Category Archives: World population

Economists can’t take (quite) all the blame

Suzuki In the previous article here, I reiterated a fundamental problem with mainstream economics. It fails to recognize that all economic activity is a part of, and as dependent on the ecosystem as any other aspect of human activity or the activities of other species. I urged mainstream economists not to let debates about the details of theory distract them from shifting their view to one in which the economy is viewed in its true relationship with nature. If they can do that, they can truly help to save the world by rethinking our approach to economic growth which, as it stands, is degrading the ecosystem and pushing us toward environmental collapse.

It’s not all the fault of the economists 🙂

But it’s not just mainstream economics which has lost sight of it’s connectedness to the ecosystem. The problem with economics is, in part, likely a reflection of a broader societal phenomenon. Recently, I came across a couple of David Suzuki articles which highlight the seriousness of the problem. (more…)

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The Texas argument

Texas is bigSome people deny the problem of population. They insist that neither the present world population size nor its continuing growth is a problem. Some of these folks are influenced by certain writers, often far to the right politically, and typically focused on mainstream economics, who espouse this sort of population denial. (We’ll look at some of those writers in the future.) Others are merely drawing conclusions from their everyday observations. From neither contingent have I seen a very substantive argument, but a common argument from the second group is especially silly.

Texas is great, but this is ridiculous

Usually, it goes something like this: “There’s no population problem. It’s a myth. You could fit every human being on earth inside the state of Texas with plenty of room for everyone.” You can see an example of this in comments on Anderson Cooper’s blog on the CNN site. (Search the page for the phrase “state of Texas” – without the quotes.) [1] (more…)

The UN population report: misunderstood and misused

UN Flag

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

In 2004 the United Nations issued a report titled World Population to 2300. (Large pdf) In it, the demographers who authored the report offer “projections” concerning world population growth through this century and all the way to 2300. The following graph, based on the UN’s, shows the three scenarios or projections for which the report is best known. As you can see, their medium scenario, the one on which most people focus, shows what might appear to be a near peaking of population growth around 2050:

Graph of UN data

I had occasion last year to sit in on a college class in which the students were discussing the issue of world population growth. One student asked the question, “Why should we worry about population growth when the UN says world population will stabilize around 2050?” That’s an important question, and one the student is not alone in having asked. The UN report is cited from time to time by mainstream economists and others who dismiss concern over population growth. (Sometimes those on the far right voice instead a kind of corporate concern about the slowing of population growth in developed countries. That is a topic for a future post.)

Do they have a point? Should we take comfort in UN report? Should we see it as reason to dismiss, at least to some extent, population growth as a serious concern? (more…)

While you were living…

World population growth

While I toil away on a more substantive article (!), I thought I’d point you to an informative, even fun site concerning population issues. It’s a couple of pages of online course material on world population from a biology class at Western Kentucky University. They include a number of links which are well worth following. One, for instance, goes to a PBS site for a Nova program, circa 2000 I believe, on world population, containing lots of fascinating interactive elements, interviews, even sample posters from various country’s campaigns to lower their fertility rates.

Especially telling is the interactive tool (near the top of the page) in which you click the dot to enter your age. It shows you what the earth’s human population was when you were born and how much it has grown since. The amount of growth might shock you, no matter your age. But the older one gets, the shorter one realizes a lifetime is. And I think the older the reader of this post, the more astounding it will be to see how much world population has grown in such a short time.

Please pass the link to this post along to anyone who might be interested to see how much world population has grown in their lifetime.

Note that a few statistics in the materials, including the tool in the image above, appear to be a few years out of date. Still, the general ideas come through clearly.
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Image source: Sustainable Scale Project

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Population solutions: a snapshot

Improved educational opportunities for girls are vital.I want to touch briefly on a topic which came up in discussion with Verdurous two articles ago. It’s the issue of what actions might help address the problem of population growth. I’ll merely touch on the subject in this entry, examining it in more detail in subsequent posts.

Indignation

Occasionally, when I’ve mentioned to someone the need to address population growth, they’ve reacted with indignation. They assume I’m suggesting some sort of forced sterilization program or other draconian measure. Admittedly, this has occurred in Web based discussion in which some participants’ civility and impulse control often leaves something to be desired. (Okay, a lot to be desired!) Still, I’m not sure why they jump to this assumption. (Does it say something about how the topic of population growth has become taboo in many circles? That’s a fascinating topic for an upcoming post.)

Good options

In reality, there are a number of worthwhile methods we can and should employ to reduce fertility rates and thus population growth. (more…)

The not-so-elusive population-environment link

Strip miningThe most basic assumption driving this site is that population growth and corporate economic growth team with per capita resource consumption as the primary drivers of today’s ecological decline. Perhaps, then, it’s best to devote this early entry to a bit of support for that assertion. There are people, after all, who question it.

Let’s start with population growth. Especially prominent among those who dismiss the idea that population growth is a problem have been a few economists—most notably the late Julian Simon—who cheerlead population growth, arguing that it is always to our benefit. Natural scientists, for the most part, do not much question it as a major cause of environmental degradation. That in itself speaks volumes. Nevertheless, is it possible to use simple logic to demonstrate a link between population growth and environmental damage? I believe so.

More people, more warming

Consider climate change. There is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is contributing significantly to global warming. The implicated human activity is anything we do which causes greenhouse gas emissions. One of those things is driving cars which burn fossil fuels. Clearly then, everything else being equal, more cars means more anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions — the primary gas of concern being CO2.

World population has doubled since the early 1960s. As a result of that doubling there are now far more cars operating than there were 40 years ago. There are, therefore, more auto-related emissions. Those increased auto emissions mean more CO2 emissions and more forcing of climate change. [1] [2] It is therefore indisputable that population growth has contributed significantly to climate change. [3]

There, that was easy enough. And we could construct similar analyses of the relationship between population growth and other human sources of greenhouse gases. We could just as easily demonstrate the links between population growth and other aspects of environmental degradation. For a fuller discussion of the population-climate change link, see the relevant page on the Union of Concerned Scientists site. For more on the general topic of population and the environment try Al Bartlett’s excellent article, Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment – Revisited. In future entries I’ll try to provide equally simple arguments to support other aspects of this site’s basic assumptions.
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[1] Note that CO2, the most significant greenhouse gas produced by human activity, has not historically been regulated by auto emissions standards.

[2] For voluminous information on the relationships between greenhouse gases and climate change see the various documents at the IPCC website. Of particular relevance to this post, see the top graph here, illustrating the increase over time of atmospheric CO2 and the associated estimated radiative forcing.

[3] Just to add some perspective, the U.S. Department of Energy reports, in fact, that, “In 2003, the transportation sector accounted for about 27 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions, up from 24.8 percent in 1990.” (Thanks to Wacki, who maintains the LogicalScience.com climate change blog, for that reference.)
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Image source: Stephen Codrington, posted on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license

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Welcome to Growth is Madness!

Our finite Earth from space.Our earth is in trouble. And that means we’re in trouble. It’s no exaggeration today to say we face a looming global ecological collapse. Scientists have warned us of this for more than a decade. The warnings, from individual experts, and organizations grow more urgent.

Yet, most people’s attention is on other news. There is little awareness of the gravity of the environmental problem we face and the likely consequences if it is not vigorously addressed.

There is even less awareness of the root causes of our environmental plight. This is not too surprising as their role in creating the problems we face has been suppressed by those with vested interests in shielding us from the truth.

Simple truth

Let’s start with some truth right now. The root causes of the ecological collapse of which scientists are warning are:

  1. Global population growth to levels beyond the earth’s carrying capacity for humans.
  2. Excessive and growing per capita resource consumption rates.
  3. Economic growth (the product of #1 and #2), as defined by Herman Daly, in the form of increased physical throughput, from the extraction of raw materials, through their manufacture into commodities, to their output as wastes.
  4. Our reliance on nonrenewable resources such as fossil energy.

Those four elements are of course closely linked, with one affecting another. It takes only simple thought experiments to recognize their impacts. Imagine, for instance, that there were only one quarter as many human beings on earth as there are today (about equal to the global population of 1900!). Clearly, there would be be far less environmental degradation. We could quibble over whether or not it would be exactly one quarter the current amount. (We might speculate that the variables listed should interact differently at different levels.) But the basic idea is clear. Think similarly about the other factors, and their importance comes to light.

Room for hope!

But before you close this site in dismay at what, up to here, seems a profoundly pessimistic message, I’ll point out there is room for much hope! Experts who study the global ecological problem are clear in their assessments (pdf) that there are effective actions we can take to avert disaster or, at the least, to soften the landing. It will take serious commitments from many nations, intergovernmental cooperation, corporate and individual efforts. Part of those efforts needs to be the spreading of accurate information to inspire others to help, whether they encourage their elected representatives to take action, or they take action themselves.

Enter GIM

Thus, I launch Growth is Madness! (GIM) to help fill a void I can hardly believe exists. Relative to other issues in the news, there is a terrible dearth of information, readily available to the public, on the nature and causes of the most important problem of our time, the global environmental crisis. As far as I know, this is the only weblog currently devoted expressly to addressing the fundamental causes of this crisis. [1] In this unique role, GIM will provide key information, investigating and elaborating on the ideas mentioned above, examining counterarguments, and more.

Because they are especially ignored by the mainstream press, the population and economic growth will figure prominently here. We will, however, touch as well on other relevant topics including peak oil, per capita consumption, the political and social factors driving the areas of growth in question, various ecological topics, and actions which might ameliorate the problem. We need much more awareness, after all, of the ecological “big picture.”

In a way, I wish someone else were doing this. Though trained as a social scientist in the “scientist-practitioner” model, my academic background is in psychology. Here, I’m forced to grapple with topics from the natural sciences, economics, sociology, and anthropology among other disciplines. Others would have immediately at hand more technical knowledge. But they’re not doing this.

Starting, then, with the information I’ve gathered, I’ll continue to research as I go. And I invite you to join me, to participate in the discussion under every entry. I’m more than willing, as well, to post guest articles relevant to the site.

Finally, to anyone reading GIM, I make this pledge: I’ll always make the effort to seek the truth, to back my arguments with sound logic, and to source my information well. In addition, I want readers to feel comfortable commenting here, to know I’ll reply civilly. On the other hand, I hope the title of this weblog makes clear that I won’t mince words when it comes to stating the truth as I see it about the topics I discuss. Growth really is madness.

Welcome to GIM!
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[1] Update: Greater familiarity with the available resources requires me now to qualify that statement. As a class, the sites which come closest to sharing the themes here are those focused on peak oil. While they specialize in oil depletion, often touching on related ecological issues such as population, GIM specializes in those other ecological issues, increasingly touching on peak oil.

Since writing this post, a small number of other blogs sharing GIM’s concerns have come online. Some appear in the blogroll here.

Also overlapping somewhat with GIM’s themes are a few sites which promote a return to primitivism. These folks, as well as some of those studying oil depletion, have concluded that, owing to the interactions of issues such as population overshoot and peak oil, society is headed for collapse and it’s too late to stop it. If current trends continue, I agree collapse is inevitable. I part with these analysts only in that I believe it’s premature to conclude there is no possibility we can change course soon enough and substantially enough to avert complete collapse. I would concede, though, there may be less time remaining to do so than most of us would like to believe.

Even if my assessment is too optimistic, it’s worth noting that even those convinced of the inevitability of collapse would agree there are a number of positive actions we can take now to soften the landing. Much of the content of GIM is consistent with that thought. We need to increase awareness to avert collapse, or at least to soften the landing.

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Updated: 8/24/07, 10/9/07
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