Crowded Planet

Over the course of the past one hundred years, we humans have grown in population at a rate rarely seen outside of a petri dish. Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling The World Without Us, spent two years traveling to twenty nations to investigate what this population explosion means for our species as well as those we share the planet with — and, most importantly, what we can do about it. His book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? came out in 2013. Orion managing editor Andrew D. Blechman met with Alan at his home in rural Massachusetts, amid birdsong and the patter of rainfall, to discuss some of the most serious issues ever to face the human species.

Andrew D. Blechman: Population is perhaps the monumental topic of our time, and yet the title of your book ends in a question mark. Why is that?

Alan Weisman: I’m a journalist, not an activist. I don’t make statements, but I try to find the answers to big, burning questions. This is the big one to me, because it addresses whether we’ll be able to continue as a species, given all the things that we have been doing to our home.

Andrew: The human population stayed relatively stable, or grew at a manageable rate, for tens of thousands of years but exploded in the past century. What happened? How did we humans come to dominate the planet so quickly?

Alan: The explosion began during the Industrial Revolution. Jobs were suddenly in cities rather than on farms. People were living in tight quarters, and that became an incentive for doctors to begin dealing with diseases that were starting to spread much more easily. Beginning with the nineteenth century, medical advances, such as the smallpox vaccination, were either eradicating diseases or controlling the pests that spread diseases. Suddenly, people were living longer, fewer infants were dying.

Andrew: Before that, we were basically at a replacement rate?

Alan: Pretty much. Women would have seven or eight kids, and if they were lucky, two survived. Two is replacement rate. If a male and female have two kids, then they have essentially replaced themselves. Population remained stable because as many people were dying as were being born.

The other thing was that suddenly we learned how to produce far more food than nature could ever do on its own. Nature’s ability to produce plant life has always been limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria could pull out of the air and provide as food for plants. In the twentieth century, we discovered how to pull nitrogen out of the air artificially.

Andrew: You’re speaking of the Haber-Bosch process.

Alan: Yes. As a result, we suddenly came up with artificial fertilizer that could produce much more plant life on this planet than had ever existed before. We were at about 2 billion in 1930 when we started using artificial nitrogen extensively. Today we’re at 7 billion. Between 40 and 50 percent of us would not be alive without artificial nitrogen fertilizer. It nearly doubled the food supply.

Andrew: They say that, in some ways, too much abundance isn’t actually good for a population, that it can actually stress it because it leads to overpopulation. For example, if you overfeed city pigeons, they have more babies and the population starts maxing out, whereas if you don’t overfeed them, the population keeps itself in check.

Alan: That’s the paradox of food production — it can ultimately undermine the viability of a population. At a certain point, it expands beyond its resource base, and then it crashes. Wildlife managers, for example, well know that if we don’t keep population in balance with food, a species can run into serious problems. They know that they can either relax controls on natural predators, or issue more permits to hunters — that is, human predators.

Andrew: If that’s the case, then is part of the problem the fact that humans don’t have an apex predator to worry about?

Alan: Yes, there was a time when we got knocked off rather frequently by wild animals that had as much or more power in the landscape as we did. As our technology grew, starting with stone hammers and then slings and spears, we started getting the upper hand. Once we rose to the top, the limiting factors on us were basically mortality, disease, and hardship.

Andrew: What does it mean for the earth to be full? For example, 350 parts per million has been identified as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere beyond which we set in motion changes that will threaten the future of life as we know it. Is there a comparable figure for global population numbers?

Alan: That was one of the big questions that I set out to answer, or to try to see if it’s possible to answer: how many people can fit on the planet without tipping it over? It’s completely related to what we are doing. If we all lived an agrarian life, self-limitations would set in and our numbers wouldn’t grow much beyond our ability to grow our own food. However, if we are force-feeding our crops through chemistry, we can produce a lot more food, and a lot more of us, too. At a certain point, a downside kicks in to that.

But the answer to your question isn’t really known because we’re finding it out right now. We’re all part of a big experiment to see how many of us can live on this planet without doing something to it that is going to destabilize it so much that our own future is in jeopardy.

Andrew: Isn’t it almost impossible to predict the future, given how variables change? What if the population problem is self-correcting? After all, we’re no longer doubling, and many developed nations are experiencing population decline.

Alan: Some argue that population is in fact self-correcting, and that the correction is already underway. But it’s a little like saying a house fire is self-correcting, because it will eventually put itself out. Unfortunately the damage is done. One way or another, when a species exceeds its resource base, the population will come down. Nature does that in 100 percent of the cases in the history of biology. The question that I keep coming back to is how soon is that going to happen?

Andrew: And will it be in time?

Alan: Exactly. If our population is coming down because nature is going to do it for us, well, it’s going to be, frankly, unpleasant to watch. When nature does in a horde of locusts because they eat themselves out of sustenance, it’s interesting for us to observe. When it happens to our own species, it’s not going to be very pretty.

The whole reason for writing this book was to ask the question, should we take the responsibility to try to manage population decline gracefully, and possibly speed it up? We can do it humanely if we decide to manage it rather than let nature take its course.

Andrew: Is it the sheer number of people or is it the amount that we consume that matters, particularly in the so-called developed nations. Or is it simply that we live too long?

Alan: The answer to all of that is yes. All of those things are involved. I’m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, “It’s not population; it’s consumption.” Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.

Andrew: And, as you mention in your book, there’s no condom for consumption.

Alan: I think, in the twentieth century, when our population quadrupled, we got to the point where we kind of redefined original sin. Just by being born, we’re part of the problem. There’s also no question that the most overpopulated country on earth is actually the United States, because we consume at such a ferocious rate. We may not be as numerous as China or as India, but our total impact is huge.

That doesn’t mean that poor people in developing nations don’t have a severe impact on the environment. I was in Niger, which has the highest fertility rate on the planet now. Its average is around eight children per fertile female. In every village, I heard, “Had you been here twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t have seen that house over there for all the trees that we used to have.” Where did the trees go? Well, they needed them for firewood, and then the climate began changing on them and there’s less rain now. They’re not responsible for the industrial pollution that has gunked up the atmosphere, but when you take down trees, things change. You graze too many animals, and things really change. They’re now in chronic drought. In every village, hundreds of children had died.

What will ultimately carry the day in Niger is the dawning realization that they don’t have the luxury of continuing life as they used to live it, where men had multiple wives and wives had many children. And it’s not just in Niger, but many countries on the planet. Education seems to be the key. Any time you start to educate people, they start to put these things together, particularly if you educate women. Education is the best contraceptive of all.

Andrew: That’s what I gather from your book — the more you educate women, the faster the birth rate drops, and the quicker a population adopts a family-planning mentality.

Alan: It was one of the wonderful things about doing this book, which could otherwise have been very grim and sobering. I went to so many countries, twenty-one including all my travels around the United States. I saw human beings confronting some of the most difficult questions in our history. How are we going to survive? What are we doing to ourselves? Yet one of the easiest things that we can do that can make such a huge difference is one of these blessed win-win situations. You educate women, and give women rights that are equal to anybody else’s on this planet, and they generally choose to have fewer children, because they have another way to contribute to society that would be difficult if they had seven kids to care for.

Every place where you’ve got really educated women, you’ve got a society that is more and more livable. The more women decision makers we have, the better our chances. All we have to do is offer fair, equal opportunity to half the human race, the female half. This problem will start taking care of itself really, really quickly. A whole lot of environmental problems, within a couple generations, will also ease up because there’ll be a lot more space on this planet for other species.

Andrew: It’s amazing how flexible we can be as a species. Humans seem to adapt to having large families, and they seem to adapt just as easily to having very small families, even single children.

Alan: There’s a moment in the book with four hundred brilliant, animated students at Guangzhou University in China. Their parents or grandparents had been denied education in the Cultural Revolution and led limited lives. But these Chinese kids believe the twenty-first century is theirs. They’ve got education and incredible opportunities to do interesting work. The sky is the limit for them — but also literally, because they know that Guangzhou’s factory pollution hangs over their lives, and that it would be even worse if China hadn’t curbed its population.

Something occurred to me out of the blue. I asked my translator, a young woman in her twenties, “Hey, are they all only children?” She said, “Sure. We all are.”

Many people appalled by China’s one-child policy think it must be so unnatural not to have siblings. I asked these kids whether they missed having siblings. They admitted that yes, they did. But then they said, “On the other hand, our cousins have become our siblings. Sometimes our best friends have. We’ve reinvented the family.”

That, to me, was yet another example of the great flexibility of the human race, that we can make adjustments when we need to.

Andrew: Now that it’s entered its fourth decade, what other lessons can we learn from China’s massive social experiment with the one-child policy?

Alan: In one sense, the one-child policy has been successful — there would be 400 million more Chinese otherwise. And we’ve learned valuable lessons about population management, like the threat of discrimination, even lethal, against female babies.

We’ve also learned that while a draconian edict may have worked in one place, it’s not going to work everywhere. We have to take the culture of a country, a nation, a political system, a religious system, into account if we’re going to talk about managing population, which I think we have to do. Look, if we manage populations of predators and prey in parks because they have limits, we need to realize that we’ve now come to the limits of our planet. We occupy the whole thing — in a sense the earth is now a park, it’s parkland. We live in it, and we have to manage it ourselves. There’s no way around that. I don’t want us to cull ourselves like we do with deer, but we do have the technology, contraceptive technology, to control our numbers, and I think that one way or another we’re going to have to be doing it.

Sure, maybe we can learn to consume less. But frankly, if we try to attack consumption to solve all of our problems, by the time we change human nature enough so that people consume a lot less, I think the earth will be trashed in the meantime. So I think there are other things we have to do.

Andrew: It seems like contraception is a lot easier to encourage.

Alan: Yes, and it’s improving enormously. We’re no longer overloading women with estrogen the way that we used to. Even better, there are several male contraceptives that are becoming available that involve much simpler chemistry.

Andrew: As you’ve said, restricting the size of families through legislation is usually viewed with disdain. After all, for many, children represent hope, the future incarnate, and reproduction a fundamental human right, even a biological imperative. But can we really tackle global population without resorting to this sort of intervention?

Alan: I don’t think we need to legislate population management. What we need to do is make it very attractive to people, and let them manage their own population. I’ve got several examples in this book, big examples, of where this has worked brilliantly. There are a couple of Muslim nations that I refer to that have brought their populations down to replacement levels without draconian controls from above, without any edicts. They’ve done it through making family planning available, and making it available for free in one case, and also opening up the universities to women and encouraging them to get educated.

Andrew: Like Iran.

Alan: Like Iran, yes. Iran is the place that has had the most successful family-planning program in the history of the planet. They got down to replacement rate a year faster than China, and it was completely voluntary.

Andrew: How did they do it?

Alan: First of all, the present ayatollah, Khamenei, issued a fatwa saying there was nothing in the Qur’an against having an operation if you felt that you had enough children that you could take care of. Everything from condoms through pills, injections, tubal ligations, vasectomies, IUDs — everything was free, and everything was available in the farthest reaches of the country.

I interviewed this wonderful woman, an OB/GYN who was part of this, right after the plan was implemented, ten years after the Iranian Revolution, in the late ’80s. She was going on horseback into these little villages to help perform vasectomies and tubal ligations. As the country grew more prosperous, her transportation changed to four-wheel-drive trucks and even helicopters. Everyone was guaranteed contraception if they wanted it.

The only thing that was obligatory in Iran was premarital counseling, which is actually a very nice idea. I recommend it to everybody who’s contemplating getting married. The Quakers do it in our country, and, for six months before a couple gets married, they attend classes. In Iran, you could go to a mosque, or you could just go to a health center. They would talk about things to get you prepared for getting married, including what it costs to have a child, to raise a child, to educate a child.

People got the message really well. They were told, “Have as many children as you want to have, as you think you can take care of.” Most Iranians continue to choose to have either one or two.

Andrew: Is that something that is easily scalable, or replicable, assuming a culture is receptive to it?

Alan: Absolutely.

Andrew: It’s interesting to hear about such a program being embraced by a theocracy. Do the world’s major religions generally differ when it comes to family planning, or do they share similar beliefs?

Alan: The Catholic Church is somewhat unique in its adamant opposition to birth control. Unless it’s the rhythm method, so-called natural methods of determining when to have sex that might lead to procreation or not, it’s simply unacceptable.

I went to the Vatican for my book. It’s a very curious place. It’s the smallest country on earth, only 110 acres, and populated by just one-thousand people, virtually all of them men. They’re making these rules that many Catholics outside its walls are paying no attention to. Italy and Spain, for example, have two of the lowest birth rates on the planet. That’s because women are using contraception.

Other religions argue within themselves on these issues. I interviewed two imams in Niger. One of them pulls out the Qur’an and shows me where Muhammad says that each child is entitled to two years of mother’s milk. This iman interpreted this as being a Qur’anic admonition to carefully space births. Another imam, who I interviewed an hour earlier, explains how the Qur’an says that children are a gift from God and you can’t turn down gifts from God, so he’s even against birth spacing. And these two imams are brothers.

You find these conflicting opinions in all three of the major monotheistic religions. In Evangelical Christianity in the United States, there has been an anti-abortion, even anti-contraception movement that’s very strident, restricting women’s access to the birth control of their choice. Yet I interviewed an Evangelical leader who absolutely supports contraception and campaigns hard for it. They’re citing the same Bible.

Andrew: Is there such a thing as an optimum population? If so, is calculating such a thing a matter of figuring out how many people the planet can safely feed, or are there other variables?

Alan: One of the ways that I like to think of this is looking back to my own boyhood. There was a lot more space. An awful lot of us can still remember when the traffic was not as bad, when you could get out of a city much faster, when there was a whole lot more wildlife around. We could go back to that. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were only 1.6 billion people on this planet, a quarter of today’s population. That isn’t to say that humans weren’t already having an impact. But still, any of us who love nature, we would give a lot to go back to a time when that much of the world was still wild and still producing a lot of the things that we count on nature for — trees that hold our watersheds in place, insects to pollinate or to serve as a food source for all the birds that also pollinate or spread seeds. There are many things that nature does for us.

The corollary to the question of how many people could the world hold is: How much nature do we have to preserve in order to keep our species viable? How much of the habitat do we need? What other species on this planet are absolutely essential to our livelihood?

Andrew: When it comes to protecting species, how many can we save? Are we at the “Sophie’s Choice” moment of being forced to choose?

Alan: We really don’t know. We know that the extinction rate is accelerating very fast as our presence on this planet pushes other species off the edge. At a certain point, potentially, we could push something off the planet that we won’t know that we needed until it’s too late. There is a terrible dilemma for ecologists, particularly conservation biologists, who are trying to conserve enough biology to keep ecosystems viable, and that includes viable for Homo sapiens. We’re just another species in that ecosystem. It’s hard for them to know which ones to save. How do we decide? Could we even control it if we knew which ones?

Say there is a species out there that we depend on, let’s say for food. Everything we eat is the sum total of everything that it ate, and all the things that these things ate before they were eaten. We use the phrase “food chain” but that’s not really descriptive. Pretty much every animal species on land has to consume ten times its weight of other terrestrial species, including plant life, because only about 10 percent of what we consume converts to body mass. That means that everything that we eat has eaten ten times its weight. We’re at the apex of a very large pyramid. When you lose a species, or more than one, the whole pyramid starts to crumble.

Andrew: When you get to the top of an apex, it should be much smaller up there, like it is with tigers — they have very few offspring. And yet, with so many of us at the top, the pyramid is somehow way off kilter.

Alan: Correct. That’s why on land there are far fewer large carnivores than smaller herbivores and omnivores. But we humans have skewed this natural scheme by claiming far more than our proportional share of the planet to feed ourselves.

For this book, I wanted to see how we might establish a more harmonious relationship with our species and the rest of nature, as opposed to the mortal combat that we find ourselves in. I wanted to know what the happy medium is, if there is one, a happy medium between a world without us and the one with us, which we’re currently overwhelming. When I started to look at what we are doing — the numbers were so boggling. I did some long division to make it more understandable. It came down to every four to four-and-a-half days, there’s a million more of us on the planet. That just doesn’t seem like a sustainable figure, and that’s pretty much where we are unless we start to do something about it.

Interestingly, some wildlife ecologists have started taking family planning into their own hands. In Uganda, for example, the country’s fabulous biodiversity, such as its gorillas, which tourists are willing to spend a lot of money to see, is getting chipped away by an unmitigated human population explosion. The ecologists began to realize that in order to preserve the wildlife, as well as the tourist-related income for the people who live in these areas, they needed to convince residents to have fewer children.

Same thing is true in the Philippines. Although much of the population there is fortunate to live beside some of the most biologically rich seas on earth, they could start running out of fish really quickly unless they start having fewer children, which is what, again, ecologists are helping them do.

Andrew: What about the other side of the population coin? If you look at the European democracies, their birthrates are so low that they’ve resorted to paying their citizens to have children. For them, among other concerns, it’s about economics. How are economies such as theirs going to cope with shrinking populations? It seems like calibrating or recalibrating such a thing — trying to mesh just the right amount of people with just the right amount of economy — is a tough thing to do.

Alan: It’s a tremendously tough thing to do. We’ve never had to do it before. We’ve always had room to expand, or thought we had room to expand, until it turns out we were encroaching on other things that were really important to us. China kept expanding by just knocking down more and more forests, and then suddenly, they lost all their flood control. Now they’re trying to put the forests back.

We’ve never had to manage our population before, and our economies were always a reflection of our natural increase. All of our conventional determining factors for the health of the economy regard whether it’s growing. Bill Clinton even turned economic growth into a transitive verb — We have to grow the economy — as if we were planting seeds and watering them.

It turns out that population growth and economic growth are inextricable. For an economy to keep growing, you have to have growing populations, because you need more laborers to produce more products, and then you need more consumers for those products.

If we have to start limiting our population, then we’re going to have to come up with a way to redefine prosperity that doesn’t involve perpetual growth. A shrinking population or a stable population can’t be a perpetual-growth society.

Andrew: How will countries with declining populations care for all of their elderly?

Alan: It’s an oft-repeated fear that circulates in the business and economic world out there that an aging population is terrible for the world, because there’ll be all these unproductive people and there won’t be enough productive young people paying into the social welfare coffers to take care of them.

Yes, some countries have shrinking populations. But they’re not looking at a situation that goes on into perpetuity, in which they have far more older people than younger people. They’re looking at a generation or so of a bubble where they’re going to have more older people, and then, as that generation dies off, the number of older people and younger people are going to balance out again, and it’s not going to be a problem.

How do they economically get through those bubble years? As an American, I can think of an awful lot of things that my government is spending money on right now that if it dedicated those monies to taking care of a generation of older people until our population evened out, we’d be a much better society.

Andrew: I was really surprised by the fact that the future of the planet, in many ways, rests on whether women on average have a half child more or a half child less.

Alan: Those are pretty shocking numbers, and I got them from a couple of different demographers. By the middle of the century, our population will be nearly 10 billion. But that assumes that all the family planning programs we have in place will remain in place. And it’s a pretty fragile network, dependent on a few donor countries, the most important one being the United States. Had the last presidential election gone differently, the United States may well have withdrawn a great deal of its support for family planning programs all over the world.

If family planning does not keep up with our population growth, or, if suddenly, for whatever reason, the supply lines break down and birth control pills or whatever contraception they’re using is not available to women in a lot of places around the world, a half a child more per fertile woman means that by the end of the century we’re going to increase to 16 billion people. A half a child less per woman means that we’re going to be back down to 6 billion really quickly. Then we can decide at that point if we want to bring it down further. But the difference is, on average, half a child either way.

Andrew: As a species, we seem somehow hard-wired to have difficulty seeing beyond our immediate surroundings or thinking beyond the short term. If that’s the case, what do you think motivates humans to change their ways? What do you think is going to work in this instance? How do you convince a species to rein itself in?

Alan: If we could convince people that it’s in their own best interest to limit the number of children they have — to limit the size of their families — then we’ve got a fighting chance.

It turns out that virtually every family is helped by having fewer kids. You see billboards in countries all over the world — they’re kind of clichés at this point — with a woman surrounded by thirteen ragged children. Then you see a couple with only two kids, and they’re all dressed well. Everybody looks healthy. People get that message pretty quickly.

Andrew: How do you explain that to someone like the president of Uganda, who’s convinced that his country’s economic future is dependent on massive population growth? Certainly, when he looks at China, that’s what he sees.

Alan: He’s sorely mistaken. It doesn’t take a huge population to become economically viable. Countries that have smaller populations combined with education are more economically viable, so that’s a further incentive, at least at the governmental level. Look at a country like Singapore. It’s a small country. It’s on an island. They’ve had a terrific family-planning program that’s become very effective and very, very ingrained. They also have one of the higher per capita incomes of any country on earth.

Similarly, China adopted the one-child policy in the hopes of finally shrinking its population for economic reasons. They knew that too many people meant an economic burden on the country. They couldn’t employ them all. They couldn’t feed them all. They couldn’t house them all. That’s the problem in much of the world right now, such as in Pakistan, one of the countries I visited, a very unstable place with runaway population growth.

The bigger question is whether a country’s culture allows these kinds of billboards to be put up, and whether it affords its people the means to make those decisions for their own family.

Andrew: After researching this topic so intensely, what gives you the most hope?

Alan: The fact that there is something so sensible, so wonderful, and with so many benefits that can alleviate the pressures that we human beings put on this planet and improve our own existence as humans — and that’s simply educating women.

If we give women all the opportunities that they deserve, they’re going to take care of this problem, and frankly, we’d have a much better society all the way around. That goes for any religion. That goes for any culture that I’ve ever visited. Any place where you run into women who are empowered, things improve. Everybody lives better, males and females. Women who are educated are going to have fewer children, and that gives me a great deal of hope.

In addition to that, making birth control available on a global level is also very doable.

That also gives me a lot of hope. We’re not there yet in terms of distribution — nearly a quarter of a billion women who might use contraception don’t have access to it. However, it would only take about $8–9 billion a year to ensure that everybody did. It’s just not a lot of money on this planet, and it would have such a wonderful, multifaceted impact. We’d have fewer unwanted children. We’d have fewer abortions. We’d have happier people.

Best of all, none of this involves high technology. This does not involve coming up with renewable energy — given all of our best efforts, we still don’t know how to power all of our vehicles and all of our industries with just the sun or wind. This is technology that we already have. In fact, the education part of it employs the best of human technology — our own brains — to convey information and wisdom to our children. Those young brains can absorb it all, and get very creative with it, and do amazing things, as human beings are capable of doing.

On October 22, 2013, Alan joined Orion for a live discussion of population—listen to the recording here.

Alan Weisman’s most recent book, The World Without Us, was an international bestseller and translated into thirty-four languages. His new book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? will be released this fall by Little, Brown and Company.


  1. What a great and “spot on” article. After reading so much hocus pocus nonsense to the effect that spirituality will save us, it is so refreshing to see someone speak the truth, even though somehow that truth has become offensive to so many people.

  2. This was brilliant! Can’t wait to read the book. I’m planning on sharing this interview with my college students and encouraging them to read his work too. My Humanities class discusses disenfranchised peoples and we have a unit on women’s issues. This information will be most helpful!

  3. It’s nice to see Iran dispelling the myth that Muslims must have large families.

  4. Great interview. I identified with the fact that Wildlife Biologists are addressing population control as a means to protect species and ecological diversity. More people=more development=fragmented native communities and declines in diversity. Hard to manage a species or ecosystem when so few remain because of pressure from human development.

  5. Populations are declining in developed countries and leveling in undeveloped countries We can feed another 2 billion easily with the planet’s cultivateable land , but by 2050 the emerging question will be how are we going to replace ourselves. And no, we won’t starve to death in between. There’s enough food production today to feed every human on the planet 2100 calories a day. The problem has always been — and still is — getting it off the docks past war lords, corrupt officials, civil wars, etc., and to the people who need it.

    The food shortages and food prices that are climbing beyond what locals can pay for it, is originating from the confiscation of prime native farmland in developing nations — whose farmers have fed their populations for centuries — by BigAgra’s international food corporations, financial speculators, investment funds, and international bankers; who in turn “buy” the good farmland from the locals with bribes paid corrupt government officials and the government’s ‘army’ who then drive local farmers off their land; thus enabling the government to present a “clear title” to the land to their new investors. Money all around except for the farmers who were feeding the country. Once done, food grown on their land is exported; hence the shortages.

    Scroll down to WORLD and start there at the link. Chart was updated this year.

    Google: Population growth (annual %) – country comparison – World Bank indicator

  6. In response to three of Weisman’s comments…

    1) >>>I’m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, “It’s not population; it’s consumption.” Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.<<>>There’s also no question that the most overpopulated country on earth is actually the United States, because we consume at such a ferocious rate. We may not be as numerous as China or as India, but our total impact is huge.<<>>It turns out that population growth and economic growth are inextricable. For an economy to keep growing, you have to have growing populations, because you need more laborers to produce more products, and then you need more consumers for those products. If we have to start limiting our population, then we’re going to have to come up with a way to redefine prosperity that doesn’t involve perpetual growth. A shrinking population or a stable population can’t be a perpetual-growth society.<<<

    In other words, we urgently need a replacement for capitalism, which is entirely dependent on perpetual growth.

  7. What the writer and the comments so far tend to ignore is the psychological need for children. Babies and the needs of growing up children are a major reason that people have for justifying their lives and making their lives feel fruitful. If you take away this “need”, people may not have any deep reason to feel good about living and will go on having children that are the basis for an very unsustainable society.

  8. Not sure why there would or should be a great “need” for reproduction or an obsession with replacing ourselves. Logic would have it that perpetual growth– economic or reproductive– is simply unsustainable, and the phenomenon of “bubble” years of greater populations of elders is addressed in the article. We are, like so many others, a finite species. Why not go down in dignity? Why clutch to some fallacy of our enduring beyond the means of the planet to sustain us? We as a species are hell-bent on making it unviable for every other species, yet we seem to think we’ll survive. The human experiment is a mere blip on the geologic timeline, and it may as well end sooner– and with forethought– than later– and with disaster.

  9. Chrysse, I want to thank you because your comment is exactly the usual “intelligent” human response I had in mind in my comment above. I believe the tendency is for people to detachedly answer questions of propagation in a logical way. However, in most cases I believe if you looked at the actual actions of these same responders you would find they did not follow their logic at all. Most somehow placed themselves outside of and not subject to their own logic.

  10. It’s articles like this that got me hooked on Orion.
    While death control in the form of improved medical techniques may have begun with the Industrial Revolution, it really took off after WWII with the advent of the “wonder drugs”. If you look at the global human population curve, you will find that growth was at a slow and steady rate up to around 1950, when there was a sudden uptick to a much higher rate of increase, which has been maintained since. If you then look at all the other curves, particularly fuel use and atmospheric CO2 concentration, you will find a direct correspondence.
    This is why I always tell people I believe that 1950 was the last time when the human population was truly sustainable, as there was still not much use of artificial fertilizers. Since then, we have been stealing habitats from all the world’s other species to satisfy our greed, because we have managed to break the bounds of resource limitation which automatically limits their populations.
    Birth control is the only antidote to excessive death control; and empowering women is an essential adjunct to that.

  11. Best discussion on our crowded planet I have ever read.
    Given the economic prosperity in Europe with little, if any, population growth, as well as extensive writings in environmental economics, I don’t believe this old adage as stated by Weisman holds up anymore.
    “It turns out that population growth and economic growth are inextricable. For an economy to keep growing, you have to have growing populations, because you need more laborers to produce more products, and then you need more consumers for those products.”
    In my densely populated community of Somerville MA, it seems prosperity is going up with the price of coffee and not the amount of coffee sold. Somerville is not in need of more coffee consumers. Why do the lines of people become longer when the coffee price goes up? Fortunately for me there’s always a Dunkin Donuts nearby purveying less costly brew.

  12. Being an apex species at the top of a huge food chain has it’s risks all right. You can look at what is happening to cetaceans now to see what will become of us. As oceanic mammals living in humanity’s swirling garbage dump, their mothers’ milk is now so toxic that the first-born often die from concentrated industrial pollutants.

    Energy production to keep the lights on for 7 billion also has a steep cost. Humans have built hundreds of nuclear reactors at sea level while they have also been busy burning fossil fuels, ensuring that sea levels will rise to swallow these nuclear reactor sites up. Fukushima is just a beginning disaster of what is inevitable – the incremental poisoning of the entire planetary food chain, with humans at the apex having the highest concentrations of the deadliest man-made poisons known.

    In this petri dish of “progress” will it be Death by Irony?

  13. “Today we’re at 7 billion. Between 40 and 50 percent of us would not be alive without artificial nitrogen fertilizer. It nearly doubled the food supply.”

    Well at nitrogen is something that will never be in short supply.

  14. How do you convince an irrational animal of how destructive he is? the primary reason humans are destroying the planet, all life and themselves is just that. I am yet to see a sign of “intelligence”. Humans are the most destructive organism on earth, a parasitic and psychopathic species that devours every living being and dominates rather than living in harmony.

  15. @David M Message 13

    I suggest you to look into how the Haber–Bosch process works before making such misleading statements. The process is fully dependent on non-renewable fossil fuels.
    We are actually running out of economically viable sources of fossil fuels not to mention the climate change consequence and environmental pollution linked to the production and use of this type of nitrogen.

  16. FR, of course you are right as to present practice. I just assumed that since 78% of our air is nitrogen that we would have an endless supply. Sure we would have to adjust our strategy and technology.

    Here is one guy working on the adjustment. Presumably there are or will be many others.

    PS. No doubt most people caught the omission but just to be clear my #13 post should have read “Well at [least] nitrogen is something that will never be in short supply.”

  17. Sorry,@13 David M, nitrogen may be abundant but the land to put it on isn’t. If we want to use more nitrogen to grow more food for our ever-increasing numbers, we have to steal more land from the other creatures that inhabit our planet. The result? We multiply and they go extinct.
    Apart from that, much of the nitrogen fertilizer put on the land doesn’t stay there but gets washed out by rain and irrigation water (it dissolves very easily and is a big problem for the water works that supplies your drinking water to get rid of). It then goes into streams, lakes, rivers and eventually the oceans, in all of which it produces nasty effects like algal blooms, which remove oxygen, making it difficult or impossible for fish to survive. One of the best-known ecological mantras is:”Everything has to go somewhere.” That’s where nitrogen goes, and that’s what it does.
    I have the feeling we will poison the world with our nitrogenous waste long before we run out of fossil fuel to power the Haber-Bosch process!

  18. Whether it’s running out of tillable land and other vital resources, poisoning our world, destroying biodiversity, frying the planet or all of the above I don’t see any solution that doesn’t include handling the population challenge. Population increase eats up and spits out every other solution.


  19. A bit hilarious though that something that happens regularly in nature is called “new technology”. I still prefer the idea to have a food production system based on a highly diverse edible forest where naturally occurrying symbiotic relationships between plants, bacteria and mycorrhizal networks do the job that billions of years of evolution have put in place than to have a business as usual monocolture artificially implanted with bacteria, patented and sold commercially (assuming that this will work, I see tens of these “untested” news)

  20. In response to the person who wrote that Europe has grown economically without population growth: not so. Immense immigration and use of guest-workers.

    It’s complicated. I think we can have good lives without economic growth, but we’d have to share. How you gonna make the rich share?

  21. “Crowded Planet” tackles what is without doubt one of the greatest challenges of our time, and with regard to identifying informed reproductive empowerment for women as a key ingredient in making the turn toward a healthy future, the piece is spot on. That said, “Crowded Planet” is also plagued with unquestioned assumptions and diametric inconsistencies that effectively undermine its broader message. For instance, the claim is made that prior to the industrial revolution humanity existed pretty much at a replacement rate. I question this claim. It goes against the increasingly well-documented trajectory of unsustainable growth inherent to agricultural societies. Consequently, I question the conclusion it is used to support: if we “all lived an agrarian life, self-limitations would set in and our numbers wouldn’t grow much beyond our ability to grow our own food.” Not only does this ignore the trend in agrarian population growth that led inexorably to the industrial revolution and the resultant Earth Crisis, it ignores the degradation to the ecological integrity of every area where the agrarian life was/is adopted by humans at the expense of the far-more diverse, resilient, healthy and self-sustaining ecosystems that already exist(ed) there, ecosystems that can include humans, but not if the humans presume to act as masters who would bend those ecosystems to the exclusive short-term use of a single branch of a single hominid species.
    And what is one of the most pronounced symptoms of this extreme anthropocentrism? Material consumption. Even though “Crowded Planet” discusses consumption, the contribution of consumption to the Earth Crisis is downplayed almost to the point of dismissal relative to the contribution of population growth. This comes across most acutely when Weisman asks, “Who is doing the consuming?” implying that population is the crux. Yet, not two paragraphs later, he clearly states the significance of consumption as it relates to population. There is, he says, “. . . no question that the most overpopulated country on earth is actually the United States because we consume at such a ferocious rate.”
    Instead of following this profound insight into a deeper discussion of the relationship between consumption and population, we go to Niger, the country with the highest birth rate in the world. Weisman concludes that the people of Niger must ultimately realize they won’t be have the “luxury” (an interesting word choice) of continuing to live as they have been living (in a state of high fertility), but neglects to acknowledge that we in the U.S. and the rest of the “developed world” (living in a state of high consumption) will have to face the same realization, even though, as the quote makes clear, our consumption translates into a population-equivalent that eclipses Niger.
    Why the oversight?
    The reason becomes clear when the discussion turns to Iran and their undeniably commendable success at curbing population growth through voluntary means. This is all well and good, until we consider the indicator of their success: increased consumption, i.e. instead of having to walk or ride horses between villages, the policy has made possible the use of “4-wheel drive trucks and even helicopters.”
    On page 57, we are called to redefine prosperity in a way that does not involve perpetual growth. This has to include both population and consumption as factors of each other, and the above example of rewarding population control through increased accessibility to more energy intensive, consumptive transportation (and, no doubt, many other) unsustainable technologies is firmly rooted in the present definition of prosperity.
    For confirmation, we need look no further than page 58 where Weisman says: “Countries that have smaller populations combined with education are more economically viable . . .” And what is the measure of economic viability? Perpetual growth.
    The malignancy runs deeper than we think, perhaps deeper than we can think, which is why, in the end, not just education, but re-education (questioning the answers we already take for granted), is the key. Only then, will we be able to see examples of the so-called demographic transition (like the one playing out in Iran) for what they really are: trade-offs of one form of unsustainable growth (population) for another (consumption). Until we understand this, the genuine redefinition of prosperity that we (and all the other lives with whom we share this Earth) so desperately need will continue to elude us.
    Such prosperity will almost certainly be rooted in the awareness offered by Robin Kimmerer in “Council of the Pecans,” where she writes: “All flourishing is mutual.” Once we acknowledge this awareness, we will see that reciprocity, not growth, is the measure by which we must weigh our every choice, reproductive or otherwise. And thus, we will see the imperative to redefine our role in relation to the gift of life from master, manager, engineer and even steward to gift-tender. Otherwise, our time here will end. And, without us, life will flourish once again, as Weisman shows in his excellent book, “The World Without Us.”
    Yet, is it not possible and preferable for us to be a part of that flourishing? Is it not possible for the re-greening, re-wilding world to be a world with us? I believe so.
    And the time has come to learn how. We might start by imagining ways for human cultures to function more like mycorrhizae in a forest than yeast cultures in a petri dish. In other words, we might start by giving our attention to the trees and, like Kimmerer, recognize them as our teachers. Of course, that recognition may be, in itself, the most important lesson for us to learn. And if our present relationship with trees, and our treatment of forests, is any indication, we have a long, long way to go.

  22. Overpopulation remains the elephant in the room that sinks any other attempt at a solution. I often hear an argument that goes something like this – if we removed the top 20% of people that are using 80% of the resources then we wouldn’t have a problem. Putting aside whether that is true, lets actually perform that act in theory. What would happen? Members of the upward aspiring 80% would quickly occupy the position of the former 20% and the population gap would be restored in short order.

    Yes we have to deal with consumption but lowering population is the key. To justify lowering population you would have to also insist on dealing with consumption and redistribution or as an argument it wouldn’t have muscle. Focusing mainly on consumption, on the other hand, has been a way of avoiding addressing the overpopulation problem. Commonly folks play the class card, the rich elite with their over consumption making the poor multitudes carry the burden.

    Clearly population and consumption both need to be dealt with, but a principal focus on population is how you get there as far as I can see, with the associated matters inevitably joining the party.



  23. I would prefer a voluntary turn around rather than the genocide that Mother Nature or a desperate deranged society would pretty much guarantee should the voluntary approach not work.


  24. TimF thank you for your contribution. An enlightening way to present the combined issues of consumption and overpopulation, followed by an equally bright indication on the path forward.

  25. DavidM, can you point me to a “voluntary approach” to population control that’s been tried and worked?

    If not, how do you suggest it would work?

  26. I like TimF’s contribution also. Unfortunately he doesn’t give us any solid direction forward.

    As to my voluntary approach, you could look at Japan as at least going in the right direction but hardly a great model, having farmed out much of their industrial production which itself is a population inflater.

    My suggestion would be nations around would need to give value to reducing population and offer something like full family planning support along with guarantee of a woman’s right to choose. Some sort of economic support would need to be included. Beyond that I would like to see a community of international experts formed to give advice on achieving a lowered population and what would constitute a sustainable population goal.

    Do I think something like this will happen? Probably not but at least it offers some direction. I’m quite open to other suggestions if in fact you think a lowered population is a worthy direction to be going. Of course if you don’t, then the discussion is moot.



  27. The only solution that seems to have a chance at success is our doctors’ profligacy with antibiotics that has been very effective at breeding particularly nasty human predators of the tiny variety. Given a bit more time, I think these tireless medical workers will achieve marked success. Bring on da plague! 😉

  28. The anthrax solution. Kinder folks usually go more for adding a sterilizing component to the drinking water. However I’m looking for something more voluntary.


  29. I know. Voluntary is what will work. The nasty germs are volunteering to prune us back, and the scientists seem to be playing on their team. 🙂

  30. Here’s something to consider: population can’t grow without the consumption necessary to feed the growth, but the inverse is not true. Consumption can grow in a population that is numerically stable. It can grow in a shrinking population.
    So, even if we somehow succeed at bringing population under control, the deeper part of the problem — consumption — will remain unresolved, especially when it is being used as the enticement for population control.
    Thus, even if some nasty microorganism decimated the consumer population and knocked our numbers from the billions into the millions or perhaps even thousands, it wouldn’t matter. As soon as the pressure eased, the now-immune population would start to rise again for the simple reason that there would still be something left to consume: whatever our present populace had not yet devoured before the microorganism came in and had its field day. In other words, a plague is not going to solve anything. It’s only going to postpone (with great misery) the eventual cultural reckoning between our immature perpetual growth paradigm and the limits of this round Earth, a reckoning our cultural ancestors first postponed with agriculture, then with every conquered ‘new world,’ then with industrialization and the meteoric exploitation of millions of years worth of slowly sequestered subterranean carbon deposits.
    Questioning the cultural story we enact every day, the story that compels us to seek out and engage in any and all forms of postponement of cultural maturation at any cost is where our attention would be best directed. That’s the way forward. Otherwise, we’re just distracting ourselves with a false conflict, a conflict of symptoms.

  31. The key is a voluntary population turn around. The rationale for it would subsume the consumption increase problem. Less population as an educated commitment doesn’t make much sense if a leaner consumption ethic isn’t included. But without an ending to population growth ultimately it doesn’t really make any difference in the long run how meager your consumption, in fact why bother?

    And yes we have to question our cultural assumptions top to bottom. A central test as to whether we have achieved intellectual adulthood will be a steady winding down of population world wide. A problem with getting stuck in a cultural discussion is all sorts of arguments break out while the world goes sliding into hell. That’s why I prefer getting to the point bumper sticker style as in:



  32. Well, yes, the pop and the consume goes together. But from that to assume that a drastic population decline would not make a difference is not borne out by the history of Easter Island.

    Out of the wreckage, there emerged another culture, where competition was relegated to a ritualized event once a year, and cooperation took up the place where it should have been — primary. They would have had a good chance at living differently if slavery did not devastate them further. In other words, the crisis prompted them to change their cultural story. People, after all, are capable of learning from adversity.

    David M, the people who are having kids today, their genes will be populating the world of tomorrow. Not the genes of those who abstain. How do you square that circle? They have biology on their side.

  33. If those genes get a chance to grow in a world shaped by the motivations of those that abstain be sure they will do good too.

  34. Vera: “People are capable of learning from adversity”. Hmmm? Maybe true but I think there are are human drives that trump any kind of learning and these are for drives for “domination” and “riches”. These are the “Achilles Heels” of humanity. Do you see any way of avoiding them?

  35. Vera

    “David M, the people who are having kids today, their genes will be populating the world of tomorrow. Not the genes of those who abstain. How do you square that circle? They have biology on their side.”

    That’s a big problem. If any group is determined to have children beyond replacement their progeny will eventually dominate. That’s why the effort needs to be worldwide unless we want to stand back and watch people be afflicted by the 4 horsemen and/or immigrate.

    Part of the problem is we discuss world difficulties without including population growth as a central stressor. For instance water shortages due to greater demand and diminishing supply are a major problem in the ME and are undoubtedly a contributing factor to the conflicts over there. But how much is that included in the analysis of what is happening in say Syria?


  36. The drive for domination and riches, Ron, are not universal. They are the drives of people some anthropologists call triple-A personalities or aggrandizers. They have been dominant since complex hunter-gatherers came on the scene, and it’s become a huge problem. Not unsolvable, though, IMO.

    David M, I think the only solutions that can work are those emerging from the grassroots. There will be no worldwide effort by the powers that be.

  37. I think the solutions if they are going to come are going to require influence from the top and bottom. After all they influence each other.

    One problem with explaining the compelling nature of Malthusian mathematics is some dumb predictions that were made in the past – think Ehrlich for one. If one species is able to appropriate the entire biosphere and exploit it for its almost exclusive benefit at the expense of a host of other species then obviously the King Exploiter is going to be able to extend its limits quite a ways. But that limit will come unless you seriously believe we will expand by the millions into space colonies.



  38. “If one species is able to appropriate the entire biosphere and exploit it for its almost exclusive benefit at the expense of a host of other species”
    Ecology is the study of interrelationships. The pair of hawks nesting on the building across the street are also benefiting from humanity’s “exploitation.” I value benefits from “exploitation” by beavers and salt marshes. Americans with only 4% of the world population cause a much greater destruction of other species than do larger populations of humans because we do not take responsibility for our pollutants and due to excessive consumerism without regard for others or even our own futures.

  39. More than population, ours is a problem of responsible stewardship. We need to get it together, everyone.
    Many don’t understand the merits of stewardship until they have children and only then become responsible for others. Begetting gets stewardship. Out of the Garden of Eden and into the real world of interwoven ecosystems. Not just for oneself but for others.

  40. “I think the solutions if they are going to come are going to require influence from the top and bottom. After all they influence each other.”

    True. But without significant developments within the grassroots, the elites will cling to the status quo with all their might, even if it means running things into the ground. As they did in other collapsing cultures prior to this one.

  41. The elites are the first to call for less population and blame the number of people for water shortages and generally threatening their generous slice of the proverbial pie. While never addressing that perhaps their swimming pools and watered lawns in arid environments are more to blame than whether one has two or four children. Community ordinances are more effective than grassroots “movements.”

  42. Rob, community ordinances only work as long as the community is willing to heed them. Which implies that it all begins in the grassroots.

    If the grassroots have their heads firmly wedged up the hole of entitlements of the “our lifestlyle is non-negotiable” kind, what good will potential ordinances do you?

  43. I cannot see any solution to the “Homo Sapiens as plague species” problem. It seems to me it will take a truly massive effort to turn human civilization into a responsible and sustainable enterprise. While there are multiple ideas on how this might be done, there is almost no agreed upon structure for deciding on the best way to save ourselves and implement an effective plan. It seems to me that self destruction is an inherent quality and unstoppable under these circumstances.

  44. If you make everything fair overpopulation will eventually still kill us.

    Yes we have other species, certain rats etc. that are along for the ride but the increased rate of species destruction and lowered biodiversity can’t be denied.

    Population growth plus other things is leading to self-annihilation. Keep overpopulating and the best you can do in the “plus” department won’t save us.


  45. David M, if you make everything fair, what need is there to crank out extra kids? That is part of what kept the egalitarian foragers more or less stable, population wise…

  46. Still though, I think predation is part of what makes a species healthy. When there are once again highly effective predators against sapiens, it will benefit us long term.

  47. Vera, I’m inclined to agree with you in effect. An intimate relation with your surroundings associated with hunter-gatherer-fishermen resulting in responsible birth control plus some predation, include diseases and environmental variations and wild animals and accidents, would have and did keep the population pretty stable.

    I think when you live off your surroundings and don’t have to go far afield you develop an acute population awareness. Some anthropology I have read tends to back that up. That’s part of the reason that I think the arrival goal of diminished population is the ability to create self-sustaining communities at whatever level of technology is appropriate.

    My fairness point assumes a more complex command society. Without the local self-sustaining feature to provide feed back I don’t see the impulse to have lots of children necessarily being suppressed no matter how fair the goodies are redistributed.

    As far as I know we have no record of the world population doing anything but growing since the plagues of the Middle Ages. That suggests a pretty awesome challenge ahead of us.



  48. Bangladesh is moving towards food self-sufficiency. If they achieve such sustainability, who are we to say Bangladesh is over-populated or suffers from a population problem? Might one person’s “over population” be another’s closely knit community? Do you think quality of ecosystem or quality of life is tied to the quantity of one population? Sole family of foxes or communal pack of wolves?

  49. Rob

    “Do you think quality of ecosystem or quality of life is tied to the quantity of one population?”

    Generally yes although I guess intensive gmo treated modern rice production can push the survival limits back a ways. I doubt Bangladesh has a big problem with illegal immigrants. And their overpopulated neighbor, India, is about to dam a critical river that is going to make their life even more impossible. We are watching a King Rat dispute. And their ghastly working conditions wouldn’t be so prevalent as we have seen if their desperate overpopulated condition didn’t dictate it.

    No question individual consumption level contributes mightily to the problem but who knows a poor country that isn’t striving to rise in that area? Ultimately population dictates even despite homo-sapien’s remarkable ability to adapt to extreme challenges. Consumption levels and techno-fixes just move the over-the-cliff goal posts around.

    I’m not sure why the notion of population-resource-environmental limits seems so difficult to grasp. It’s incorporated right into Darwin’s theory of evolution as the driver of selection. Except unlike other creatures we have the power to bring the whole house down so to speak. I understand we are eating up more than an earth and a half right now which means depleting of our bio-capital. How long do you think we can keep killing the goose that lays the golden eggs?


  50. I guess no area would be considered overpopulated if people living on it are not overshooting the area bio-capacity assuming it has reached the aimed lifestyle standards.
    This calculation might be somehow difficult but some estimates have been made. Currently we are in an overconsumption/overpopulated state and we are consuming more resources than those that our planet can provide us.
    In western countries we are living at a standard that would require more than 4 planets worth of resources to support it.
    The global average is 1.5 planets. The symbolic “global overshoot day” this year was August 20th. The global average is expected to reach 2.5 planets by 2050:
    Here you get a vague idea about which countries have a combination of population and consumption above resources availability:

    The more we are willing to go back to low energy, low material goods ( hunter-gatherer?) lifestyle the more people we can probably fit within a certain area.
    So we, living comfortably in the Western countries, can start working on this experiment. Let’s get our lifestyle down to our country bio-capacity at current population density for example and set us as virtuous forerunners. It will surely imply a enormous change of habits but the outcome would be very interesting.

    PS. I would be interested in reading more about Bangladesh self-sufficiency that you have mentioned. Can you please provide some source?

  51. Around the time of the Meadows report, people were saying we’d do well just going back to the level of lifestyle of the 50s or so. I don’t know if it was ever true. My gut sense is that we need to go back to 1800. 2 billion people then, lots of clever water and wind based machinery, and the village life was comfortable (apart from elite predation). Town life sucked because of hygiene/illness issues.

    We could easily take those levels of comfort and improve on them with some of the stuff we now have or understand. I don’t think we need to go back to forager levels. But when it comes to social organization, the foragers have some mighty good lessons to provide, and we still haven’t come up with something that is as good. That’s the big gaping missing piece.

  52. It is wierd that people can’t imagine a low energy, low material goods, even a hunter-gatherer lifestyle as something at a much higher state of evolution than the current dumb state into which we are stuck.
    I really don’t care about a phone that will cook my dinner.

    Embracing a lifestyle that would provide a way to nicely fit in and maybe even enhance our planet biocapacity, coupled with the intellectual awareness, knowledge and understaning gained during our history is the most evolved status I can think for humans. Really nothing to do with “going back” to lower standards.

  53. Going back is not the right phrase, I just did not know how to get around it at that moment, and get my meaning across.

    Have you ever lived as a forager? Even for a week? I am living in an ecovillage and it’s damn uncomfortable and hard. And I have civ to run to. So I have to say… huh?

    I don’t know what the most evolved state would be for humans. How do you see it?

  54. Actually I meant to agree with your point not to disagree.

    I was referring to the perception people have about any different lifestyle than the one dictated by consumerism and modern affluence.

    No I haven’t tried to live as a forager. We are not evolved enough to cope with such a lifestyle in a comfortable manner at the moment.
    That was my point.
    We are in a way too “primitive”.

    We have not developed the appropriate knowledge, art, mindset and light “infrastructures” to make living sustainably easy.
    As you witnessed it, if we try to do it now, we find it “damn uncomfortable and hard”.

    I have observed some animals living quite comfortably as foragers, spending most of the time sleeping or laying in the sun, they definitely looked less stressed than most people I know and doing better than any of us in the absence of a supermarket.
    Nature grows their food, they do not need to dig, plant,irrigate, weed, mechanically harvest, transport, package, freeze, cook, put on the table and wash dishes to eat. We made it all so unbelievably complicated! 🙂

    Humor aside, I think if we would use our intellect and ingenuity towards developing a different lifestyle we could make living sustainably easier.

    In a more evolved status humans would likely live in simple but comfortable settlements deeply integrated in the natural environment, obtain food through some sort of forest gardening for a highly variegated diet low in the food chain, have a repulsion towards any form of waste, pollution or discharge in the environment, have great knowledge of the general principles through which nature works, how we can benefit from it and how we affect it, a great sense of stewardship towards the planet,all life forms, equity and the common well being.
    I don’t know how health infrastructures would look like, nor if internet would have a place in such a scenario.

    Personally I am exploring the forest gardening approach trying to understand if we can slightly tweak some part of nature towards our basic needs making sustainable living easier and “safer” without badly compromising ecosystem functioning, biodiversity etc.
    But as I said I am just a primitive Homo sapiens living in a primitive society, that has to learn it all.

  55. OK, logical ideas of reducing population are important but I believe that in order to implement any of these ideas, it will be necessary to deal with the population both on a personal emotional level as well as the logical level i.e. if we want to reduce the population then an emotional reward may be needed to replace the emotional rewards of raising children but does not involve producing more than a sustainable number of children. China had some success in holding down its population by using the “big stick” method. This involved laws and punishments but is there a softer yet more effective way? I wonder if methods could be devised that are more in harmony with human nature. Education of women and the “Feeling of Security” seem to be helpful but more concepts may need to be implemented. Various non-human animal populations show indications of self-regulation of population. Could we not exploit some ideas along these lines.

  56. FR, well said. I think i first learned of Bangladesh from Bill Mckibbon. However when googling “Bangladesh self sufficient” some impressive references come up.

    You hit the crux of my concern when you write: In western countries we are living at a standard that would require more than 4 planets worth of resources to support it.

    Except for America due to immigration, the western countries, especially western European Countries, consuming more than their theoretical fair share of resources are also seeing a slowing of population growth with families averaging less than 2 children.

    Excessive consumption, excessive greenhouse gas pollutants are the problem not whether one’s population is growing. Getting upset about the number of humans on planet earth is a way for “the haves” to avoid the real problems destroying our planet, pollution, lack of clean water, bioaccumulation up the food chain of toxins, heavy metals and the drugs of western countries (as well as fire retardant chemicals making mid-ocean whales and top predators infertile).

    I know individuals who chose not to have children just to save the planet from the population bomb described by the Bouldings in about 1970. These folks missed out on parenting for a theoretical construct. Over time, couples without children tend to live more in the fastlane. They tend to consume more, pollute more than if they stayed home with kids. American computer use burns as much energy as does air travel by Americans.

    I am hopeful we can continue to make strides to lessen our carbon footprints. That’s more important than is telling others how many children to have, or more meaningful than sounding klaxon horn alarm over how many people are currently inhabiting planet earth. We are still less numerous than are cockroaches or Wilson storm petrels (but the later walk on water and eat plankton.)

  57. Perhaps we can’t agree that having an increasing population in Bangladesh is some kind of big deal although I think it manifestly is from what I read and see on the news about their condition. However can we at least agree that having a child in America exacts a huge environmental cost?

    From the article: “The climate impact of having one fewer child in America is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, things like driving a high-mileage car and using efficient appliances and CFLs.”

    As to ideas about reducing population, a good start would be a woman’s right to choose should be universal and clinically enabled. Perhaps it should be a condition of foreign aid.

    Of course if the problem of population is dismissed then I guess it is game over and you might as well work on your ping pong game and wait for whatever version of the four horseman Mother Nature and civilization choose to unleash.



  58. This 2010 UN Statement provides a thoughtful perspective on Bangladeshe’s condition.

    An excerpt: “Rice self
    -sufficiency is one of the goals for food security in Bangladesh. While there is almost
    enough to go round, Bangladesh remains a malnourished nation. Poorest people in Bangladesh
    do not have access to the food they need consistently nor can they use this food because of
    frequent illness. Out of 160m people, 60m are food insecure.
    Micronutrient malnutrition affects
    nearly 30 million women and 12 million children under 5 years old. 3 million children under 5
    years old are acutely malnourished.”

  59. David M, as usual with civ humans, the Bangladeshis are misunderstanding. More food means more people. You never catch up. If they really wanted to solve their problem, they would equalize access to food.

    FR, we are in synch. Yes, this civ is pathetically primitive. We gotta invent something out of this mess.

  60. FR

    ” I think if we would use our intellect and ingenuity towards developing a different lifestyle we could make living sustainably easier.”

    Let’s say at our present population level I find it hard to envision a serious sustainable lifestyle much beyond the margins of society. At a much lower population level the extra space and resources makes community sustainable living plausible.

    I have some experience with going primitive so to speak. Primarily it was associated with extended backpacking in the Sierras and a period of cruise sailing in the Pacific ocean. Fishing was a principal source of sustenance in both cases. I learned enough to feel that something like that as a permanent condition would be very satisfying and doable. But, as I said, presently only on the margins.

    Somehow it seems that anything that holds broad promise requires a reduction in population.


  61. David M, it’s not either or. Mother Nature will take care of the pop problem. Meanwhile, sustainable models would be nice. Besides, it could be a heckofa more fun lifestyle. The civ lifestyle is so insane and so boring and well, lurid, that I can hardly bear it. But I am not looking to live in a tent for the rest of my days, if you get my drift. And I don’t think a sustainable lifestyle needs to be uncomfortable and hard.

  62. David M,
    To my opinion what is putting sustainable living at the margins of society is the fact that only a small number of people is working on it with the consequent lack of having identified and developed an operational model that is truly sustainable and that could be appealing to a wide lazy-skeptic-brainwashed audience. A negative contribution comes of course also from “the lack of support” by the current vested interests driving our society. This means we have a lot of work to do but we can get started anytime.
    I do not see the direct connection you are making with overpopulation. I think we can and probably need to develop an operational model for sustainability before we get down to the right number.

  63. FR, we have and have had operational models for sustainability, primarily in indigenous societies. These involve a green base and low density. Probably the closest example in this country is the Amish.

    Maybe it’s above my pay grade but how we get to sustainability without a serious drop in population is beyond my imagination. You have got to have the space and a more localized technology. Population reduction seems to me to be the key to all our sustainability challenges.

    Of course we can always have vera’s die-off but after that unless there is a cultural change then we will be shortly back in the soup again. We could stick with that cycle but unfortunately we have been endowed with the power to induce a total wipe-out.

    As far as international trade, I see sailing craft as the ocean standard.



  64. That’s why focusing on cultural change is the primary thing, IMO. I have no power to make people not reproduce. But I do have a hand in the cultural game.

    Start with a small group of trusted folks. Find ways to be more sustainable. Keep the tribal knowledge alive. Share the skills. Grow a new world in the crack of empire…

  65. The ironic fact is that the nation doing the most to address over population is also the nation doing the most destructive resource extraction – worldwide- and causing the worst pollution.

    China is more a totalitarian state than democratic. This reality flies in the face of cogent theories of carrying capacity.

    A more sensible path to sustainable humane communities is not population control, it is greed control. More destructive to environments and robust ecosystems than the number of children per couple, or individuals per square mile, is the number of cars, piles of electronic gadgets, per person.

    Tools of Conviviality are needed more than population controls. Ivan Illich got it right calling for the reconquest of practical knowledge by the average citizen.

    “Elite professional groups . . . have come to exert a ‘radical monopoly’ on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a ‘war on subsistence’ that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but ‘modernized poverty,’ dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.”

  66. David M,
    I talked about “operational model that is truly sustainable and that could be appealing to a wide lazy-skeptic-brainwashed audience”.
    Obviously the Amish model did not accomplish that (beside practicing a quite classical high maintenance agriculture, though much better than industrial agriculture).
    Yes some indigenous models can be a good point of reference but I am afraid they won’t feel like being operational to many people for possibly various reasons.
    The first that comes in my mind is the lack of a suitable habitat to practice it, the lack of knowledge to apply it in your local area, the need to make it a little more comfortable, secure and familiar to those accustomed to “modern” lifestyles.
    So I feel we have to keep working on it…

  67. Rob, I’m not clear why you keep insisting on a this or that approach to population and wasteful, destructive use. Clearly both are involved. It’s easy for me to imagine folks employing minimal use and still blowing the planet due to too many people. Water limits and forest destruction for food production come to mind.

    It’s a population + problem. Take out population and I see no solution. Removing population from the equation has led to two improbable run-arounds that I’ve had thrown at me. 1. The endless cornucopia of waste using, fuel creating advanced nuclear power. 2. Populating outer space.


  68. Superb and well researched article
    reinvigorates you to take up the challenge in Pakistan with bold ideas

  69. Great article. It has sparked a badly-needed discussion of this thorny, emotional issue.

  70. David, Let’s see if I can help your dire imaginings. Harvard University completed a study that found when immigration into the USA was highest the number of patents filed reached record heights. Then for the years when immigration was checked and decreased, the number of patents went down as well. This suggests more population = more brains = more solutions. Americans have made great strides during the last five years to decrease our resource use and carbon footprint. These achievements had nothing to do with the change in our population. Instead, changes in our practices made the difference. Establishing pollution levels for automobiles and capping smoke stack emissions does more to better ecosystem health than does mandating rates of human reproduction. Less population carping – more responsible stewardship of resources.

  71. So Rob I take it you have no opinion on the issue of overpopulation. As long as the added number are good folks and produce lots of patents and measurably decrease their per capita carbon foot print(Or at least export it to another country) then it’s all cool.

    Im my experience you represent the majority opinion. Technofix man changes everything. Overpopulation just isn’t an issue.

    From my perspective this is an incredible and literally lethal denial. But maybe the vast majority is in possession of some great wisdom that is just passing me by.


  72. Under the category of the elusive obvious that somehow keeps getting missed there is this from Alan Weisman.

    “I’m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, “It’s not population; it’s consumption.” Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.”


  73. Rob (#58) … I’ve never read anything that supports your statement, “Over time, couples without children tend to live more in the fastlane. They tend to consume more, pollute more than if they stayed home with kids.”

    In fact, an Oregon State University study found that in the United States the “carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives – things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.”

    In other words, not having children is the most environmentally responsible thing one can do!

    And can we really take Bill McKibben seriously anymore as an environmentalist? He’s argued that population has little impact on greenhouse gas emissions!

  74. In response to #72/Rob Moir/Oct 03, 2013

    Oh, dazzle me with record numbers of patents, will you? I’m sure somewhere in the vast poverty we’ve imported by way of millions of illegal aliens there’s the next Bill Gates waiting to make his mark, right? Just a bad argument.

    Whatever “strides” we make to lower our carbon footprint in the U.S. (and, frankly, I’m not seeing it) are more than absorbed by the increase in population growth.

    As well, you neglect how much of our production has been moved offshore, often to areas with limited environmental standards. We also ship a lot of our garbage (discarded electronic components, for example) out of the country. So creating a mess somewhere else doesn’t get us a gold star.

  75. While Iran may well have been on track for managing population growth, it was widely reported that Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believed the country’s contraceptive program was “a prescription for extinction” and the brakes were put on family planning in Iran.

    I’m not sure what the new president thinks, or what the most current thinking is in the country, but that was just reported in 2012.

  76. Maria, the thing that pleases me about the Iran experience is how quickly and radically a country can turn around in their family planning practices once they have the active support of their government. Just getting this government on board is quite a surprise. And in Iran’s case no coercion seems to be involved.

    Whether this is sustainable into the future, hopefully leading to an actual turnaround, we’ll just have to wait and see. The inertia of uninterrupted growth since the plague suggests quite a challenge ahead when seen from a world perspective.



  77. Maria reports: An Oregon State University study found that in the United States the “carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives – things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.”
    I do not know what an “extra child” is. The Oregon study was based on the consumption pattern of people. The study also points out that the average long term carbon impact of a child born in the US is more than 160 times the impact of a child born in Bangladesh. This demonstrates that it is not the additional child that causes excess resource use but ingrained consumption patterns. Therefore if we want to reduce our negative impacts we need to change our patterns of consumption, regardless of how many children we do or do not have.

  78. David M / comment 80 – thanks for posting the World Population Balance video. The more I read and write on this issue, the more I believe the “writing on the wall” indicates encouraging 1 child (or no children) is what more people should advocate and want to choose.

  79. Thanks for a great conversation, everyone.

    Want to put some of your questions to Alan Weisman himself?

    He’ll appear during Orion’s next live web event, and be joined by a panel of population experts to discuss the findings of his book, more info and registration here:

    It’s on October 22, 7 pm Eastern/4 pm Pacific. The call is toll free and the webinar component will allow live interaction with the speakers.

    You can also send questions and thoughts for them in advance to ehoffner (at)

    Please join us!


  80. I see there are at least a couple of Catholics on the Board of World Population Balance. Presumably they’re working to change their church’s (or is it their God’s?) insane policy on contraception?

    More Buddhists. Less Catholics?

  81. This discussion might be continued more efficiently on Please go there, sign up and bring some others to the discussion.

    David M, I generally agree with everything you write, however I think you can make your points better regarding consumption vs population as follows:

    Populations are controlled exponentially by how many children we average. For example, if we average 1 child, then our numbers are cut in half each generation. If we average 3 children, our numbers ATTEMPT to go up by 50% each generation. (I highlight attempt to make it clear that we are on a finite planet and that attempt will result in child mortality. Quite simply the horrible trade of a new life for some other child’s life.)

    There is nothing on the consumption side of the equation that has an exponential power. We can all plug in LED light bulbs and cut our electricity bill to 10% of what it is now, but that occurs just once. If we do not get our fertility under control, there is nothing that consumption reductions can do to prevent the inevitable child mortality that averaging too many children causes. Arguing the consumption side of the equation is simply a waste of breath.

  82. #21 TimF has some very good points.

    The science of population issues is in a dreadful state. (continue this discussion on There are two separate concepts that generally nobody has properly separated in their minds and therefore scientists make a mess of their research. TimF has shown some good examples of that mess.

    1) Overshoot – This is the situation where we must consume resources faster than they renew in order to keep our numbers alive. The only way we know how to keep 7b humans alive at one time is by permanently destroying fossil fuels. This means that we are destroying the resources that future generations will need to keep alive the numbers of people we are saddling them with. We can state this future horror in today’s terms. We have built up an enormous potential for premature death. To get an idea of the magnitude of this potential, note that the last time we did not have to destroy non-renewables to keep our numbers alive, we achieved this with less than 1 billion humans. Notice that this is the literal definition of “overpopulation” and “carrying capacity”, yet all scientists generally make mincemeat of those definitions.

    2) At The Limit – This is the situation where the population cannot grow as fast as the births are demanding. The result is child mortality. For example, if we average 3 children in an environment that produces a steady quantity of food, then we will guarantee that 1 of 3 children must die. If adults average 2.5 children, then 1 of 5 children must die. In short, births can cause childhood mortality. The act of getting someone pregnant can cause another child to be kicked off the planet.

    Is that happening? Are we at the limit? Well, our numbers keep going up, so maybe not. However, nothing says that the limit has to be some steady number. When we discover how to use farming techniques over hunt/gathering, we discover how to keep more people alive at one time. We raise the limits. Similarly, the discovery of how to make fertilizers by burning fossil fuels raised the limit. Did we raise the limits fast enough? Well, our numbers have always attempted to grow at an exponential rate, and we have rarely seen exponential population growth throughout human history.

    Child mortality is a direct consequence of averaging too many children. It is the definition of “at the limit”. Notice that today, and always, we see many pockets of horribly high child mortality. Low adult life expectancy, and poverty are both secondary consequences of being at the limit, and we have those conditions too. These suffering individuals are not all mentally or physically handicapped. They are totally capable humans. They simply fail to muscle other humans away from the resources they need to keep alive. In short, the unrelenting push to attempt to drive our numbers up has always overwhelmed our abilities to raise the limits.

    We are killing children today, by making too many babies, and scientists have simply failed to comprehend this.

  83. J. T.

    “There is nothing on the consumption side of the equation that has an exponential power. We can all plug in LED light bulbs and cut our electricity bill to 10% of what it is now, but that occurs just once. If we do not get our fertility under control, there is nothing that consumption reductions can do to prevent the inevitable child mortality that averaging too many children causes. Arguing the consumption side of the equation is simply a waste of breath.”

    Well said John, although I would offer the caveat that relative consumption equality at least argues for a kind of social justice which then hopefully helps folks more seriously focus on the numbers, and of course being acquainted with exponential consequences whether down or up is critical to good planning.



  84. David M,

    I don’t see how a more even wealth distribution would help people more seriously focus on population numbers. In addition, I see no point to focusing on population numbers. What matters is how many children you, me, and everyone else creates. Nobody has a clue what to do even if they were convinced that the numbers were too high.

    We must all know how to measure our individual contribution. Zero or 1 child means we are helping bring down the population. 2 means we are attempting to keep it steady. More than 2 means we are attempting to grow it. We must all know that that attempting to grow our numbers is potentially murder.

    Everyone must understand, and measure themselves against, TwoFourEight. TwoFourEight means no more than 2 children, no more than 4 grandchildren for my parents, and no more than 8 great grandchildren for my grandparents. This ensures that my parents and grandparents are not attempting to grow the population.

    However, we all must understand that we do not know how to keep our numbers alive without destroying the resources that future generations will need to keep their numbers alive if we all did TwoFourEight. That tells us we must each know and limit ourselves to OneTwoFour.

    No amount of discussion on consumption will make this knowledge known.

  85. John, everybody isn’t going to understand any particular perspective so I’m satisfied to get the baby production as low as possible with perhaps national and regional population lowering goals and the support systems, family planning clinics etc., to help make that happen. A lot of that is education including teaching the broader implications of having more than 2 children.

    Less folks and more sustainable communities is my goal however we get there. Many paths are fine. I don’t want to get stuck on some one path trip like a well meaning poster on another blog. who insists we have to end capitalism and become socialists before we can tackle the population problem. If the Buddhist 8 fold path takes you there that’s fine with me. Whatever rocks your boat.


  86. American overuse and destruction of natural resources are a bit more complex than changing light bulbs, feeding children, or advance family planning for one’s children’s children.

    For example, many acres of rain forest in Guatemala were clear cut to graze cattle. Due to overgrazing, and because pasture was never the intent of rainforest soils, after 3-5 years the acres will become a wasteland of soils depleted of all nutrients. The cattle raised here permit McDonalds to sell hamburgers in America for $1. If McDonalds used American-raised beef they would have to charge say $2 and their profits would go down.

    Because our government subsidizes oil companies to keep down the price of gasoline, beef products from Guatemala are shipped to the U.S. in trucks. In Boston supermarkets we have Guatemala produce on the shelves driven here by trucks instead having ships bring truck-sized containers. The container ships actually cost less per truck load!

    I need not explain to you how this practice results a ridiculous difference in fossil fuel consumption. Meanwhile the cost of American beef is suppressed by flooding the market with cheap over-seas product. Cheap hamburger encourages Americans to eat too much hamburger, which leads to health issues that costs others.

    This practice drives American food producers overseas, lost of American jobs, further exacerbating our irresponsible resource use.
    Putting a tariff on imported products to make more distant products instead luxury items is more effective, sooner, than is telling families how many children to have. Be it One begets Two begets Four (less someone fails to beget).

    This week in Massachusetts the cranberry harvest came in. Cranberry growers are getting a third less money per bushel cranberries because cheaper cranberries are being trucked in from Quebec.

    How can natural resources be managed responsibly when foreign trumps local?

    Market forces change consumption habits. If our government did not do so much to keep gasoline prices down, our rate of resource depletion would only improve simply because it cost more to consume. Reducing in these ways gets results exponentially faster than does meddling with family planning and attempting to set up population controls. And you may make many an American happier along the way, perhaps a bit more prosperous, too. Except the oil industry, McDonalds and a mob of lobbyists will not like it.

    Whose side are you really on? Frankly, I’d rather see more children in my neighborhood than cheap hamburgers. Rage against hamburgers, not against the number of children families choose to have.

  87. To Rob M/Oct 11, #89 – You make excellent points on poor market choices, government policies and economics. But you can’t ignore the population component in any of these discussions. And if you’re talking with a populationist on most any issue, you’re likely going to get an answer that’s framed from that perspective 🙂

    As the late Dr. Al Bartlett, physics professor at Colorado University, asked: “Can you think of any problem on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any way aided, assisted or advanced by having larger populations at the local level, state level, nationally or globally? Can you think of anything that will get better if we crowd more people into our towns, cities, states, nations or world?”

  88. The environmental load of humans on the planet it is always an interesting and possibly productive topic. However, unless we start viewing the earth and all its components as a whole we are doomed to failure in my opinion. We have system engineers in this world but we don’t “system engineer” our planet. As a consequence of our greedy infighting over resources, land etc. we are destroying ourselves and probably the majority of the biomass. Of course, if a system engineering plan was set up for the earth, I can imagine that it would spark hugh wars and such and the outcome would be pretty much the same.

  89. The more people, the more McDonalds hamburgers are eaten, the more rain forest destroyed etc. etc. Again on the matter of population versus consumption patterns you set up a false dichotomy. It’s not either-or but both. The Al Bartlett quote takes it right to the nub – more people, more problems at every level.


  90. “Can you think of anything that will get better if we crowd more people into our towns, cities, states, nations or world?”

    Yes, my life is better with more people. I live in Somerville Massachusetts the most densely inhabited municipality in New England. After WWII, Somerville was second only to Calcutta in people living per area. For me it is quality of life. I walk to work, can hop the Red Line for Boston. The squirrels, raccoons, skunks and spaded-cats manage to work it out. A neighbor across the street will telephone me to move my car from the curb when it’s street cleaning time so I will not have to pay a $50 fine. Neighbors hold packages for one another rather than leave in front. When it snows we help each other out. Every two weeks on Wednesday a farmer comes by to switch my compost pail with an empty one. If we lived more spread out this would not be worth the farmer’s effort. When my wife broke her wrist, a neighbor responded immediately driving her to the hospital and staid with her. Traveling widely, I have also experienced the world as a better place for its people.

  91. Under certain conditions density has advantages over being more spread out. That has to do with arranging the players. It doesn’t require ghettoizing the world and killing the goose that lays the golden eggs with overpopulation.



  92. Lowering population is not about living isolated. It’s about being less overall within our earthship. We can then surely form small communities where people help each other the way you described it, actually that is probably the ideal situation (spread and isolated is not efficient nor resilient)
    You sound experiencing a lucky situation with your neighbours more typical of small communities than of an overcrowded metropolis not to mention a less lucky overcrowded and poor neighbourhoods.

  93. David M, with respect to your statement “… everybody isn’t going to understand any particular perspective …” that was in response to my point that we all must know that we have a moral responsibility to limit the number of children we make.

    What I stated follows from a pretty simple principle. If there is a group of say 100000 people that have a belief system that is successfully passed on to an average more than 2 children, they will overpopulate the planet even if all other 7 billion people have no children. If your descendants average more than 2 children, they will cause our numbers to hit the limit, where deaths occur as a result of births cramming people into the environment too fast.

    This example shows us several things:

    1) This defines our moral responsibility. We each have a responsibility to ensure our descendants do not do this, and that is only possible if we actively teach them. We need to know the TwoFourEight and OneTwoFour concepts. They aren’t optional knowledge.

    2) Everyone has to know their moral responsibility to limit the number of children they make. There is nothing to celebrate about when 90% are averaging less than 2. The remaining 10% will cause overpopulation.

    3) The scientists that provide our population related data, demographers, are useless. They do not understand this concept. They provide us with predictions that are based on pathetic extrapolations of the past to the future. They do not properly seek out the groups that are creating and passing along beliefs that average too many children. For example, we have the belief that Japan will decrease in numbers soon, but nobody has proven that there are no groups in Japan that are averaging more than 2.

  94. Sorry John, it’s always in the aggregate. Sure if a couple has more than two and their progeny all have more than two and this is carried on endlessly then eventually we have population growth no matter what everyone else does. It’s bacteria in a petri dish.

    But human beings are more variable. Some in the group will come up sterile and the progeny in the group may finally in aggregate average short of two persons for all sorts of reasons without each one meeting the no more than two requirement.

    That doesn’t mean children shouldn’t be brought up with an understanding of exponential growth and relate it to their choices. But within that understanding I can think of all sorts of reasons why they might as a couple go over the two limit. One might be to supply a child for a sterile sibling. Another might be due to a group wipe out within a community region caused by any or all of the 4 horseman.

    The problem is finally within the aggregate, with each couple needing to think through what role they have to play. It’s beyond my pay grade to tell each what they should do but I think overpopulation needs to be taken seriously by those who exercise influence and a whole host of family clinics need to be made available to help couples in their choices. People like to think they are collectively doing the right thing and giving a public value to small families should incline them in that direction without imposing a one approach fits all.

    I like my idea of self-sustaining communities as a goal. It provides a feedback standard for what constitutes a healthy population level. Setting a two person for every couple limit gives me an image of a world run by some kind of obsessive MIT professor-tyrant, with every couple being specimens in our separate boxes.


  95. David M,

    I did not specify behavior. I specified required knowledge. So, when you say “That doesn’t mean children shouldn’t be brought up with an understanding of exponential growth and relate it to their choices.”, my response is that we are not brought up with any understanding of this topic, and we must be brought up with that understanding.

    What I described above with respect to TwoFourEight and OneTwoFour is the knowledge that we must all know. It is not a description of how we should behave. We must all know these concepts.

    I have nothing against a self-sustaining community concept, but it cannot work without the facts I described above being universally known (and a few other simple facts).

  96. John, you and I aren’t that far apart. Certainly the exponential process plays a significant role in practically every problem human beings face. And we need to educate folks on that point, explaining the mathematics and connecting it to the human consequences.

    Unfortunately there is a strong resistance, a kind of denialism, to even accepting the problem of overpopulation. People will insist that when human beings showed up all the rules changed(The very fact of much greater population kind of makes that argument) or the surplus will ship out to outer space or God wants us to “be fruitfull and multiply”. I don’t think I need to tell you all the cop out responses that one gets and even angry conversation shut down responses like “why don’t you contribute to the solution by committing suicide” or claim you are advocating a holocaust. You will be reminded that in the past racial eugenics advocates were major promoters of population control.

    Frankly I don’t think there is a country in the world that wouldn’t benefit from a lower population. I’m inclined to keep lower population in focus with education in the specifics of exponential growth as an important part of encouraging that process. But I don’t want to preclude other perspectives that will take us in the same direction. The Native Americans, for instance, I think did pretty well in the sustainability department before Columbus without the benefit of Malthus. Maybe sensitivity to one’s surroundings intuitively has inhibiting effects. They certainly practiced birth control.


  97. “Lowering population is not about living isolated. It’s about being less overall within our earthship.”

    Hello,American Urban sprawl is significantly more damaging of natural resources, orders of magnitude greater increases in consumption per person, than are the increasing populations in urban cores like East Boston or Somerville, the immigrant landing pads for greater Boston.
    Urban sprawl, suburbia, IS about consuming substantially more overall within our earthship.
    Americans living in glassed suburbia shouldn’t go throwing population bombs.

  98. RM
    “American Urban sprawl is significantly more damaging of natural resources”

    Right, and the more urban sprawlers there are the worse the problem. You can run but you can’t hide from the centrality of the overpopulation problem. No one is saying it is the only problem but to try and play consumption against population quite clearly doesn’t work. They come as a package deal.



  99. “What’s wrong? Everybody on Earth is in denial about our biggest problem … population growth. Too many new babies, a net of 75 million a year. And we’re all closet deniers — leaders, investors, billionaires, the 99%, everybody. Yes, even Bill McKibben’s global team. The U.N.’s 2,000 scientists know overpopulation is Earth’s only real problem.
    Get it? Earth has only one real problem, there’s the one main dependent variable in the scientific equation. But we refuse to focus on it. So, yes, even scientists are science deniers too. They know population growth is the killer issue, but are avoiding it too. Thousands of scientists have brilliant technical solutions to reducing the impact of global warming. But avoid the root cause. They keep solving the dependent variables in their climate-change science equation. But population growth is the cause of the Earth’s problem, not the result.” Paul Farrell

  100. David M,

    The native Americans lived sustainably, but that is a poor analysis. They did not know how to dig up and burn fossil fuels, so we have no evidence that their culture would have done anything different than what has transpired. Or to put this another way, they drove their numbers into the limit of how many could be sustained, and that limit remained relatively stable until we learned how to dig up and burn fossil fuels profitably.

    The native Americans, and just about every culture had rules regarding sex that limited fertility to some degree, however that degree is never enough. I have heard of one example where the society did limit their fertility properly. The inhabitants of the island of Tikopea are described in Collapse by Jared Diamond. The only way to ensure that the society does not average too many children and therefore cause the death of children as a consequence of too many births, is by knowing the facts I stated above.

    In short, the native Americans do not provide guidance to us because they too were averaging too many children and driving their numbers into the limit and causing death as a consequence of too many births, just like we are. The only difference is that they didn’t figure out how to raise those limits.

  101. John we agree on the criticality of overpopulation to our problems but when it comes to your exclusivist, one shoe fits all, exponential education for everybody approach we have to part company. In fact I’ve come reluctantly to the conclusion that some folks are so genetically math challenged that things like exponential growth and even basic stuff like averages escapes them. It seems to be rife with AGW denialists, for instance, based on exchanges I have had with them.

    I have some experience with Native American cultures and from that experience and reading give far more credence to the population inhibition effects of a long term sustainable way of community life. If we don’t get back to some modern version of that and build in the kind of feed-backs that make a stable population a necessity then all the 2-4-8 education isn’t going to make much of a difference in my view. They have to work together.


  102. It seems that everybody that has posted on this topic more or less agrees: We are making and raising too many Homo Sapiens Sapiens! I agree but I think this will not change unless the basic nature of the human is dealt with. I believe that no amount of intellectual posturing, thinking and rationalizing is going to lower the excess numbers. Children are brought into the world because they are in many cases a symptom of our unhappiness and low education. A woman who feels prejudice and is often discriminated against may feel that the only good she can do is have children and ensure they have a better life. A man feels put upon and his only outlet in the world is to get as many of his genes out there as he can so he can live an imagined happy life some aspect of him continues. There are many reasons why we have children. In order to slow down the march of debilitating over-population, the basic reasons that people have many children must be faced and rectifying changes in out societal life made in my opinion.

  103. RH

    “There are many reasons why we have children. In order to slow down the march of debilitating over-population, the basic reasons that people have many children must be faced”

    The sentiment seems right but I would call this putting the cart before the horse. The first matter to be dealt with is the absolute commitment to reducing population. If you say all the psychological inhibiting factors must first be dealt with then I suspect you will be waiting until dooms day.

    I’m saying whatever carrot and stick that is necessary(Certainly as voluntary as possible) to move the show along go for it. Along the way all sorts of refinements can be added to help move the process along. But if you start with X, Y, or Z condition must first be in place before we can take lowering population seriously then you’re just playing a waiting game and time is running out. That is a luxury.



  104. David M:
    I disagree. I do not believe that rational commitment will change the birth rate very much. I believe that most people’s actions are emotionally determined. People will speak very rationally but then go do the opposite of what they rationally said. I think if you really want to change a person’s actions, you must deal with their emotional make-up otherwise there will be little change.

  105. Ron

    “I do not believe that rational commitment will change the birth rate very much. I believe that most people’s actions are emotionally determined.”

    If you have an avalanche coming down on you the fine points of whether you are operating rationally or emotionally wouldn’t seem to be a priority concern. You just need to get the hell out of there.

    I realize the analogy with overpopulation is a little strained but existentially it is similar. Either get it together or it is game over. My thought is once that raw existential fact is clear to enough people then you have a basis for movement and all the various approaches from many different perspectives can be brought into play to help smooth the downward movement in population.

    There are objective problems like the news doesn’t report the affect of overpopulation on the escalating conflicts around the world and road blocks are imposed by so called right-to-lifers who more appropriately should be designated forced-birth-fascists or some other more accurate description of their real behavior in this world.


  106. David M. I basically agree with you etc.
    Sure there is you and some number on this and other related sites who are sufficiently educated and motivated to take action based on the logical necessity of reducing the population. However, I believe that the total amount of people in this category amounts to only a few percent. Many years ago I had a sense that population increase was bad for me and others and opted to not have any children in my lifetime. However, the actual percentage of those who have such understanding and willingness to act is small in my belief. I believe there is a very large contingent who are virtually “untouchable” by any argument showing the pure folly of a large population. However, this element which is among the fastest growing and least knowledgable sector on the planet is the one that is contributing the biggest population danger at present. This group and some others are unlikely to be very impressed with any argument made by an “educated” group. This growing group has little financial “power” . Their “power” is in their genetic posterity and they sense that. It is rather late now but if progress is to be made in population reduction, full efforts must be applied to emotional as well as logical action in my opinion.

  107. I haven’t read through the whole Vermont Report but so far it looks serious and hopeful. One part gave me an offbeat thought.

    “As can be seen from the following chart, Vermont grew rapidly between
    1790 to 1850, and then it actually had a relatively stable population for over one hundred years, until 1970. It then began to grow rapidly again due to the completion of the interstate highway system and the back-to-
    the-land movement.”

    Maybe we should consider a lower level of maintenance on our roads, particularly the big highways. Slowing things down would seem to be a prelude to turning things around population wise.


  108. Not everyone agrees with you.
    “The earth can be an abundant mother to all of the people that will be born in the coming years if we learn to use her with skill and wisdom, to heal her wounds, replenish her vitality, and utilize her potentialities. And the necessity is now urgent and worldwide, for few nations embarked on the adventure of development have the resources to sustain an ever-growing population and a rising standard of living. The United Nations has designated this the Decade of Development. We all stand committed to make this agreeable hope a reality. This seems to me the greatest challenge to science in our times, to use the world’s resources, to expand life and hope for the world’s inhabitants.”

    John F. Kennedy: Address at the Anniversary Convocation of the National Academy of Sciences. 50 years ago Oct 22, 1963, one month before he was killed.

  109. Kennedy’s speech is an example of where nice sentiments imbedded in bad thinking have left us in extreme peril. The sad thing is the 60s was probably where limits thinking was riding the highest. However there were a multitude of emotional, political and economic reasons to bring it down and they all flew in and took their toll. Reason and basic evidence went on vacation and politicians wouldn’t touch it with a 10 foot poll.

    Finally, despite the denial, the running and hiding will have to end; probably when it’s too late.


  110. David M,

    The knowledge that must be taught to everyone is not exclusive. You need not fear that somehow other things cannot be taught. However, the knowledge listed below in 1-5 is required. These facts are not optional. Plus why would anyone resist teaching facts?

    1) Creating babies too fast kills children. Humans have always been doing this killing. Only by actively controlling fertility will we stop this.
    2) We have built up a huge potential for premature death because we do not know how to keep our current numbers alive without destroying resources (e.g. fossil fuels). The last time we were able to keep our numbers alive without consuming resources faster than they renew, our numbers were below 1 billion. We must average less than 2 children until we are no longer consuming the resources we need to keep our numbers alive faster than they renew.
    3) Averaging too many children is a worse evil then infanticide.
    4) TwoFourEight and OneTwoFour are defined above. Note again, we need to know what these two new words mean. This does not tell us how we must behave.
    5) Everyone must know these facts.

    #5 is correct. One can understand this by recognizing if a belief exists that is successfully passed on to an average of more than 2 children will cause the death of children. For example, if 100,000 people have a belief that they successfully pass on to the next generation to an average of more than 2 children will cause overpopulation even if all other people have zero children from now on. That tells us that everyone must know these facts so that nobody maintains those evil beliefs.

    I cannot emphasize enough that these are correct facts. If you do not agree or do not understand find me via StopAtTwo and I will explain. They are all derived from simple logic and properly comprehending the exponential function.

  111. John, once again you are restating the exponential problem and I agree with you. Saying everybody has to get it is a loser if only because some folks are simply math challenged. As a friendly suggestion I don’t think making grand declarations like “These facts are not optional” or insisting on some special authority for yourself is very persuasive. As far as I’m concerned we are all here struggling with the issue.

    Again I think lowering population and in pretty short order is critical and whatever reasonably contributes to that I support, including your exponential perspective with many of your specific elaborations on the matter.


  112. As far as an alternative energy solution to our climate slide no country has spent more time, money and effort devoted to it than China. You name it – solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear and even taking on population.

    So their perspective on the specifics of their future energy sources would seem particularly meaningful for the rest of us. Here they project that future to 2050.

    Results? They still have fossil fuel coming out of their ears. Goodbye, 2 deg. C temp. growth limit or 3 for that matter.

    So getting real, what’s the alternative? Unless you are looking forward to a world where we all live like the poorest Indian peasant I think the answer is clear.



  113. It seems to me that as long as experts willfully ignore the “system causation factor” of the human population explosion, that is to say, the increasing food supply which is literally fueling the explosion, we will continue to see the promulgation of politically convenient thought and economically expedient policymaking. Science regarding ‘why the human population is exploding’ will continue to be denied and endless preternatural, ideologically-driven chatter about ‘what is happening’ will pass for a complete sharing of knowledge. We are in a sad state of affairs.

    Just for a moment, let us imagine that now we have all the greatest population experts speaking with one voice. They tell us that we are headed rapidly for 8 billion people on the surface of Earth, declining TFRs in many western European countries notwithstanding. When that number is reached in the foreseeable future, we will have too much food, too little water and clean air, and no decent environment to speak of. Pollution will be visible to all, everywhere. In the meantime many species of birds and wildlife will go extinct because of the destruction of their habitat from land clearance to grow more food to support an exploding human population. What is happening is made evident. Why this situation is occurring with a vengeance of our watch is avoided at all cost. All this is good, they say.

    All these top rank population experts, inside and outside the scientific community, then go on to say that in order to have more and more happy people we need more and more people who can be counted upon to increase the depletion and degradation that will rapidly subtract from the source of that happiness, our planetary home, until such time as Earth is no longer able to function as a source of happiness. More importantly, because we self-proclaimed experts are ‘free to know’ and then speak of what is determined by the powers that be to be best for the rest of us to know, some scientific research can be and will be denied. While these experts do not lie, they deliberately refuse to give voice to the whole of what is true to them, according to the lights and knowledge they possess. By their conscious silence, these experts will ensure that the unsustainable growth of the human species, the reckless depletion of resources and the irreversible degradation of ecology of the planet happens as soon and efficiently as possible. All this is good, they say, because we are making things better.

  114. Frankly Lynn Lamoreux’s Answer, that corporations and their incessant profit seeking are the Big Bad Wolf behind population growth is, allowing some element of truth, not completely satisfying. Fossil fuel energy unleashed the modern exploitative possibilities of valving Mother Earth to our material advantage. Some organizing principle was bound to show up whether it was public or private and voila we have the corporation wedded to the nation state.

    In principle the way out seems pretty simple. We have to move from an exploitative relationship with Mother Earth to a harmonious, sustainable relationship. So how do we know we are in a sustainable relationship? We need the appropriate feed backs. And what are these feed backs? Living in communities where all are needs are derived from our immediate surroundings. If we require things from other communities then the dye is cast for conflict. This doesn’t preclude a little friendly trade.

    Over stressing the community environment is the feed back that we need to ease up on population. So what is the road that takes us to this sustainable condition? We need a broad understanding of where we need to go(sustainable communities) and we keep lowering the population until these communities have proliferated everywhere. At that point it’s basically a local problem with communities banding together against a community that doesn’t play within the rules and becomes predatory on other communities.

    So you have the goal and you have the means to get there. The details we can work out once we have the principal goal and means agreed upon. Have anything better that provides a narrative forward and isn’t simply howling Malthusian sentiments? I’m all eyes and ears. Let’s hear it.

    If you are doubtful about whether we can people down to get to this sustainable point, don’t worry we will get there one way or another. Either by deliberate choice or by Mother Earth engineering a die-off.



  115. David: “Living in communities where all are needs are derived from our immediate surroundings.”

    YES, that is the meaning of sustainability, to sustain within and not to exploit resources beyond.

    Communities will welcome your assistance when this is the goal. For example in Washington DC many of the climate-change-deniers are buying hybrid cars and installing solar panels on their roofs to meet their needs from the immediate and to not depend on foreign oil or pay more for electricity that is generated far away from the wealthy. There is hope to further meeting their needs from immediate surroundings.

    On the other hand telling communities how many children to have or what to eat will not be welcomed. These actions make much sense, have great merits, for some in academia, in particular those who have “run the numbers.” However to put into practice, make real, will require imperial strong arming to impose calculations external to those living in communities.

  116. Population, number of people, is no longer relevant when the community is self sustaining, able to feed itself and live without pulling resources from outside the community. Who are we to say how many people living a specified area if they are sustainable. By this criteria America is over populated because it imports the most per capita and Brazil is good because it experts more than it imports despite a large population.

  117. @Rob Moir regarding “Brazil is good because…”

    This is not correct.

    Every country on this planet is overpopulated with humans. We have no clue how to keep 7+b humans alive at one time without burning fossil fuels. We are destroying the resources that we depend upon to keep our current numbers alive.

    Our ancestors made our current numbers much much larger than we are capable of keeping alive without depleting the resources we need to accomplish this. That was a very bad thing to have done, but what are we doing?

    We are averaging 2.5 children, which means we are attempting to make the next generation 20% larger. This is clearly an absolutely horrible thing to do.

  118. @David M

    My statement that everyone has to know these facts is proven by the statements after “#5 is correct” in my posting.

    I have not stated how we can accomplish this feat, but it makes no difference how math challenged the average Joe is. Many people have no clue how to make gun powder or put a gun together, yet almost everyone knows what a gun will do to a human life. The bulk of the population does not need to be a population and math expert to be taught those 5 concepts.

    However, the population experts must know these 5 concepts, and the population experts simply do not know this.

  119. Rob. “telling communities how many children to have or what to eat will not be welcomed.”

    Rob I’m open to any approach to getting the population down, the kinder and less imposing the better. But getting the population down is a sine qua non to any solution that gives us a future.

    Trade balance does not tell us much about dependency on outside vital resources and really nations aren’t communities. However if Brazil became self-sufficient without depending on outside resources that would be a good start, as long as it gets translated down to community levels.

    Brazil is a mess, destroying its rain forests and damming up vital waterways at the expense of the livelihood of traditional cultures. The relationship to overpopulation is unmistakeable.

    John your 5 concepts come off to me as kind of a stilted formulaic way of saying “beware exponential growth.” If someone else finds the concepts offering something more then bless them. Discovering additional value there appears to be above my pay grade. I prefer my lowering population until we achieve sustainable communities approach. Everybody with their various insights is welcome to that journey.


  120. I agree Brazil is the mess David describes. Those problems of Brazil are more due to stupidity, not knowing better, and greed than are they due to over population. America had similar destruction of forests, waterways, grasslands, industrialization, near extinction of the Bison etc in the nineteenth century. While our population grew we improved our behaviors in the 20th century. With crowded cities we wanted national parks and according the Olmsted and Charles Eliot natural spaces for momentary refuge from the urban hustle. Today America’s population is growing faster than Brazil’s, and our quality of life is not getting worst than Brazil.

  121. “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children…” : Chief Seattle, Duwamish Tribe.
    A few days ago I found this quote in a seasonal e-mail from IDEA – the International District Energy Association, one of whose objects is reduction of energy waste.
    The problem of the Earth today is that we have borrowed its resources from our children but we have squandered them, and are still doing so at an ever-increasing rate as our population increases, for our own, selfish “instant” gratification – and we will never be able to give them back.
    Perhaps a better way of stating the problem would be to say that we hold the Earth in trust for those to come after us; but we have betrayed that trust.
    When a financial trust is set up for anyone’s benefit, it is an obligation of the nominated trustees to manage that trust in such a way as to provide the maximum benefit for the beneficiaries. However, the number of cases in which trustees have mismanaged the trusts in their care for their own benefit, rather than that of the intended beneficiaries, is beyond counting. Given this concrete example in everyday society, there is little – if any – hope that the Earth can expect a better outcome from its human population.
    I recently read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, which gives numerous examples of local civilizations which basically failed as a consequence of reaching the limit of their resources (although usually other factors were also involved). We now have a global civilization; but it is just as susceptible to failure and disappearance for the same reason.
    We have the means and the wherewithal to rectify this situation. But it is already way past the eleventh hour and the will is almost totally lacking, because there are none so blind as those who will not see.

  122. Rob. ” While our population grew we improved our behaviors in the 20th century.”

    If we had improved our behaviors AND not grown our population just think how much better we would be. That’s the thing about population growth, it undermines the effects of our improved behaviors.

    And parenthetically perhaps our most improved action was creating Parks and other protected wilderness areas, which inevitably carries the insight that diminishing human presence is good for humans and every other species.


  123. David,
    Most historians agree that there was a causal relationship between rapid population growth in Eastern cities along with increased wealth from cheap labor between 1870 and 1910 AND the creation of our National Parks. Prior to those decades everything was locally driven and the locals did not want access to any resource limited in anyway. In Yosemite, locals wanted to blow up El Capitan to use the granite to build a hotel. Without population growth Yosemite would be a lesser park if at all.

  124. With population growth we got America’s National Parks. With National Parks we got more trees. Therefore, with population growth we get more trees. If we are savvy stewards we can have both more people and more trees.

    The Boston Globe (12/15/13) reports on how a town with growing population also protects forests for more trees:
    “TIME HASN’T stopped in Shutesbury, even if the faded white houses and crumbling stone walls in the tiny town near the Quabbin Reservoir look that way. As in many other parts of the Commonwealth, residents worry about what will happen if housing construction accelerates, and residential sprawl eats away at the farms and woods that residents have cherished for generations. But if those threats materialize, Shutesbury will be more prepared than most places: In 2008, voters adopted a farsighted zoning rule that will help protect it from sprawl, the first of its kind in the state.

    It was a smart step, because pressure on woodlands in towns across the state will likely grow as demand for new housing picks up. During the 20th century, the forests of Massachusetts experienced an amazing rebirth, as the economy shifted from farming to industry. But according to a new report by the Harvard Forest and the Smithsonian Institution , Massachusetts is losing woods again. The retreat of the forests does more than threaten the state’s natural beauty; forests provide habitat for wildlife, suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and create economic opportunities for forest products that would be lost if the trees vanish.

    Protecting those environmental resources will require more municipalities to adapt rules like Shutesbury’s. A statewide zoning reform bill currently before the Legislature would give towns a deal: In exchange for voluntarily establishing dense high-growth areas in some sections of their town, as Shutesbury has done in its town center, they would gain powers to preserve more undeveloped land from McMansion-style development.

    The pairing of those two policies is key. The supply of middle-class housing is scant in Massachusetts, and new residents have to live somewhere. Right now, too much suburban growth follows the path of least resistance — toward outlying towns where new home sites can be carved out of seemingly unused forest. Fast-growing towns often try to slow development down by adopting large minimum lot sizes, but that only pushes sprawl out even farther.

    The proposed zoning overhaul recognizes that new construction is crucial, but it should occur in ways that preserve the fabric of communities and support the state’s overall environmental goals. Many towns that embrace the zones are expected to designate areas near train stations for denser growth; access to transit — or at least to the concentration of shops and services that greater density supports — means families can live in town centers without relying as much on their cars.

    The proposed law might not be of much use to towns near Boston that are already built up, or to rural towns in the farthest parts of Massachusetts. But it offers a powerful tool for suburban towns on the sprawl frontier, where development pressure is greatest and residents are most likely to worry about unchecked growth. It’s possible to balance the needs of conservation and economic growth, and smarter zoning in the 21st century will protect the environmental gains of the 20th.

  125. A few thoughts Rob:
    1. How much land was turned into parks before 1950? How much after? Think population pressure might have something to do with it?

    2. One needs to factor in fossil fuel. In earlier times wood was our main source of energy but then we found oil. So the oil bought us a lot of the indulgence to shift our energy source away from trees and turn them into parks. It also allowed us to manufacture a lot of nonwood products that would earlier have been derived from wood. Of course the down side is we entered radically into the AGW climate change zone.

    3. We have a 10-12 thousand year model – Native Americans. Even though they fully occupied the land it looked so pristine to the overcrowded Europeans they called it a wilderness. The Native Americans living sustainably in relatively low numbers by our standards are a curiously overlooked example of the possibilities associated with a lower population using the environment resourcefully.

  126. A couple of more thoughts:
    4. Parks became an economic asset with all the sightseers, hikers and campers visiting and paying their fees and making park purchases. We pay in part to be away from the impact of civilization.

    5. Relatedly the attraction of wilderness would seem to tell us something about our need to get reconnected with our less population dense natural roots.

  127. Good questions
    1. Yes with America’s increasing population so has the amount of land protected increased. More land has been turned into parks, not technically National Parks but federally protected from developers, grazers and miners, after 1950. However the reason is more political than population-driven because the big chunks had no people wishing to live there. The most recent Bush president set aside the most land of any president protecting the vast island chain, the North Hawaiian Islands. And Clinton is second converting vast tracks of Bureau of Land Management properties to parks and “national monuments.” Unlike Tedding Roosevelt for these parks no homes were disturbed. Roosevelt had the tougher lift to save natural resources than did Bush or Clinton.
    2. Interestingly the automobile industry and in particular General Tire funded the building of roads through the national parks to encourage the driving of cars in the parks instead of taking the train. They deliberately stopped the 40 yr practice of taking a train to a massive hotel. This was the rage from after the Civil War (because the rails were built up then) until the formation of the NPS in 1916. Greenhouse gases would be less today if the National Parks had been created before the Model T, not after.
    3. Two points, first Capt John Smith and later the Pilgrims found relatively low numbers of Native Americans. 90% of native populations had died from diseases introduced from Europe. It is not known how populated North America was because they were not a consumer society like today leaving vast trash heaps. Native American tribal groups used the environment resourcefully to varying degrees. There are cases of permanent resource destruction wrought on the environment by Native Americans. A more important factor than is population size is the combination of mostly hunter-gather versus agrarian (maze-production) and size of the resources dependent on. Some Native Americans had deadly armed conflicts over resources. Hard to tell when is a population too big versus when is it poor resource allocation. Today the earth supports more people because we are wiser on resource use and protection. Otherwise large populations would not be possible.
    4. Yes, and urban parks like Central Park in New York were deliberately designed to bring that “get-away” refuge feeling to urban dwellers for their mental health close to work. National Parks and urban parks were created at the same time in history.
    5. There is romanticism to wilderness that appeals to those living in more densely settled area. It came after the transcontinental railroad was built and much of the nation as known. Meanwhile the locals of such near-mythic areas were bewildered, concern by accounts of many thrown out of homelands for the greater good of urban folks in need of wilderness.
    The Mariposa Indians were not happy with being marched out of Yosemite by the U.S. Army. They had cultivated the nut trees in the Valley as their primary food source for millennia. Ignorant government personnel falsely assumed “the resourceful natives” could make do just as well with Redwoods and Sequoia trees, hardly the verdant valley taken from them.
    In order to market wilderness indigenous peoples must be removed. If only instead of wilderness society’s interest for recreation had been “peopled landscapes” Then indigenous people could have shared their bounty of walnuts with the tourists. Twice the population in the park could bring twice the prosperity and no increase in natural resource destruction. Instead tourists collided with hungry grizzly bears in search of lost nut trees. This was not the best outcome for grizzlies, either.

  128. @Rob Moir

    “Hard to tell when is a population too big versus when is it poor resource allocation. Today the earth supports more people because we are wiser on resource use and protection.”

    This indicates you are not familiar with 2 fundamental population concepts. See comment 114 on page 15 of this article.

    I’ll rephrase #1: We are at the limit of how many people can be kept alive at one time. We have almost always been at that limit. That limit has been raised and a reasonable prediction is that we are raising it now, thus tomorrow there will be even more people alive at one time. However, we have never managed to raise that limit as fast as our birth rate demands, and that means we are killing children as a consequence of too high of a birth rate.

    In short, it is not hard to tell when a population is too big vs when it has poor resource allocation. The population needs to control their fertility to prevent it from reaching the limits. I have heard of only one population that figured this out and succeeded for a time. They were the inhabitants of the island of Tikopea (see Collapse by Jared Diamond). Improving resource allocation simply raises the limits and can only provide a temporary respite from an (x-2)/x child mortality rate (x is the number of children that adults average). We have seen this respite for the past few hundred years, but it is impossible to raise the limits forever.

    Regarding concept #2, today the Earth supports our numbers only if we destroy resources, such as fossil fuels, that we must use to keep our numbers alive. We are destroying the resources that we know future generations will need to keep alive the numbers are attempting to saddle them with. There is no way this can be characterized as “wiser”.

    @David M
    I don’t see why you keep down playing these 5 points. If you can find any population expert that comprehends them, I would sure like to meet them.

  129. It seems that most posters here believe that human activity is based on rational decisions. But many of us do not believe this to be true. What I mean is that many posters provide wonderful logical arguments that say the earth is over-populated and as a result we are destroying our environment and ourselves. I believe that this is true but I also believe such arguments will have little effect.

    One of the strongest emotions we have to deal with is that of humans who want to continue their genes in the gene pool. They seem to somehow believe that this will give them everlasting life. And in conjunction with getting everlasting life, a main joy and satisfaction from life is literally producing and guiding the progeny. Raising small “clean slate” human beings is what gives many of us meaning and joy and it will take no small effort and clever logic to find a replacement for this. However population control must done or we will all bite the dust.

  130. Rob, it may be that urbanization and growing population is the driver behind public parks. I doubt it was a big factor but who knows. I’m not aware India has that many public parks. My main point is Native Americans for thousands of years established a model of sustainability and a fairly limited population seemed to be a condition for that.

    John, I wish you the best with your 5 point program. At least we are on the same train.

    Ron, I’m not sure our need to proliferate is as strong as you indicate. Societies which have broadly available birth control and a materially secure life commonly find their population growth at below replacement level.

    A few further points.

    1. Population growth equals less agricultural land. Sort of obvious but it may help to have it laid out state by state in this interactive map of the US.

    2. A problem is people commonly disconnect the environment from economics. Need I say we don’t have an economy without the basic environmental services. That would suggest that growth in people means in fact a decrease in environmental services with finally devastating economic consequences. This video attempts to actually compute the economic value of these environmental services.

    3. One thing that bothers me is our incestuous definition of the good ie. more people living longer lives and traveling physically and electronically farther and faster. We are among a community of species and many of those species, including our close cousins, due to our growth in good measure, are dying off in the wild more and faster. Why isn’t that the standard by which success and failure is measured? Is our ultimate demise not also wrapped up in our biological family?

  131. @John Taves
    I get the first concept that you subscribe to. I agree we are hitting limits. Don’t haste to throw out the baby with polluted bath water. Consider a sponge bath for baby, instead.

    You missed the point of Jared Diamond’s book which is why do some societies collapse when others have “so much cargo.” Collapse came to most because they could not forsee a vital resource getting used up and when times got scarce they did not adapt. Those not wise enough to adapt were for the most part smaller societies than those that did and survive. For examples the Norse folk living on Greenland refused to eat fish and chose to eat mostly dairy and cattle. They’d rather quit than adapt.

    “The Earth supports our numbers only if we destroy resources” is what the Anasassi Indians discovered in the southwest the hard way, or rather the Earth did support until they turned the land into dessert.

    Stewards don’t destroy resources. Ask any farmer or rancher. They’ll tell you concept #2 sounds like the lies they get from Monsanto and Peabody Coal Company. “We must destroy resources to keep our numbers alive” is more a statement about corporate profits at our expenses.

    Great Britain used up all its wood fuel by about 1600. The Brits suffered an energy crises when foreign powers shut the Baltic to them. Only then did the Brits pay the piper to send colonists to America. They grew their population by reluctantly turning to coal. Then as coal got more expensive to pull out of the ground and whale oil to lubricate machinery got all used up, petroleum was discovered.

    Your second concept is direr than the Malthusian concept of population limited by finite resources. Concept 2 is that we are shrinking resources and myopically claims that fossil fuels are the only resources that count. Trouble with this concept is that destruction of resources is not new. For at least 6,000 years humans have been destroying resources while at the same time population growth has been outrageous.

    Erle Ellis and colleagues have gathered the empirical evidence pointing to how ours is a “used planet.” They found that “relatively small human populations have caused widespread and profound ecological changes more than 3,000 years ago.” Meanwhile “the largest and wealthiest human populations in history are using less arable land per person every decade.” Burning into our resource capital is not new. Land-use models that include more variables than the oft-quoted models, are predicting that 20% of Europe and Asia were used significantly by 3,000 B.C.

    Ester Boserup developed land-use intensification theory to explain higher levels of agricultural productivity associated with higher population densities in traditional smallholder agriculture. Boserup’s theory does away with Malthusian claims. Instead, “agriculturalists increased productivity only when population increases demanded this, because their objective was to invest the least amount of labor, technology, and other resources necessary to support their livelihoods, even when the technological capacity for greater productivity was available”(Ellis et al, 2013).

    Today Americans are turning away from fossil fuels. Many, likely the majority, are changing NOT because they are wiser on resource use and protection. Even climate-change-deniers are buying hybrid cars and installing solar panels. This step away from fossil fuels is not driven by technological innovation as the media would have us believe. People are putting in the extra effort and upfront costs in a belief that it will save them money in the long run and for moral reasoning that it is bad to depend on foreign oil. This resource use change is driven by factors consistent with Boserup’s intensification theory. Changes are made due to where “to invest the least amount.”

    Resource allocations are being improved not due to pressures from burgeoning population and without any concerns for “saddling future generations.” People are acting to better allocate resources in their self interests to get more from less. It’s a resourceful wisdom given us by former generations.

  132. RM

    “Ester Boserup developed land-use intensification theory to explain higher levels of agricultural productivity associated with higher population densities in traditional smallholder agriculture. Boserup’s theory does away with Malthusian claims.”

    How about modified Malthusian claims.

    “Although Boserup is widely regarded as anti-Malthusian, both her insights and those of Malthus can be comfortably combined within the same general theoretical framework.[3]

    She argued that when population density is low enough to allow it, land tends to be used intermittently, with heavy reliance on fire to clear fields and fallowing to restore fertility (often called slash and burn farming). Numerous studies have shown such methods to be favourable in total workload and also efficiency (output versus input). In Boserup’s theory, it is only when rising population density curtails the use of fallowing (and therefore the use of fire) that fields are moved towards annual cultivation. Contending with insufficiently fallowed, less fertile plots, covered with grass or bushes rather than forest, mandates expanded efforts at fertilizing, field preparation, weed control, and irrigation. These changes often induce agricultural innovation, but increase marginal labour cost to the farmer as well: the higher the rural population density, the more hours the farmer must work for the same amount of produce. Therefore, workloads tend to rise while efficiency drops. This process of raising production at the cost of more work at lower efficiency is what Boserup describes as “agricultural intensification”.

    It would seem the progressive efficiency drop of labor in response to agricultural intensification would eventually hit a limit.


  133. @Rob

    Steve Diamond missed the better lesson from Collapse. The better lesson is that only the Tikopeans comprehended the best way for humans to behave given that we are all living in finite sized environments. Only the Tikopeans recognized that attempting to manage resource usage while ignoring human fertility rates is stupid. If you manage human fertility rates, there isn’t much need to worry about resource usage.

    Let’s look at what choices the Easter Islanders had. I’ll simplify the situation so the fundamental choices will be more obvious. They were able to make boats out of the trees and catch enough to eat from the ocean to feed 20,000+ people. However, they had to chop down the trees faster than the trees grew in order to accomplish this feat. Eventually they ran out of wood, and thus their food production collapsed. After that, the island was able to sustain about 1000 people.

    Let’s take a look at what their choices were when their numbers first reached 1000.

    A) They could restrict their wood cutting to a rate that was no more than what grew each year.

    B) They could do what the Tikopeans did which is to practice what I call StopAtTwo. Diamond did not fully describe this belief system, but they certainly comprehended point #3 from my 114 posting. It is a worse crime to allow too many births, than committing infanticide.

    If the Easter Islanders had chosen A, then their numbers would not have been able to grow past what the annual supply of wood can support. They would not have suffered a collapse. That wood supply would maintain some stable population. I don’t know how many children they averaged, but it was enough to grow their numbers when their food supply was not limited by this proposed wood cutting limit. Let’s say they averaged 3 children. If they stabilize their wood, and thus food production, then they would have suffered a 33% child mortality rate. Notice if they instead choose to average 2.5 children, then their child mortality rate would have been 20%.

    Also, they would have suffered a lower adult life expectancy than necessary (see to understand this.

    If they chose B, then their numbers would have stayed stable. Their adult life expectancy would have been higher. The pressure that starving children would have put on them to chop trees faster than the growth rate of the wood would not have existed.

  134. “Concept 2 is that we are shrinking resources and myopically claims that fossil fuels are the only resources that count. ”

    You have not comprehended concept 2 properly. The concept does not state or require that fossil fuels are the only ones that count. Fossil fuels are just one example of a resource that we depend upon to keep our current numbers alive and are being consumed faster than they renew. We do not know how to keep 7+b humans alive at one time without burning fossil fuels. This is a moral problem. We are behaving in a way that to the best of our knowledge will cause premature death. We do not know how future generations will keep alive the numbers we are attempting to saddle them with.

    Note, that this is not a prediction. It does not state that we will not find a replacement that allows us to feed 7b without fossil fuels. It does not state that humans will or will not suffer a collapse.

    Also note, that since we don’t know how to keep our numbers alive without burning fossil fuels, we cannot solve the problem by stopping the use of that resource. That would simply change the potential premature death that we have now, to current premature death. In short, our only solution is to restrict births. We must stop overbreeding. We must average less than 2 children until our numbers are to the point where we no longer must consume resources faster than they renew to keep those numbers alive. I make no predictions on what that number might be and any such prediction is pointless.

    “Trouble with this concept is that destruction of resources is not new.” We agree that it is not new. It is irrelevant that it is not new. Humans have always been overbreeding and thus causing child mortality as a direct consequence. A side effect is that our numbers always rise whenever we discover some more efficient way to extract sustenance. If that technique is a one time thing, like chopping down trees on Easter island faster than they renew, or burning fossil fuels, our numbers rise to the new temporary limits, but drop back to some other limit when that resource has been exhausted. The fact that we might string one discovery back to back with another and obscure that particular collapse, is irrelevant.

    When we raise the limits, we will enjoy a lower child mortality rate than is determined by (x-2)/x, but when the limits shrink (For example, when the trees are gone from Easter Island or fossil fuels are harder to extract) we will suffer a higher child mortality rate than (x-2)/x. x is how many babies adults average. How many babies we average determines how many children we kill, and discussions about resources are missing the point.

  135. David M
    Why would the progressive efficiency drop of labor in response to agricultural intensification eventually hit a limit?

    Harrowing a field with plow is more labor than is hoeing the same area. First humans developed tools, then mechanical devises, and finally deployed fuels sources other than domesticated animals to bring more “labor” to bear on agriculture. That in turn produced more per area of land.

    The definition of intensification that David presents explains why farmers today must work harder than did farmers yesteryear. How directly increased labor relates to increased production feeding increased populations is an open question that likely varies with the farmer and the market.

    Boserup refutes the Malthusian tenant that population growth is limited by resources when the world population is being considered, not an island population.

    Surprisingly her theory set researchers to find many cases where population growth led directly to either discovery of more resources or getting more from the resources at hand (intensification).

    According to Boserup theory as opposed to Malthus only when wood fuel got scarce did people turn to coal, only when fossil fuels got expensive and at times scarce do people look to renewable energy sources.

    Recent research has found convincing indications that for 6,000 years instead of rising global human populations hitting a resource wall like Wiley Coyote, the resource use has been changed by humans in ways to support more people.

  136. John writes: “since we don’t know how to keep our numbers alive without burning fossil fuels, we cannot solve the problem by stopping the use of that resource.”

    The question is must the resource limits to population growth shrink, be they fossil fuels or other sources of energy. Researchers of Boserup’s theory have found that every time a society ran short of a resource and despite some hardship experienced during the overuse, the society was aware of other resources and consciously chose not to change until they had no choice.

    The fertilizer industry would have us believe that their manufactured nitrogen-based fertilizer is what enables the world population to be fed. Yet from the plants point of view manufactured nitrogen or the nitrogen from municipal sewage plants is the same nitrogen. So the fertilizer industry makes money creating nitrogen while municipalities spend money disposing of nitrogen. Meanwhile guess what the fossil fuel industries would have farmers believe is the only source of energy for managing their farms? And why is it that nations with many mouths to feed, those not importing much food, are not burning fossil fuels in proportion to their population.

    “We don’t know how to keep our numbers alive without burning fossil fuels” is an American problem where we are 4% of the world population producing 20% of the global carbon footprint of ppm atmospheric C02. If America were to have a carbon fee where after a reasonable amount of carbon exhaust one had to pay to burn, our dependency on fossil fuel use would break. It’s a carbon fee, not a tax because you can avoid paying the fee by nto exceeding the designated carbon exhaust amount. Taxes are unavoidable. With a carbon fee the gasoline tax could be removed and still raise funds because those burning excessive amounts of gas must pay the carbon fee instead. In this way fees are more progressive than flat taxes such as a percent tax on every gallon of gas sold.Gulpers pay fee, sippers save.

    Carbon fees sets up a positive feedback loop that encourages increasing carbon savings. Iowa farmers were regulated into reducing the nitrogen from fertilizers flowing into water ways and eventually causing ocean dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Not happy to be regulated, they were pleased to find they could have green fields while spending less on fertilizers. They were less than pleased with the fertilizer industry selling them much more fertilizer at great expense than their crops could ever use.

    John, I think we do know how to keep our numbers alive without burning fossil fuels. Increasing population is not a hardship if it drives more efficient use of resources as according to Boserup theory. Yes we need more energy to get more than already got from the same area of land. There is much promise in renewable energies picking up where fossil fuels leave off.

    To keep current numbers alive while growing will require an orchestrated effort of both market forces and government regulations in adaptive concert with one another. Communications across boundaries are critical. Population growth in the Americas and Asia was only possible because knowledges of the best ways to grow corn and rice respectively were spread throughout the continent. Today’s “knowledge economy” holds promise in alleviating excessive global nonrenewable resource use.

  137. The EB principle.
    “the higher the rural population density, the more hours the farmer must work for the same amount of produce. Therefore, workloads tend to rise while efficiency drops.”

    Rob, you don’t see a limit here?

    JT, I notice you put a lot of emphasis on the child mortality rate relative to resource limits. That of course in a contrary way plays to the fact that as population has increased average life expectancy has gone up too. So you will get an argument there, knowing folks like to play within their more comfortable frame.

    My perspective is you can’t seriously talk about the various environmental and social problems leading us down a black hole without factoring in overpopulation, which impacts almost all of them. Take war and pollution just for starters. To me the argument is more about species sustainability and a decent expectation of happiness arrayed against eco-social suicide. I assume, for instance, Native Americans, pre-European, had a lower life expectancy than we do now but still they are better models for a future than our present take-it-off-the-cliff approach. We all have one death coming, it’s what is going on until that moment, that can be retained for future generations, that counts the most to me.



  138. “Researchers of Boserup’s theory have found that every time a society ran short of a resource and despite some hardship experienced during the overuse, the society was aware of other resources and consciously chose not to change until they had no choice.”

    Unfortunately this research has no rational definition for “carrying capacity” or “the limit”. The researcher does not know how to control for deaths caused by too many births at the limit. If the researcher could prove that the population was not at the limit already, then there might be something interesting in this. Unfortunately the population experts always assume we are not at the limit, and you’re citing their research to prove we are not at the limit.

    Notice the definition of “carrying capacity” on wikipedia and notice how the article violates that very definition, with the statement that “fossil fuels have temporarily raised the carrying capacity”. The definition says “indefinitely”. That rules out the use of fossil fuels. Obviously keeping alive our numbers alive today depends upon fossil fuels. Notice that the definition of overpopulation depends on the definition of carrying capacity, and again if we take these definitions literally, we are blatantly overpopulated.

    What is interesting is not these definitions, but the utter failure to comprehend the meaning and stick to them. Rob Moir makes this mistake when he claims we are not overpopulated (not dependent upon burning fossil fuels to keep our numbers alive) because we will find ways to feed our numbers without oil. “we are not” is current tense, “we will find” is future tense. This is the same mistake we learned to avoid in high school physics when we attempted to add the acceleration to the velocity. Scientists must not mix units like this.

    David M, states that “I notice you put a lot of emphasis on the child mortality rate relative to resource limits.” Yes, I do. Child mortality is crucial. It is required in the definition and understanding of “the limit”. The limit cannot be exceeded. It can be increased, but not forever. Since it cannot be exceeded, premature death is the outcome of a birth rate that attempts to exceed it. If we define x as the average number of children adults have, then the child mortality rate must be (x-2)/x where the food supply is constant and the population is at the limit. It is probably pretty easy to update this formula to allow for a rising or falling food supply (or whatever resource is the limiting one). Notice that Wikipedia and the scientific articles that Rob is familiar with does not have a definition for “the limit”.

    “That of course in a contrary way plays to the fact that as population has increased average life expectancy has gone up too.” Yes, of course, a rising limit allows for a lower child mortality rate for a given average number of children. We must not make the pathetic mistake of assigning causation however we damn well please here. We must assign causation according to what can be controlled. We have no desire to increase child mortality so stating that a lower child mortality caused a rising population is pathetic, (this is the nonsense that is taught in introductions to demography). A rising population did not enable or create the lower child mortality. What causes our numbers to rise is our uncontrolled fertility. A steady limit stops that growth. A rising limit enables population growth.

    The only symptom of being at the limit is dead children. Unfortunately nature does not care how they die. Nature does not stamp the death certificate with “died of too frequent births”. So we cannot use dead children as proof one way or the other. A researcher like Boserup (Joel Cohen is a present day researcher making the same mistake) must prove that there are no deaths occurring as a consequence of being at the limit. They must prove the population is not at the limit before their conclusions make any sense. This is ridiculously hard to do. You have to find a mechanism that adjusts fertility before hitting the limit and that adjustment cannot have any premature death in it (for example, the mechanism where by malnutrition shuts down fertility is not a mechanism that fits; malnutrition causes death). This mechanism has never been identified, and it would defy the theory of evolution.

    “Boserup refutes the Malthusian tenant that population growth is limited by resources when the world population is being considered, not an island population.” This is ridiculous. The Earth is about as pure an island as we can imagine. Scaling up from an island to the whole planet does not shove us through some reality distortion field such that limits are removed.

    “Surprisingly her theory set researchers to find many cases where population growth led directly to either discovery of more resources or getting more from the resources at hand (intensification).” Yes, of course we have discovered more resources and also improved efficiency. Past discoveries do not show there are more to be discovered. Indeed, past discoveries show there are fewer to be discovered in the future.

    “According to Boserup theory as opposed to Malthus only when wood fuel got scarce did people turn to coal, only when fossil fuels got expensive and at times scarce do people look to renewable energy sources.” Yes, of course. Why would anyone do the harder thing before the easier thing. The failure here is the assumption that the population was not at the limit. Neither the people in these studies or the person doing the study has any concept of deaths occurring because of too many births.

    This is no better than the scientists that proved that letting blood helped cure patients. They were just as smart as you and I. They did the scientific method. They showed that in a significant number of cases where the patient was dying and the let blood out, the patient recovered. Oh, ooops “is dying” is an utterly crap assumption, and so is “and consciously chose not to change until they had no choice”. Boserup assumes they were not already at the limit and just as oblivious to it as she.

  139. JT

    ““Boserup refutes the Malthusian tenant that population growth is limited by resources when the world population is being considered, not an island population.” This is ridiculous. The Earth is about as pure an island as we can imagine. Scaling up from an island to the whole planet does not shove us through some reality distortion field such that limits are removed.”

    Good point. Earth is often treated as an infinite cornucopia rather than island or spaceship earth with inherent limits. On the other hand there are those who think we will just start expanding into the rest of the universe and earth will become merely “Base Earth.”

    Perhaps detailing out the matter of exponential growth hitting limits will hook in some folks. I already get it. I happen to think finally the most persuasive future narrative is one that targets community sustainability as the goal of depopulation. To me it strikes the right note. Among other things it links us to history. But yes, child mortality rate helps explain the notion of limits, whether it gives us any special direction or motive to action.


  140. The body of research I am referring to recognizes that human populations have been reaching the limit and going into “crisis,” meaning rapid loss of people, for 6,000 years. Populations hitting the limit and crashing is not only an Industrial era phenomena.

    There are three stages to reaching the limit. When first reached crisis is averted through intensification and the population continues to increase. After a while population does not increase much at all. Here again reaching the limit; this time post intensification. The third stage is called crisis (collapse) indicated by significant decrease in population. The world population continues to grow because all of the myriad of three-stage-limit-hitting events for the most part end with a larger population than there was when commencing the intensification stage. It’s like three steps forward with every two steps back.

    I agree that the world population is a frighteningly large number. However for 6000 years the amount of land used around the world has gone down. Yes, we destroyed the unused lands. That was bad.

    Those who like the spaceship earth metaphor will claim less land means less room, got to reduce the spaceship population, secure all hatches. And yet, here we are with a vast and growing population inhabiting essentially a shrinking planet.

    Thanks to intensification, making more with less energy, the world’s “carrying capacity” or “the limit” is expanding.

    Evidently, “carrying capacity” and “the limit” has kept pace with population growth. The goal posts are moving and the players are expanding the field.

  141. Or to put it another way, “here we are with a [rapidly shrinking number of species] inhabiting essentially a shrinking [biosphere].” So we wait for when our number is going to come up.

    “Thanks to [solar] intensification, [we move toward a 6th extinction event], the world’s “carrying capacity” or “the limit” is [shrinking].”

    “Evidently, “carrying capacity” and “the limit” has kept pace with population growth.”

    Kind of like in a petri dish. It is that last doubling attempt that kills the organism.

  142. David M

    The population experts are making a mess of this topic. From Malthus to Boserup, Joel Cohen and thousands of scientists in the field of population there is nearly zero comprehension. It is crucial that this group gets their heads on straight on this topic. They are the experts and nobody is going to convince any significant number of people of something that disagrees with these experts.

    Here’s a sampling of the horrid thinking:

    Malthus on the topic of subsistence states that “under circumstances the most favourable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio”. What a dreadful statement. This is a totally unnecessary prediction that turned out wrong, and has allowed many to reject the important fundamental concept. The planet is finite. There is a limit, and averaging more than 2 children attempts to grow our numbers to infinity at an exponential rate. Humans have been in existence for plenty of time to have hit that limit. Malthus never stated what happens at the limit (birth kill children). I don’t think he really comprehended the concept he was so close to describing properly.

    Joel Cohen in “Population Growth and Earth’s Human Carrying Capacity” states “Malthus predicted wrongly that the population growth rate would always promptly win a race against the rate of growth of food. Malthus has been wrong for nearly two centuries because he did not foresee how much people can expand the human carrying capacity of Earth, including but not limited to food production.” Cohen clearly comprehends the exponential function. Look up his bio, he’s written a lot of scientific papers. He has no problem manipulating math formulas. I asked him on what basis did he decide that Malthus was wrong? Cohen did not answer. Yes, Malthus’ predictions stunk, but so what? Why has Cohen decided that the population growth rate did not win? Why have all population scientists assumed this too? Are they all imagining that there is some minimum amount of starvation required before we are at the limit? Do they assume that when we are at the limit there will be a uniform amount of misery, in spite of the obvious fact that humans are constantly demonstrating their ability to live like kings while neighbors starve?

    I exchanged emails with Cohen where I asked why he assumes that P(t) < K(t) (P = population, K = carrying capacity). He proposes several different formulas in his paper (and in his book on the same topic) and compares those population formulas to the human population numbers. He stated that there are many different possible definitions for "carrying capacity", yet in his papers he never defines which definition he is using when he plays with these formulas. Is carrying capacity the most that can be kept alive using renewable means? Is it the most that can be kept alive given today's technology regardless of sustainability? I got no answer. His writing provides no answer. How is it that some scientist can get many papers and books published where he proposes formulas to something that he does not define? I must be joking, right? He fits these formulas to observed population numbers. It has never occurred to him that observed population numbers are simply following the curve of human discovery of more efficient ways of extracting sustenance.

    I was at the Population Association of America's convention in San Francisco where hundreds of scientists gathered to display their research. In one session Wolfgang Lutz explained his paper titled "the optimal fertility rate". This paper shows the optimal fertility rate when considering 2 factors, education and carbon dioxide emissions. First what ass would title their paper with such a bold title when it considers only 2 factors! At the end, I stood up and asked him why it makes any sense to write such a paper and not pay any lip service whatsoever to the fact that we do not know how to keep our current numbers alive without destroying fossil fuels. His response was to say that because we do not know the future, we can assume that humans will find an energy substitute. Unfortunately I had no response to that because I was so stunned. If I had my wits, I would have asked why he bothered with his paper if we can assume future scientists will discover anything we need.

    Notice Rob Moir makes a similar argument. He in effect states that since humans discovered wood, then coal, then oil, then uranium, we can extrapolate that into the future and conclude that another energy source will be discovered. Notice that he qualified that by citing research that shows these discoveries are found when they are "needed". As if "need" was a trivial thing to define and measure and that the timing of events somehow determines causation. Clearly, if we just need it, it will exist.

    Melinda Gates in a TED talk that makes the excellent case that birth control needs to be available to everyone, seems to believe the common misconception that when people are poor they delay having children and that mechanism is sufficient to prevent overpopulation. Take this to extreme and notice how it fails. If everyone that was unable to keep their children alive did not have children, and the remaining not so poor people average 3, then 1/3rd will grow up to be so poor they will know in advance that they will be unable to keep a baby alive (this is true over any span where the subsistence is stable). Gates represents the Gates foundation and you'd think that this foundation would get advice from the best scientists, but she isn't aware that the algorithm of "have as many children as you want if you can afford them" is a rotten algorithm?

    There are research papers that show that the Chinese 1 child policy did no better than the Iranian policy. Somehow the fact that the Chinese have lots of bad side effects, like aborted girls, is not recognized as proof that in China, the birth rate would have been higher without that law. In other words, if population was already willing to have just 1 child there would not be negative side effects. Oh, no, the researcher is convinced they have controlled for all variables and therefore are completely rational to conclude the 1 child policy was not more effective than the voluntary type of policies that Iran used.

    These logic errors are rampant in the field of population science. Does it make sense to point out these logic flaws to get the scientist to rethink their research? Or do we state the 5 points over and over until they start to sink in? It makes no sense to me that scientists, people that are supposed to be logical, that are supposed to be willing to question their assumptions and be willing to believe whatever the data shows, are so dreadful at comprehending this.

    These scientists are a well defined group. It should be much much easier to target that group with specific messaging that will change their thinking. We will never get traction in the general population if the population scientists remain ignorant. How do we get through to them?

  143. @Rob Moir,

    “There are three stages to reaching the limit.”

    What limit are you talking about? What limit are the researchers talking about?

    Are they using the definition I provided? The situation where births cause child mortality?

    Are they using the definition of carrying capacity on wikipedia: the max that can be sustained indefinitely where fossil fuels and draining the Ogallala Aquifer are not permitted to help feed those numbers; the definition that is not understood by the very authors of that definition?

    Maybe they are using the definition “where there seems to be a lot of starvation”.

    From your description it seems they are using the utterly pathetic definition of “where the population seems to have peaked and the living conditions are relatively poor”.

    “And yet, here we are with a vast and growing population inhabiting essentially a shrinking planet.” This tells us what? That the Earth is not finite? Are you really stating again that because something increased in the past we can safely conclude it will increase forever? Really? Again?

    “Thanks to intensification, making more with less energy, the world’s “carrying capacity” or “the limit” is expanding.” Yes, what is the point? Again, is the deep meaning here that we should extrapolate that into the future and conclude the planet is not finite?

    “Evidently, “carrying capacity” and “the limit” has kept pace with population growth. The goal posts are moving and the players are expanding the field.” Go ahead and find some definition of the limit or the carrying capacity where the sentence above makes any sense. Are you saying that the evidence shows that we not observed a limit of Y while at the same time the population was greater than Y? Um, what definition of “the limit” do you have in mind where we could possibly observe the population above it? The definition of “carrying capacity” includes the word “indefinitely”. Fossil fuels are obviously not indefinite. If you mean that definition, then you’ve totally ignored blatant evidence that fossil fuels are required to keep our numbers alive. Only by speculating with a rosy crystal ball about the future, and then utterly disregarding the concept that the future is not now, can one conclude that fossil fuels aren’t a requirement today.

    I totally agree that there is a large body of research that you are correctly referring to. This research is utter crap. Without a rational definition of the limit, and sticking to that definition, it is useless. There is no excuse to draw conclusions from it. It is no better than the pile of research that showed that the patient was going to die, but after blood was let, they recovered.

  144. David and John, You have assisted me in getting my thoughts together to present the other side of the arguments concerning this crowded planet. As a result, I am less certain now than before that having a crowded planet is a bad thing. It is what it is. We humans must reduce our carbon footprints and become better stewards of the planet with all of its inhabitants, resources, and what it offers us. Thanks for the dialogue. Tread lightly.

  145. RM.

    “We humans must reduce our carbon footprints and become better stewards of the planet with all of its inhabitants, resources, and what it offers us.”

    It is nice to know that more and more people added to the planet will be individually reducing their carbon foot. If you think about the math, I guess that means pollution reduction should grow exponentially.

    It’s also nice to know how clearly the evidence shows the fast growing 3rd world is committed to ever more reduction of their carbon foot print.

    When it comes to population it is almost all emotional I have decided. Logic just doesn’t have a place.

    One point JT. Why simply focus on the increased child mortality due to increasing population beyond sustainability? I would say a loss of life expectancy across the board is what happens. It’s more like a game of musical chairs. 10 people and 10 chairs. One more person arrives and all parties are put at risk.



  146. Child mortality is the one and only result of averaging too many children. All other effects, lower adult life expectancy and degraded environment are side effects. They are caused by our ignorance of this.

    A falling adult life expectancy can indeed allow the child mortality rate to remain low when a population hits the limit, but adult life expectancy cannot fall forever. Eventually there won’t be any adults. A low adult life expectancy can certainly reduce the fertility rate, but that is simply another way of saying that we must control our fertility.

    To make it easy to see this, imagine a stable population limit and hold the average number of children that adults have constant.

    If the population is at the limit and averages too many children, then the ignorance of the population will sacrifice adult life expectancy for only a temporary respite from the higher child mortality rate. Once the adult life expectancy has dropped as low as it can go, or as low as the population will tolerate, the child mortality rate must resume (x-2)/x where x is the average number of children adults have. The lower adult life expectancy allows more absolute numbers of children to exist, which means more absolute number of children die.

    This is why point #3, that uncontrolled fertility is more evil than committing infanticide, is true. If we do not do the required amount of infanticide more children will die, they will die more painful deaths compared to infanticide, and the adult life expectancy will drop. Obviously the whole point of #3 is to make it absolutely clear that any form of birth control is much better than averaging too many children. In short anyone that would fight to prevent someone from snuffing the life out of an infant, should fight with the same ferocity to ensure everyone has and uses modern birth control.

    See if you do not understand this.

  147. “It is nice to know that more and more people added to the planet will be individually reducing their carbon foot. If you think about the math, I guess that means pollution reduction should grow exponentially.

    It’s also nice to know how clearly the evidence shows the fast growing 3rd world is committed to ever more reduction of their carbon foot print.”

    David M you are joking, right? Given the near total ignorance on this topic, you can’t expect people to recognize that you are sarcastic.

    I haven’t found any population experts that do not pound on the concept that we need to reduce our per capita environmental impact. Even among what amounts to expert population/environmental activists they fail to comprehend that this will accomplish nothing in the face of attempted exponential population growth.

  148. JT.

    “Child mortality is the one and only result of averaging too many children. All other effects, lower adult life expectancy and degraded environment are side effects.”

    Frankly John I think you are trying to make a distinction without a difference. I’ll stick with my musical chairs analogy. All ages are put at risk and I think the consequences are just as significant as obsessing on the purely child mortality effect.

    “I haven’t found any population experts that do not pound on the concept that we need to reduce our per capita environmental impact. Even among what amounts to expert population/environmental activists they fail to comprehend that this will accomplish nothing in the face of attempted exponential population growth.”

    I agree and they even try to make it into a class thing with the rich putting the onus on the poor. Obviously the rich need to do more to lower their resource use and pollution production but that doesn’t change the need to lower population if we are going to keep from taking it off the cliff.

    I’d like to see the full force of family planning clinics which poor women are desperately calling for and education and peer pressure brought to bare. Unfortunately we have our own forced birth fascists trying to guarantee human extinction in the name of religion.


  149. “All ages are put at risk and I think the consequences are just as significant as obsessing on the purely child mortality effect.”

    This shows that I did not describe it properly. Take a look at This is a mathematic/logic issue. This is not a belief or an opinion or an obsession. You either understand the concept I am trying to convey and agree, or you have not worked through the logic yet.

  150. Sorry John, I’m not going into your more arcane x and y world. I find at certain points all folks part company and making child mortality some sort of exclusive issue is where I get off the train. No doubt somebody out there will pick up your ball. At least we agree on the centrality of the population issue.

    India is supposed to be some sort of Asian tiger. This is what that Asian tiger looks like.

    Throw this one in.

    Anybody want to come up with some nonpopulation techno-fix to this desperate country with an over abundance of people?

  151. IN reply to Lance from Aug 29, 2013:

    You are rehashing the old “distribution” argument, which is less and less true as global oil production peaks and the cost of shipping and growing food rises. Panaceas about well-fed people will probably never pan out. Even if oil wasn’t peaking and getting more costly, the world would never be that equitable.

    Also, overpopulation has never just been about feeding people. That’s a narrow parameter that ignores overall environmental losses. Growthism is constantly destroying nature while pretending people are immune to nature’s limits.

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