Category Archives: World population

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…)

After a “lost decade,” experts call for renewed focus on population growth

Womens Health Clinic - East AfricaBy John Feeney:

To many, it’s obvious population growth is a key factor, arguably the key factor, in environmental degradation and resource depletion, contributing heavily as well to poverty and human conflict. Unfortunately, some environmental groups and writers, and some fighting for social justice, deny or consciously avoid the obvious. Often they realize population growth is a fundamental driver of ecological and social problems, but choose deliberately to avoid the topic. Their reasons vary, but fit generally under the heading, “politics.”

There are, for instance, women’s groups with whose concerns I sympathize, but which have decided the population issue distracts from their work promoting the rights of women. There are environmental writers who carefully skirt the topic of population growth in the belief that the notion of “population control” has become associated with totalitarian or eugenic measures, making any environmentalist who utters the word “population” vulnerable to easy criticism.

In both instances, activists or writers have opted to play politics rather than speaking the truth. (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…)

Coming up on GIM

For the next ten days I’ll be taking a summer break. GIM will be less active, but look for another guest article by Jim Lydecker. I’ll post that in a few days.

Soon I anticipate receiving Russ Hopfenberg’s responses to readers’ questions and comments following his first set of remarks. If all goes as planned, watch for a post announcing those later this month or in July.

I’m working on an overdue article concerning evidence and expert opinion that the past decade’s neglect of the population issue has been a major setback to both environmental and social causes. That should appear in early July.

As a prelude to that you might try these looks at population politics:

— John

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Powerful population links

powerful links

If this site is to be of some help in the world, it will be by providing information, through essays and discussion, of which others make productive use. With that in mind, at one time or another you’ll be in a position to try to convince someone of the urgent need for action on the environmental crisis we face. One of the most contentious issues, of course, is population. In working on the “All Links” page I mention in the sidebar (It really is coming!), it occurred to me I should share right now a few population links you might find particularly useful in making the case for addressing population growth.

Their value is in their clout. They are all statements or more extensive resources on population from important scientific organizations or, in one case, from world leaders. If you’re talking with someone who denies the importance of population toss a couple of these references their way. (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…)

Are environmental writers choosing avoidance over truth?

See no evil

It is indisputable that population size and growth are among the fundamental drivers of today’s ecological crisis. There’s no getting around the math that population size multiplies with per capita consumption to determine total resource consumption. Additional links between our numbers and ecological degradation are impossible to dismiss. Once one accounts for population, consumption rates, and corporate economic growth, one is hard pressed to identify any equally powerful contributors to environmental destruction. [1]

What are environmental writers thinking?

You may wonder, therefore, why the topic of population does not appear in nearly all media coverage of environmental problems. The population topic is, in fact, actively avoided by many environmental writers. The history of how it’s become a taboo subject is worth a few future posts, but Grist staff writer, David Roberts, recently summed up the thinking of some current writers. (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.)
(more…)

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…)

A voice of sanity in New Zealand

The economic growth imperative, based in greed, must end. Those of us concerned about population growth and economic growth on a finite earth often feel we’re in a small, lonely minority. This feeling is intensified by the discussion of climate change. We hear plenty in that context about the need to reduce consumption. That tackling climate change will necessitate also stopping growth — both population growth and economic growth as we’ve come to know it — is the elephant in the room. It’s the huge topic we can’t avoid, but which, for now, the mainstream media hesitate to touch.

One cannot think about this without being troubled. It means the mainstream media, and in fact most of the alternative media as well, are avoiding coverage of the most destructive activity in which humans are now engaged. (No, I’m not discounting the destruction or tragedy of war at all.) So it’s always a pleasant surprise to come across an exception to this unofficial media ban on these topics.

Kiwi surprise

My most recent surprise of this sort comes from the New Zealand Herald. There, Allen Cookson, a retired science teacher, offers a guest column which reads like a condensed version of The Growth is Madness! Story. (more…)

Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 2

In Part 1 of this essay, I began to examine Betsy Hartmann’s argument that population growth is not a serious problem, and that it distracts us from real problems of women’s rights, racism, and class bias. Assessing her critique of 1994’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, I touched on her arguments concerning poverty and environmental degradation. For neither does she readily accept population growth as playing an important causal role. I acknowledged her valid points, but disagreed with certain assertions, particularly concerning the environmental issue. Now let’s turn to the question of women’s issues and how they relate to population growth.

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Does a focus on population work against women’s rights?

Those who study population know there is a negative correlation between fertility rates and the provision of educational, work, and other opportunities for girls and women. (more…)

Learning from Lester Brown

Lester Brown We can learn a lot from Lester Brown. By way of introduction, he is an environmentalist with some 50 books to his credit, including Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth and Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. He founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1989 United Nations Environment Prize.

In the video linked to below, he touches briefly on the relationship between the economy and the environment at its broadest level, an issue we’ve examined here before. (more…)

Population and consumption: both major players

Growing footprint Consider this a working paper of sorts. It adds to the last post here which discussed the relationship between population and consumption. But it’s only a snapshot of an initial bit of online and library research. I hope to flesh out the topic more fully in the future.

At the end of that post I mentioned two issues I had barely touched on, which deserved more attention. They were (a) the question of whether, even hypothetically, we could ignore population growth and count solely on advances in clean energy technologies to escape ecological catastrophe, and (b) the implications of the observation that over the last century global energy consumption has increased more than population numbers. In my view, the former question is the simpler one, and I’ll get to in the near future. In this post I’ll provide some of what I’ve found concerning the latter issue.

The consumption argument

It’s a common observation that, over the last half century or more, resource consumption rates have increased at a faster pace than population size. I’ve seen this observation used to support the view that population growth isn’t as serious an environmental problem as our growing rates of consumption. Sometimes a proponent of this argument presents data showing that the magnitude of growth of total world energy consumption, or of total consumption of a specific resource, is considerably larger than that of population. (more…)

An unholy matrimony

[The follow-up to this essay is found here.]

The chicken knows
“Overpopulation is a serious problem getting worse every year.”

“Overpopulation is a myth.”

“There is no population problem.”

“There’s overconsumption, … but not overpopulation.”

“[The problem is] overpopulation in the South and overconsumption in the North.”

That’s just a sampling of the kinds of conflicting statements about population growth you can find on the Web and elsewhere. Is it any wonder the topic confuses people? Readers here should have little doubt which of the first three views I share. I would suggest, as well, that statements dismissing the population issue are often disingenuous and politically motivated.

Good question

But what about about the population versus consumption question? (more…)

If I’m right, do I win a Nobel Prize?

Nobel Medal

It’s not easy trying to spread the word about population growth. Part of the trouble is that others, sometimes highly respected in their fields, spread contrary information. Nobel prize winners go around telling people population growth is a good thing; bring it on! George W. Bush regretted saying such a thing and said so. But the population growth cheerleaders haven’t yet expressed any remorse about their destructive pronouncements. One can only hope that in the end the truth will out.

Gary, we need to talk

While we’re waiting for the truth to win the day, let’s take a quick look at one attempt to convince us we should welcome continued population growth. (more…)