Category Archives: Carrying capacity

Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population: follow-up responses to readers’ comments

Administrator’s note: Several months ago GIM was lucky enough to be able to arrange for Dr. Russell Hopfenberg to respond to readers’ comments and questions concerning his important work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. My own summary of that work and its background, along with initial reader comments, is here. Additionally, since I wrote that post, Russ has developed an informative slideshow featuring his ideas. Russ’s responses to those initial comments, and readers’ subsequent questions and comments, are here. If you’re not familiar with the ideas involved and the prior discussion here, those links will help you get up to speed.

Now I’m pleased to post Russ’s follow-up responses to that second batch of reader comments linked to above. To my knowledge, GIM is the only website to have had the chance to present a dialog on this work between Russ and interested readers. The content which has emerged has helped readers better understand these underappreciated ideas. My thanks to Russ for his generosity in participating in this illuminating process! — JF

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By Russell Hopfenberg: Farmland

I’d like, once again, to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for their help with this discussion. Also, thanks to those who participated in this process by either asking questions, responding to my answers, or reading and integrating this information.

Trinifar: 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.

RH: Regarding the growth rate, this is absolutely true. Now, let’s take a moment to analyze this reality. A growth rate of 3% per year with a population of 2 billion makes the population 2.06 billion the following year — an additional 60 million people. A growth rate of 2% per year, a 1/3 reduction in the growth rate, with a population of 6 billion makes the population 6.12 billion – an additional 120 million people. That’s twice as many additional people as with the higher growth rate!! At some point, our population size will hit the tipping point of ecological disaster and the growth rate won’t matter. As for the DT itself, the DT is a dependent variable. This means that it is a function of something else. That something else is, among other things, food availability. Also, according to the Brundtland Report, it would take more than ten planet earths to usher a population of 6 billion people through to stage 4 of the DT.

Trinifar: 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?

Continue Reading…

Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF
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The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…


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Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis

By John Feeney:

[Original version published at The Oil Drum; Revised here for clarity – 11/12/07, 11/17/07, 5/31/08, 8/12/08]

Overshoot

Some of us who examine and discuss environmental matters are constantly puzzled and frustrated by the seeming inability of elected officials, environmental organizations, and environmental and political writers to “get” the nature of our ecological plight. Could it be they’re simply unaware of the ecological principles which enable one to understand it?

Since some undoubtedly are, and in light of the warnings in the UN’s latest report on the state of the global environment, here is a brief list of axioms and observations from population ecology with which everyone should be familiar. Most are taught in introductory level ecology and environmental science classes. They appear sequentially, so the reader can step logically through a progression which should make clear some of the fundamental elements of the global ecological challenge before us: (more…)

WEAP model on The Oil Drum

[Note update below. Paul’s updated model is here.]

There’s a lengthy discussion on The Oil Drum of Paul Chefurka’s World Energy and Population: Trends to 2100. I mentioned Paul’s paper in the introduction to the previous post here, and recommend it to anyone interested in an excellent, readable analysis of the relationship between peak energy and global population. It goes a long way toward bringing into focus much of the essence of our global ecological crisis.

I haven’t read all the comments on The Oil Drum, but there’s clearly enough material there to keep an interested reader busy for days. Good stuff.
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[10/21/07] Update: See Paul’s newer World Energy to 2050. Given Paul’s reassessment of his WEAP model (see this link, but also Paul’s comments below), a few more words are in order. It seems the key conclusion resulting from over 400 comments on the paper on The Oil Drum was that it did not successfully establish a causal link between energy decline and population decline.

That said, I believe the paper has had real value. First, it does contain excellent examinations of some important issues. Second, getting it in front of large numbers of people who could discuss and critique it has moved the discussion of this hugely important topic. We now have some new indication of how difficult it is to demonstrate beyond doubt a link between energy decline and population decline. It remains, of course, a problem of tremendous importance.

This is all very speculative, of course, but if true, it may in time help clarify the role of peak energy in the looming convergence of major ecological problems.[1] It could turn out to provide a smidgen more hope for the human future. Unfortunately, with a number of key ecological crises underway, some form of population crash remains a clear concern. See the comments for more.
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[1] Converging ecological problems include climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, aquifer depletion, soil erosion, depletion of fish stocks, and more, all in the context of increasing population overshoot and consequent decreasing carrying capacity.
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Earth Needs Renewed Attention to Human Population Growth

Note: The article below, which appeared recently in a number of online publications, was written for a general audience. It should nevertheless be of interest to GIM readers as an effort to spread awareness of the population issue and to dispel a couple of the many erroneous notions surrounding this controversial topic. This version contains a small revision or two but is largely the same as the version which first appeared at Online Journal.

Continued study of our global ecological challenge has meant for me a gradual evolution in my thinking about its dynamics. Population stabilization and reduction are arguably the single most powerful and cost effective means of moving toward ecological sustainability. Yet in just the few months since I wrote this article I’ve become increasingly concerned about the possibility that we’ve missed our chance to avert collapse. (See, for example, in my introduction to Ken Smail’s article on population reduction, Ken’s comment concerning the “temporal problem” with which we’re faced. Or for a detailed discussion, see Paul Chefurka’s analysis of the relationship between energy depletion and population. [10/21/07 – Edit: Note, however, Paul’s reassessment of some of the basis of his analysis.] Or see Jason Godesky’s argument that collapse is inevitable.) If so, reducing fertility rates would serve not as a solution per se, but as a means of softening the landing by sparing future lives. It remains, in any event, the most effective, sensible, humane response to our ecological crisis. — JF

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Concern over US population sizeBy John Feeney:

There’s a simple theme in today’s environmental writing. It shows up in titles like “Cut Your Consumption by Switching to Fluorescent Light Bulbs,” “Lawmakers Developing Fuel Economy Plan,” and “Is Wind Power Right for You?”

The trend is to promote reduced personal resource consumption. And it’s a crucial part of the solution to our energy and ecological woes.

But it’s only half the solution. The other half has faded from prominence in recent years. It’s the need to end global population growth. At a time when scientists tell us we’ve outgrown our earth, it deserves our renewed attention.

Population growth received a good deal of press in the 1960s and 1970s, but since then it’s become a taboo subject. China’s draconian one child policy and political pressure from social justice groups who saw the population issue as a distraction from their preferred causes saw to that. Indeed, some writers today even question the contribution of population growth to ecological degradation. (more…)

Weighing the benefits and the deficits of advancements

Administrator’s note: For this post, I’m glad to be able to feature a guest article by Emily Spence. Emily’s essays on a variety of social and ecological topics appear regularly on progressive websites such as Countercurrents.org, Information Clearing House, and Thomas Paine’s Corner.

This article relates closely to a question we’ve discussed recently on GIM: Would solving energy be enough, in itself, to end our ecological woes, or would such a technological advance bring with it a new set of unsustainable environmental challenges? Emily’s article provides insights which help considerably to clarify this and related issues. Many thanks to Emily for making it available. — JF
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Fusion

By Emily Spence:

During a hot breezy day one summer, my great-grandfather sat on a shady hill alongside of a river that runs through Syracuse, NY. Happy to enjoy such a beautiful moment, he watched young children plunge into the cool refreshing waters and, then, come out to dry themselves in the sunlight and wind. Thus, the idea of the electric hand dryer was conceived.

He developed the first generation prototype and sold the patent for ~ $100 K., a tremendous sum around the turn of the century, so that it could go into production for the good of humankind by removing the need for the same dirty hand-towels being repeatedly employed by different people. In addition, he was happy as he could now afford, due to his lavish fiscal gain, to take Apama, his daughter crippled from Polio, to visit top specialists in many faraway locations.

Suffice it to say that I sometimes look at dryers in public restrooms and wonder whether it is better to use electricity (most of which derives from fossil and nuclear fuels) to dry one’s hands or paper towels (that destroy trees). It is like asking whether one wants paper or plastic bags at the grocery store, as we know that both harm the environment. (more…)

When environmental writers are part of the problem

Note: The article below has appeared in several online publications. Though its roots were in an earlier GIM piece, it’s a rather different essay. I hope GIM readers who haven’t previously navigated to it through the link in the Off-site Articles section will find it worth a read.

In recent months there have been signs that some concerned about global sustainability are beginning to recognize once again that population size and growth must have a central place in any discussion of our ecological dilemma. Avoidance of the topic continues, though, among environmentalists who might otherwise raise awareness of the nature of the environmental challenges ahead. With that in mind, here’s a look at how environmental writers are sometimes part of the problem. — JF

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Avoiding the truth

By John Feeney:

Something’s missing in today’s environmental discussion. When talking about causes and proposed solutions for our ecological plight, few environmental writers are telling us more than half the story. Al Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and long time sustainability activist calls it “the silent lie.” It’s the near universal tendency to focus on the importance of cutting fossil fuel use while staying mum on the topic of population growth.

John Holdren, last year’s president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told us the whole story over a decade ago in an article titled, “Population and the Energy Problem.” In it, he observed that the total energy consumption for a country or the world, is the product of population size multiplied by the average per capita energy use. Today, the developers of the “ecological footprint” measure, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagle, echo Holdren when they explain:

[The ecological footprint] for the world as a whole is the product of population times per capita consumption, and reflects both the level of consumption and the efficiency with which resources are turned into consumption products.

(more…)

Is it enough to “solve” energy?

Some comments under Kent Welton’s Growthism essay raise a subject of profound importance. There’s a widespread notion that if we could just make the transition to completely clean and renewable energy – which we certainly need to do – our ecological problems would be over. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.Historically, there’s been a striking correlation between increases in energy consumption and population growth. It seems increasing access to energy has actually been a major driver of population growth, perhaps in large part because of the associated increase in food production. William Catton shows this so clearly in his book, Overshoot, that it knocks you over the head with new awareness.
Read the rest…

Global population reduction: confronting the inevitable

Update (6/22/08): Since posting Ken’s article, I’ve noticed in site stats that it’s been linked to by a couple of people offering it as evidence of some nefarious conspiracy to exterminate much of humanity. With the array of benign, voluntary, humane approaches to lowering fertility rates discussed and promoted on this site and elsewhere, such an assumption is mind boggling. I won’t speculate on what such a fantasy suggests about the psyches of its adherents. But it definitely indicates an incredible unwillingness to do the slightest research into ways of addressing population. Let us hope those readers of this essay who have jumped to such wildly erroneous conclusions are few in number. It would be difficult otherwise to hold out much hope for our species. — JF

Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature on GIM a guest article from Dr. J. Kenneth Smail, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at Kenyon College. Ken Smail’s articles on population have appeared in a variety of professional journals including American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Politics and the Life Sciences; Environment, Development and Sustainability; and World Watch Magazine. This article appeared originally in World Watch Magazine. Many thanks to Ken for his permission to reprint it here.

In introducing the article, it’s worth noting, with permission, a comment from Ken’s cover letter to me:

Let me just mention at the outset that I have recently been giving a lot of thought to the “temporal problem” I elaborate on [in the letter] — at least two or more centuries needed for global population stabilization and subsequent reduction vs. only a few decades remaining for dealing effectively with the troubling issues (or rapidly emerging “truths”) of post-peak oil and global climate change.

We do indeed face a serious dilemma. I’m glad there are a few thinkers, like Ken Smail, who are willing to grapple openly with it. — JF

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By J. Kenneth Smail (2004):
Numbers and consumption

Looking past the near-term concerns that have plagued population policy at the political level, it is increasingly apparent that the long-term sustainability of civilization will require not just a leveling-off of human numbers as projected over the coming half-century, but a colossal reduction in both population and consumption.

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It has become increasingly apparent over the past half-century that there is a growing tension between two seemingly irreconcilable trends. On one hand, moderate to conservative demographic projections indicate that global human numbers will almost certainly reach 9 billion, perhaps more, by mid-21st century. On the other, prudent and increasingly reliable scientific estimates suggest that the Earth’s long-term sustainable human carrying capacity, at what might be defined as an “adequate” to “moderately comfortable” developed-world standard of living, may not be much greater than 2 to 3 billion. It may be considerably less, particularly if the normative lifestyle (level of consumption) aspired to is anywhere close to that of the United States.

As a consequence of this modern-day “Malthusian dilemma,” it is past time to think boldly about the midrange future and to consider alternatives that go beyond merely slowing or stopping the growth of global population. The human species must develop and quickly implement a well-conceived, clearly articulated, flexible, equitable, and internationally coordinated program focused on bringing about a very significant reduction in human numbers over the next two or more centuries. This effort will likely require a global population shrinkage of at least two-thirds to threefourths, from a probable mid-to-late 21st century peak in the 9 to 10 billion range to a future (23rd century and beyond) “population optimum” of not more than 2 to 3 billion. (more…)

Note on peak oil and population

As as follow-up to Jim Lydecker’s essay, My World Without Oil, I wanted to remind readers of an essay by occasional GIM commenter, Paul Chefurka. Titled Peak Oil, Carrying Capacity and Overshoot: Population, the Elephant in the Room, it makes the case that our use of oil dramatically increased the earth’s carrying capacity for humans. Paul argues that therefore, post-peak-oil, we will be in serious overshoot of that carrying capacity: “The decline in oil supply will reduce the planet’s carrying capacity, thus forcing humanity into overshoot with the inevitable consequence of a population decline.”

You may have noticed in Jim’s essay his comment, “But it is not going to be a pretty scene as hydrocarbons are depleted. We are talking social strife, mass migration, starvation, epidemics and worse.” Paul’s essay outlines carefully the population dynamics such a scene could involve. (more…)

Local breakthrough in addressing population and urban growth

ASAP LogoI received word last night from Bob Fireovid who maintains the site, Controlling Growth in Our Communities, that a group in the Charlottesville, Virginia area has had set aside by their county board of supervisors $25,000 in funding, with preliminary approval that it be applied toward a study to determine an optimal sustainable population for their community.

Though they have more steps to complete to secure this and more funding, this is a breakthrough with regard to urban growth control and the the need to recognize limits to growth. The group, Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP), one of the most active and forward thinking local groups addressing urban growth, has been working toward this for some time.

According to the email forwarded to me, this may be the first time a local government in the US has voted to approve funds for such research.

In my view, other communities should follow ASAP’s and Albemarle County’s lead on this. And communities which have in place other measures to limit growth, might do well to add a population cap based on such research. (more…)

Just when you thought the cornucopians had all gone away, Redditors channel the spirit of Julian Simon

Recently I submitted a link to an article on Trinifar to Reddit, one of the most active in a category loosely known as “social bookmarking” sites. These are sites where you can share with others links to websites or articles of interest. On Reddit, submissions are voted up or down. If one gets enough up-votes it moves to their front page and can send a lot of traffic to the site. [1] That happened with this one, driving a barrage of visits to Trinifar’s post. That was good as the article had a message concerning population and limits to growth which needs to be seen by as many people as possible.Reddit

But that’s not the end of it. On Reddit, users also comment on the links submitted. This one triggered a large and divided discussion on the question of limits to growth. Among the comments were some I found thoughtful and incisive. But there was also a range of arguments representing the “cornucopian” view popularized by the late economist Julian Simon. (Note: the Wikipedia entry is written, in large part, by devotees of Simon.) (more…)

Special guest: Dr. Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population

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!

— John

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By Russell Hopfenberg:

Wheat field

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. (more…)

Coming May 3rd: Discussion with Russell Hopfenberg

Special Event

On Thursday, May 3rd, we will have Dr. Russell Hopfenberg here to discuss his work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. In two peer reviewed journal articles, one coauthored by David Pimentel, Russ has analyzed and investigated the relationship between between human population and food supply. His conclusion is that global food supply is the variable which best accounts for human carrying capacity, and that human population will continue to grow as long as food supply increases.

The first of those articles is available here, the second here. (update 10/04/07, the latter became unavailable online, except for the abstract. I’ll try to provide a PDF in the future. As an alternative, see the slideshow here.)
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No comfort from the UN

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

Projections, not predictions

Almost three months ago I posted an essay on the UN’s 2004 report, World Population to 2300 (large pdf). In it, I showed that the UN’s population projections are widely misinterpreted as predictions when in fact they are merely illustrative scenarios. That is one reason we cannot take much comfort in the UN’s projections; they don’t even pretend to be predictions we can count on. (more…)