Population Redux

Ehrlich, Paul R. | January 13, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

At long last, and possibly too late, people are beginning once again to realize that the numbers of people themselves constitute a threat to civilization.  However, despite that recognition, many of a new flood of articles clearly demonstrate the continuing failure to understand the situation, even among those who ought to know better.  Some of the more prominent errors are that consumption is the problem, not population; that the only difficulty is finding ways to feed an additional 2.5 billion people in the next 35 years; that a spontaneous “demographic transition” will save humanity by producing a stable population; and, of course the old bromide that human ingenuity will develop magical technologies permitting the population to grow forever.

Typical of a most basic error is the analysis of Naomi Klein, who has written an important book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate that tries to tie the climate crisis to the catastrophic failure of neoliberal capitalism.  Sadly, as a latecomer to the climate wars, she seems unaware of the literature and many critical issues, and makes the Pearcian mistake of asserting that the problem is not population growth but consumption by the rich.[1] She correctly emphasizes the lethal role of unrestrained capitalism, but ignores the other dimensions of the environmental threats to sustainability, such as the loss of biodiversity and natural capital, decay of the epidemiological environment, and the true scale of the toxification of Earth, all driven and exacerbated by human population growth. Like too many commentators, Klein fails to show the historical or ecological context that could give perspective to her thesis.

Amazingly, she quotes a statement that the first industrial revolution’s contribution of greenhouse gases was a “drop in bucket” compared to present contributions made by previously poor nations such as China and India as they struggle to emulate the Victorian industrial revolution, apparently not realizing that a sevenfold expansion of the global population was an important factor in the difference.  Strangely, Klein also seems aware (at least in the energy sector) that the low-hanging fruit is long gone, but fails to realize how much the decline in both quantity and quality of resources also exists in other sectors, and what this implies for a still-exploding human population.  She apparently missed the research [2] on the greenhouse gas emissions impact of childbearing, or even of IPAT, or our article “Too many rich folks,” both part of a campaign to convince people that the population problem is not just one of too many poor people.  In short, while Klein is great at exposing the delusions of the climate deniers and “big green,” she herself misses the dimensions of the environmental crisis and seems to think it can be solved without dealing with overpopulation “simply” by changing the economic and political system from the bottom up to allow a series of technofixes.

Total revision of the economic system and power structure and a redistribution of wealth and opportunity are clearly necessary but equally clearly insufficient to achieve sustainability and a decent life for all, even with today’s population, let alone billions more.  It’s a pity someone as smart and articulate as Klein has failed to grasp that basic fact.  But so have many other intellectual leaders, from Fred Pearce to Paul Krugman.  Indeed while perpetual growth of population and consumption are generally expected by run-of-the-mill economists (the good ones [3] know better), the Wall Street Journal editorial page community at least have the excuse of near non-existent training in how the biophysical world really works [4]. But how does one explain the staff of Science magazine, one of the top scientific journals in the world, writing an introduction to an issue on population, including?

“Today these demographic patterns spark concerns, not of a single explosion, but of “cluster bombs” in rapidly growing countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan, which are hobbled by poor governance and limited schooling capacity and already have huge numbers of poorly educated young adults without job prospects.”[5]

It is a disgrace that Science staff is apparently unaware of the many global environmental problems where global overpopulation and continued population growth and overconsumption by the rich remain major drivers.  But it’s just one of many disgraces driving civilization toward the brink.


[1] http://bit.ly/1pxs6NM

[2] E.g., Murtaugh PA, Schlax MG. 2009. Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals. Global Environmental Change 19: 14–20.

[3] such as Partha Dasgupta, Steve Polasky, James Blignaut, Quentin Grafton, Tom Kompas, Ken Arrow, Herman Daly, Larry Goulder, Joe Stiglitz, Karl Goran Mäler, Charles Perrings, and many (but not enough) others

[4] Colander, D & Klamer, A. The making of an economist. Journal of Economic Perspectives 1, 95-111 (1987).

[5] Chin, G, Marathe, T & Roberts, L. Population: doom or vroom. Science 333, 539 (2011)


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  • Dusan Kustudic

    Aaron is asking : ” …..his dream of colonizing Mars, is this possible in time? How soon is it possible? Clearly, overpopulation on earth will make it unlivable within a few decades, is Mars the last hope?” Oohh my …! Is it possible that there are some people who do not realize that taking only a dozen or so human to Mars requires billions , if not trillions of dollars – with NO assurance that they will survive this trip !
    To even think that this could be solution to our Earth’s deterioration is completely either insane, or VERY uninformed. Dusan Kusudic

  • Dusan Kustudic

    The following is the summary of my thoughts on what is wrong with the way World is being run – during the last century or so !
    How many times the formula I = PAT will have to be explained to the uninformed ?? ” I ” is the DAMAGE , or impact on the Earth’s biosphere ( or local area ! ) , caused by P ( the population or the number of humans ! ), and AT is the consumptive effect of Affluence and Technology ! SO, the only effective way of “saving the Earth” is to BRING the P and AT to a STABLE , sustainable level , at the carrying capacity of ENVIRONMENT !

    Regardless of the nature of our evolutionary history , anyone with an I.Q. above 100 can clearly see that our present Global crisis is caused by mainly three factors : !. the tremendous disparity between the “supper rich” and the rest of us , 2: the mindless growth grabbing “economy” involving the “advanced” countries, and 3: the mindless propagation with a fertility of over 5 children / woman in South Eastern Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa !

    Unless we can reduce these three factors of our behavior , the further deterioration of biosphere is inevitable . So, let’s insist of our “leaders” of ANY kind to replace the three factors mentioned above with the concept of a Steady State Economy – at a Carrying Capacity of any region where people live.

    D. Kustudic, dankusti@eastlink.ca , 902 697 2590

  • Aaron

    I had read that Mr. Musk was expanding his offices in Seattle to advance his dream of colonizing Mars, is this possible in time? How soon is it possible? Clearly, overpopulation on earth will make it unlivable within a few decades, is Mars the last hope?

  • We have a choice to determine to be well on our way to the global success of all of humanity (and the healing of the earth) or else, lacking vision for concerted effort for change, in the next decade there is a strong probability that we will be irreversibly launched into a world of conflict & scarcity, with accelerating disasters and crisis. People worry about economic recession or even depression, but are not aware that we are on the brink of a “civilization collapse” with consequences of an unthinkable die-off of people and earth’s ecosystems crash that may “end life on earth as we know it”.

    We have a civilization of warfare that must abruptly transition to peace. Technology that is designed to exploit people and planet must transition to what Buckminster Fuller called “livingry” that nurtures the people and the earth, breaks free from our constraints and limitations; explores new, unfathomed potentials of plenty, peace and prosperity for all people. Our EcoLiving lifestyle will provide abundant superfood for all (even with population peaking above 9 billion) and concurrently will heal the damage that humanity has inflicted, in ignorance, upon the earth and its diversity of life. Gradually there will be a restoration of our vitality and natural powers, as also the wildness, richness and beauty of mother nature is restored and the earth is teaming with life.

    @SolaRoof enables a broad and deep reconnection with life and nature and an understanding of the powerful abundance generated within our built environment and constantly regenerated by “closed ecological environment” livingry will end poverty and hunger and abolish scarcity from the human experience. Be the change; be @PODpioneers!

  • JohnTaves

    Paul Ehrlich, you need to look in the mirror.

    “However, despite that recognition, many of a new flood of articles clearly demonstrate the continuing failure to understand the situation, even among those who ought to know better. ”

    Paul Ehrlich and generally all population scientists and experts are the ones that ought to know better. The members of MAHB ought to know better. The commenters, Max Kummerow and John Merryman below ought to know better. The one that ought to know better is in the mirror.

    Here’s a fine example of the failure of population experts to understand the problem: “Some of the more prominent errors are that consumption is the problem, not population;…”

    Ehrlich should have said: “Some of the more prominent errors are that consumption and/or population is the problem, not how many babies adults average.”

    How many babies adults average determines the child mortality rate (along with how fast we are capable of increasing sustenance production to the end mouth, which of course cannot increase forever and has never increased fast enough). What have population scientists done to make this clear to everyone? Nothing. Not a goddamn thing. Notice how this article and the comments about it don’t even come close to mentioning how many babies we average.

    “She apparently missed the research [2] on the greenhouse gas emissions impact of childbearing, or even of IPAT, or our article “Too many rich folks,” both part of a campaign to convince people that the population problem is not just one of too many poor people. ”

    1) The first article is the closest thing to mentioning the act of creating a baby has costs, but a study that ties greenhouse gas emission to child bearing is ridiculous. It is like an article that states that a gun can cause hearing loss published in a world where nobody knows that a gun kills. How many babies we average determines the child mortality rate. There are side effects like greenhouse gas emissions and lower adult life expectancy, but these are caused by our ignorance. The child mortality will continue to be excessive with or without the greenhouse gasses, if we continue to average too many babies.

    2) The IPAT formula is pathetic. It is unbelievable that a scientist would produce this political garbage. I say “political” because it clearly is not a scientific formula. The only variable in it that can actually be measured is P (population). Notice that, again, Ehrlich is talking about population instead of how many babies we average. He buried the exponential driver to the whole IPAT formula inside of P. Here’s a better formula. Rate of dead children = (x-2)/x where x is the number of babies adults average. How many people know this formula? How many people comprehend what it means? Do you?

    3) “too many rich folks”: What does Ehrlich expect someone to do with the information from this article? Not try to get rich? Pass laws that limit wealth? What?!?! How does article explain that we need to ensure that everyone has a basic understanding of the fact that how many babies we create determines the child mortality rate?

    The fact of the matter is that births are killing children. Population scientists need to know this, and then we need to figure out how to ensure this is taught to everyone.

  • Max Kummerow

    Leftists have been skeptical of Malthusians because Malthus said social reforms or revolutions would be useless due to population increase. Malthus was wrong about that. But Marx was also wrong, in the long run, when he said “every stomach comes with a pair of hands.” Maybe so, but not with more land to grow food on. Ecological limits and laws of physics do apply to humans. So the impact is consumption and population, not either or.

  • John Merryman

    The deeper fact is that people are product and consequence of nature and as a reflection of natural processes, humanity is that most basic expression of nature; the wave. Yes, we can focus on those at the very top, but as you correctly point out, the real drivers are the enormous pressures being manifest deep down within our collective desires to grow and progress.
    The power of money is that it is quantified hope and the poles of social control are hope and fear and while we are all naturally repelled by the elements that instill fear, both natural and social, they are also forces we will have to face up to, one way or another.
    Biology deals with this inherent yin and yang by individual organisms being mortal and constantly reseting the species code, but human civilization is foundationally premised on progress and growth, from “Go forth and multiply,” to “Go west, young man.”
    While the current cycle is set for a rather significant, if not enormous downturn, especially since all available reserves will being put to sustaining the current levels, the coming downturn creates opportunities, not just for those profiting from crisis, but also for those who looking to the long term future of humanity.
    One large opportunity is that the the current monetary system is based on public debt.
    Money is a contract, which we have come to treat as a commodity. As such, in theory, every asset is backed by a debt and with government supported currencies, it has to be supported by public debt and since much of this debt has gone to fund expenditures that are inherently unprofitable, from wars to supporting economically surplus population, more debt is issued in what amounts to a Ponzi scheme, in order to create the capital to grease the global economy.
    So when this cycle runs dry, the next step will be to start extracting value back out of the public in whatever means possible and this is what will really set the currently comfortable people against this system.
    So if people can be broadly educated as to how monetary systems actually work and that they replace good old communal trust and reciprocity, with a system purportedly more efficient, but in reality designed to extract value from many of the participating populations, then people will begin to understand that while communities based around local mediums of exchange, voucher systems, etc, might not produce as many fancy gadgets and global systems of exchange, they will strengthen ground level societies and if there is one thing necessary for a sustainable local community organism, it is a healthy environment.
    One conservative populist mantra is controlling public spending, but the current system is very effectively designed to increase public spending, by having the legislature put together these enormous bills, then attaching whatever necessary, to gain enough votes. Then the president can only pass or veto it in whole.
    Now actual budgeting means to prioritize one’s needs, then spend according to ability.
    So a reasonable way to implement this would be to have the legislature prioritize, possibly by breaking these bills into their various items and having each member assign a percentage value to each item, then reassemble them in order of preference and then have the president draw the line of funding. As Truman might have put it, “The buck stops here.” Not only would this start to slow, if not reverse the size of the federal government, but as mentioned above, seriously impact the growth of the money supply and force just about everyone to start developing other mediums of exchange. Now given human ingenuity, people would find ways to channel their efforts.
    While it may not be a miracle cure for resource depletion, at least less would be wasted sustaining a system with so many false incentives.
    Even the financiers should realize that when they have completely broken the monetary system, they will have destroyed their own means of power and it will pass to the security functions, who would be both loath to give up this real authority and likely use a fair number of bankers as scapegoats to appease an irate public.