Category Archives: Overshoot

Sowing the seeds of a future society

Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.

In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.

Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:Sowing

Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.

Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.

Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
Continue reading . . .

Interviews: Bartlett and Ehrlich

Below are two interviews worth a listen. The first is with Al Bartlett. The second features Paul Ehrlich. Each is, of course, a leading thinker and writer on a variety of topics in sustainability. (Both, by the way, will appear in Dave Gardner’s film, Hooked On Growth.) You can find other interviews with each, but these are fairly recent as well as engaging. They range across topic including population, economic sustainability, politics, and energy. The Bartlett interview is 72 minutes long while Ehrlich’s is just 19 minutes:

Al Bartlett interview

Paul Ehrlich interview

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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

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

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]


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…)

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


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, 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

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…)