How many people should there be?

Dancer, Benjamin | November 22, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Khalida raises her hand to answer a question in the Puti Kalatsha community-based education classPhoto by Elissa Bogos/Save the Children, shared by GSK | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

There is an important question I’ve recently started asking.

It’s a question of such importance I wish I could figure out how to get everyone on Earth to ask it, too. I think the future depends on it.

I know the question sounds strange. But what’s even stranger, at least to me, is that it’s something we don’t talk about. It’s taboo, even.

If we don’t ask the question “how many people should there be?” I doubt we’ll be able to decide the answer, and losing the initiative on that would likely be a catastrophe.

I think of it this way: our biology wires our population for growth. In other words, if we don’t make a collective choice as a species, the status quo will likely always be growth. That is up until the moment that further growth becomes ecologically impossible. In biology such an event is called a “collapse”.

Here’s a short version of the math.

There are 7.5 billion people today, and the growth rate of the population is about 1.1% per year, which means about 75 million people are added to Earth every year. 1.1% seems like a small number until you do the math. At that growth rate, the population would double in less than one lifetime, which would put us at a total population of about 15 billion in about 63 years.

Another way to illustrate the power of exponential growth is to look backwards. When I was born, 1972, the population was about half what it is now. When my grandfather was born, it was half of that.

After examining the math, it might be helpful to look at the issue philosophically.

There are some really important questions in life that I don’t think we should leave to the unconscious.

Take, for example, the question what type of parent do you want to be? I believe that question represents a life direction. If such a question is not approached with intentionality, the status quo of whatever mentoring we’ve received in our lives will become actualized within our own selves, with or without our conscious consent. In other words, we can either choose who it is we want to be, or we can unconsciously become like those who have, for better or worse, influenced us most greatly.

That might sound like a tangent, but I think it’s related. I think we ought to aspire to be more intentional because our lives are more meaningful when we’re more aware of our choices.

The size of the population is a collective choice. Now that we’re aware of that choice, I’ll rephrase the question.

There are about 7.5 billion humans alive today. We all need to eat. We all need clothes. We all need shelter. Most of us will secure means of transportation, comfort, entertainment. All these things require energy to produce. And all these things are being provided by the finite resources of our planet.

What do you think is a sustainable number for our population?

I don’t know a precise answer to that question. I suppose nobody does, as there are so many variables concerning lifestyle and consumption. But here’s what I know for sure: more growth is folly. We wouldn’t have to be as careful about sustainability if there were less people because in general, less people consume less.

Let me put it this way, when there were a few million humans running around the planet, they could do what they wanted, consume what they wanted. Even if they tried, they couldn’t hurt much. For example, a few million humans could have tried to chop down a massive percentage of Earth’s forests, they could have tried to deplete the ocean’s fisheries, and they could have tried to intentionally drive thousands of other species to extinction, and it would have required extraordinary planning, collaboration and ingenuity for them to leave such a large ecological footprint.

With 7.5 billion people it requires extraordinary planning, collaboration and ingenuity not to cause so much ecological devastation. For example, I recently learned from a NOAA scientist that global population growth has trended perfectly with rising atmospheric concentrations of C02 over the past 100 years. In other words, there is a correlation between our growing population and climate change.

I like the number two billion.

Not for any good reason. Mostly because that was the carrying capacity of the planet before the advent of widely available, reliable electricity, which brought several technologies online to expand the carrying capacity of the planet. Those technologies include fertilizer, pesticides, mechanical irrigation, infrastructure for clean drinking water, infrastructure for sanitation, advanced medical care, etc. Prior to electricity there were two billion of us. Now there are 7.5 billion.

So if I had to give my best guess at answering the question: “how many people should there be?” I’d say about two billion because I think that might be a sustainable number. Meaning, we’d all have a pretty good lifestyle that could be sustained for a long time into the future.

Joel E. Cohen offers a pretty engaging discussion on these lines in his book How Many People Can the Earth Support?

I feel pretty confident in saying that we’d all be better off if there were fewer of us. But how do we get there humanely? Especially since our livelihoods depend on growth. Just about every one of us makes our living off growth. I’m a teacher. Without population growth, I’d likely find myself out of a job.

So how in the world do you contract without creating a catastrophe?

Since the global population replacement birth rate is about 2.1 children per woman, choosing smaller families is an effective way to reduce the population over time. A collective choice to have families with one or two children would reverse the mathematical trend from a growing population to a population that is contracting.

Unfortunately, at the end of 2016 there are still large populations throughout the globe without access to contraception. Moreover, a lot of smart people I’ve interviewed believe that universal access to contraception will result in smaller family sizes globally. In other words, when given access to contraception most people choose smaller families.

I think it’s important, at this point, to offer a brief commentary on liberty. I’d like to see us chose a smaller population humanely. Some people think that’s not possible. For example, the “bad guy” in my thriller Patriarch Run, wants to reduce the population by killing you and me and everyone we love. He figured out a realistic way to do this (by taking down the power grid). I know a lot of people like him, not in their willingness to commit genocide on a scale never before seen in human history, but they share his pessimism about the future of population growth. I’m much more hopeful than that.

So let me posit this. A humane approach to this problem would also respect liberty. As a matter of fact, it could enhance liberty. I think we can agree that not every human being today is afforded the right to their own body and reproductive choices. For example, 2.5 million girls 15 years old and younger are arranged into marriage every year. I’d like to see the right of liberty universally respected, especially among young girls and women. One of the many benefits of the universal respect of human rights would be smaller family sizes, as most women, if given the choice, would likely choose to have one or two kids.

But what then? How do you manage the economics of population contraction? 

I don’t know. But I know this. If we don’t contract intentionally, mother nature will “contract” us. That’s just how biology works. Which is why I think it’s better to ask these questions than to run the whole thing off the cliff.


Benjamin Dancer is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelity and The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security. You can introduce yourself to Benjamin at BenjaminDancer.com.


MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org.

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  • Jan Hearthstone

    What do you think is a sustainable number for our population?

    The number should be such as to present human population being in harmony with all other species and in harmony with the Earth.

    The number should represent the number of a hunter/gatherer population living on Earth at zero growth population level, always in a dynamic harmony with all other species.

    I do not advocate that all humanity should become hunter/gatherers; humans could live at any possible sustainable complexity level, however should they chose land at any lower (in complexity) level, there would have to enough room for all to live in.

    To ensure that the what-so-ever complexity level of sustainable living is, indeed, sustainable, all of those more complex levels could “evolve” from the very clearly sustainable life-style of the hunter/gatherers living at zero growth population level.

    More at Universal Platform for Developing Sustainable Earth Vision/Model Cooperatively – http://www.ModelEarth.Org
    Thank you, Hearthstone.

  • Max Kummerow

    Bear in mind that 91 countries with about 47% of world population currently are shown by World Bank data at less than 2.1 TFR (total fertility rate, a point in time cross sectional measure of fertility summed across women’s ages from 15-45). So quite a few places got fertility down by one means or another (they vary, conditions and cultures vary). There is a long literature going back to 1929 (Thompson) about “demographic transition theory” (DTT), meaning why fertility rates fall. A lot of it (including the comment below about rising incomes doing it) is oversimplified, not empirically supported and wishful thinking. Ok, rising incomes reduce fertility? Why? Is it causal or coincidental with some other factors? Does that make kids an “inferior good” in economic jargon (like cheap food you buy less of when income rises). Doubtful. And, not a very good plan for getting fertility down in countries where incomes are falling–like in the highest fertility African countries. Ansley Coale’s “Princeton Fertility Project” spent a decade studying determinants of fertility decline. Found traditional DTT grossly oversimplified (overemphasized declining infant mortality (people have more kids as “spares”?) and income growth. I think it’s really about modernization and adoption of new technology and norms. John Bongaarts presented a paper at the 2016 PAA meeting showing a big cultural preferenence for large families in Africa. (in a regression with: income, life expectancy, education and urbanization–all fertility predictors–adding an “Africa” dummy variable accounted for an extra 1.1 kid in the data.)

    Where the wind went out of the sails (a great metaphor) on population limits, in my opinion, had a great deal to do with “merchants of doubt.” Read Herman Daly’s review of Kerryn Higgs book Collision Course. She shows how the Edward Bernay propaganda techniques have been used by think tanks funded by right wing billionaires to move American public opinion against regulations, for low taxes/small government, for growth, anti-abortion, anti-family planning. So now the term “population control” is toxic. But it was manufactured toxicity. The voter ignorance that led to Trump was made to order and paid for. That’s the real problem and solution. We know how to move public opinion–it’s called marketing and PR and propaganda. It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of expertise. And, we need to realize that sometimes it is easier to sell a convenient lie than an inconvenient truth. Ralph Nader wrote a fantasy book where more liberal billionaires step up to the plate to pull public opinion back to some semblance of truth.

    And another thing, while I’m at it. Science is actually a discredited paradigm and rightly so. Scientists have been happy (with exceptions) to sit in their offices and hustle research funding and publish papers while the world has been going to hell. And we (and the public) know that there are scientists for hire (7000 papers published with tobacco industry funding). You can find any number of guys with ties and powerpoint slides explaining why climate change is a myth on the web. But more fundamentally, the message of science was (from Francis Bacon on), “do some research and things will get better.” Technology will improve lives. But technology turned out to be a double edged sword. Fossil fuels, nuclear physics, information technology (the strongest social control tool for an oligarchy since the invention of secret police) are all causing huge problems. So why will more listening to science save us? And, the message scientists are delivering now is entirely different. It is, “sorry, you are going to get poorer, you need to stop having so many kids and you need to consume less.” That’s kind of a hard sell. Not sure how to convince people that this lousy set of choices is the best way to survive in an ill equipped, overcrowded lifeboat. So there will probably be some painful collapses. Already happened in Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria and Somalia and Congo. I guess the good news is that science has the technology to fix it all–we can hold out the vision of a green sustainable planet. It makes so much sense eventually the truth might prevail.

  • Max Kummerow

    See steadystate.org and Herman Daly’s review of Kerryn Higgs book Collision Course. Higgs makes the point that “merchants of doubt” attacked population stabilization the same way they attacked many other scientific truths inconvenient to profit or power. See also Daly’s ten points for transitioning to steady state. My personal preference would be 500 million with most living in cities of 1 to 10 million, half the world wilderness, lots of reforestation, soil rebuilding and biofuels. What a great place that planet would be to live. Sadly the global fertility transition is not going well. Fertility fell 0.95 child/woman during the 1970s, but only 0.13 child/woman during 2004-14. And population growth rose from 79 million in 2002 to 85 million in 2015. Divergent fertility is not just about access to modern contraception (although that matters too). A lot of it has to do with cultural family size norms, economic costs and benefits of kids, etc. Women in many African countries still want 5 or 6 kids or as many as Allah gives them. Completing the global fertility transition will be a challenge in a world where fertility has diverged from about 7 (in Niger) to about 1.2 (in Singapore). The former will grow exponentially (the UN says 4.4 billion in Africa by 2100, but current natural increase rates make it 9 billion by 2100). The latter (Europe, Japan, etc.) will shrink exponentially. Divergent fertility cannot persist. Cultural selection (as opposed to natural selection) evolves towards the higher fertility meme. Unless people can be convinced to change the family size norm. Which has happened in 91 countries and can happen everywhere. But it will take a big push to get it done. I’m betting on collapse, but hoping for lower fertility rates.

    • Rob Harding

      Thanks Max. Great points. I think your second to last point about the need to focus on changing the family size norm may be the most important point of all. That to me would require local leadership and engaged citizens around the world to lead this initiative; however, such local leadership and engaged citizens with a desire to actually pursue this appears to be lacking. We as individual contributors to this online forum can only do so much. As a friend recently said to me, even the most talented of sailors cannot make the wind blow. I guess this is where efforts to raise awareness play a role in (hopefully) leading us in the right direction.

  • John Weyland

    “I wish I could figure out how to get everyone on Earth to ask it, too” and then we got side-tracked into solving the population problem with no mandate.
    we need to change our competitive culture, we need everybody

  • I would like to suggest you all read a book I wrote back in the early 1990s entitled, WORLD WAR III: Population & the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium, both the first edition (1994) and second revised edition (1998).

    Our species has been at war with the biosphere for thousands of years, and most aggressively, of course, in what I now phrase the post-Anthropocene. We are past the point of sitting around a warm cup of coffee philosophically discussing these issues. We are at war and humans must be rationed in no less a manner than soy beans and fresh water. By “rationing” let me be pellucidly clear: No More Growth. If we are to save a sufficient seed-source of biodiversity that will have the biological infrastructure genetically (both north and south of the equatorial belts) to revivify robust populations across the vast majority of taxa, our species needs to virtually shut down.

    To do so humanely is an ideal, but unlikely given our track record of destroying half of the world’s forests, and trillions of individuals of other species annually, not to mention approximately 250 million other humans since the time of the Renaissance.

    Every great philosophical tradition of humaneness has politely side-stepped the population issue. The only way to truly solve it is to open all borders, dispense with visas, passports, vetting of any kind. Let us unburden high rarity biodiversity areas of human beings by opening our borders, all borders. Let the false lure of jobs and economic prosperity lift the colossal burden of humanity’s footprint across all of the biological hotspots and coldspots. This is the only way to sway individual choices, once confronted with below-the-poverty line reality of a world approaching 9, 10, 11, 12, possibly 15 billion ungainly, bipedal largely carnivorous Homo sapiens, the last of the Homo genus, all consolidated in multi-megacities of vastly attenuated qualities of human life: epicenters for thriving rodenta, bacteria and viruses. A veritable urban Renaissance of eukaryotes.

    This may seem heretical, draconian, if not utterly insane on a political level. That’s fine, given the political insanity the United States has just embraced, setting a precedent for other insanities to follow. But, in fact, opening all borders to all people will be the only way to truly confront the stupidity of our behavior commencing with the Quaternary Megafaunal extinctions we long ago unleashed in our hubris, cruelty and indifference to other sentient species; our “invention” of no tomorrow; of blue sky; of endless resources and greener pastures. Those days are over.

    • Rob Harding

      Thank you Michael. Amazing, and certainly draconian-ish, yet boldly realistic points and impassioned suggestions. I’m wondering, is there an e-book version of the first and second editions of your book? And would you be willing to share it with this community to read? I’m certainly interested in reading it. Thanks for your time and contribution to this discussion. I’m hopeful that we can soon move beyond discussion and help lead the solution for our transition to a sustainable life on Earth.

      • Rod,
        I think there is no e-book of the 2 editions. I would order the second revised edition from Contiinuum Books/New York, with a Preface from Jane Goodall.
        Also get our film NO VACANCY (from the Products page at http://www.dancingstarfoundation.org).
        Cheers,
        Michael Tobias

        • Rob Harding

          Thank you Michael.

  • liveoak

    Thanks for the question, Benjamin. I’m very glad to see your emphasis on the importance of us achieving greater awareness and acting intentionally, making choices rather than simply acting out the default set of beliefs and motions currently resonating within our social groupings. I’m also glad to see that you say you “know a lot of people” who are pessimistic about the future because of the looming problem of population growth–congratulations, at least you belong to a generation that is opening its eyes, unlike the determined denial of my own (back when there was time to have done something substantial about it)!

    Of course, if there were fewer of us, there would be more to go around; why that’s been so hard for so many to acknowledge is kind of hard to explain in “rational” terms. But then, what the goal of all of our “growth” is has never been clarified in such terms either, even though one might think, if we were indeed “rational animals” (a conceit of western philosophy?), that, given all the frenetic activities of so many large mammals all around the globe, there must be some sort of collectively desirable goal in mind. Yes, many people have been too absorbed in just staying alive from day to day to think much about it, but this lacuna in our rationality seems to affect most highly educated people of academic leisure as well.

    How to explain this lack of attention to where we’re headed, so fast and as if with such concerted determination? One explanation, as you allude, is simply biological; for all our much-vaunted intelligence, we’re simply “wired” to reproduce without limit, or–since that obviously isn’t the case with the many who do choose some personal limitation on their family size, “wired” so as to avoid looking at ourselves as a species with an eye to our overall “life direction,” as you put it–some sort of psychological defense against reflexivity that seems to emerge within us, making the whole topic “taboo,” as you note.

    But another explanation–to pick up the other side of the stick–for our apparently mindless pursuit of “growth” could be the way the biological growth of our species, which has a finite limit, has been bound up with what we think of as economic growth, a notion that itself has never been clearly defined; to some it means “development” in ways that seem beneficial, at least to a certain degree, improving the lives of people in certain societies, but more and more it seems to refer to numerical increase in financial symbols, increasingly divorced from concrete context and therefore potentially able to grow without limit (or so it seems when your “world” is largely made up of abstractions). We also seem determined in our avoidance of reflexivity as we tailor our behavior to respond more to fluctuations in our socially constructed symbols and less to changes in the real world–changes in land forms, species composition, water quality and quantity, population density, climate and so on–more’s the pity.

    You and others on this list seem to have been impressed by Joel Cohen’s way of addressing the population issue, but I for one have not been; his famous book rather cavalierly plays with the notion of an impossibly large human population, allowing many readers to put it down with a quick slip into relativism, i.e., one person thinks this and another thinks that so there must not be any answer to how many of us the Earth can support–so let’s just not deal with hard questions like this now, let’s leave it to another generation to worry about. Maybe yours will be that generation.

    How many people should there be? If we could set a goal for an ideal world, yes, I think you’re right on target with about 2 billion, all living in societies observing “universal respect for human rights,” all living intentionally, all choosing no more children collectively than what is sustainable. I don’t see how we can get there now, however. I don’t favor the plan of the “bad guy” of your book, but it’s hard to see how we can avoid disasters of some kind, probably many kinds. My bets would be on a massive economic collapse coming first, one that would leave many people clueless as to where their food is coming from–the more clueless, to the degree that they live more in the abstract symbol-world than the real one, and hence maybe the best way to try to survive the inevitable knife of natural selection, for yourself and your progeny, is to situate yourself for living as close to the natural systems of the Earth as you can.

    • Benjamin Dancer

      Thanks for the insights. Let’s hope we can wake ourselves up.

    • Sailesh Rao

      Thank you for bringing up the link with economic growth! In the book, “The Imitation of Christ,” the four rules for happy, fulfilled, spiritual living is given as:

      1) Always seek to have less, rather than more,
      2) Always seek to be last, rather than first,
      3) Always seek to do the will of another, rather than your own, and finally,
      4) Always seek to accept what happens as the will of God.

      Currently, our growth-oriented socioeconomic system, based on consumption as an organizing value and competition as an organizing principle, actively rewards us for doing the exact opposite of these four rules. So why are we surprised that there is so much misery and suffering, as we consume ourselves into an overgrown human caterpillar, that’s too big for this planet? Heck, just 5% of the human population gave “thanks” by killing and eating 46 million turkeys only yesterday!

      But surely, we are smart enough to devise an alternate socioeconomic system that is oriented towards human creativity, not growth, that is based on compassion, not consumption as its organizing value and collaboration, not competition, as its organizing principle. Human creativity, compassion and collaboration are all infinitely sustainable characteristics, while growth, consumption and competition are blatantly unsustainable characteristics.

      Indeed, in Nature, the caterpillar has no choice but to transform into a butterfly and we have no choice but to transform our socioeconomic system accordingly.

      Let’s get to work!

      • liveoak

        Hi Sailesh–

        Thanks for your response. Yes, I believe I have a similar orientation toward Thanksgiving and the associated trappings of what seems to have become the “holiday season” for much of the industrialized and industrializing world. Not only are an awful lot of otherwise-good people allowing themselves to live in bad faith with respect to the lives of the animals they consume, I suspect there was very little discussion of what’s happening in Standing Rock amid pious thoughts about Pilgrims and Indians yesterday, if even that much tradition was let in during the run-up to Black Friday.

        The four rules you mention–or at least the first three–make good sense “rationally” as well as spiritually, as rules by which symbol-using primates such as ourselves can live together in cooperative communities. They also sound like “rules” spelling out a certain pattern of neuropsychological inhibition, our frontal lobes imposing negative feedback on some of our more ego-promoting circuitry. If we were to live more intentionally, we might devote some attention to ways of fostering such a voluntary damping down the attitudes that promote consumption and competition–transmitting such an orientation is probably something that lies at the core of all true (functionally true) religions.

        The reason I have trouble with your fourth rule– “Always seek to accept what happens as the will of God”–is that I think it promotes quietism, and what I believe we need now is agency, the right kind of agency. It’s pretty easy to take your choice c) below, continue as before, to be “the will of God.” I seem to have a different definition of “God” than most; for me, when I feel reverence, it is directed toward the fountain of Life, as manifested in all biodiversity, Life within us and without. The notion of an old man in the sky whose will we must “obey” seems far too anthropocentric and patriarchal to promote a cooperative orientation today, but maybe opening our eyes to the subjecthood of other living beings can serve that purpose, for those of us who do learn to live as part of nature and survive. And certainly we need agency to minimize the harm and destruction that “continuing as we have been” is wreaking on all forms of Life.

        • Sailesh Rao

          Those four rules are from the book, “The Imitation of Christ,” not my original. The acceptance of what happens in the fourth rule is not meant to imply quietism, but rather a form of detachment to the outcome of our actions. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita, for instance, preaches this rule as well, though it is essentially the gospel of Action.

          The image of “God” as a patriarchal old man in the sky who must be obeyed, is truly a reflection of the egotistical, socioeconomic system that we are mired in. On the contrary, most wisdom traditions posit God as “unknowable” by the thinking mind. For instance, the Hindu definition of God is “reality and knowledge without limits,” which is the origin of the concept of infinity (and zero). From this definition, the Taittiriya Upanishad logically deduces that God is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, all-compassionate, all-merciful, etc. Such a God concept is meant to reassure us that though everything appears to be a mess, all is and will be well. Imagine, the Butterfly cannot come into being without experiencing the Caterpillar phase!

          • liveoak

            I guess I’m not really wanting to be “detached” from the outcome of my actions; I do care what happens to other Life on the planet, and if I act, manifest agency in some way, it’s because I want to bring about a certain state of affairs in the world. I can see working to attain an acceptance of those things one has determined one cannot change, but I believe much of the time people set up self-fulfilling prophesies by saying things like “not in my lifetime” rather than taking responsibility for trying to bring desirable things about in their lifetimes; there are many things that we CAN change if we make the effort. And all is definitely NOT well in the world today. I thought you were concerned about turkeys?

            Moreover, as far as things like “reality,” “knowledge,” “infinity,” and superlatives like “all-seeing, all-knowing” go, these are all abstract concepts, representations constructed by our left hemisphere that are detached from the concrete context of the actual reality of living organisms and systems. This move into abstractions, and often demeaning embodiment in the process, is a way many religious and spiritual traditions have gone wrong, in my opinion. It is similar to our society’s leap into the world of financial abstractions, and can potentially lead to the same dead end–a dead planet.

            Have you ever watched a butterfly or other insect emerge from its metamorphosis? It takes a lot of effort; some them don’t make it through this final phase.

          • Sailesh Rao

            Indeed, like you, I’m concerned with turkeys and all life. But to cite an example, I accepted that even Paul Ehrlich, who is extremely intelligent and had been thinking about the “Population Bomb” for more than 40 years, was choosing c) in the weight lifter’s scenario, when I met him first in 2010. The best I could do at that time was to point out his inconsistencies to him, not throw tantrums at him.

            Metamorphosis does take a lot of effort and success is not guaranteed, but expending that effort is a wonderful use of our energies as opposed to fighting the existing reality. By now, it should be self-evident that our current global socioeconomic system is unhealthy for all life on this planet, not just for women, colored people, religious minorities and the LGBT community. After all, it was designed by white patriarchal colonialists many centuries ago, though it has been tweaked endlessly ever since, until it erupted in Brexit and Trump.

          • liveoak

            I’m not sure what to make of this: “not throw tantrums at him.” Is this aimed at me, because I said I don’t hold with the “detachment” that some religions counsel? I guess this exchange has gone on long enough; thanks for your point of view.

    • Rob Harding

      Thank you, liveoak. Wonderful, yet dreadful, insights. Like Charles Justice, above, you also appear to view societal collapse as largely inevitable now. I’m not fully there, whether due to my own somewhat unrealistic optimism or denial, and for that reason I’d like to share the same points with you that I shared with him. It seems quite clear that if we ultimately approach this problem from a different perspective than population control, unnecessary pain and suffering – human and otherwise – will not be minimized. Minimizing pain and suffering resulting from an unsustainable society and, increasingly likely, its eventual collapse, seems to me to currently be our paramount goal. Like Charles, you appear to assume that this primary goal is impossible now, and therefore that the logical secondary goal of building societal resilience against economic and political collapse should become “the” goal. As I mentioned above, I’m not yet to the point of assuming full-blown collapse is inevitable and that’s what is driving my perspective here; however, I understand the points you raised as well as the moral problem presented by both Charles Justice and William Rees in their separate comments. Viewing near total collapse as already inevitable given humans’ inherent irrationality is a hard pill to swallow, but I think that’s an important point of discussion since one’s current viewpoint on the inevitability of collapse is very likely to drive their perspective on what our primary goal and strategy should be at this time. What do you think? Thanks for your time and contribution to this discussion. I’m hopeful that we can soon move beyond discussion and help lead the solution for our transition to a sustainable life on Earth.

      • liveoak

        Thanks for your comment, Rob. Well, human society hasn’t collapsed yet, and where there’s life, there’s hope; that’s the frustrating thing, because we COULD be engaged in turning this whole juggernaut around, but we aren’t, we’re still accelerating, heading right into that brick wall. When I see pictures of urban centers with great clusters of high-rises, I can’t help but think about what goes into maintaining them, the tremendous draw on the Earth’s resources from an area so many times larger than the land area they occupy. That land area is so concreted-over that essentially no photosynthesis is going on, no natural food webs sustaining the animal life, no “fountain of energy” powered by the sun–instead, fossil-fuel-driven conduits hauling in vegetable matter from pesticide-soaked fields and flesh from factories of intense animal suffering. And surrounding these urban centers, all over the world, are poverty-ridden slums where humans barely eke out a living, sorting through trash or selling their bodies and those of their children. Was this the goal of humanity’s long process of evolution? And what is so tragic is that most people still do not “see” what we’ve done–what they see is dollar signs, digits in an abstract world that bears little relation to the reality all around them. Maybe your generation can insist on seeing through this numerical-linguistic fantasy to what’s actually happening–the absurd construction of “student debt” can surely provide an immediate incentive–and get the image of reality across to the rest of us. It seems to me that first step in turning this around is to admit that we must start trying to do so; denial is the first obstacle to overcome.

        • Rob Harding

          Well put, liveoak. I’m with you. And I’d answer your question about whether that was the goal of humanity’s process of evolution with an emphatic “No!”, though I know it was rhetorical. Where I continue to have great concern is on the obstacle of overcoming denial and what I’ll call “active ignorance” (i.e. avoidance of issues by choice). My efforts over the past 10 months to inform and engage with others, including family, friends, elected officials, and really anyone who will listen, supports this concern. I’ve been doing my best to sound the alarm about the horrible effects and ongoing consequences of human overpopulation and unsustainable consumption and trying to initiate conversations about addressing these issues humanely, but for whatever reasons I’ve felt largely ignored, even by close friends and family for the most part. I do take this personally since I’m generally respected and known as a reasonable, clear-headed guy (which I am!), and I just don’t understand this general avoidance. In short, I feel stuck and not sure what my next move should be in this game of life. I want to help solve these issues because I know it’s possible and I genuinely enjoy trying to solve complex problems, but I also want to enjoy life and to not be ostracized by my family and friends just for speaking the truth and caring a whole lot. That’s a delicate balance to strike, and one that I’m struggling with everyday even with being as optimistic as I am. My efforts and related frustrations have led me to the MAHB, among other organizations, to engage with others, like you, who obviously share my concerns – for people, for Earth’s other inhabitants, and for the planet. Again, I’m not sure where we go from here but thank you for engaging with me and with others in this discussion. I certainly appreciate it.

  • Sailesh Rao

    Imagine a weight-lifter who’s lifting 5 times his weight above his head, discovers that he is on quicksand and that he’s sinking. If he calculates that his weight alone is too much for the quicksand to bear, what is the first thing that he should do?

    a) Drop the weight he’s lifting,
    b) Double the weight he’s lifting,
    c) Continue as before,
    d) Debate with onlookers on how much weight he should be lifting.

    While the correct answer is self-evident to fourth graders in my talks, please note that the UN FAO currently chooses b), the majority of Americans currently choose c) and most academics currently choose d).

    The weight of 7.5 billion humans today is more than double the estimated weight of all megafauna from 10,000 years ago. Our livestock consume 5 times as much food as we do.

    Please be a fourth grader: Go Vegan…

    • Benjamin Dancer

      What a great picture you paint!

  • David Ulansey

    There’s obviously an almost infinite amount to be said about this subject (even Joel Cohen’s book that Benjamin cited only scratches the surface). At the moment, I just want to take issue with one thing Benjamin said: namely, his claim that “Just about every one of us makes our living off growth. I’m a teacher.
    Without population growth, I’d likely find myself out of a job.” That is self-evidently false! Zero population *growth* does not mean zero *children*! If zero population growth (i.e., roughly two children per couple) were somehow instantly put in place today, there would be exactly as many children needing teachers in the future as there are now. Teaching is not a Ponzi scheme! 🙂 Nor are most other honest ways of making a living. In truth, the possession of a conscience and the ability to do simple arithmetic requires anyone whose livelihood depends on population growth to start seeking another line of work immediately!

    • Benjamin Dancer

      Thanks for being engaged, David! In my school district we had a slowing of growth a few years back, and many teachers lost their jobs. All of us lost pay. So zero population growth would cost many jobs where I teach and probably a lot of pay.

      Most my family would be out of work without growth, too. It’d be hard. But not nearly as hard as the Sixth Extinction, for some perspective.

      I’m so glad you’re paying attention to all this!

  • Benjamin raises a question that reminds me of the story of the mice, who realize that it would be a lot safer for their group if they could put a bell around the cat’s neck, so the bell could warn them of the cat’s approach, but they can’t come to a decision about which mouse will do it.

    We have here a situation which we can see in the abstract, but which we cannot realize in practice. First how do we decide to be collectively intentional? We have to come to an agreement, and that involves representing different nations, ethnic groups and religions. Secondly, how can we fairly allocate chances of having children in the future? It’s an utterly complex coordination problem between conflicting groups of people and above all it is a moral problem. It’s a moral problem that as William Rees points out cannot even be solved in one country, let alone the globe.

    In my opinion, it is better to go at this problem from a different perspective than population control. If we look at the computer projection of Limits to Growth, and heed the evidence that our use of the major source of energy that is fueling our civilization, fossil fuels, are running into diminishing returns, we can conclude that there is no possibility of supporting the present human population over the course of this Century. Just as global population rose over the course of two centuries it will begin to decline in this century, as we simultaneously reach diminishing returns to energy input and reach environmental limits of degradation.

    The problem will not be how to reduce population, it will be how to cope with economic and political collapse. Our greatest point of leverage will be ideological and religious. Discredit the old destructive ideas and bring in the new and at the same time build up a credible ideological and ethical system that counters facism and other forms of authoritarianism. We managed in the thirties and we can do it again now.

    • Rob Harding

      Great points, Charles. The only counterpoint I’d like to share is that it seems quite clear that if we ultimately approach this problem from a different perspective than population control, unnecessary pain and suffering – human and otherwise – will not be minimized. Minimizing pain and suffering resulting from an unsustainable society and, increasingly likely, its eventual collapse, seems to me to currently be our paramount goal. The approach you propose appears to assume that this primary goal is impossible, and therefore that the logical secondary goal of building societal resilience against economic and political collapse should become “the” goal. I guess I’m not yet to the point of assuming full-blown collapse is inevitable and that’s what is driving my perspective here; however, I understand the points you raised as well as the moral problem that both you and William Rees presented. Viewing near total collapse as already inevitable given humans’ inherent irrationality is a hard pill to swallow, but I think that’s an important point of discussion since one’s current viewpoint on the inevitability of collapse is very likely to drive their perspective on what our primary goal and strategy should be at this time. What do you think? Thanks for your time and contribution to this discussion.

      • There are a number of issues here. One is political. The only way you can really get people to go along with reducing population growth is if your political system is totalitarian like China’s. You could conceivably change the incentive structure, by making it more expensive to have more children, but this will be unpopular, and any attempt to encourage less children will be rejected by significant ethnic and religious groups. These groups have rights and political power. How do you get around this? It is a non-starter.

        The most effective way to reduce population growth appears to be raising per capita GNP. As more people’s income grows, they tend to have less children. Also, educating women appears to reduce population growth, but I would not be surprised if a lot of Religious Groups are wise to this as well. Doesn’t the Taliban try to shut down girl’s schools in Pakistan?

        The problem than becomes mainly economic. At some point this century, the extraction of fossil fuels will reach sufficiently diminishing returns that Economic Growth will slow down to a standstill. Economic Growth is basically the engine that has been running our civilization for the last three hundred years. It is what has kept both Malthus’s spectre of population outstripping resources and Marx’s prediction that Capitalism will destroy itself at bay. Economic Growth was like a vast pump that pulled resources from underdeveloped areas and deposited them in developed areas. As long as this pump was working average incomes grew and people in industrialized countries were able to consume more goods and services. It obviously worked, or we wouldn’t have been able to support the exponential growth in population. Once this pump stops, population will decline as it already has in Russia. This decline will manifest through decreasing life-expectancies, as in Russia and the American Rust-Belt.

        Our Global Economic System is premised on Growth. If Growth stops financial crisis follow very quickly. These crisis have the ultimate ability to severely curtail global trade. The trends for the last forty years, that of increasing inequality have worsened the outlook for growth by significantly reducing aggregate demand. If you are an environmentalist you should welcome the effect of economic contraction on slowing resource extraction and pollution and degradation of the environment.

        But the real problem, is much worse. Stalled growth or contraction breaks the social contract. People’s incomes and opportunities contract and they realize that their children will be worse off than they are. We see what corrosive effects the financial meltdown of 2008 had on people’s trust and faith in the social and political system. The extreme right is on the rise in Europe, the United States, South America. When people feel economically threatened they fall for demagogues like Trump, who target out-groups like illegal immigrants, refugees, Muslims and other visible minorities, and promise the moon to their gullible followers.

        Trump and Putin have mastered the art of fake news on the internet which has reinforced the echo-chamber mentality of too many. In the short-term deception can win-out over truth. Good science and education is not enough. We need a robust ideological position to counter what appears to be a gathering wave of fascism. We are much more vulnerable than we realized because it is far too easy for extremists to broadcast through the mass media and the internet in a way that appeals to people’ unconscious or conscious fears and prejudices.

        • Rob Harding

          All good points, again. Thanks Charles. Your points about economic constraints and your observation that good science and education are insufficient are spot on, in my opinion. That said, the element of your argument that I’m challenging is the political aspect because if we allow economic constraints to drive “natural” population decline and then stabilization, preventable pain and suffering isn’t minimized; however, I don’t have an answer to your question about how we get around the issue of groups with a disproportionate amount of rights and power wanting to retain such rights and power.

          The more I think about these pressing global issues we’re discussing, the stronger my belief gets that one of your first points in your original comment is accurate – you said “We have here a situation which we can see in the abstract, but which we cannot realize in practice.” It doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to try to minimize negative impacts and outcomes, but it most likely means the best case scenario (i.e. a global, voluntary minimization of preventable pain and suffering) is realistically impossible due to the complexity of conflicting interests and priorities.

          If that’s the case, as it seems, I have begun wondering if knowledge and awareness is really better than ignorance regarding such matters. After all, there are still plenty of people, including some I know, enjoying life blissfully unaware of pending collapse. Blissful enjoyment of life sounds pretty nice. Perhaps a topic for another discussion. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

          • Ignorance leads to authoritarianism. The ignorant are easily manipulated by demagogues whose abilities can be magnified by the internet. One must match an emotional movement with equal emotion, hence ideologies. I think of the case of the church in the Middle Ages. The Monasteries kept copying books and kept learning alive for hundreds of years after Roman Civilization had collapsed. I’m not an admirer of the Catholic Church, but I can see that only an ideological system can mobilize enough people to keep the light of civilization going, when all the other lights go out.

  • Herb

    I couldn’t disagree with the author more.
    The problem isn’t people the problem is consumption. The United States generates as much as 20 times per capita Carbon emissions than in Africa.

    10% of the worlds population generates 50% of its carbon. By diverting attention from the 10% to the billions of people who are poor we are guaranteeing the world will get to 2 billion and it won’t be without the poor suffering almost all the decline in the most horrible way.

    • Benjamin Dancer

      Thank you so much for being engaged, Herb! I’ll ask you this: do you think we’re wired by our evolution to seek security? I do. Which means the vast majority of us will be as secure and comfortable as our means allow. That does equate to consumption. I just don’t think many people will be willing to give up the comfort they can afford. If poor people were to get wealthier, they’d also seek comfort and security, I imagine. To level their wealth allows. That being said, less people could live in security and comfort with harming the ecosystem.

      I would love to hear a conversation about an ethical contraction. How do we protect the poor? You make such a good point!

    • GrowthBuster

      Herb, you’ll probably be interested in this free webinar coming up in December: Solving Overshoot: End Overpopulation or Stop Overconsumption? https://www.growthbusters.org/solving-overshoot-webinar/

    • Mike Hanauer
  • William Rees

    Clear rational argument. Problem is, the world isn’t primarily rational. If a wealthy, well-educated (?) country like the US cannot even agree on the legitimacy of abortion what are the chances that the international community will “choose a smaller population” humanely and achieve it intentionally? It ain’t gonna happen.

    • Benjamin Dancer

      Let’s hope there’s hope, William.

  • Rob Harding

    Thanks for raising this question here, Benjamin. It’s such an important one, yet receives such little attention for many reasons (known and unknown). I also appreciate your reference to Joel E. Cohen’s book “How Many People Can the Earth Support?” as it was truly an engaging discussion, as you mentioned. I agree with your thought that our future depends on us asking this question, collectively answering it, and then acting on that agreed upon answer to realisitically approach a sustainable society. I also wish I could get everyone else on Earth to ask it and seriously consider it.

    The one element of the plan to intentionally contract that I think needs a lot more attention, discussion, and research than it has been given thus far is the topic you raised in your final question. How do we humanely, inclusively, and respectfully manage the economics of both population and consumptive contraction? For many people, a fear of the likely negative consequences of a mismanaged intentional contraction appears to outweigh their fear of the possible (though just as likely) negative consequences of continuing down a path of endless growth. My thought is that for many of the people who feel this way that feeling is driven by the former fear seeming like it carries a higher risk of potentially more direct and immediate consequences, especially for people in developed countries like the U.S.. Comparatively, it seems as though the eventual negative consequences of pursuing the status quo of endless growth are likely to be less direct, or even not direct at all in some cases. And this generally makes sense, if only in a self-protective, short-sighted, and somewhat ignorant kind of way. Someone in the U.S. is likely to be more fearful of losing their job and having a dramatic rise in their cost of living due to economic contraction than of hearing that the Amazon rainforest has been completely deforested and that several thousand more species of animals have been driven to extinction.

    For this reason I think it’s imperative that those of us who are asking this question and trying to answer it need to go a step further and more deeply explore this final question you raised. Being able to present at least the shell of a thoughtful plan to effectively manage the economics of both population and consumptive contraction would likely help with the widespread communication of and advocacy for the plan to intentionally contract. Exploring this topic is one of my personal goals for 2017.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Best,
    Rob

  • Meditor

    Nice!