Putting the Brakes on Population Growth


In my last post, I discussed economic growth as a factor in human impact on the Earth, and suggested that continued economic growth in a world of finite resources is impossible.

Time for a maths break

The reason this is true is due to a simple formula: I = C x P

Impact = Consumption multiplied by Population.

The word overpopulation is inadequate to describe this particular problem, as it throws the focus on human problems rather than the overriding effects of human consumption and waste production on the non-human world.

A more relevant concept is “overshoot,” which applies to all species who increase in population to the point that they consume resources faster than they are naturally replenished, resulting in starvation and population decline, for humans as well as other species.

An Aside

This concept of overshoot was first proposed by Thomas Robert Malthus in his An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798 and revised in 1803. He pointed out that population increases exponentially, while the food supply increases mathematically, thus inevitably resulting in famine and starvation.

Malthus has fallen into disrepute of late, especially among the young glitterati who aspire to immortality and transhumanism, not to mention transbiologism, the unfulfilled hope that humans can stride out of their feet of clay through technological innovation.

Ecomodernists are particularly contemptuous of Malthusianism as it violates their core principle of decoupling human technology from impacts to the non-human world, through intensification of agriculture, genetically modified organisms and nuclear power production to energize it all.

Critics of Malthus point out, hopefully, that there has been no mass starvation as he predicted (though people in some countries would quibble with that claim), that we grow more food now than ever before, that GMOs provide the promise of increased crop yields and ever new sources of food for a growing human population. Don’t worry, they say, the entire human population could fit in the Grand Canyon, Lake Superior, or some other equally improbable and irrelevant comparison.

Malthus was not just correct in his analysis, he was ahead of his time. The population Big Ben has yet to chime.

Back to Population Growth

The core problem remains 7+ billion human beings and counting; 7 + billions who aspire to live just like the 300 million and counting in the United States: multiple cars, multiple McMansions, unlimited food and water, room sized TeeVees, instant cell phone coverage on every inch of the planet, on demand everything, energy too cheap to meter in unlimited quantities.

This, of course, is impossible. There’s no way in Hell, and that’s what this planet would become, to provide that level of consumption and waste production for 7 to 10 billion people on this finite Earth.

I = C x P

There’s only two ways to reduce human impact on the non-human world to a level that truly qualifies as sustainable, aka able to continue indefinitely.

Either drastically lower consumption and keep it low or drastically lower human population and keep it low. It’s real simple! Furthermore, since reducing consumption only works as long as increasing population doesn’t overwhelm the equation and bring us back to overshoot, the only ultimate solution is to reduce and control human population increase by whatever means necessary.

Some point out hopefully that the rate of human increase is itself decreasing and human numbers will stabilize in the next 30, 50 or 100 years. That’s not good enough. We already consume one and a half Earths every year. We must shrink our economies, reduce our population and permanently reduce our consumption of raw materials from the biosphere, below present levels.

There’s no free lunch, not even a moderately inexpensive snack. Either we decide to do what it takes to control our expanding population, or we start preparing our exhibit in the crumbling remains of the Field Museum:

Homo sapiens

upright, featherless biped

extinct in the 21st Century

One thought on “Putting the Brakes on Population Growth

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