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

The Myth of Economic Growth

I’ve written about the myth of economic growth quite a lot on Hayduke Blogs. Us the search bar in the lower right for a sampling. I’ve held for many years that growth is not the solution to our economic, social and environmental woes, growth is the problem.

Today I found an interview on Truthout: Power Shift Away From Green Illusions, with Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism.

They’re not really secrets, of course. We’ve known for a long time that alternative energy sources are dependent on fossil fuel energy sources, that our present level of energy use, consumption and economic growth cannot be sustained in a world of finite resources. We’ve even known that solar and wind power are not amenable to centralized collection and distribution and there is no way we can sustain our present society on renewable energy alone.

The future is not more. The future is less.

Less energy. Less growth. Fewer people. Less consumption.

It’s inevitable. That which cannot go on forever, won’t.

It’s good to read a book (a free chapter is available on Zehner’s web site), that lays this all out very logically, in a readable and entertaining volume. He also makes the case for a rational, science-based approach to moving toward a steady state economy based on a smaller population and reduced per capita consumption.

My wife and I lowered our standard of living and increased our quality of life over ten years ago.

The Myth of Economic Growth stops right here at home.

Let’s Plan for The Real Transition

Recently I had an exchange with Erik Curren in the Comments section of an article he had written about global warming. Erik is the owner of the Transition Voice web site that serves as a platform for the Transition movement.
Curren’s post was a rambling maundering about “climate deniers,” who, according to Curren, are inordinately successful in “spreading doubt” about climate change, or more accurately anthropogenic global warming.
This brings to mind Ed Abbey’s observation: “Fantastic doctrines (like Christianity or Islam or Marxism) require unanimity of belief. One dissenter casts doubt on the creed of millions. Thus the fear and the hate; thus the torture chamber, the iron stake, the gallows, the labor camp, the psychiatric ward.”
The debate over climate change is polarized on the extremes of “deniers” versus “alarmists.” Oddly, “deniers” are frequently associated with right-wing, fossil-fuel energy corporations, and “alarmists” most frequently associated with “environmentalists” and environmentalism, particularly large Green organizations. One suspects that there is something other than environmentalists vs. corporate developers behind the schism. Perhaps we should “Follow the money” to learn the source of this vociferous debate.
The polarization of the debate obscures understanding of climate science and blocks the effectiveness of environmental activism. More importantly, it draws attention away from the more serious problems caused by human pollution, biodiversity loss and species extinctions, all of which are caused by human growth and development of critical natural habitat.
If we are to plan ahead for natural limitations on human growth that we face in the future, we have to move away from these fruitless arguments to areas where we can come to agreement. Fossil fuel use must be curtailed, even before it becomes too scarce to extract, if for no other reason than fossil fuels are polluting by their very nature, regardless of their carbon content, and their use fosters increasing consumption. Human economic growth and its increasing consumption must stop at some point, because we live in a finite planet that cannot withstand continued and accelerating resource depletion.
Why distract ourselves with possible future climate variation, when these looming problems face us right now and right here in our own homes? 
Rather than political and economic strategies aimed solely at “global warming,” such as cap and trade economic “fixes,” we should come to grips with the very real and immediate challenges of finite fossil fuel availability and finite resources for which there are no renewable alternatives.
Finally, and most importantly, human population growth and increasing resource consumption has exceeded the limits of our planet’s ability to support us. We flat out overshot our natural limits, and we’re living on borrowed time, and squandered resources.
The real transition looming on the horizon is not a simple exchange of nonrenewable for renewable energy technologies. The Earth can no longer support its human population, regardless of its energy technology choices.
The transition that will inevitably arrive is the change from a continuously growing human population to a steady state population considerably smaller than our present 7 billion individuals. The founding concept of modern economics based on production for profit has failed and we must discard it in favor of a steady-state economy based on production for use.
What we need now, rather than an unending debate on the future of global climate variation, is to develop a realistic, rational theory for a steady-state society that lives within natural cycles of resource availability, that does not consume resources faster than they are naturally renewed, and that does not produce waste faster than it is natural dispersed, such that all other species’ viability is not threatened.
We can’t embark on the transition to this new society until we have envisioned the desired outcome. 
Until we know the destination, we cannot plan the route.

What’ll it be? "Man the Lifeboats!" or The Briny Deep?

“Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly”—Woody Allen.

What’s it going to be, eh?
Passenger Pigeon
It’s obvious that the combined impact of increasing human consumption of (ineptly named) natural resources, multiplied by increasing human population growth results in unacceptable losses in critical natural habitat, biodiversity, living topsoil, quantity and quality of potable water, and increases in species extinction. Ecosystems wounded by human development and destruction are more susceptible to climate variation, putting more stress on species shifting with habitats.
The human reaction is to ask, loudly, while wringing our hands: “What can we do to stop this? What is the solution to overpopulation, resource depletion and (*GASP*) Global Warming?
The answer is: there is no solution. 
There is no solution to natural processes. Natural processes are not a problem that can be solved. There is no solution to a species whose population has overshot its resource base. There is no solution to global climate variation. There is only accommodation to the reality of life on this planet.
If humans were a rational species, we might decide it is in our own best interest, and just by the way, in the interest of all other species, to control our population growth and reduce consumption, stop gobbling up all the non-vertical land in sight, stop polluting the air, land and water, and stop sucking all the nutrients from the living topsoil and flushing it into the ocean. We might decide to live like a good neighbor to the community of life that makes it possible for us to live on this poor abused and battered planet.
But, alas, we’re not a rational species. 
We’ve cut ourselves off from contact with the non-human world and put it in a zoo so we can continue our profligate ways, and still come and visit the cute little plants and animals now and then, for our amusement… and not have to think about them overly much when we’re busy… consuming.
We’ve developed a dominant culture based on consumption to excess, to make even more profits for already rich people, and we sit up nights and complain about it. We’ve developed religions that forbid us from controlling our population to levels sustainable (the real sustainable) within existing, highly variable resource availability. We’ve developed a system of food production dependent on stable and unchanging weather patterns. And, worst of all, we’ve developed political systems controlled by those who profit from all the above.
Rather than taking seriously the prospect of a sinking ship with too few lifeboats to save all the passengers, we continue to politely listen to the orchestra sawing away at a funeral dirge on the poop deck, as we munch on canapés and sip a fine vintage champagne.
It’s too late to build more lifeboats. It’s too late to restrict the passenger list. It’s too late to stock up on caviar and champagne. The ship has already hit the ice and the forward compartments are rapidly filling with icy water.
Gravity and hydrodynamics are taking over the cruise and the ship of human civilization is on its way to its ultimate briny grave.
Don’t be alarmed. It’s only a temporary detour. There are, after all, some lifeboats, and some will survive. There are still crackers and cheese and an inferior domestic wine waiting beyond yon horizon. Certainly enough for the few who have had the forethought to don warm clothing and life vests before coming on deck.
The ship will go down, as it must, as ordained by the sacred laws of Nature. And, Life Will Go On after the Grand Adjustment, as it has for hundreds of millions of years.
There’s still time to tighten our life vests, pass out the survival rations, swing out the davits and climb aboard the rafts. It just might be an adventure, a lesson in species survival to newcomers on the evolutionary scene. Who knows, we might learn something valuable that will last us for a millennium or two.
Mother Nature is hard and she’s fair. 

Reducing the Titanic Passenger List

Population growth and per capita resource consumption are the twin swords of human impact on the natural world.

At 7 billion and counting, Homo sapiens has drastically overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth, even in areas where per capita resource consumption is low. There is no place on Earth that has not felt the destructive impact of human activity. Where humans live in poverty, the land is stripped bare for fuel and food. Where humans live in profligate excess, the map of destruction extends world-wide, feeding never-ending demands for more and more of more and more.

Ironically, population is the one factor that humans can most easily control. If there is one common thread that anthropologists have discovered in human societies throughout the world, it is that family size and reproduction rates are a function of local economy, social position of women and availability of food. When social conditions create a stable environment for families, increased social status and autonomy for women and access to sufficient food and energy, birth rates decline, since large families are not seen as necessary for survival.

However, even in developed countries, social conditions can increase birth rates, despite better conditions for women, where economic incentives exist for large families, where religions discourage effective birth control and family planning, and where social values favor families over non-breeders. Developed countries also have the highest rates of resource consumption, providing double edges for the twin swords of human destruction.

To further enhance population growth, the medical intervention industry has fostered the attitude that all humans born must live to maturity, regardless of congenital medical conditions complicating their lives and the society in which they live. 

Those who in the recent past would have died in infancy, childhood or early adulthood now live to become reproducing adults, thus passing on their genetic diseases to future generations, and increasing population by lowering death rates.

The result is that we have allowed human population to outstrip resource supplies necessary for all life on the planet, and we have further magnified the problem with a corporate capitalist economy that produces material goods for profit at a rate far greater than that required for human use. We have created human societies that consume resources hundreds of times faster than they are naturally replenished, and we produce wastes hundreds of times faster than natural processes can assimilate them. 

It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that this is a formula for environmental disaster, coming soon to an ecosystem near each and every one of us.

Coming Next: Consuming ourselves to death.

Economic Equality Aboard the Titanic

We see it in the headlines every day, especially with the run-up to Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. 
We are told we “need” 3% economic growth worldwide per year to provide jobs for our growing population, seven billion now and still increasing rapidly. 
We are told we need to develop economies in emerging and “underdeveloped” countries, so they can meet the demands of “climate change” brought about by fossil fuel burning in developed countries. We are told continually that poorer nations must be allowed, even encouraged and facilitated, to grow to the level of other nations so that all seven billion + of us can have access to all the goods and services that everyone has in every other country.
We are told overall that all this growth and development must be “sustainable,” which, according to the United Nations, means “growth that meets present needs without compromising those of future generations.” 
An Experiment
When I was in high school, I did a science project that involved running white mice through a maze while on dextroamphetamine (the mice, not me. This was the early 60s. It was relevant then.) Since I lived in a small town in Nebraska, I had to raise my own white mice to have enough subjects for the tests.
This biological experiment quickly turned into an economic experiment, as I soon learned the lessons of exponential population growth in a closed environment. I was very quickly overrun by white mice. I couldn’t give them away fast enough to disperse the growing population of my experimental subjects. I eventually had to turn the bulk of them out into a cold and unforgiving world, where they lived out the remainder of their brief and exciting lives as prey for local predators.
The lesson stuck with me through my college years and beyond. Unlimited growth in a world of finite resources is impossible.
The Problem
The underlying problem is that international development agencies such as the United Nations are run by economists rather than biologists. 
Economists are master illusionists who rely on a set of fictions, fantasies and forecasts that emanate from a core magical mantra of Perpetual Growth that goes untested year after year.” Paul M. Ferrill, Myth of Perpetual Growth is Killing America.
Economists think that the only species on the planet affected by human growth is Homo sapiens itself, when, in reality, all species are negatively affected by habitat destruction and pollution caused by a growing overabundance of a single species, that same Homo sapiens.
Ed Abbey once told us that unlimited growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell. This was never more true than today. Rather than oncologists, our world is run by cancer proponents, who want every human being on Earth to have cancer, thus committing humans to long term pain, misery and death in a world depauperate of resources, quiet and desperate of all other species.
The United Nations was conceived of as an international body of governmental representatives convening to address problems and solutions common to all humanity. Conceived and implemented as a social organization, dealing primarily with fascism, imperialism, war, international health and economic equality, the UN has always been an exclusively human centered organization. Missing in the charter and focus of the organization was any realization that humans are but one of many species on this planet, and, as such, Homo sapiens has no inherent prior claim to exclusive exploitation of natural resources at the expense of all other life.
This overemphasis on human economic equality, in the form of “sustainable” economic growth, is like arguing on board the Titanic that all passengers should get an equal refund for an incomplete voyage. There are simply too many people, consuming too many resources on this planet already. Insisting that all seven billion of us, and counting, should have equal access to all resources and equal opportunity for economic growth is an insane philosophy that could only have come from economists who have lost their grip on reality.
The Solution 
We cannot buy our way out of this mess by shuffling the deck chairs of wealth from First Class to Steerage. We must reduce the passenger load, repair the ship and steer a new course into a rational future based on biological and geophysical realities of life on this the only planet we have, to sustain the only source of Life we know.
It’s time to think or thwim.