
No one I know is advocating that human beings willfully choose to let other human beings starve. That is not human, humane and, also, unthinkable. When I first met Jane Goodall at the Jo’burg Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and presented her with Hopfenberg’s science, the first words out of her mouth, as I recall, with all due respect to Dame Jane, was that ” we must not allow the children to starve.” She was certainly correct. We must NOT do anything to precipitate human starvation.
However, the scientific evidence is clear that millions of human beings are starving NOW. Our economic system is giving rise to increasing human starvation. That is to say, the way we currently distribute the resources provided to humanity by this good Earth is ACTUALLY precipitating human starvation. We may or may not be reducing hunger in these days; but clearly the absolute numbers of starving people in our world are GROWING, not declining. More human beings are impoverished on the surface of Earth in 2007 than existed in the entire global human population in the year of my birth. The great scientist, David I. Pimentel, has indicated that 3.7 billion people worldwide are malnourshed. Humanity appears to be doing a woefully inadequate job of taking adequate care of the 6.7 billion human beings on Earth in our time.
What do you imagine the human world will be like in 2050 when the human population worldwide is widely expected to reach 9.2 billion people?
It seems to me that Hopfenberg’s science is suggesting several things to us:
1. Free, immediate and universal access to contraception is required;
2. Open access to family and health planning education is made available to everyone;
3. The time for the economic and social empowerment of women is now.
4. As a means of accelerating the present downward movement in birth rates in some countries, a VOLUNTARY policy of one child per family would be initiated worldwide.
5. The many human beings who are suffering the unhealthy effects of obesity will share their over-abundant resources with many too many people who are starving.
6. Every effort to conserve energy and scarce material resources will be implemented, beginning now.
7. Substanitial economic incentives are necessary for the development of energy resources as alternatives to fossil fuels.
8. Overhaul national tax systems so that conspicuous per human over- consumption of limited resources is meaningfully put at a disadvantage.
9. Humanity needs a new economic system, one that is subordinated to democratic principles and more adequately meets the basic needs of a majority of humanity who could choose to live better lives with lesser amounts of energy and natural resources.
9. Overall, what is to be accomplished is a fair, more equitable and evolutionarily sustainable distribution of the world’s tangible (e.g., food) and intangible (e.g., education) resources, as soon as possible.
Thanks for your consideration of these proposals.
With thanks to all,
I appreciate your point of view, Steve, and I’m on board with your proposals. That’s a good list.
Russ, however, says things like this: ‘To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”’
So I’d like to know if Russ is on board with your proposals too.
Russ: “Response 3 – Your assessment is true. If we continue on as we have been, then we will destroy the earth’s capacity to sustain us. However, the “biological fantasy,” imbedded in this question, rears its head once again. Our growing population’s “rising demand for food” is due to a misconception. Remember, population is a function of food supply, not the other way around. Food supply is an ecological magnet that draws population numbers to it.”
Okay, I think I can understand your theory. It makes sense, no doubt. So long as there is food, there will be people, and so long as food supply grows, so will the population too: keep growing.
But I’m thinking: unless we start treating the land, the seas, and the rivers of this planet like our friends again (so to speak), there is going to be big problems.
Judging by the way “we” are deciding to keep on treating the atmosphere of this planet (placing all political and economic bets on sequestration technology and carbon credits), I’m certainly not going to start dreaming of a future of more intelligent landuse and other species protection.
Landuse remains a very important issue, also in terms of global warming / climate change. The methane emissions which come as a result of industrialized farming, for instance.
Now: here’s where I’m arriving at my most basic point. Among the most probable consequences of global warming, lies our future food supply. If the ocean water keep warming, and if the soils keep eroding due to floods, draught and stupid farming techniques, chances are you won’t have to plan for a future of less food production, as it is going to happen anyway.
Mother Nature has a way of teaching us things. But are we ready to respond to the knowledge?
I have a couple of questions/comments about the starvation issue which I’ll post later. Right now I just wanted to respond to Steve’s question about Trinifar’s “science fiction” scenario. (see above) Steve, you suggest it contradicts Russ’s ideas about food supply and population. But I don’t think so. Trinifar may have clarified this sufficiently already, but I think that scenario was meant to illustrate the thinking of “cornucopians” in the tradition of Julian Simon. Their thinking is fiction because it completely disregards the limits of the ecosystem and suggests futures which are beyond ridiculous and obviously impossible, as I’m sure you agree.  While Russ’s work would indeed suggest population will keep growing as long as food production increases, I think Russ would agree that at some point our growing numbers would lead to (or are now causing) pervasive ecological collapse. At that point we would no longer be able to continue increasing food production. Other dire ecological problems would impact our population as well. (and that’s not even to mention to problem of peak oil and its impact on agriculture)
So I would think that would be one way to look at why our numbers can’t go up indefinitely (as Simon suggested they could) even if we try our best to continue increasing food supply. Of course we do not want to test those kinds of limits as the consequences are tragic, to say the least.
 e.g., Simon’s assertion that we could support “an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.”
You are perceptive in recognizing the problem I was having with Trinifar’s graph. Your views here provide much needed clarification.
It seems best for Russ Hopfenberg to respond to your question regarding his views of my proposals, as stated above.
Perhaps Mother Nature is teaching us now, as you suggest; however, the economic powerbrokers, the megalomaniacal heads of the multinational corporations, the bought-and-paid-for politicians and their minions in the mass media appear unimpressed by the potentially profound implications of the good scientific evidence regarding the unsustainability of unrestrained per human overconsumption of limited resources, untethered expansion of human production capabilities on a finite planet, and unchecked human overpopulation. Rather than accept limits to growth of human enterprise and Earth’s limitations, these self-proclaimed masters of the universe have chosen to cling to the illusory thinking of Julian Simon and other like-minded cornucopian economists.
As surely as the pernicious spread of communism was eventually seen to be an enemy of human beings everywhere in the twentieth century, so also will the rampant spread of economic globalization be seen, soon enough, as an archenemy of Mother Nature in the twenty-first century.
I hope you’re right. However: I’ve got no reason to believe that there can be any REAL changes to the way mankind is mistreating nature and the ecosystems of this world. Disregard of the needs and demands of nature has become “our way of life” – and believe me: my evidence is to found everywhere on the internet, especially on newspapers’ websites from across the world.
What strikes me as the stupidest tendency of all, is the building and construction boom which is spreading across the planet. New airports, new highways, new shopping malls, new hotels, new theaters, new tourist resorts, etc., etc., etc. is popping up everywhere; all countries, on every continent, are experiencing the same thing. So: you could say that the entire population of this planet (the species insane) is now preparing for a future in which all humans can (and will) enjoy a classic American or Western lifestyle. It doesn’t matter what “the science” have to say about the unsustainability of such a project: the same old development continues. We’re all going to live the American Dream, someday. – And believe me: so long as Americans (and Westerners in general) continue to decide against making real lifestyle changes themselves, this development cannot be stopped. Why? Because trying to stop it, simply “wouldn’t be fair.”
Meanwhile, all Westerners are getting prepared to “pay for their sins” in the form of climate credits. We’ll keep on polluting the world as much as ever before. Yeah, we’re actually going to pollute even more than we used to do. But we’re going to buy carbon credits and believe that the Africans, the Indians, the Chinese, the Latin Americans and the Eastern Europeans will make good use of the credit we’re giving them. I don’t think so. – But hey! Who am I to say such a thing? Me? The primitive moron.
Here’s the morale: “Don’t think. Just do. Throw a few bucks at the problem and get on with your life. The environment is always someone else’s problem.”
Did you ever think about the feel-good factor? It is not going to do the environment any good, but feeling good is always good. – Yeah, some people can always afford to.
BTW: I’ve seen – and enjoyed digesting – your criticism of the political / societal leaders of your generation. You seem to have developed the same view of the leaders (ruling class) of our times, as I myself developed during the course of the 1990s. –
John: – I think Russ would agree that at some point our growing numbers would lead to (or are now causing) pervasive ecological collapse. At that point we would no longer be able to continue increasing food production. Other dire ecological problems would impact our population as well. (and that’s not even to mention to problem of peak oil and its impact on agriculture)
I can see – like so often before – that the two of us are in strong agreement on the most basic points here. We’re faced with an on-going ecological collapse. Yes, it’s happening every day. As populations keep rising and the global growth culture keeps evolving, the whole species is, at the very same time, going no-where.
It is all-important, for all of us, including children, youths, adults and elders of all nationalities and races, that an ever-growing number of people become able to grasp this point.
Now: I’d also like to hear Russ’ views on the “peak oil and agriculture” dilemma, as posed to us here by Paul C. – — a very compelling analysis, to say the least.
Thank you. 🙂
On the American ethic of personal responsibility………………….
In the moments after 9/11/2001, and the magnitude of the moment of destruction and death had sunk in, the President made a single appeal to the citizens of the USA…………..consume. Do not stop consuming, he implored. It was suddenly a partriotic act to buy a new car. Of course, sales popped up.
It seems to me if consumerism is what our country needs from us in a time of great peril, then I suppose the time has come for us to take look at ourselves and at what we are doing in our planetary home.
What does it mean when consuming becomes the highest and most necessary expression of partriotism to my country in wartime?
Perhaps the time has come to also ask some other questions.
1. What does it mean to be a human being in the post WWII world era?
2. What meaningfully characterizes an adequate relationship to other human beings?
3. What is our relationship to all that lives on Earth?
4. What are to be our personal responsibilities to and for the planetary home God has blessed us to inhabit?
IF, for example, the questions above are answered in the following way:
Answer to question 1 —- consume and accumulate resources;
Answer to question 2 —- encourage others to keep up with me and with
Answer to question 3 —- consume whatever it is I desire;
Answer to question 4 —- consume as much as possible, THEN we will soon devour everything. We will literally eat up the finite natural resources of Earth as well as the living things which depend upon the Earth for existence. There will plainly and transparently not be adequate resources remaining, even for our children’s survival.
At the current scale and rate of growth of the personally irresponsible American lifestyle, just with regard to per capita consumption of resources, where will humanity likely find itself in 2050 when a fully anticipated 9.2 billion human beings will be members of the human community?
For a moment only, imagine what the world of 2050, the world of our children, might look like. What might the words, “American ethic of personal responsibility” mean then.
At least for me, even now, the words “American ethic of personal responsibility” appear hollow, without either meaning or a ring of truth in them.
If 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 human overpopulation of our planetary home are somehow on the right track, then humanity could soon confront daunting global challenges.
Perhaps hubris confuses human reasoning about the “placement” of humanity within the natural order of living things. There is the rub, I suppose. We have learned from God’s great gifts to humanity—natural philosophy and modern science—that Earth is not the center of the universe (Copernicus); that we are set upon a tiny celestial orb among a sea of stars (Galileo); that such things as the Law of Gravity and the Laws of Thermodynamics affect living things equally, including human beings (Newton, et al); that humankind is a part of the general evolutionary process (Darwin); and that people are to a significant degree unconscious, mistake what is illusory for what is real and, therefore, have difficulty both adequately explaining the way the world works and consciously regulating our behavior (Freud).
Now comes unanticipated and unfortunately unwelcome data from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel that indicate we have widely shared and consensually validated an inadequate, preternatural understanding of human population dynamics and willfully refused to appreciate the necessity for regulating certain distinctly human “overgrowth” activities. That is to say, humanity could soon be presented with a predicament resulting from 1) increasing and unchecked per capita consumption of limited resources, 2)seemingly endless expansion of production capabilities in a finite world, and 3)unbridled species propagation.
Extant data indicate that human influences could directly and primarily account for excessive extinction of biodiversity, creeping environmental degradation, and the voracious dissipation of limited natural resources.
From my humble vantage point, it does look as if the challenges posed to humanity by certain unregulated human activities overspreading Earth now are huge ones. Even so, we can take the measure of the looming challenges and find solutions to our problems that are consonant with universally shared values.
Is there even a remote possibility certain activities of the human species now rampantly overspreading the surface of Earth could soon become so dominant as to precipitate the mass extinction of biodiversity, the pernicious destabilization of the climate and the irreversible degradation of Earth?
Perhaps noticing the magnitude of the human influences resulting from a rapidly growing human population (6.7 to 9.2 billion human beings in the first half of the twenty-first century) upon the natural world is like finding a proverbial “elephant in the living room.”
No one can say how so large a creature ever got into our planetary home. Its very presence does not make sense. Even so, every human being on the planet can see some part of the leviathan-like creature. Some people see a gigantic tusk or a tail. Others see its head or some part of its massive body. Because the creature is so big that no one person can see the whole of it, we are free to believe and mistakenly conclude it simply cannot be real, not really.
If we simply agree to make the choice to deny its existence within our home, then we can ignore that which, in any case, cannot be completely seen by anyone. Henceforth, there is no reason to talk about the elephant. There is also no point in discussing either human limits or Earth’s limitations to support the elephant.
And not surprisingly, if we continue to ignore the elephant in our living room long enough by not talking about the potential threat it poses to a sustainable future for our children and coming generations; to biodiversity; to the viability of ecosystems; and to the integrity of Earth, as one of the world’s most prominent, visionless political leaders (gesturing by throwing up his hands toward the sky in dismay) recently put it, “We’ll all be dead.”
An unannounced, unwelcome and unacknowledged elephant lives among us……and can barely be seen, even now, in the offing as a potential threat to human and environmental health. offing.
While I generally agree with your thoughts about present and looming trouble on our planet, I really don’t understand this statement:
What is unanticipated about Hopfenberg’s and Pimentel’s work? I don’t mean to denigrate it at all. But rather than being a surprise what makes it so powerful is how it fits in so well with other work.
There is much in this thread to discuss. For now, I just want to look at two related questions to which I hope Russ will be able to respond. I want to get back to the starvation issue and the question of what these findings imply in the way of suggestions for stopping world population growth.
The data Russ uses (from the FAO) show annual food production enough to feed over 20 billion people. If I understand correctly, every year that we increase food production, we do feed more people, and at the same time the number of people starving goes up. But what of the gap between the people fed and the amount of food produced? Clearly, there’s a serious distribution problem. But what is it about that problem that allows us to feed more people each year, but keeps the percentage of starving people the same (I assume)? It’s like the obstacles to distribution are working on a percentage basis or something, allowing x% of food produced each year to get through to people. Something about that seems strange. I guess I’m just uninformed on how food distribution works. It’s as if someone were knowingly keeping the lid on what’s distributed at a very precisely controlled level.
Beyond that, one thing is clear — that according to Russ’s findings we should stop the worldwide increase in food production as that is causing the increase in population. Is there any implied suggestion beyond that? I’m thinking about Trinifar’s question concerning withholding food aid. But now the more I think about it, the more I think it is instead just a matter of capping overall food production. Is that right?
Related to my first comment above, a simple, albeit tangential question: What happens to that huge amount of food every year that doesn’t reach people? If we’re producing enough food for 20 billion, then over 2/3 of all food produced is not reaching people, right? What happens to it. (Or does that account for people or countries which receive excessive food, such as the US with its high levels of obesity? If so, then maybe a much smaller amount is actually not reaching people.)
If, as Steve S. has mentioned here, most scientists are unwilling to discuss Russ’s (and Pimentel’s…) work, I’m wondering why that is. My guess would be because they assume capping the growth of the global food supply would lead to increased starvation. Yet, as I’ve read and thought about this work in the last month or so, I’m increasingly convinced that would not be the case. The explanations from Russ, in the two papers, from Daniel Quinn, and elsewhere of why that wouldn’t happen are fairly convincing. I say “fairly” because I’m not yet 100% clear on it. But consider just this point: If it is true that annual food production far exceeds what is needed to feed 6.5 billion, then how can it be that we need to produce even more? That seems just silly. Of course at this point all my questions above kick in. 🙂 I encourage others to go back to the post and thread linked to in my intro to Russ’s comments above for more sources to read on this topic. Here’s more from Daniel Quinn:
In the quote you cite just above from my last message, what I am trying hard to communicate is that Hopfenberg’s “obvious” science is an affront to what most scientists generally believe. In fact, the research directly contradicts theory and data that has been widely shared, consensually validated and relied upon during the course of my lifetime. That which is now shown to be plainly preternatural has been used by population scientists, demographers and economists to justify the seemingly endless and patently unsustainable expansion of certain distinctly human overgrowth activities now overspreading the surface of Earth.
Let us be clear: the elegance of Hopfenberg’s scientific data notwithstanding, population scientists, demographers and economists are continuously choosing not to discuss the evidence with whichwe are grappling now.
At least to me, it appears that the research of Hopfenberg to which we are now striving to draw attention is simultaneously unbelieveable and virtually irrefutable. Ironically, the deafening silence with which this human population science has been greeted by almost all of our colleagues is precisely because ” it fits so well with other work,” as you put it.
Yes, Hopfenberg’s data fits beautifully with scientific research from some of our greatest scientists. This evidence, however, is apparently anathema to our many colleagues who appear to be in denial of the research; who refuse to acknowledge, much less affirm, it and cannot rebut it.
Also, if Hopfenberg is somehow on the right track, then the implications of this emerging evidence could be profound for today’s responsible world leaders, especially, who could be unknowingly bound up in hubris, illusion and preternatural thinking; who inadvertently are willfully, adamantly and mistakenly insisting upon “no limits to the unbridled growth of human enterprise,” “no regard for human limits,” and “no acceptance of Earth’s limitations.” Fundamental, deeply unsettling change in their (and my) unregulated and excessive consumption, production and propagation behaviors will soon become inevitable, will it not?
Perhaps these thoughts are helpful.
To confer with your “response 4” – China has just released data that shows that their population growth is accelerating despite the “one child policy”.
Apparently, as people have become wealthier they have chosen to have more than one child – the one child policy (two children for rural people) can be circumvented by paying a fine.
Wealthy city people are choosing now to pay the fines and have 2 or 3 children.
Maybe those people who are having 3 children have not yet reached stage 4 of the DT model – but then maybe the “increased status” that is aquired by having extra children under the one child policy regime is partly responsible for this.
I can see – like so often before – that the two of us are in strong agreement on the most basic points here.
I wanted to make sure to get back to this. Yes, I think we do agree very much on most of this. I find myself thinking many times per day about the amazing lack of interest in this topic, the tendency for everyone to be so easily distracted by other things, to deny, or perhaps as Paul C. has highlighted, to be unable to develop concern over threats that don’t seem immediate.
Today I exchanged a few comments on Alternet with a fellow who felt it was wrong for them to post an article on climate change when we need to deal with the Iraq war. I (and others) pointed out that the ecological crisis could not wait either, that it carried a risk beyond anything seen previously in human history. I don’t think the other guy could hear me.
I’m sure people feel a little insulted if you tell them to “wake up,” but I feel like shaking the whole earth and telling everyone to “wake up!”
Welcome and thanks for commenting. Just before I read your comment, I’d seen an item on the Web somewhere about the same thing — China’s growing population:
I do think a one child policy is probably not the way to go. In China it has led to well known problems such as the abandonment of female children and an imbalance in the male/female ratio. Plus, it’s just fundamentally draconian. And now we see it may not really be working that well.
The social element that I seem to read the most about, with regard to its utility in reducing population growth, concerns the status of women. People like Jeffrey Sachs and others often mention the importance of educating women, raising women’s status, etc. in reducing fertility rates. I’ve seen mention of research that is supposed to support this, but I don’t have my hands on it.
So I understand very well where Trinifar’s coming from on this. I’ve often touted dealing with womens’ issues myself as a key to addressing population growth. (as do Sachs, Lester Brown, Betsy Hartmann, and others) I’ll admit though that I need to track down the studies to back that up.
[Edit:] On a different tack, I’ve also seen references to studies on the effectiveness of media productions such as soap operas aimed at effecting social change relevant to reducing fertility rates. I’ll look into that too as I get the chance. (The Population Media Center, in the links on the sidebar here, works with such tools, and their site is where I saw those references.)
I keep feeling I should go back to an economic topic for my next post, but the population topic keeps puuuuulling me back. 🙂
I’m going to review Russ’s comments again and probably post another question or two in the next couple of days. I’ll check with Russ concerning when he’d like to follow up in response to these comments, and provide some info on that in an upcoming comment in this thread.
Hi to all,
The comments here are terrific.
If I could have one wish granted, it would be this:
that at least one top rank expert like Paul Ehrlich, Jeff Sachs, Lester Brown or Joel Cohen would kindly participate in this discussion. Needless to say, the inclusion of such expertise here would be instructive.
If anyone has friends in the fields of population science, human demography and economics who would add their views to this discussion, that, too, would be most welcome and certainly helpful.
If I could have one wish granted, it would be this:
that at least one top rank expert like Paul Ehrlich, Jeff Sachs, Lester Brown or Joel Cohen would kindly participate in this discussion.
Well, that would certainly be nice. But I’ve emailed Sachs previously to let him know about this site. Didn’t heard back and don’t want to seem a pest, you know? From past searches, I can say Ehrlich and Brown do not make their email addresses easily available (not that I searched exhaustively), though no doubt they could be reached indirectly. I did email Al Bartlett to let him know about this discussion. If anyone wants to try to track down other experts and invite them here, it would of course be nice to hear from them. I will look into emailing Cohen.
Russ and all,
For easier navigation, I’m going to go through this thread and bold the first few words of anything that looks like a question or comment looking for a reply from Russ. If anyone objects to some of their words being put in bold, let me know, and I’ll think of another option.
Also, all of my own questions/comments will appear in my May 6th comment above.
I remember watching a short TV news clip from Iraq some months ago, in which an American soldier said something that had me laughing for a good while.
Standing beside one of those big war vehicles, the soldier expressed his concern about global warming: the vehicle wasn’t exactly energy efficient, spending one horrible amount of fuel moving about inside the battle zone. 🙂
On the war topic, I’ve got only one thing to say: in a situation in which the whole planet (and its entire population) is facing one common climate change problem, I suggest that everybody understand that war is not a solution.
We must cooperate now. Reaaly, we do.
In the light of looming global challenges already visible to humanity on the far horizon, war is a medieval fool’s errand…… an altogether senseless, politically convenient, economically expedient, utterly wasteful and unjustifiable distraction.
There’s something just bizarre about war in the 21st century. Over thousands of years, we’ve made so much technological progress, but apparently none socially. Where Neanderthals may have settled disputes by bashing in an adversary’s head with a rock, today we do the same with a cruise missile. Well, the US does anyway. Many other countries seem to have evolved a little more than that.
Words from the eminent scientist, Professor Albert A. Bartlett…………..
THOUGHTS ON GROWTH
Every increment of added population and every added increment of affluence invariably destroy an increment of the remaining environment.
Population growth and increases in affluence make it impossible for reasonable increments of improved efficiency in the use of resources to enhance or to preserve the environment.
You cannot preserve the environment by accepting the population growth and the increased affluence that are now destroying the environment.
SMART GROWTH – DUMB GROWTH
Smart Growth is better than Dumb Growth. Smart Growth destroys the environment. Dumb Growth destroys the environment. The difference is that Smart Growth destroys the environment with good taste.
So it’s like buying a ticket on the TITANIC; if you’re smart you go First Class, if you’re dumb you go Steerage. Either way the result’s the same.
Similarly, the Environment is like a beef animal You can throw it into a grinder and get hamburger. Or, you can give it to a chef and get a wonderful dinner. But either way, you have destroyed the animal.
Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose LONG-TERM solution is in any DEMONSTRABLE way aided, assisted or advanced by having larger populations at the local level, the state level, nationally, or globally?
I’ve suggested to Russ that he can go ahead and submit his follow-up comments as soon as he has the chance. So if you want to add a comment or question but haven’t done so yet, now’s the time. I’ll post Russ’s follow-up right here as soon as I have it.
“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.”
I only wonder: at which point in time is it going to be possible to discuss the current population explosion in scientific terms, as a social anthropologist or sociologist?
I mean: among social anthropologists and sociologists, the topic is taboo to the core. It’s a non-issue on the university campus. Well, at least here in Norway. – I have actually been warned against thinking about it. Hearing about my intellectual / philosophical concerns, me stating that I’d love to actually study the overpopulation / population explosion issue under rational, scientific terms, one baffled anthropologist mused at me, gave me a weary look, and asked: “Do you honestly believe research on that topic is really necessary?”
As a matter of fact, I’d like to put it even worse: At which piont in time will social anthropologists and sociologists be allowed to conduct research on the driving forces behind climate change and other forms of environmental devastation? – Now, I’m talking about MODERN HUMAN LIFE as a driving force in itself.
I mean: At which point in time is it going to be possible for social scientists to start treating the term “manmade” as a serious challenge posed to them as scientists?
Or: At which point in time is it going to be possible to apply for fundings for research on “modern social man’s disconnectedness with nature” – for example?
Please take note: I’m writing from oil-rich Norway, and I’m referring to what is – and is not – going on at Norwegian universities.
I’m sorry. 😦
It seems to me like social anthropologists and sociologists in general have somehow reached a consensual decision amongst themselves, to treat the most troublesome population issue as “one of those things.” – i.e.: “an issue that nooone can do anything about, so why think about it?”
I can also imagine that the vast majority of social scientists are worried about their reputation, both as scientists and private persons, and that this might be a reason for them to look the other way.
Let’s admit it: The population explosion is not a sexy issue. Although it sure smells like bedrooms to me.
“Taboo” is the keyword.
In the dark days after 9/11/2001, and the magnitude of the moment of destruction and death had sunk in, the President made a single appeal to the citizens of the USA…………..consume. Do not stop consuming, he implored. It was suddenly a partriotic act to buy a new car. Of course, sales popped up.
It seems to me if consumerism is what our country needs from us in a time of great peril, then I suppose the time has come for us to take look at ourselves and at what we are doing in our planetary home.
What does it mean when consuming becomes the highest and most necessary individual expression of partriotism to country in wartime?
Perhaps the time has come to also ask some other questions.
1. What does it mean to be a human being in the post WWII world era?
2. What meaningfully characterizes an adequate relationship of one human beings to other human beings?
3. What is our relationship to all that lives on Earth?
4. What are to be our personal responsibilities to and for the planetary home God has blessed us to inhabit?
IF the questions above are answered in the following way:
Answer to question 1 —- consume and accumulate resources;
Answer to question 2 —- encourage others to consume so as to keep up with me and with
Answer to question 3 —- consume whatever it is I desire;
Answer to question 4 —- consume as much as possible,
THEN we will soon devour everything on Earth. We will literally eat up the finite natural resources as well as the living things which depend upon the Earth for existence. There will plainly and transparently not be adequate resources remaining, even for our children’s survival.
At the current scale and rate of growth of individual “footprints” in the US, for example, just with regard to per capita consumption of resources, where will humanity likely find itself in 2050 when a fully anticipated 9.2 billion human beings will be members of the human community? How on Earth will those people be fed? Please note that millions upon millions of our brothers and sisters in the human community are starving now when the global population is much smaller (6.7 billion people) than demographers generally expect it to be in 2050.
All the excuses are insufficient that have been presented to Magne and to Dr. Hopfenberg for NOT recognizing certain overgrowth activities of the human species as legitmate subjects of scientific inquiry. At least to me, scientists could be parties to one of the most colossal mistakes in human history by consciously ignoring the good scientific evidence of human population dynamics as well as the potentially profound implications of overpopulating Earth in the twenty-first century.
All the excuses are woefully inadequate that have been presented to you and to Dr. Hopfenberg for NOT subjecting certain overgrowth activities of the human speciesj to the rigors of scientific examination. Scientists could be making one of the most colossal mistakes in human history by consciously ignoring the good evidence of human population dynamics as well as the potentially profound implications of overpopulating Earth in the first half of the twenty-first century.
Yes, the keyword is “taboo.” As a consequence, silence rules over science. This is an abysmal situation, one that cannot stand.
Dear Friends and Colleagues All,
Deep within me there dwells a keen sense of foreboding as well as a dynamic urgency that results from what I see, already visible on the far horizon, as an ominous and looming, distinctly human-driven predicament, one that could threaten life as we know it and the Earth as a fit place for human habitation.
Subjecting certain global “overgrowth” activities of the human species to careful, skillful and timely scientific examination appears to be plainly and immediately required of those with expertise in science. Scientists could be unknowingly making the most incredible mistake in human history by not considering good evidence of human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth. Even in the next three to four decades, increasing human enterprise associated with economic globalization and continously growing absolute global human population numbers could become patently unsustainable on a planet the size of Earth.
Scientific investigations related to the scale and growth rate of human consumption, production and propagation activities worldwide appear to be woefully inadequate. As a consequence, silence has ruled over science. Perhaps a sensible case can be made for changing this situation so that where there is now silence, soon there will be open scientific discussions, rigorous scientific inquiries, critiques/interpretations of scientific data, and advancement of scientific knowledge as it relates to the way the world in which we live works and to the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things.
If we do not make some changes SOON in our unrestrained consumption, untethered production and unbridled propagation behaviors, then I fear for global biodiversity, original wildlife habitats, wilderness spaces, environmental health, the integrity of Earth and its resources……and for the survival of the human species, even through the first half of Century XXI.
Where, pray tell me, are the scientists who are ready, willing and able to examine the scientific evidence of Russell P. Hopfenberg?
With thanks to all,
The first challenge before us, I suppose, the one that has to acknowledged, addressed and overcome now, is our own unwillingness to break the silence. For too long a time, during most of my lifetime, both intellectual dishonesty and silence have been allowed to RULE over open discussion of real issues and good science, as it relates to the human overpopulation of Earth. Perhaps silence and intellectual dishonesty have served to support more and more of the same ol’, soon to be unsustainable, business-as-usual activities now rampantly overspreading the Earth and to preclude necessary human behavior change.
I hear you. The general topic of population is taboo in many circles. And that must end. I can’t be sure, but my impression is there is a bit of change in the air in that regard. If you look at posts on environmental topics on sites like Common Dreams and Alternet, lately you see more and more comments under them calling for attention to population. Mainstream writers themselves seem slow to catch on, but that may be coming too. For instance, Julia Whitty, who has the cover story (on extinction) of the current (?) issue of Mother Jones is working on a piece on the population issue. I think I’m seeing a trend, but time will tell. (unforunately, we don’t have a lot of time)
Russ’s work appears to be a special case in being particularly taboo within the already taboo population subject. My best guess (and I hope Russ might offer his own thoughts on this) is that that’s the result of people coming incorrectly to the conclusion that stopping the increase in global food supply would cause more people to starve.
On the one hand, it seems amazing that competent scientists, who must have read the work, would jump to that conclusion and simply turn away. On the other hand, I find I’m still not 100% clear on the starvation issue, and am looking forward to Russ’s follow-up. On the whole, though, it’s my impression that the work’s implications do not imply any added starvation. So I’m surprised the scientific community has not at least taken up the topic for discussion. Again, I’d like to hear Russ’s observations on that.
Now, I’m happy to raise the topic here from time to time. But if there’s some code of silence about it in the scientific community, my power to stir things up is limited until this site acquires a great deal of traffic — which I hope will happen, but will take some time. If there is, in fact, such a silence it not only seems intellectually dishonest, it also seems a little silly, like schoolchildren playing a game or something. Science can’t walk on eggshells over certain topics, fretting about the effects of talking about this or that; it needs to treat them objectively and deal with all of them head on.
Thanks again for everything you are doing. We are doing the best we can do. That will be good enough. Of that I am certain.
Yes, change in terms of open discussion of good science and intellectual honesty with regard to The Human Population is in the offing. I am also seeing signs of openmindedness and expressions of support for the apparently unforeseen scientific evidence, even though the new, unchallenged evidence regarding the human population is menacing for people unaccustomed to sharing resources and making changes.
CALL of LIFE………..
Steve — That video is great. For a bit of commentary too, anyone interested can see this post. Thanks for bringing it back; it deserves many repeat performances. 😀
National Farmers Union Office
2717 Wentz Ave.
Saskatoon, Sask., S7K 4B6
Tel (306) 652-9465
Fax (306) 664-6226
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – MAY 11, 2007
LOWEST FOOD SUPPLIES IN 50 OR 100 YEARS: GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS EMERGING
SASKATOON, Sask.-Today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its first projections of world grain supply and demand for the coming crop year: 2007/08. USDA predicts supplies will plunge to a 53-day equivalent-their lowest level in the 47-year period for which data exists.
“The USDA projects global grain supplies will drop to their lowest levels on record. Further, it is likely that, outside of wartime, global grain supplies have not been this low in a century, perhaps longer,” said NFU Director of Research Darrin Qualman. Most important, 2007/08 will mark the seventh year out of the past eight in which global grain production has fallen short of demand. This consistent shortfall has cut supplies in half-down from a 115-day supply in 1999/00 to the current level of 53 days. “The world is consistently failing to produce as much grain as it uses,” said Qualman. He continued: “The current low supply levels are not the result of a transient weather event or an isolated production problem: low supplies are the result of a persistent drawdown trend.”
In addition to falling grain supplies, global fisheries are faltering. Reports in respected journals Science and Nature state that 1/3 of ocean fisheries are in collapse, 2/3 will be in collapse by 2025, and our ocean fisheries may be virtually gone by 2048. “Aquatic food systems are collapsing, and terrestrial food systems are under tremendous stress,” said Qualman.
Demand for food is rising rapidly. There is a worldwide push to proliferate a North American-style meat-based diet based on intensive livestock production-turning feedgrains into meat in this way means exchanging 3 to 7 kilos of grain protein for one kilo of meat protein. Population is rising-2.5 billion people will join the global population in the coming decades.
“Every six years, we’re adding to the world the equivalent of a North American population. We’re trying to feed those extra people, feed a growing livestock herd, and now, feed our cars, all from a static farmland base. No one should be surprised that food production can’t keep up,” said Qualman.
Qualman said that the converging problems of natural gas and fertilizer constraints, intensifying water shortages, climate change, farmland loss and degradation, population increases, the proliferation of livestock feeding, and an increasing push to divert food supplies into biofuels means that we are in the opening phase of an intensifying food shortage.
Qualman cautioned, however, that there are no easy fixes. “If we try to do more of the same, if we try to produce, consume, and export more food while using more fertilizer, water, and chemicals, we will only intensify our problems. Instead, we need to rethink our relation to food, farmers, production, processing, and distribution. We need to create a system focused on feeding people and creating health. We need to strengthen the food production systems around the world. Diversity, resilience, and
sustainability are key,” concluded Qualman.
For More Information:
Darrin Qualman, Director of Research:
Stewart Wells, NFU President:
Backgrounder to the NFU’s May 11, 2007 news release
The United States Department of Agriculture reports recent grain supply and demand numbers on its World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE)
The longer-term data on world grains supply and demand is at Production, Supply, and Demand Online (PSD) at
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
– – Margaret Mead
Russ is dealing with a deadline for another project, but has let me know that toward the latter half of June he should be able to provide his responses to the comments above. When the time comes, I’ll post an announcement linking back here.
Reasons What You Think Is Right Is Wrong>>>OR possible excuses for not understanding the natural dynamics of human population numbers.
Hello, John. If I were you, I’d let the post that you deleted stand. As you said yourself: it wasn’t completely off topic. 😀
Magne, it’s ambiguous, but I’m skeptical about it because of several signs it was from a spammer testing the waters to see what would get past the filter. (google.com left as “website,” email address with a name unrelated to the commenter’s name and connected to a site where I cannot find such a person listed, and a name that shows up nowhere else when googled… and the commenter didn’t come back to elaborate as I asked. Oh yeah, and an IP address far from the location of the company in the email address.) Still, I could be wrong, so here is what commenter “Rex Desbarres” said on June 14:
I hope I’m misinterpreting, actually. Maybe Rex can return to show he’s a legitimate commenter. 🙂
I do find Mr Desbarres’ quote interesting, to say the least.
Now to tell you the truth: I’m finding it very, very hard to accept Hopfenberg & Pimentel’s arguments. The notion that we should all come together in making the decision to produce a smaller amount of food than we do today, in an attept at curbing the current population growth, is … hmmm? … how should I put it? …
It borders on madness, somehow. It’s absolutely impossible for me (and any other humanist else, for that matter) to believe that a solution like this one can ever become acceptable, and even become official public policy anywhere on this planet; no matter what the regime we’re thinking of now.
I think you can agree with me. It’s a “funny” but “absolutely impossible” way of solving the problem of exploding population growth.
I think we shall just have to stick our index finger in the mould, and accept the apparent fact that, 40 years from now, the world’s population is likely to reach 9 billion, and worry our brains with the probably consequences of this piece of demographic, scientific information. There’s no stopping this; what we need to do is make the policy makers of this world start adressing this issue in simple, rational terms.
Think about it: As the world’s population is about to grow by 50% in the course of the next few decades, how are we possibly going to go about cutting CO2 emissions by 50 – 80% … ?!
An issue that must be adressed, I’m afraid. And which is NEVER adressed by any of those deep ecological thinkers who get their articles and interviews published in print. NEVER.
The population dimension remains a taboo. And that5’s just too damn silly. Excuse my language here, but it is … too fucking stupid … 😦
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While I think the Hopfenberg/Pimental/Quinn idea might just make sense, I agree the most difficult part would likely be in getting governments to agree to cap food production.
Though I want to see Russ’s follow-up comments, I do have the sense the idea may hold together logically. Getting everyone else to see that though, and to follow through with implementation would seem to be a huge hurdle. Still, I’d like to see it discussed more widely. I can’t blame Steve for lamenting that scientists seem unwilling to take it up for critique and discussion.
As for environmental writers, they seem squeamish about anything to do with population and anything to do with the true gravity of our ecological challenges. I’m just now beginning to tinker with trying to get some articles of my own published by online magazines or news sites. I suspect it may take some persistence to find those willing to print the uncomfortable truth. We’ll see. 😕
Dear Magne and John,
Your comments are terrific……each and everyone of them.
Magne, please take a look at the following link,
What would you think of this proposal as a way of beginning to address the challenges of the human predicament?
What would you think of then following up the implementation of this plan of action with a second program of action that in a meaningfully fair way distributes the world’s food resources?
After these programs are active, what would think of limiting annual increases in global food production?
Always, with thanks,
Along with the free movement of people across national borders and cultural boundaries, I’m in strong favour of the introduction of individual quotas of a variety of items; not only carbon points, but other points as well. 🙂
I believe an individual quota debate is going to surface very soon now. But okay: “There is Nothing More Relative than Time.”
Steve: I’m going to respond to your Lester Brown questions later.
I first stumbled across a few references to Lester R. Brown’s recent work some time ago; about six months or so, I think. Unfortunately, I have not been connected to university campuses in such a way that I’ve been able to read his Plan B 2.0″ – which seems to me to be a most ground-breaking work — and particularly so on the UN Millennium Development Goal progress. – Or LACK of progress, you might say. As Brown points out in the link above: the vast bulk of the development towards the eradication of poverty takes place in China and Idia, while other Asian countries, Africa and Latin America is stranded in a poverty trap which is most unfortunate and – to put it mildly – shocking.
As you may know, from what I’ve written here before, I have studied and lived in Nigeria; in the countryside and in big cities; and seldom in hotel rooms but rather in the slums. I know too much about what poverty really looks like. As it is: I’m a poor man in Norway, as well. Poverty is not only a third world problem. Oh, not at all. I mean: How many Americans lead a long life of utter and uncurbable poverty? It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is: “Uncountable and way too many.”
The question of “how to eradicate poverty” is a big one, and a very important one. I believe it is a question which cannot be answered simply by means of putting million-dollar-figures up for grabs. We need a system – a whole new system – of thinking.
The first quest must be: “SOCIAL INCLUSION.”
And we shall have to remember that the poverty is, first and foremost, a question of class. I know that the term itself – class – is one that makes the majority of Americans want to faint!!! But hey: I’m not supposed to bury my head in the ground just because Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl once told me to do so; or am I ..?!
Poverty is among thise things that make me angry. Yes: the issue of poverty is among those problems in this world that has a way to making me aggressive. Why? Because I just can’t come to terms with the often-cited fact that less than 5% of the world’s population control more than 90% of the capital property of this world. – Especially as another fact is that these people a(and their families, companies, corporations, and so forth) seem to be in complete control of the political systems, the media, the industries, the administration of this globalized and well-protected modern civilization.
About the issue of limiting food production. I think it’s going to remain an idea which is never going to be implemented. Why? Simply because it runs contrary to human nature. As I see it: Dr. Hopfenberg, Pimentel, and others, are in risk of going a bit drunk on their own philosophies; so to speak. I’d like to know HOW and UNDER WHICH CIRCUMSTANCES these people can actually believe that their mal-nutrition plan can ever be implemented anywhere? 🙂
As a matter of fact: I’m also beginning to believe that a 2-birth-policy for the female population of this planet is also running contrary to human nature, and therefor cannot be put in motion. As it is: Communisty China is the only country which has ever tried to put birth control into law, and … hm, well, I don’t know …
Take the time to think for a moment, okay? So long as modern medical scientists are allowed to treat life itself as a disease for which there must be a cure to be found, sometime in the glorious future, chances are we’re all going to be able to enjoy a 120-year life-expectancy in a time that is relative, as ever. In 20 years, in 40 years, in 50 years time? Who knows? As it is: a cure for cancer is rapidly coming our way: don’t worry.
This development will be the recipe for what? A demographic disaster? An exploding population explosion?! You tell me, okay? Just don’t tell me I’m completely crazy.
— – *jokingly* – — “The Old Dream of Eternal Life is In The Making.”
There is nothing crazy in what is being discussed here, even though what we are talking about is exceedingly difficult to contemplate.
Regardless of our difficulties, I believe we have a duty to grasp the practical requirements of biophysical reality as best we can.
If it is all right to do so, I want to inject more questions for discussion at this point. Your consideration of them is appreciated. Your comments and those of others are welcome.
If it pleases you, the questions follow.
1) Who among us can know that the human species is doomed? How is it possible for any one of us living now to have certain knowledge of such a thing? If we choose to believe such a thing and act accordingly, does doom not become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
2) Is silence other than golden? Is the deafening silence we hear (i.e., elective mutism) somehow useful to humankind or does it simply provide things that are regarded as temporarily golden by the few among us who are wealthy and powerful, the ones who have mortgaged the future of our children and, in effect, forsaken them?
3) Would it make sense to make a case in the strongest possible terms for a human being’s “duty to warn” humanity of whatsoever dangers appear to loom before us and, by so doing, begin the vital process of acknowledging, addressing and overcoming actual challenges to a good enough future for our children and coming generations?
Doomed? Certainly not. This kind of thinking is leading us nowhere.
However: certian parts of this planet, which are heavily populated as of today, will probably become uninhabitable, due to decertification, rising sea levels, and other climate factors. The only good solution to this problem will be to let the entire population of this planet be allowed to roam freely across the face of this Earth.
And it’s certainly not impossible to issue each and every one of us with a birth certificate, a plastic [climate credit] card, and a symbolic passport: “Citizen of The World.” – From a technological point of view, it should be easy. From a political point of view, however … oh well … well … no …
Steve: “There is nothing crazy in what is being discussed here, even though what we are talking about is exceedingly difficult to contemplate.”
Well, I think much of it is crazy anyway. Even if, in order to explain myself and my radical points of view, I can refer to other people (professional and acceptable scientists).
On the issue of “freedom of movement in an otherwise globalized civilization” I can refer to Professor of Sociology and Political Science, Jonathon W. Moses (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim), who published a study last year, in which he arrived at the interesting conclusion that in this age of climate change, the solution of free movement of people across international borders should be seen as quite natural.
On the issue of Individual Climate Credits, I can point my index finger straight at the famous political columnist (and scientist) George Monbiot. He’s well known for this argument, and gets away with it.
On the issue of World Citizenship: well, in this age of global communication (“Around The World In Eighty Seconds”), I am absolutely not alone in thinking that the next movement shall have to be that of free movement of people. To quote Salman Rushdie: “Man was not born with roots, but with feet.”
On the issue of Poverty Eradication, it seems to me like I’m having the entire world with me; esp. rock’n’royal celebrities from across the world … they’re all socialists, really 😀 …
And when in comes to birth control or family planning: who’s to say that this issue isn’t real? Population explosion. My goodness! Well, I can see that Lester R. Brown is concerned about it. He’s a household name, is he not? Al Bartlett’s name is not unheard of either.
But even so. Even if I can round up a lot of very respectable people, and make my case is such a well-established way, I know, very well, that I cannot be allowed to work as a social scientist myself. Not here in “Little Norway” – that’s for certain.
Because when it comes to the basic fact: if you put all my scientific (philosophical) convictions together, you’ll find a brain which is definitely out of order. Isn’t it?
I’m too much, man. –
Too much. 8)
John: “Though I want to see Russ’s follow-up comments, I do have the sense the idea may hold together logically.”
My previous couple of comments may drift a bit out of reach from the original topic. But okay: it just happens to be like that, sometimes. 🙂
John, I do agree with you that Hopfenberg’s argument may hold together logically. And the same goes, I believe, for great many of the basic arguments which appear on this blog. But logic is one thing: human nature seems to be all about something entire else.
I’m willing to accept that the theories and basic philosophies which are being developed here on this blog (and including many of the theories and facts which are found inside your blog-roll; also very intriguing) may be of no other use – short term – than possibly become some sort og framework for the development of new utopies. I’m talking about a Utopia in which all human societies base their lifestyles on pure science and total logic.
We need new utopies, of course. But I do think we should also be able to curbe our enthusiasm sometimes, and understand that human beings are “arrogant apes, okay.” – And that these are facts of nature which aren’t going to change all that quickly.
Coming to realize that somethings are logically sticky, is one thing. – The complexity of nature, and human nature as well, must not be neglected for that reason.
Hard science and soft science must come to meet up with each other at some crossroads. Only than can we start dreaming of making a Sustainable Utopia materialize before our feet, and not only before our heads, in writing (and video clips) on our computer screens.
I have to be brief as I’m not at home, so here’s my condensed response: It may be that Russ’s idea or others here and elsewhere are utopian. But my intention is really just to help communicate the problem and what will have to be done to avert a very serious further decline. If the minimum necessary to avert much more serious social and ecological disruption seems utopian, then so be it; that’s what needs to be done. I see it, though, as exceptionally difficult, but not necessarily utopian.
Some of the blogs in my blogroll focus on things like replacements for capitalism, which may seem more dream than reality. I try not to form any conclusions about that at this point. I believe it just helps to get people thinking.
And really, I think the main need at this point is in promoting awareness. Solutions are of course necessary, but currently I think only a small minority of people are really aware of the ecological situation we face. Imagine the difference between that and a large majority having that awareness. Then solutions of one sort or another could really be implemented. Right now, I’m not so sure.
i.e., I really don’t think the average “person on the street” realizes we really have outgrown the planet and really are headed toward one or more forms of “collapse.” Awareness… awareness….
Before organized human action there needs to be planning and programming; before planning and programming there needs to be good scientific evidence; before evidence comes creative thought; before thought, apprehension; and before apprehension there is awareness. As John suggests above, first comes awareness……. then more awareness……..and then even more awareness. Much there is that follows from it; however, nothing can happen without awareness, I suppose.
Awareness is one thing. Problem is: What are we becoming aware of? And what will be the most natural response to that which we are becoming aware of? Peace, in order to rescue the various ecosystems which we are about to destry? Or – to the contrary, and quite naturally – go to war over control of the natural resources which are being depleted at a rate unheard-of in the long, long history of this planet?
Business As Usual is another thing. Grab a beer, order a pizza, don’t worry, be happy, go lucky, keep smiling, don’t stop laughing, and party on. Don’t even think about the ill fate of others; it’s their own business, and not yours.
Two terrific comments. Thanks.
This is only a guess; but I believe you might agree with the two following statements.
1. War over resources, natural resource dissipation, grab a beer, order a pizza, don’t worry, don’t stop laughing and ‘party on’ belong together. Virtually everywhere in our predominant global culture we see that these behaviors coalesce in the course of day to day living.
2. Peace, biodiversity enhancement, environmental protection, natural resource preservation, smiling, thinking of the ill fate of others, caring for other people, for life as we know it and for the maintenance of the integrity of Earth are also behaviors that somehow belong together. Unfortunately, we see these behaviors insufficiently expressed in the human world in which we live today.
Who knows, perhaps METANOIA is in the offing.
You make a good point — if I get what you’re saying; yes, I suppose there does need to be some talk of solutions as we work on awareness. There needs to be some groundwork laid for effective, humane and just solutions so that once awareness is sufficient to enable solutions, those sorts will be at the forefront. Yes, okay, there should be some simultaneous talk of solutions.
Dear John and Magne,
Perhaps the time is drawing nigh for some serious discussion of what we are to do about the human predicament that is presented to humanity by the unbridled growth of the human species and its large-scale business enterprises engulfing the Earth in Century XXI.
Just as a way of beginning to take hold of this distinctly human predicament, I would like to present a scenario to which I welcome responses. It seems that one way to start such a “movement” from problem identification to solutions could be by considering how to address a situation like the one that follows.
Let us consider for a moment that the future of our children is being mortgaged and ultimately put at risk by a relatively small group of powerbrokers who manage the unbridled global political economy as a colossal pyramid scheme. While they recklessly go about their potentially pernicious business, many too many of our elected and appointed leaders maintain their silence about the challenges unrestrained global human production, consumption and propagation present to humanity, even though a calamity is already visible in the offing. By posing as people who are blind and mute, the deafening silence of these bought-and-paid-for leaders serves to fill their pockets and pockets of their benefactors and minions with that which is golden…. for now….. and for a while longer, I suppose.
Could these promoters of endless wealth accumulation and ever expanding business enterprise be adamantly pursuing an unsustainable course to the future, one that no sensible and reasonable human being would ever choose to take?
Would you recommend that we “stay the course” by promoting more business as usual, human overgrowth activities or would you suggest a change in course that eschews unchecked economic globalization?
If change of some sort appears to loom on the horizon, then what changes in course would you recommend?
While I am considering writing a guest column for GIM, on the need for an international / global peace movement; one which should be associated with the environmental movement, I can’t help thinking that, again, I am nothing but a useless utopist who’s guided by equally useless humanitarian ideals.
The fact is: the people and institutions who are in power on this planet do not worry about any such ideals. According to their way of thinking, it is only natural that the Earth should be fixed with plenty of Satelite-and-Computer-based Missile Defence Systems – one for each of the ultra-modern superpowers of this world: China, Russia, USA, and (God forbid) Saudi Arabia or Iran. You know what I mean?
Our current world leaders are all geared at a Serious Space Age, in which Stephen Hawking’s version of the future of mankind is the guiding principle.
Quote: – Hawking’s prediction for the future of mankind, which has provoked criticism in scientific circles, seems itself to have been the product of “bad dreams.”
“I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years unless we spread into space” he recently told a journalist. “There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.”
So you see: it is easy to keep dreaming on. Like dreaming on about a future organisation of this planet; one that is based on key concepts like peace and understanding, co-operation and care, love and … and … you know: respect and … see: I feel like a complete idiot here … am I sane? …
*a whole lot of sarcastic comments expected*
Your eyes are working just as intended.
You are of sound mind.
You can think for yourself.
You have demonstrated an adequate capacity for experience.
You are not a complete idiot.
You are going sane.
Please do not lose confidence in yourself, because your eyes are showing you some new and apparently unforeseen things about the human species and the world we inhabit…..things many brothers and sisters among us, the ‘many too many’ who are embedded in the predominant culture, are not yet seeing.
Imagine for a moment that you have awakened early this very morning just before dawn. Recall the quality of darkness just before dawn. You cannot see anything. Almost everyone else you know or have ever known is not stirring; they remain asleep.
With the coming of dawn the world begins to become visible. You see things you have seen every day of your life. But on this morning, for the first time, everything about the familiar landscape is somehow unexpectedly different. Once those who are asleep awaken, they will also see that which is completely unanticipated in the unchanged landscape.
But, at least until this good morning, they remain asleep.
You’re a poet. 😀
Human Population Health Statistics, with explanatory power,
Aside from Hopfenberg, Pimentel and Bartlett, one new top-rank scientist is choosing 2007 to speak out about the challenges posed to humanity by the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers. While many population scientists and demograhphers have elected to remain mute, one climate change scientist, CHRIS RAPLEY, is beginning to articulate the concerns of many other scientists from a range of disciplines.
I would like to support the efforts of Dr. Rapley, and Dr. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, through a plea for the immediate consideration of unexpected scientific evidence regarding human population dynamics and human population numbers to be examined by MEMBERS of the DISCIPLINARY ASSOCIATIONS NETWORK FOR SUSTAINABILITY, the FOUNDATION FOR THE FUTURE, the FACING THE FUTURE organization, the AAAS FORUM FOR INNOVATION AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, the GLOBAL MARSHALL PLAN and the CLUB OF ROME.
Dear Russell Hopfenberg,
We hope things go well for you and that favorable circumstances permit you to respond with a second round of comments to the outstanding questions posted in this blog.
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