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?
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.
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.
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!
It’s nice to see Iran dispelling the myth that Muslims must have large families.
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.
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
In response to three of Weisman’s commentsâ€¦
1) >>>Iâ€™m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, â€œItâ€™s not population; itâ€™s consumption.â€ Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.<<>>Thereâ€™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 weâ€™re going to have to come up with a way to redefine prosperity that doesnâ€™t involve perpetual growth. A shrinking population or a stable population canâ€™t be a perpetual-growth society.<<<
In other words, we urgently need a replacement for capitalism, which is entirely dependent on perpetual growth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 donâ€™t believe this old adage as stated by Weisman holds up anymore.
â€œIt 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.â€
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.
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?
“Today weâ€™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.
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.
@David M Message 13
I suggest you to look into how the Haberâ€“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.
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.”
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!
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
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)
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?
â€œCrowded Planetâ€ 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, â€œCrowded Planetâ€ 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 â€œall lived an agrarian life, self-limitations would set in and our numbers wouldnâ€™t grow much beyond our ability to grow our own food.â€ 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 â€œCrowded Planetâ€ 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, â€œWho is doing the consuming?â€ 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, â€œ. . . no question that the most overpopulated country on earth is actually the United States because we consume at such a ferocious rate.â€
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 wonâ€™t be have the â€œluxuryâ€ (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 â€œdeveloped worldâ€ (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 â€œ4-wheel drive trucks and even helicopters.â€
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: â€œCountries that have smaller populations combined with education are more economically viable . . .â€ 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 â€œCouncil of the Pecans,â€ where she writes: â€œAll flourishing is mutual.â€ 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.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
Methinks we need a genocide.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
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.
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?
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
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! 😉
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
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. 🙂
Hereâ€™s something to consider: population canâ€™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 â€” consumption â€” 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 wouldnâ€™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. Itâ€™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 â€˜new world,â€™ 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. Thatâ€™s the way forward. Otherwise, weâ€™re just distracting ourselves with a false conflict, a conflict of symptoms.
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:
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
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.
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.
Good and hopeful point. 🙂
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?
“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?
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
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.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
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…
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.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
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?
“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?
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
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 â€œglobal overshoot dayâ€ 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. Letâ€™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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
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.”
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.
” 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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
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.
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.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
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…
The ironic fact is that the nation doing the most to address over population is also the nation doing the most destructive resource extraction â€“ 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.
â€œElite 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.”
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…
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
Superb and well researched article
reinvigorates you to take up the challenge in Pakistan with bold ideas
Great article. It has sparked a badly-needed discussion of this thorny, emotional issue.
David, Letâ€™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 â€“ more responsible stewardship of resources.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
Under the category of the elusive obvious that somehow keeps getting missed there is this from Alan Weisman.
“Iâ€™m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, â€œItâ€™s not population; itâ€™s consumption.â€ Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.”
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
Rob (#58) â€¦ Iâ€™ve never read anything that supports your statement, â€œOver 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.â€
In fact, an Oregon State University study found that in the United States the â€œcarbon 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 â€“ things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.â€
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? Heâ€™s argued that population has little impact on greenhouse gas emissions!
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.
While Iran may well have been on track for managing population growth, it was widely reported that Iranâ€™s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believed the countryâ€™s contraceptive program was “a prescription for extinction” and the brakes were put on family planning in Iran.
Iâ€™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.
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.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
TOOLS FOR NEED, NOT GREED!
Maria reports: An Oregon State University study found that in the United States the â€œcarbon 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 â€“ things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.â€
I do not know what an â€œextra childâ€ 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.
This population group advocates for a one child limit per couple. It’s accompanied by a pretty compelling video.
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.
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) orionmagazine.org
Please join us!
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?