Overpopulation: partying as the iceberg looms

I’m pleased to feature on GIM a guest article by Jim Lydecker. Jim researches and writes about such issues as peak oil, resource depletion, global warming and population. This article, which originally appeared as a guest opinion in the Napa Valley Register, shows succinctly how our leaders avoid the topic of population growth and spells out the consequences this invites. I think it conveys remarkably well the gravity of the crisis we face. My thanks to Jim for permission to reprint it here.

— JF
By Jim Lydecker:

The iceberg looms America’s a lot like the Titanic making her way through an ocean of danger. Any number of icebergs threaten to do damage and several are large enough to sink us. The captain warns us of the smaller ones, yet assures us our voyage is safe.

Most passengers believe the captain. Others figure there is nothing they can do, so why worry?

Some, however, notice concerned looks on the crew’s faces. Rumors are heard about one berg so big that there is no getting by regardless of the course plotted. It is connected to others making the situation more problematic. We’re on a direct collision course unless the damn thing melts and gets much smaller.

The giant iceberg’s given a name: Overpopulation. Some of the ones connected to it are known as resource depletion, climate change, disease, hunger and economic collapse. With no warning from the captain, the icebergs are closer than ever. The passengers party on.

Like this allegory, politicians and leaders focus our attention on issues easier addressed than those that really matter. Terrorism is an example.

Since 9/11, billions have been invested on what is a relatively small threat. Consider this: 3,000 died in New York on that fateful day in September 2001; 25,000 die every day in the world from contaminated water alone. Each year, 35 million children are mentally impaired by malnourishment. Each year, an area of prime farmland greater than Scotland is lost to erosion and urban sprawl. These are problems connected with overpopulation, problems that will get worse before they, if ever, get better.

Every statistic and number crunched, every fact absorbed, each study released makes it apparent that our industrialized civilization can’t survive unless we seriously reduce our numbers. We have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity by mortgaging the future.

To feed the current 6 billion people on a diet enjoyed by Americans would consume all the world’s oil production. For the same 6 billion to live at our current standard of living would require world steel production to increase 200 times. This is not possible.

Two current best-sellers look into the past to explain our present and predict the future.

In his Pulitzer-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel,” UCLA professor Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed technologies and immunities to dominate much of the world. His new book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” probes the other side of the equation: What caused the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin and what can we learn from their fate?

In “A Short History of Progress,” Canadian historian Ronald Wright examines how man throughout history has walked into “progress traps,” beginning with the slaughter of big game in the Stone Age and then continued the pattern of over-consumption until most of the world’s most creative civilizations fell victim to their own success.

Both books arrive at the same conclusion: Mankind has to seriously reduce its population and the speed of which we are running though Earth’s finite resources. To not do so will abruptly bring down the curtain on modern civilization.

But, unlike terrorism, these are subjects politicians and leaders have a better chance of staying employed by ignoring.

The only recent politician to make energy a part of his agenda was cardigan-wearing, in-front-of-the-fireplace Jimmy Carter. Who wanted to hear the horrible truth when Ronnie was telling good-time “morning in America” fairy tales? Reagan ended up president while Jimmy faded into obscurity.

Overpopulation is an issue no one, liberal or conservative, wants to touch. The right-wing Christian conservatives say it’s ungodly to screw with procreation while left-wing liberals claim it steps on our civil liberties.

So what happens? We continue to breed ourselves toward extinction.

Our leaders, and those who design and implement their policies, have chosen to ignore the real problems facing us for political and financial gain.

However, it is the responsibility of our leaders to take us down paths, regardless how uncomfortable or painful, when circumstances demand it. We face problems now, and have for several decades, that demand such actions.

Eventually our leaders will be held accountable for their actions, or lack of, and heads will roll.

Wright and Diamond point out that throughout history, once nature starts to foreclose — with famine, disease, crop failures and more — the social contract breaks down. People may suffer stoically for a while but eventually our rulers real relationship with the heavens is exposed as a fraud.

Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. At this point in runaway growth in population and consumption, we need to replace our irresponsible captain and crew before civilization is hopelessly bankrupt. Because even though most of the passengers party on, more and more of us know the icebergs are closer than ever.
Image source: bogavanterojo, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license

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20 responses to “Overpopulation: partying as the iceberg looms

  1. Thanks Jim for a well written article. Diamond and Wright have certainly made very important contributions to the topic of progress/collapse. Are we getting closer to a broad understanding of the need for self-restraint as a species? I hope that the many disparate threats that you have mentioned above can be woven together into a big picture or guiding philosophy. Can we break away from our competitive natures and act in truly altruistic ways? Perhaps – but its “five minutes to midnight.”

  2. I want to thank Verdurous, John Feeney and, of course, JIM LYDECKER: V — for your comments here and elsewhere; JCF — for hosting this website and being who you are; and JIM LYDECKER — for telling the truth as you see it, even though such behavior does not comport with what the rich and powerful rulers of the world in my not-so-great generation require of the many millions of their minions.

    Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of a truth-teller named Rachel Carson. Jim, I hope you do not mind me saying how much your capacity for experience and straight talk remind me of her.

    Pray tell me, someone, anyone, where can we find top rank scientists in my generation of elders who will carry on the legacy of Rachel Carson the way JIM LYDECKER is doing?

    Happy Birthday to Rachel.

    Best regards to JIM and all,


  3. Part of what I like about Jim’s article is how it very directly says, in essence, “Wake up, and wake our leaders up. We could be looking at a crash of civilization as we know it, even a crash of our species if we don’t somehow deal with this.”

    Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe what we need most right now are such “wake up” messages. It’s fine to spend time, as I have, on interesting or contentious details of issues like population or related subjects, but I don’t think people are yet really getting that the ecosystem itself is under serious threat or what that implies. Time, I think, for more wake up messages.

  4. Jim, I wonder if part of the problem is fear or perhaps ignorance: we hear the message from a number of sources, we hear things we could do individually, but we don’t know how to survive as a society or economy without growing. I wonder if we’re afraid that, should we stop or slow down long enough to figure out how to do that, we might crash and burn.

    Off the population issue for a second, it’s as if there are two companies Fast Food Burgers and Hot Sizzling Burgers (I don’t mean to pick on fast foods; you can come up with other examples). If I’m the CEO of FFB and decide that the world may not need me to increase the number of FFB outlets by 25% again this year, I might also be afraid of the potential ramifications of holding my number of outlets constant. Will HSB outlets go up by 50% and cause me to close outlets and lay off people? If I’m a publicly traded company, will going to zero growth cause my stock to drop and make it harder to get the capital I might want to renovate existing outlets (whether it’s to make them more attractive or to comply with environmental standards)?

    If I had the funding, those are some of the questions I’d like to work on. Or perhaps the answers exist, but I don’t see them in the news.

  5. I think there’s something important to your wake-up call idea posting. For whatever reason, we seem to have become increasingly immune to wake-up calls. I don’t know if it’s their relative prevalence, the Chicken Little problem (we hear of problems but, except for gas prices, we don’t feel problems), increasingly violent settings in movies, TV, and books (which seemingly ups the ante in how loudly one needs to speak to be heard), or what.

    If it were the latter, for example, one might assume that the next blockbuster may be more violent or exciting or spectacular than the last to capture attention, at least until some limit is reached, for being different is a general rule for standing out and getting noticed.

    Perhaps the key for the movement you’re describing is to be extraordinarily different in the way the message is conveyed. Perhaps instead of talking louder and faster, it’s time to whisper. I’ve seen it work in group settings (meetings); could it work here?

  6. make/shift

    There is certainly a lot of “doomed!” speech going on around here. So why not do something?

    How about we all stop debating what is the best way not to scare or to positively inform people, and start actually informing them. How many people do you all talk to on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis on topics such as these?

    The problem really is that not only do our leaders not want to talk about it, but most of the people who are aware of such a problem are more content with posturizing the various outcomes and ramifications of a population crisis in the real world via the internet. There is no real-world dialogue taking place for the people to participate in.

    This Steven poster is a perfect example of what I am talking about; intellectual vanguards. These are people who have loads of good information to share, but never actually get their hands dirty.

    So you have to know where to go, and how to get there if you are independently researching concrete ways to change the world in the face of looming disaster. This makes information part of an intellectual privileged because the fact is most people do not spend as much time as you or I talking these issues out on the internet.

    Rather, it would seem to make more sense to start educating people directly, in our communities and cities about not only population control but also about the ramifications of a world where such natural threats are ignored. This means permaculture, energy, medicine, housing, private property; all of these issues can be raised in getting people to think critically about population dynamics.

    Now get off the internet! I’ll see you in the streets.

  7. Bill and make/shift,

    It seems to me you both raise the question, “What is the most potent way to effect change?” Allow me to ramble a bit with some random thoughts…

    Make/shift, I hear you on the importance of going directly to people in the community and educating them. I do plan to do more in that vein. I see this blog as one facet in what will ultimately be a multifaceted approach to working on these issues. I wish there were an easy way, though, to gauge the efficacy of one action versus another. It would be nice to have in mind some optimum mix.

    Right now I’m seeing the most need in the area of awareness. There’s been a huge increase in awareness of climate change, which it seems came about through the message being put out there over and over, in many venues, in many ways.
    The question is how to get such a media ball rolling for issues like population and ecological collapse. Perhaps the best a
    blogger can do is to write in a way that readers will more likely share with others, and to promote the blog with the tools the Web makes available. Ideally, the message will then prompt action from others including recruiting them to become messengers, to take political action, and other forms of activism.

    Specifically on the population issue, I do think I’m seeing some increase in talk about it in the media. It’s hard to tell, though, being so close to it.

    Getting back to the right mix of actions, the reason I chose blogging at this point in my efforts is that the Web clearly has the potential to reach a lot of people with a minimum investment of time and effort. (It’s hard to know, though, whether it reaches them in a way which prompts action from them as well as some other approach would.) It seems it’s not easy, though, especially with topics which aren’t fun or gossipy, to generate a really large readership. Still, the potential is there. For me, it’s sort of an interesting challenge trying to learn effective ways of “marketing” my blog, though I get lazy and don’t do enough of it.

    I wonder, if a blog can get really big and reach tens of thousands of people a day (not big compared to some, but big), is it then even worth bothering with talking to, say, a group of 100? Maybe so, especially if the effect of direct contact is much more powerful. But that’s something I’ve been mulling over.

    I hope, in the future, to do some things like radio interviews. That’s clearly another way to reach large numbers of people. Also, I’ve lived for the last year in one of the more progressive towns in the US, but haven’t done much yet here to reach out directly to the people of the community, many of whom would be very receptive to the message here. That will have to change.

    Okay, questions for you guys: Bill, how might the “whisper” approach look in practice? Make/shift, what are your thoughts on some of the better ways to start educating people directly in the community?

    Oh, BTW make/shift, you may have Steve pegged a little wrong. I don’t know him well, but I think he’s been involved in various ways with the population issue for some time now, and has attended a lot of different events, talked with people, written a lot of letters, etc. He may not have gotten his hands as dirty as you have in mind, but hey, it’s a lot more than most, eh? 🙂

  8. John, you ask tough questions. If I knew, I might be doing it. What about, on occasion, instead of us writing many words with much data (as important as data is), writing a short poem or phrase only? Perhaps even a “just three words” meme on ecological overshoot passed around the blogosphere (except I might go for four or five words, as I can think of too many trite slogans in three)?

    What about building alliances? Perhaps a bit of dedicated networking in the Al Gore or Oprah direction might, eventually, get you a bit of broader notice if they ever mention GIM? Whispering is better when more people hear you. To do that, I suspect you’d need to devote real energy to real discussion efforts, not simply a “Hey, I’m here; tell everyone” note (but I suspect you know that).

  9. Bill,

    Thanks, those are intriguing ideas. I think I’ll try something of the whispering sort — after I finish the current article I’m working on which is of the “many words, much data” sort. 😳

    Yeah, it might help to contact some celebrity activists. I started looking for some contact info when I first launced GIM, but it wasn’t easy to find and I dropped that ball. I’ll have to take another shot at that.

  10. …after I finish the current article I’m working on which is of the “many words, much data” sort.

    Heh, well, in the meantime, I figured a poem, one infinitely better than I could write, might be a good idea.

  11. Steve,

    That looks like a very important documentary. This is the site for it:


    I’ll have to look into it and maybe do a post on it soon.

    Who’s the guy in the picture? I’ve seen his picture somewhere on the Web before. ❓

    [Edit:] Ah, I think that’s the director, Tim Bennett.

  12. Dear John,

    Please be assured of one thing: there are signs, definite signs of real progress.

    These blogs suffer from the absence of comments from the likes of Trinifar and Magne and Dave Iverson, among many others. I hope we hear from all of them and others soon.



  13. Steve,

    Trinifar is just very busy right now, and will jump back into the blogging world as soon as he comes up for air. Not sure about Magne and Dave. I’m sure they’ll be around when the mood strikes them.

    I agree there are positive signs. I think right now there’s a need for basic awareness, and I’m seeing more articles and comments from readers around the Web suggesting that awareness is growing.

  14. jim lydecker

    Jimmy Journal
    Of Overpopulation, Catholics and Bicycles…
    by Jim Lydecker
    Napa, California
    May 29, 2007

    Breeding toward extinction

    Last month the U.N. released official projections expecting the world population to reach 9.2 billion by 2050, an increase of 2.5 billion from today’s 6.7 billion. To put that sudden increase in perspective, 2.5 billion is the equivalent to the world’s entire population in 1950.

    It will never happen.

    Why, you may ask?

    Operative mechanisms in the collapse of the human population will be starvation, social strife and disease. These are all consequences of resource depletion and dense population. After a century thinking the Earth belonged to us and Mother Nature marched to our orders, they will begin to have their way with us.

    Throughout history, whenever a new energy source was exploited, human population skyrocketed.

    When we learned to domesticate animals to do the work of man around 8000 BC, the world population suddenly doubled to around 5 million.

    By the time of Christ, slave labor had allowed population to jump to nearly 300 million. It increased to about 450 million until coal replaced wood as the primary energy source in the early days of the Industrial Civilization. By 1850 it was a little over 1billion.

    In 1859, the Oil Age arrived and an increase of unprecedented proportions began.

    By 1930 the world population was 2 billion. In 1962, 3 billion. 1975 took us beyond 4 billion and we passed 5 billion in 1986.

    Get the idea? We are now nearing 7 billion and growth continues exponentially.

    I am not a population or demographic expert but a economist and resource depletion and energy guy. And I know that the increase in population going hand-in-hand with the age of hydro-carbons is not just a coincidence.

    Collapse is inevitable. The slippery slide down the slope of Peak Oil will be quicker than the trip up. Without cheap oil and it’s cousin, natural gas, the green revolution and the ability to feed all us billions will be history. Few industries will be affected as great as agriculture.

    Two that will be are those medical and pharmaceutical.

    Thus, the future die-off of biblical proportions due to starvation and disease.

    For a truly depressing study on this subject, I suggest the grand-pop of all overpopulation sites: http://www.dieoff.org

    Overpopulation is the one common denominator that is directly and/or indirectly tied to every problem facing us. Whether it be environmental, economic, social, political, criminal or anything you can think of, overpopulation is the 6.7 billion pound gorilla in the room.

    Knowing this, you would think that intelligent, reasonable people would advocate strict population controls. The survival of our species is more important than our breeding to extinction.

    This brings us to the Catholics.

    No institution has done more in history to allow human numbers to soar to today’s numbers than the Vatican. In fact, the argument has been made that nothing has kept more people mired in misery and poverty than the policies of the Catholic Church.

    Brazil, a country with a majority of their 185 million people Catholic, has embarked on a program of reducing their population to a manageable level through sex education, condoms and various other birth control. This concerned the Vatican to the point that Pope Benedict XVI visited Brazil last week to openly challenge the Brazilian government.

    Say what?

    The Brazil government of President Luiz Inacio de Silva should be applauded.

    The Pope criticized Brazil’s “decadence” and said that their “erotic climate exists because of this decadence.”

    Brazilian Cardinal Geraldo Majella added, “We cannot agree to the use of condoms and birth control because they turn life into a life without responsibility.”

    Let me get this straight: People are supposed to have unprotected sex without a thought toward birth control so we can procreate toward extinction? Now, that makes a lot of sense!


    Religious leaders are like our political leaders. In the face of obvious crisis, they are supposed to take us down paths, no matter how painful, because situations demand it. They are not supposed to lead us to the precipice like lemming leaping to their deaths.

    In an OpEd piece of mine, ‘U.S. Politicians Not Ready For The Future’ (Napa Valley Register, November 13, 2006), I settled on stupidity as an instrument to gauge our leaders. I wrote that “there are certain problems of such enormity” that “they can become crises capable of ending life as we know it.”

    Anyone who has not seen, recognized and accepted the responsibility to do something about them has no right representing me, either in Washington or the local pulpit. “Then that’s it,” I wrote, “You’re too stupid to hold office – and outta here!”

    People are up in arms over the Senate voting to fund the war last week. They feel Democrats were swept into office partially due to their opposition to the war.

    These people have got it all wrong and are acting as stupid as the politicians.

    We need to go to 2003 for an explanation.

    Before the war, most of the world knew it had nothing to do with WMD, terrorism or even the liberation of a country from a violent dictator. From the pages of the Register, I screamed that we would encounter a “rusty Iraqi erector set” and we intervened to control the oil fields and the means by which it is traded. The information was open and obvious for all to see.

    So, any of those politicians who voted for the war are too stupid to represent me in Washington. They should have been sent on their way for supporting the war originally.

    So, Hillary, Obama, John… None of you should be in Washington anymore, let alone be running for president. As I said in the Register, you all need to thrown outta there!

    For more on that, go to: http://www.napavalleyregister.com/articles/2006/11/13/opinion/commentary/doc45587cbf0fe1e642085276.txt


    By Foot and Bicycle

    With gasoline prices skyrocketing and my belief that we should be doing our share to slow down the effects of Peak Oil and global warming, I have been doing as much walking around town as possible.

    All right, I’ll be totally honest: At my annual physical recently, I was told I was in great shape with the exception of a few pounds I was told to shed. My physician suggested I increase my activity by doing something like walking. How much, I asked? Oh, he calmly replied, about 4 miles a day.

    So, I’m walking more.

    Napa, unlike other North Bay towns, is not a great bike-and-hike Mecca. You have to look just over the hill to Sonoma to find a town that is crisscrossed with beautiful trails all over the place. Most follow bucolic streams and vineyards making it a great experience to go by foot.

    In fact, Marin and Sonoma are known as the most bike-and-foot friendly counties in America. You can cross the Golden Gate Bridge and stay on a bike path all the way to Santa Rosa. From there you have paths east to Sonoma and, get this… all the way to Forestville by way of Sebastopol.

    I’ve done it before and it is a truly great experience.

    What I have noticed recently, though, is the increase of people getting around town by bike. It is extraordinary.

    So, I decided to read up on the history of the humble bicycle.

    In 1860, the contraption was invented that radically increased the ratio of energy input to output. The bicycle made human motion almost four times more powerful, turning a 3 mile slog into a 12 mile expedition. It required little maintenance.

    Compared to other methods of transportation, the bike was efficiently human powered. Trains of the day required mountains of coal and human energy shoveling it into the burners. Horse-and-carriages needed much upkeep – a horse ate many more times the food of a human.

    The trains need 210 kilocalories of energy to move a person a mile: A bike can do the same for only 20 which is the amount in a small bite from a banana.

    Bikes took the world by storm as they could take their riders anywhere and were entirely under their own control.

    With bicyclists sweating over their handlebars, it was only 26 years later when Karl Benz in Germany decided to put a engine on a tricycle. This led to two American bicycle mechanics designing their own version 7 years later, the first automobile.

    We are on our way to coming full circle.

  15. Nice essay with a lot of good points. Thanks for that, Jim. We do appear to be coming full circle. Good thing I got a bike last year. 😐

    And seriously, if there’s a move toward relocalization, as there should be, we’ll all likely become very familiar with biking and walking.

  16. I have seen differing views on this issue which show that the average births per woman has actually been in decline since the 1970’s. Although the population will reach 9bil around 2050, it will subsequently decline dramatically. Just an alternate view. Don’t forget the work of Malthus. What is more important that we have contingency plans in place for both scenarios and look at the general issue of the world population without preconceived notions of what will happen or what fate awaits us.

  17. Water, water once everywhere, but in 2070 not a drop to drink……

  18. Welcome Tristan,

    Yes, there are a number of differing views. Some differ quite vociferously in fact.

    I very much agree with you that we do not know what will happen. This is why I have critiqued arguments which say that because the UN, for example, predicts a leveling out around 2075 (it’s not actually projected for 2050, though you will see that year mentioned often) we have nothing to worry about:


    The problem with that argument is, first, that the UN report makes clear that they are just projections, not predictions, and that the demographers who wrote it freely admit they really don’t know what will happen. The second problem is that even if things progress exactly according to their projections, that will mean a 40% increase in population in the next several decades. We’ve had a doubling of world population since the 1960s, a quadrupling since about 1900 (as I recall). Many credible estimate have us now exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth, given any sort of decent standard of living. So whatever we can do to reduce fertility rates faster between now and later this century would be a real plus. The notion of a leveling out around 9.2 billion (UN projections) is little comfort.

    Yes, fertility rates have declined in many ares in the last few decades. And the population of some EU countries have stabilized or are in slight decline. (That’s good, contrary to what you’ll hear from some ubercapitalists who fret that it will harm economic growth. The important point is that economic growth becomes a moot point without a viable global ecosystem.) But fertility rates are still up in some areas with Africa and the Middle East seen as probable population growth hot spots in the coming decades. Even where they appear to be coming down (we can only see in the “rear-vew-mirror,” so to speak) any further reduction we can promote is good.

    Ultimately, we need to get world population down to some level that’s in accord with the ecosystem. Read this most recent article here to see why:


    I agree with the need for contingency plans, but I also think we need to try to take some active steps to try to move to a more ecologically sound mode of being.

    [Edit] I forgot to add, Tristan, that I’m not aware of any credible projections which see population as declining dramatically after it peaks. The UN’s estimates, as I recall, have it reaching about 9.2 billion by 2050, then “to be increasing by about 30 million persons annually at that time, according to the medium variant.” (2006 revision) That revision doesn’t say much otherwise about years beyond 2050, but the 2004 report on which it’s based had population peaking around 2075, then settling back to somewhere near 2050 levels. No big decline. As I point out in the article linked to above, though, they freely admit they really don’t know what will happen. Small differences in fertility rates will have big influences on population.