Fertility, Equality, and Planetary Stewardship A MAHB Dialogue with Malcolm Potts

Geoffrey Holland | November 27, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

A bee and beetle both eating from a flower

Malcolm Potts shares his optimism for the future and makes the case that educating women and younger generations will be the key to restoring the health of the biosphere we all depend on.


 “There are about 80 million unintended pregnancies annually. If we could just get rid of unintended pregnancies, we could greatly slow population growth today. Family planning is not telling women what to do, it’s listening to what they want:”

Geoff Holland –  Can you summarize the current state of human population demographics in the US and the world as a whole?

Malcolm Potts – Beginning with the world as a whole, since I was born in 1935, the world population has grown from 2 billion to 7.6 billion. More recently, in 1970, just before I came to the USA, the world population was 3.7 billion people. At that point, the population was growing by 72 million more births than deaths each year. Today, the world population is 7.6 billion, growing by about 90 million annually.  It’s the absolute numbers that matter. In absolute numbers we are seeing the most rapid population growth in human history.

GH – Is the human population on earth already too large for our planet’s ability to provide?

MP – Yes, I think there’s absolutely no doubts about this. It’s difficult to measure the ecological footprint of the planet, but I think everybody agrees that sometime in the past few decades, or sometime in the next few decades, we will exceed the capacity of this planet to support humanity in the sense that will be taking more sustainable resources out of the biosphere than we can replace. If we wanted to bring everybody to the US level of income, we would probably need, from a resource standpoint, five additional planets.  As an amateur astronomer, I don’t see any mere planets available to us. In fact, just as an aside, if the moon had adequate water and oxygen, and if there were some economical way of getting people there, at present population growth rates, we would populate the moon to capacity in 10 years. So let’s recognize, we have to manage just with our own tiny, fragile planet. Another thing that sticks in my mind is that in the last nine years, China consumed more dirty, fossil energy than it did in the preceding 4000 years of history.

My way to quantify the pace of change is as follows: between 1950 and 2000, population grew at about 1.7%, the GDP at about 2.2%. If you put those things together, population growth and economic activity, the total impact on the planet is just under 4% a year. If you grow it 4% a year, you double your impact every 18 years. So, during the life of most of today’s undergraduate students the impact of human numbers and of economic growth on our Earth’s capacity to sustain us has doubled.  No one would call that sustainable.

GH – Does shaping a future that is life affirming, and ecologically sustainable require a gradual reduction of our planet’s human population?

MP –  I would emphasize the word ‘gradual.’ There is no immediate way of making a significant difference to the global population trajectory. The problem is what demographers call population momentum. Look at China:  the total fertility rate is 1.8, less than is required to keep the population steady. But, because of population increase a generation ago, today there are more young brides entering their fertile years than leaving them by death or reaching menopause. So you have below replacement level fertility, yet its population increases by 7 million annually. There are also lots of countries in Africa, in which the population momentum is very powerful, and it’s going to stay that way for many decades.

There is good news if we look to the end of the century. The UN population, median projection for 2100 is 10.9 billion.  On average, if everyone had half a child fewer, we would end up with a global population of 6.8 billion – fewer people than we have now. If everybody had half a child more, we’d end up with16 billion –  clearly totally unsustainable. As somebody who has spent a lifetime focused on family planning in many different countries, I believe that if you respect people and if you make family planning choices realistically available, preferably also including access to safe abortion, then you can slow population growth. I think 6.8 billion is achievable.

John Bongaarts points out that at the present moment, the OECD estimates that a mere 1% of total foreign aid (mainly from the USA, Japan and Europe) goes to family planning. Spending on family planning is extremely cost effective. Moreover, it is an investment not a cost as family planning budgets recover their costs in less health and educational costs than there would have been had the population been larger. We ‘ve achieved a lot with that 1%; we could achieve miracles if we could double that to 2%, I believe we could reach the goal of 6.8 billion by the end of the century. Taking family planning from one to 2% of foreign aid does not threaten other development budgets. It’s a very, very small change. I think it’s achievable.  Let’s agree to make it a priority for the MAHB.

GH – How important is gender equality to the process of building a sustainable future?

MP –  As a gynecologist, I prefer the term ‘women’s autonomy.’ I’ve worked all over the world, and I’ve seen a lot of suffering when women cannot get access to family planning and safe abortion. I believe, passionately, that all women have an unfettered right to decide about their own health and pattern of reproduction. If we all work to ensure that right then we can achieve some of the goals we just talked about, like having a level population by year 2100.

There are about 80 million unintended pregnancies annually. If we could just get rid of unintended pregnancies, we could greatly slow population growth today. Family planning is not telling women what to do, it’s listening to what they want. If we respect women, we can lower birth rates in places with high fertility. If we had more money we could focus on better supporting family planning.

There are a lot of crazy patriarchal people hell bent on denying women access to modern contraception and safe abortion. There are also a lot of enlightened people in the world. I’m always inspired by colleagues in developing countries who work so hard and sometimes take risks (I had one friend murdered because she was a leader in family planning), to give women and men the reproductive freedoms that are their birthright.

GH – Would ‘dignity for all’ and ‘shared responsibility for the biosphere’ be worthy fundamentals for building a sustainable human society?

MP – There’s a simpler way of putting it. It is the essence of the 1983 Brundtland report on sustainability:

Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is that we don’t overuse resources today that our children and grandchildren will need tomorrow.  To put it bluntly, we are stealing from our children and grandchildren. We are creating a world with untenable atmospheric warming, and massively depleted non-renewable resources. That is theft from the next generation. I can’t think of any more despicable theft for human beings than to steal from our children and grandchildren. Our goal must be to avoid thoughtless consumption. We must avoid undermining the opportunities and resources that our children and grandchildren are going to need. That has been the goal of all parents since th dawn of time.

 GH – Can you talk about population density and its impact on managing contagions like Ebola?

MP – Certainly diseases spread more rapidly in big cities. A hundred years ago, 3% of the world’s population died of influenza. That disease spread rapidly in big cities and in military camps. Today, I think it’s mostly poverty, not density that is constraining how we respond to infectious disease. The threat of Ebola and other infectious disease is most challenging in very poor countries that have limited resources.

It’s always possible, where we may have some totally new infection coming along, or a very strange virus that can be mutating in pigs and birds and other animals. We have to stay alert to those dangers.  Bad things can happen in poor countries. We also don’t put enough resources in very rich countries to prepare for unexpected epidemics.

It is also important to remember that as we struggle to feed an estimated 9.85 billion people in 2050, that we are likely to see more and more short cuts. We will feed more pigs antibiotics – creating antibiotic resistance for ourselves. We will have a greater weight of chickens in houses than wild birds in the environment – making mutations in viruses that could be lethal to us more likely.

GH – Throughout your career, how have you seen young people engage in population conversations? How can we open up the population conversation with teens and young adults in places that are conservative in their view of gender and sexuality?

MP – A good question; my starting point is that those engaged on the population issue tend to be older people. But we are the generation leaving young people some truly dire threats: global warming, economic growth that is benefiting the few instead of the many; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Young people are going to have to solve these problems. Fortunately, I think they’re capable of solving them. In my teaching, I don’t tell undergrads what to do. I see my role as building a temporary scaffold on which they can build solid, lasting solutions. We need universities to put more emphasis on helping young people get the facts they need, and to filter out the fake news from the real news. Then, we have to trust them to respond sensibly, which I’m convinced they will do.

GH –  You’ve spent decades encouraging contraception programs and girls education programs around the world. If you were to continue working for another five decades, what would you focus on?

MP – I would focus on what one of my colleagues calls ‘where the rubber hits the road’. The Sahel, the semi-arid region below the Sahara Desert, will be the first region of world where the population is really going to exceed the natural resources – with enormously painful results. In 1798, an English clergyman wrote:

“Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.  Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.  A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.” (Thomas Malthus 1798)

If we look at statistics from the African nation of Niger, over the past several decades the population has been increasing geometrically and grain production arithmetically.

By the middle of this century, more people than live in the United States of America, will be watching their crops whither and cattle die from lack of food and water, in the Sahel region.

Because of this there will be unprecedented levels of involuntary migration. The educational system can’t keep up with the rapid population growth and there is no plausible way that countries can produce millions of jobs. For good reaons, poorly educated people with no job opportunities will migrate and look for a better life. The level of migration today, which has already become so threatening that previously liberal European democracies want to build barriers and keep migrants out. What’s happening now will be seen as a trickle in relation to the tsunami of people coming in a few decades time.

It is imperative that large scale action is taken now to help farmers adapt to climate change, improve aceess to family planning and keep girls in secondary school. Unfortunately, human institutions have an exceedingly disappointing record of looking even a few decades ahead. When I was running Family Health International in the 1980s, we won the first – and at the time only – USAID money to try and slow the spread of HIV AIDS in Africa. If I’d had a budget equivalent to what the international community is now spending on HIV/AIDS, we might have slowed AIDS in Africa. As it was, we made absolutely zero difference to the epidemics that were to kill 30 million and leave 30 million carrying the virus. It breaks my heart to think we’re going to make an even bigger mistake in the Sahel.

 GH –  Some people believe that artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies will solve the world’s problems, others are convinced that we are headed for civilization scale collapse. How do you see our story playing out?

MP –  I think it is possible that we can ameliorate many of the worst global scale challenges. Civilization is not going to become extinct. We do live in a very dangerous world. We need scientific solutions, and we need to take sensible steps like the ones I’ve just been talking about to give women choices. And we must slow population growth in a human rights framework by meeting the proven unmet need for family planning.

There are some good things likely to happen in the lifetime of today’s undergrads. We will probably get non-polluting nuclear fusion by 2100 or before. We may put nitrogen fixing bacteria in the roots of rice, and wheat. We could genetically modify plants so that they would help Africans adapt to climate change.

The largest number of scientists ever alive are living now. Science is international and intrinsically democratic. On the whole, scientists trust each other and they’re willing to work together. That part of the story of the world is optimistic. But the threats are so dire, we need the optimistic scientific advances along with plenty of good common sense.

GH – You teach an undergrad class at UC Berkeley called Sustainability 101 – Opportunities and Challenges where you argue your baby boomer generation is responsible for many of the world’s challenges. You say that millennials and Generation Xers  may be the last who are able to correct humanity’s colossal mis-steps that threaten life on Earth. How do we motivate these younger generations to be the change the world sorely needs?

MP – This class is a different way of teaching, vertical learning, a team effort by faculty, GSIs and undergraduate Teacher Scholars (TS).  First, we train undergraduate Teacher Scholars and mentor them as discussion leaders. PH 101 is a partnership. It is not me as faculty standing behind a podium and telling students, “This is what you have to learn.” It me and my colleagues from across the campus talking about particular problems, such as climate change, conflict or managing an economic system that depends on perpetual growth in a finite world. Given the facts we know about a topic, the students then lead the discussion sections to explore what the information means to them and, more importantly, what they want to do about it. As the semester unfolds, the students complete Capstone projects where they explore a topic in depth.

In all honesty, I can say that the Capstone I heard at the end of the pilot course was the most rewarding experience I’ve had in over 20 years, teaching at Cal or several years at Cambridge. The presenters were creative, realistic, and empathetic to people’s suffering. To take one example, one team chose the loss of bees to pollinate the things we eat. They found a picture of some large grocery store like Safeway with neatly stacked piles of food. Then they had the same picture with every single food requiring bee pollination taken away. Wow, largely empty shelves. Undergraduates are good at capturing the essentials.

My long term dream is to see a course similar to A Sustainable World developed in many different universities. I’m convinced the conversations that would take off from these courses would benefit teachers and students. Today’s students are the first generation to face a genuinely existential set of problems and they are also the last ones to solve them.

We must recognize we are citizens and citizens have choices, sometimes tough choices. I’ve seen undergraduates grapple with these choices creatively and intuitively. Many of the MAHB members have been, or still are university teachers. It would be great to see Sustainable World type courses formalized, promoted and multiplied.


Malcolm Potts, MB, BChir, PhD, FRCOG, holds the Bixby Endowed Chair at the University of California, Berkeley where he established the Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability. A British, Cambridge-trained obstetrician and biologist, Dr. Potts has worked internationally since the late 1960s, when he became the first medical director of the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation. He has led collaborative research in family planning, contraceptive development, and HIV prevention in 40 countries. Dr. Potts has written 12 books and published over 350 articles and papers.


Geoffrey Holland is a Portland, Oregon based writer/producer, and principal author of The Hydrogen Age, Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2007

 

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • stevenearlsalmony

    Imagine a movement toward Planetary Stewardship as the primary objective of human existence. Now consider that we are entering the early-stage of a Great Turning, a great unwinding or unraveling, a great transition. Whatever we choose to call “this turning” will likely happen in human time (not geologic time) the way an elephant passes through the eye of a needle. To our naked eyes this process of turning will be transformational and occur quickly.

    If we imagine that the eye of a needle is like E.O. Wilson’s bottleneck, then we can begin to think, for the purpose of developing a preanalytic vision, about how the elephant’s passage through the needle’s eye could happen. Anyone, any thoughts about what that might look like?

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve

  • stevenearlsalmony

    Planetary Stewardship is required NOW!

    Humankind has precipitated and is forced to confront a climate destabilization emergency… ready or not, … like it or not. Precious time for meaningful action is running out rapidly. Leading elders in this moment of space-time are the first generation to confront such a wicked problem. It is clear for all to see that the elders of my generation will likely be the last generation in a position to stabilize the climate crisis before a cascade of ecological events occurring worldwide makes the ominously looming global catastrophe irreversible. Respond ably while there is still time to make a difference that could make a difference.

  • James Bowen

    Great post Rob. Dr. Potts has diagnosed the overpopulation/overconsumption disease very accurately and fundamentally knows how to cure it. However, I think he puts too much faith in Western liberal democratic institutions, the economic aspects of which bear much responsibility for our predicament.

  • James Bowen

    This is a very interesting article and the author and Dr. Potts is completely right about our unsustainable predicament with regard to overpopulation. He seems to have a lot of optimism and confidence that Western-style liberal democratic institutions can ultimately handle this. I am not sure that is the case, given that the capitalist economic system of Western liberal democracies has driven much of the growth at all costs mentality that has gotten us into this situation. While it is absolutely true that women having choice and access to family planning is the most crucial element of reversing population growth, I also think that an enlightened but more authoritarian system with at least some degree of central economic planning is necessary to give us a fighting chance to avert a Malthusian correction. It is also necessary to enforce strict immigration limits in the First World in order to incentivize the widespread adoption of family planning in the Third World.

    • Geoffrey Holland

      Some kind of fundamental shift has to take place. It starts with stripping power from bankers, billionaires, and craven corporatists. Yes, there have to be limits to immigration to the developed nations. To justify that, citizens in developed nations have to step and help make life tolerable in those places hurt the most. There are no easy answers.

      • James Bowen

        Yes, that is kind of what I was getting at above. The power of bankers, billionaires, and craven corporatists is a consequence of Western liberal democracy, not an antithesis of it.

        • stevenearlsalmony

          Dear James Bowen,

          In this thread you have reported,

          “Dr. Potts has diagnosed the overpopulation/overconsumption disease very accurately and fundamentally knows how to cure it.”

          Yes, Malcolm has accurately ‘diagnosed the disease’. He sees what the problem in fact is. That is a good thing. But the second part of your statement is only partly correct, I believe. Let us turn our attention to your idea that Malcolm “fundamentally knows how to cure it.”

          If Malcolm had “the cure” for the problem of the human overpopulation of Earth, he would have to answer the question, Why are absolute global human population numbers are exploding on our watch? Malcolm would need to explain what is the root cause of skyrocketing human population numbers worldwide. It is one thing to offer a medicine for an ailment just as Malcolm is advising for the human overpopulation problem. His medicine is contraception. That is a good response. But, it is something quite different to present a ‘treatment plan’/strategy that addresses the cause of the problem in the first instance. If we can address the cause of unbridled human population growth, perhaps there would not be so much need for a medicine that fundamentally limits the population growth problem, but without ever liberating humanity from the scourge posed by the patently unsustainable growth of its population numbers on our watch.

          Why have absolute global human population numbers exploded from 2.5 billion in 1945 to 7.6+ billion in 2018? Well, virtually irrefutable research from the ecological science of human population dynamics indicates with remarkable simplicity and clarity that human population numbers appear as a function of food supply; that food (not population numbers) is the independent variable in the relationship between food and population numbers; and that the population dynamics of the human species is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species. Food is the fuel for all human and non-human population growth. More food equals more of a species. Less food means less of a species. No food, no species. No exceptions. According to uncontested research, increasing the food supply to meet the needs of a growing human population is effectively causing the population numbers of the human species to skyrocket. If we are ever to be successful in our efforts “to cure” the ailment of human overpopulation, at some point in space-time it will be necessary for the human community to begin carefully, skillfully and humanely to limit increases only in the total food supply for human consumption as a means of stabilizing human population growth.

          Contraception is necessary but not sufficient because contraception does not address the cause of the problem. We can see how Malcolm’s suggestion of contraception is a much-needed step in the right direction, but that contraception alone (even with the education/empowerment of women) will not cure the human species of what ails it.

          Sincerely yours,

          Steve Salmony

          • James Bowen

            Mr. Salmony,

            I agree with you in the sense that the efforts to increase human food supply have resulted in an enormous amount of ecological damage that have driven many other species to extinction or the brink of extinction. However, I do not necessarily agree that it is the availability of food that by itself drives population growth. The availability of more food certainly makes further population growth possible, but not inevitable. Modern Europe is a prime example. Late 20th and early 21st Century Europe has quite possibly the largest relative agricultural surplus it has had since the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. However, thanks to the availability of family planning and the educational attainment that enables people, particularly women, to be knowledgeable in its use, Europe has sub-replacement level fertility. The same is true of the U.S. and Canada, although very high immigration rates and high fertility among those immigrants have continued to drive population growth in those two countries.

          • stevenearlsalmony

            Dear James,

            Let assume that we are indeed living in the Anthropocene Era, and that humankind has recently become a superordinate force of nature now overspreading the surface of Earth. We can see that the colossal current scale and expected growth of overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities by the human species is effectively extirpating global biodiversity, dissipating Earth’s finite resources, destabilizing its climate, degrading its environs as well as threatening the future of children everywhere. If we have to begin somewhere, why not begin by identifying the root cause of skyrocketing human population numbers worldwide?

            Please bear with me. I want to ask you to imagine that we are standing in a watchtower scanning the shoreline in Bangladesh. We are looking at a huge ocean wave, watching it move toward the shore. Imagine a tsunami has just come ashore. The wave keeps moving toward us; however, at the same time, there are many molecules in the wave that are moving in the opposite direction, against the tide. This thought experiment is not suggesting that a tsunami is occurring on seashores simultaneously on Earth’s entire surface. Sea levels rise at different rates in different locations at any moment in time. For example, we can see that a ‘tsunami’ of humanity has arisen in Bangladesh, but at the same moment not in Italy (if we choose to ignore immigration into that country). If we observe that the propagation of the human population numbers is like the wave presenting itself to us in Bangladesh, and the reproduction numbers of individuals from Italy are like some of the molecules of the wave that move against the tide, it may be inaccurate for the latter to be looked at as if it tells us something meaningful about the former. What is especially important is that we not allow numbers in the form of fertility rate decline at one or another location to blind us from the sight of the propagating wave before us. The numbers that indicate declining fertility rates in a certain location such as Italy and the numbers pointing out the propagation of the human species worldwide move in different directions. Note too, that fertility rates generally and in most locations remain above the replacement rate. So the propagation of human population numbers continues in all those places.

            Why have absolute global human population numbers exploded from 2.5 billion in 1945 to 7.5+ billion in 2018? Well, virtually irrefutable research from the ecological science of human population dynamics indicates with remarkable simplicity and clarity that human population numbers appear as a function of food supply; that food (not population numbers) is the independent variable in the relationship between food and population numbers; and that the population dynamics of the human species is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species. Food is the fuel for all human and non-human population growth. From a species-wide scope of observation more food equals more of a species. Less food means less of a species. No food, no species. No exceptions. According to uncontested research, increasing the food supply to meet the needs of a growing human population is effectively causing the population numbers of the human species to skyrocket. At some point in space-time it will be necessary for the human community to begin carefully, skillfully and humanely to limit “increases only” in the total food supply for human consumption as a means of stabilizing human population growth worldwide.

            Inasmuch as unchallenged scientific research indicates how producing ever more food to feed a growing human population is fueling a population explosion in our time, can we agree that food production is not the problem? Abundant harvests are sufficient to feed everyone. The problems before us are related unfair and inequitable food distribution as well as an unmet need for universal, free, voluntary, easily accessible and safe contraception (hat tip to Malcolm).

            Sincerely,

            Steve

          • James Bowen

            Steve,

            Again, I agree with much of what you say here. The certainly would be no population increase if there wasn’t food available. However, just because food is available doesn’t necessarily guarantee the population will grow. Birth control that is easy for women to use and is widely available is still relatively new, about 60 years. It is also not widely available or even known in the places where population is growing rapidly. Human reproductive behavior is far more complicated than a simple plot of numbers vs. food supply. Educated women who have access to birth control will generally opt to use it even if food is abundant.

          • stevenearlsalmony

            Dear James,

            You report,

            “Birth control that is easy for women to use and is widely available is still relatively new, about 60 years. It is also not widely available or even known in the places where population is growing rapidly. Human reproductive behavior is far more complicated than a simple plot of numbers vs. food supply. Educated women who have access to birth control will generally opt to use it even if food is abundant.”

            Please assist me. Knowledgeable people must share a scientifically sound understanding of why human population numbers are skyrocketing if ever we are to begin sensibly ‘treating’ what is ailing humanity. Given distinctly human intelligence and technological wizardry, what about “the complicated behavior of human reproduction” has resulted in humanity being in this wicked situation? I would like to submit that human population dynamics at its core is as simple as the population dynamics of other species.

            For too long a time human population growth has been viewed preternaturally (NOT scientifically) as being somehow outside the course of nature. The possible reasons for why population growth rates and numbers have seemed complex, obscure, numerous, or even unknowable, indeed, so confounding that a strategy to address what could be a clear and present danger has been thought to be all but impossible to develop, let alone implement. To have suggested, as many human demography experts and scientists have done, that understanding the dynamics of human population does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics have so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, in a way seems not quite right. After all, how can the population dynamics of Homo sapiens be outside the bounds of science? Are human beings not creatures of Earth?

            I was born precisely 73 years ago. During most of my lifetime we have seen the wise and successful development of contraceptive devices of different kinds. These birth control options have been widely distributed worldwide around the world with remarkably positive effects. I expect you would agree that these efforts to make birth control available is a good thing, a vital thing to be doing. I am imagining, too, that you would join me in requesting a ten-fold increase in the the availability of contraception to females as well as in immediate attention given over to the development and distribution of male contraception devices. Our failure to develop and distribute birth control options for males may be among the most fateful oversights in in the past 70+ years, I suppose.

            That said, including that which was reported earlier in this thread with regard to “absolute global human population numbers explod[ing] from 2.5 billion in 1945 to 7.6+ billion in 2018,” please take note of the way the size of the human population has morphed into a tsunami overspreading the surface of Earth. In the time span that birth control has been in existence the human population has increased by 5+/- billion.

            Human contraception is absolutely necessary. Much more of it would be even better. But birth control alone cannot be viewed as “the cure” for what ails the human community. Because food is the driving force of human population numbers, the ever increasing food supply for human consumption at some point will have to be limited somehow, increases in birth controls of all kinds to females and males alike notwithstanding.

            Sincerely yours,

            Steve

          • James Bowen

            Yes, human population dynamics are similar to those of other species.
            However, other species don’t have technology available to expand the food supply or to use contraceptives. Food is not the driving force in reproduction, the sex drive is. Food merely makes it possible, and expanded food supply removes what material constraints would otherwise be in place (though advances in medicine and expansion of its availability is also a major factor). Birth control nullifies the reproductive consequences of the sex drive.

          • stevenearlsalmony

            Dear James,

            You report,

            “Food is not the driving force in reproduction, the sex drive is.”

            This statement is incontrovertible. My choice of words from above, while fully intended, present themselves as a Freudian slip. At this point I need to ask a question…. and I want to take this step carefully in our conversation about what could somehow be real. Your participation is this exercise is valued.

            In the backyard earlier today I was trying to see the green forest that I know is before me, not the dark wood of the individual trees. The tree trunks offer themselves to me so readily. The dark bark of the trees takes center stage. But as I continue to behold the trees there is something else to be seen. And that something is derived from many previous experiences. I know there is also a green forest before me. It is an as yet unseen presence from my position on the ground. What has to happen in order to see the greenery of the forest is that I have to change my scope of observation. Rather than continue standing in the backyard, I need to change my position by moving to the top of a watchtower. From that higher place I can immediately see what is always there, but not visible from the ground: the green forest. The sight of the dark wood is no longer visible.

            When it comes to looking at the population growth of a species, we can see either “individual reproduction numbers” or “species propagation numbers.” It is not possible to see both of them at the same time.

            As noted just above, you report that “[f]ood is not the driving force in reproduction, the sex drive is.” From your point of view, it appears to me as if you are looking at the trees and not the forest. When I report that the root cause of population growth of the human species is food, and that the population numbers of all other species grow or decline according to food availability, I am looking at the forest. It appears to me as if it is necessary that the trees not blind us from the sight of the forest. From a species-wide perspective the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers is driven by food.

            Now comes the question. Is it possible that both points of view have value inasmuch as each discloses something about that which could be real?

            Sincerely yours,

            Steve

            PS: Please note that nothing I have reported in this conversation is intended to dispute what you have reported. I appreciate your point of view. My aim is to present a complementary viewpoint.
            PPS: If and only if it would please you to do so, I would like to receive your contact information. I can be reached at .

          • James Bowen

            I see what you are saying. Population growth certainly wouldn’t happen without more food being available. However, the human being is an individualistic creature, and the primary motivations that drive fertility are at the individual level. The availability of food is a hard boundary. That imposes a limit on our numbers, no matter what our motivations are. However, if food is available, there are other factors that determine fertility levels. The experience of 1st World nations since about 1960 and more recently some of the more developed 3rd World nations such as China and some South American nations show that people (particularly women) can and will, by and large, opt for lower fertility levels when they have knowledge of and access to family planning.

            I think your implication that we need to question the wisdom of expanding the food supply is spot on.

          • stevenearlsalmony

            James,

            Can we agree, for example, that humankind has precipitated and now presents itself with a climate destabilization emergency… ready or not, … like it or not, and that precious time for action to stabilize the climate is running out? We in this moment of space-time are the first generation to confront an existential situation of this kind. Likely the elders of my generation will be the last generation to be in a position to respond ably to this global climate crisis before the impending catastrophe becomes irreversible. Responsible action is required now here while there is still time to make a difference, I suppose.

            We have agreed with Malcolm on the necessity for making contraception available to every person capable of making a contribution to conception. It appears equal attention needs to be given to insisting upon reality-oriented behavioral changes in industrial agriculture that result in the placement of limits to “increases only” on the expansion of the food supply for human consumption. We do not have a food production problem. Food harvests are ample to feed the current population plus many millions more. As M. Gandhi reminds us, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

            Common sense discloses to us that there are production capabilities accessible for making and dispensing contraception to everyone wanting it. With equal mastery distribution facilities have been developed and are readily available for a more fair and equitable distribution of the human food supply to those in need.

            Given the colossal current size of the human population as well as the expected growth of species in the years ahead, what could be more important to future human well being and environmental health than “the need to question the wisdom of expanding the food supply” for human consumption specifically?

            As my mother said unmindfully on occasion, “We are eating ourselves out of house and home.” That is to say, we are devouring recklessly and relentlessly that which we are utterly dependent upon for our existence. Perhaps it is worth adding that Earth has been described wonderfully by many throughout history as a “maternal presence.” And yet none of us should allowed to be mesmerized or else deluded by those glorious words. Earth may be a wondrous presence; but our planetary home is not a teat, not a cornucopia, not a source of supplies designed for the expressed purpose of meeting human needs eternally.

            Sincerely,

            Steve

          • stevenearlsalmony

            Dear James,

            There is something happening about which I want to be crystal clear. Civilization as we know it has arisen in all its overwhelming dominance out of an agrarian culture. Growth of farming has led to the institutionalization of large-scale corporate agriculture and the global political economy currently overspreading Earth. And in the process of growing a civilization by massively replacing biomass with human mass, agriculture has been simultaneously destroying original wildlife habitats and biodiversity; devouring limited natural resources; turning the seas into sewers, filling the land with garbage and contaminating the water supply with pollutants. It appears that at least one primary challenge looming ominously before humanity is an uncomplicated requirement: restrain the unbridled expansion of industrial agriculture.

            Sincerely,

            Steve

          • James Bowen

            Yes, I completely agree. The ability to support such a large human population has come at enormous ecological expense that that manifested itself in the mass destruction of habitat and consequent extinction and endangerment of other species.

          • stevenearlsalmony

            Dear James,

            A sensible discussion of the pivotal relationship between the food supply and human population growth has been exceedingly difficult to muster. My experience has shown that experts are unwilling to engage openly in conversation about what could be true regarding the virtually irrefutable ecological science of human population dynamics. I concluded years ago that certain outstanding research is being willfully denied, perhaps because it is apparently unforeseen and unfortunately not welcome. If we refuse to identify what is true about what ails humankind, what chance do we have of “curing” what ails us? The truth I am referring to now here is a truth born of uncertainty.

            UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan noted in 1997, “The world has enough food. What it lacks is the political will to ensure that all people have access to this bounty, that all people enjoy food security.”

            We need a rigorous examination of the probability that ‘corporate personhoods’ operating as agribusinesses are producing too much, not too little food; that one primary threat to humankind and life as we know it is the way increasing the total food supply for human consumption specifically leads to increasing absolute global human population numbers. It is overly abundant harvests from industrial agriculture that are driving population numbers of the human species to overshoot immutable limits to their growth which are imposed by a relatively small, evidently finite and noticeably frangible environment of a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.

            Please consider the potentially disastrous effects of increasing large-scale food production capabilities on human population numbers worldwide in our time. If we keep doing the “big-business as usual” things we are doing now by increasing annually the world’s food supply, and the human community keeps getting what we are getting now, then a colossal ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort could be expected to occur in the near future.

            It may be patently unsustainable to continue increasing food production to feed a growing population. As an alternative, we could carefully review ways for limiting “annual increases only” in the large-scale corporate production of food; for providing broad support of small-scale farming practices; for redistributing more equitably the present overly abundant world supply of food to the human community at large; and for ensuring the free, immediate, universal, easily accessible and safe contraception to all who want it, per Malcolm’s recommendations.

            Sincerely yours,

            Steve

          • stevenearlsalmony

            Please note Norman Borlaug’s lecture given in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize:
            ►https://www.nobelprize.org/…/1970/borlaug-lecture.html

            “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”…Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth…”

  • Geoffrey Holland

    Any person who would unfriend you because of your commitment to nature and planet are not worthy of your time. If there is a good solution to population and climate driven migration, it will have to wait until the likes of Putin, Trump, and a host of other autocrats are swept into the dustbin of history. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen anytime soon..

    • Rob Harding

      Thanks Geoff. Isn’t your response also side-stepping the issues I highlighted? I’m afraid your comments are suggesting that we kick the can further down the road (possibly without end). Why would you support essentially ignoring the impacts of ongoing mass human migration given the planetary emergency we’re facing?

      Speaking for the US, Trump’s election seems to have been a response to decades of dismissals from US leaders with respect to the downsides of ongoing mass immigration. More important insights from Joseph Chamie here: http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/03/outsourcing-jobs-insourcing-labour-increasing-profits/

      • Geoffrey Holland

        No way do I advocate ‘kicking the can further down the road’. We need assertive action now. It starts with reshaping our economic system so that people and planet come first. It won’t happen until we eliminate the ‘legalized bribery’ that shapes our politics and our public policy.

  • Rob Harding

    Dear Geoff,

    Your first question was: “Can you summarize the current state of human population demographics in the US and the world as a whole?”

    Respectfully, Dr. Potts avoided talking about demographics in the US entirely. This was a missed opportunity given the country is already demonstrably overpopulated but still growing in population (and thus growing in ‘development’-driven habitat loss resulting from competitive displacement) primarily due to ongoing mass immigration. I’m sure you are aware of this, and it should have been communicated in this article.

    I recently wrote about this for the MAHB with a critique of support for ‘open borders’ policies concerning the movement of people, which can be viewed here: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/response-giorgos-kallis-re-degrowth-movement-open-borders-migration/

    Later, Dr. Potts said “young people are going to have to solve these problems”, referring to the various symptoms of overshoot including human overpopulation in most countries. I’m 31 and have been participating in population & overshoot conversations since I was 28. I’ve been nominated four times for Dick Smith’s $1 Million Wilberforce Award, including by Paul Ehrlich (no award…yet!). I’m trying and I’ve lost friends because I’m trying. I carry on because I care and feel an overwhelming sense of obligation to participate — by way of activism and personal actions/lifestyle choices.

    Yet there remains some censorship even in good forums like this with respect to taboo topics like human migration. Most people engaged on the population issue rightly reject any assertions that continued unsustainable population growth is inevitable. But without forthrightly addressing the topic of human migration and related national / international policies (including limits to globalization and the insane goal of evermore exploitative (un)economic growth), such unsustainable population growth IS inevitable in countries like the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

    We shouldn’t allow this to happen — we must reckon with ‘lifeboat ethics’ on a full planet. The spatial distribution and density of human populations are key sustainability & quality of life considerations that can’t continue to be dismissed. For that reason I’ll leave you with an excellent article to consider in which Joseph Chamie, former director of the UN Population Division, offers a rebuke of the UN’s proposed Global Compact on Migration. The embedded links to supporting articles are also worth reviewing. http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/07/global-compact-art-cherry-picking-refugees/

    Please also consider joining the Scientists’ Warning Initiative: http://www.scientistswarning.org/join/

    Thanks for considering my comments.

    Best,
    Rob

    Rob Harding
    Sustainability Communications Manager, NumbersUSA
    Outreach Director, ScientistsWarning.org
    Fellow, Royal Society of Arts
    rdharding2@gmail.com

  • Rob Harding

    Dear Geoff,

    Your first question was: “Can you summarize the current state of human population demographics in the US and the world as a whole?”

    Respectfully, Dr. Potts avoided talking about demographics in the US entirely. This was a missed opportunity given the country is already demonstrably overpopulated but still growing in population (and thus growing in ‘development’-driven habitat loss resulting from competitive displacement) primarily due to ongoing mass immigration. I’m sure you are aware of this, and it should have been communicated in this article.

    I recently wrote about this for the MAHB with a critique of support for ‘open borders’ policies concerning the movement of people, which can be viewed here: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/response-giorgos-kallis-re-degrowth-movement-open-borders-migration/

    Later, Dr. Potts said “young people are going to have to solve these problems”, referring to the various symptoms of overshoot including human overpopulation in most countries. I’m 31 and have been participating in population & overshoot conversations since I was 28. I’ve been nominated four times for Dick Smith’s $1 million Wilberforce Award, including by Paul Ehrlich (no award…yet!). I’m trying and I’ve lost friends because I’m trying. I carry on because I care and feel an overwhelming sense of obligation to participate — by way of activism and personal actions/lifestyle choices.

    Yet there remains some censorship even in good forums like this with respect to taboo topics like human migration. Most people engaged on the population issue rightly reject any assertions that continued unsustainable population growth is inevitable. But without forthrightly addressing the topic of human migration and related national / international policies (including limits to globalization and the insane goal of evermore exploitative (un)economic growth), such unsustainable population growth IS inevitable in countries like the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

    We shouldn’t allow this to happen — we must reckon with ‘lifeboat ethics’ on a full planet. The spatial distribution and density of human populations are key sustainability & quality of life considerations that can’t continue to be dismissed. For that reason I’ll leave you with an excellent article to consider in which Joseph Chamie, former director of the UN Population Division, offers a rebuke of the UN’s proposed Global Compact on Migration. The embedded links to supporting articles are also worth reviewing. http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/07/global-compact-art-cherry-picking-refugees/

    Please also consider joining the Scientists’ Warning Initiative: http://www.scientistswarning.org/join/

    Thanks for considering my comments.

    Best,
    Rob

    Rob Harding
    Sustainability Communications Manager, NumbersUSA
    Outreach Director, ScientistsWarning.org
    Fellow, Royal Society of Arts
    rdharding2@gmail.com

  • Greeley Miklashek

    I’m impressed with Dr. Pott’s emphasis on access to contraception, contrary to the medieval policies of our Federal Government as it curries favor with its ignorant “base”. What the good doctor misses entirely, ironically for an obstetrician, is that population density stress is killing us now through all of our diseases of civilization, including a 100% increase in infertility in the US over the past 34 years and a 59% decrease in sperm counts in the West over 38 years. But, that’s a good thing, right? Not if you realize that the cause may well be the same as all of our other increasing disease rates: population density stress, increasing brain CRH and blood cortisol from our overactive stress response. Robert Sapolsky has shown this effect in baboon status hierarchies, but hundreds of millions of us 99%ers are experiencing the physiological effects of low status and crowding currently. Extensive published researches have pointed out that traditional living contemporary hunter-gatherers have little or none of our “diseases of civilization”. How much of a role is played by their necessary sparse populations? If we look at the 70 years of crowded animal researches, in which elevated cortisol levels are well known, and the correlated falling fertility with these animals, then a consistent picture emerges: we are headed for extinction if we do not quickly begin to reduce our worldwide populations. We need to inform all potential new parents of the enormous risks for disease and infertility that face their offspring! Currently, we are over 2,885 times the numbers of our ancestral worldwide hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago. We currently make up 30% of the land based animal biomass and our food animals make up another 67%, leaving 3% wild. What Dr. Potts did not say was this: WAKE THE HELL UP! Stress R Us

    • Geoffrey Holland

      Population and consumption are at the root of the great unraveling, but the primary impediment to building a sustainable relationship with the biosphere is our predatory brand of commerce, that puts profit above else.. People and planet must come first. The critical step toward that end is to get the influence money from bankers and billionaires and corporations out of our politics.

      • Greeley Miklashek

        Wonderful idealistic comment, but population density stress is killing us now and those of us at the bottom of the money defined status hierarchies are most vulnerable. Humans are hard-wired for forming status hierarchies when crowded. Hunter-gathers have only vague hierarchies and approach pure democracy, but urbanization and the resultant crowding that followed the agricultural revolution have led to huge hierarchies and ever greater numbers suffering at the bottom. The fundamental cause is human overpopulation, just as it is with environmental decline. Sorry for the realism, but we’re running out of time for idealistic fantasy. Stress R Us

        • stevenearlsalmony

          Dear Greeley,

          You report,

          “The fundamental cause is human overpopulation, just as it is with environmental decline.”

          I cannot see how a reality-oriented person can disagree with your perspective. It appears undeniable. Still, there is hope or, if you like, idealistic thought about a protean transition away from the delusional thinking leading to endless economic growth toward a new paradigm based upon scientific consensus that results in sustainable lifestyles and right-sized, responsible corporate personhoods.

          Sincerely yours,

          Steve Salmony
          AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population
          established 2001
          Chapel Hill, NC
          sesalmony@aol.com

          • Greeley Miklashek

            Thanks for the elegant reply! My effort is to pass on the discovery of the true nature of human diseases that I thought med school was asking of me. During my 42 year medical career, 25,000 patients led me to the conclusions contained in “Stress R Us”. It is available as a free PDF at Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s MAHB website, in their e-library. I found population density stress causing all of our “diseases of civilization”, for which the only universal preventive approach is human population reduction, hopefully as a result of voluntary one-child families and not the otherwise inevitable catastrophes that inhabit the new genre’ of dystopic horror movies. Stress R Us

          • Greeley Miklashek

            As I re-read this wonderful discussion by thoughtful sincere contributors, I realize that I have not adequately emphasized this point: were it not for our massive $3.5T heroic medical intervention in the exploding load of diseases of civilization caused by population density stress, WE WOULD ALL HAVE DIED A LONG TIME AGO and the earth would be dealing with a tiny fraction of hungry humans and regenerating Her natural environments. No-one has yet mentioned the extensive animal crowding literature , especially the early experiments by John B. Calhoun that were done with mice and rats but meant to mimic contemporary human crowding. We are currently on a similar “S” shaped trajectory and reaching a plateau, after which, in Calhoun’s colonies, the entire colony simultaneously stopped all reproduction and became extinct. This would appear to be the outcome we are heading for, if we do not make a concerted worldwide effort to actively reduce our populations and, thus, the resultant population density stress. Infertility in the US has increased 100% in the past 34 years and now involves 1/6 of all couples trying to conceive, which is the same number to be found in urban centers worldwide. Futhermore, sperm counts have fallen 59% in the past 38 years. Why should we care? If the disease load doesn’t wipe out our selves and our precious progeny, then the infertility will, and that grim future presupposes enough food to prevent mass starvation and insurrection, or worldwide environmental collapse. Do you feel me now? Stress R Us

        • Geoffrey Holland

          Agreed, there already way too many people and Ir gets worse every day.. Why? Because a substantial share of the 7.6 billion of us humans are ignorant, indifferent, or outright hostile to facts; to the ugly reality we have shaped for ourselves. A course correction is much needed, but will not happen as long as public policy and the mass media ignore the population issue. Any correction starts with getting the dirty money out of our polities and making the media accountable to report the truth. We are not addressing overpopulation and climate change as we should be because politicians are lining their pockets instead of serving the common good.

          • Greeley Miklashek

            Probably as a result of a lifetime in medical practice, trying to help one suffering soul at a time, my efforts getting the population density stress message out are often directed at one fellow at a time too. I have lost faith in politics and hope (against hope?) that my convincing book demonstrating in great (! 623 pages) detail just how population density stress is killing us now will make the overpopulation message so personally urgent that it will allow couples to limit their reproduction to one child, for their own health’s sake and that of their offspring. I don’t know what else to do and I don’t believe that all the well meaning moral abstractions about overpopulation will change our behavior. Thanks for your article and feedback! Stress R Us

  • Jason G. Brent

    Professor Potts is far too optimistic. We are presently in overshoot and going deeper into overshoot every second–population is growing and the per capita usage of resources is continually increasing. According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity is presently using the resources of 1.7 planets. In order to get out of overshoot the population would have to be reduced to 4.47 billion from the current 7.6 billion. And that reduction does not take into account the present estimate of the UN that the population will attempt to reach 11.2 billion in 2100 and the ever-growing per capita usage of resources. Please go to my website and read the essays and you understand that much more dramatic action is necessary to prevent the collapse of civilization and the deaths of billions before the year 2100. http://www.jgbrent.com

    • Geoffrey Holland

      Can you elaborate on the dramatic action that is necessary, and what needs to happen to make that dramatic action possible?

      • Jason G. Brent

        As indicated in my comment above, go to my web site and read the essays :
        “Extinction” together with its exhibits and :”Coercive Population Control”. If you go over the essays carefully, I will doubt that you will find an error in the math, facts or logic

        • Geoffrey Holland

          Instead of reading your essays, could you summarize your solutions to climate change and overpopulation in a blurb here?

          • Jason G. Brent

            1. Analyze and review every aspect of coercive population control.
            2 Compare voluntary population control with coercive population control in as much detail as possible.
            3. Analyze and review every major problem facing humanity today and determine, as best he can be determined, what is the chance that one or more of those problems would cause major catastrophes before the year 2100 and/or the year 2150 that would result in the collapse of civilization.
            4. Attempt to determine, as best as it can be determined, the number of deaths that would result from the collapse of civilization.
            5. Based upon numbers 1-4 above, determine a course of action that would be in the best interest of you humanity’s.

          • Geoffrey Holland

            Yes. I agree. This would be a good protocol to follow. Regrettably, it cannot and will not happen as long as we have lizard brains in charge of our politics., I like to believe that young people are waking up to the ugly fate looming ahead of them. They must empower leaders, who will put planet before profit. Allowing bankers, billionaires, and craven corporate profiteers to buy politicians and public policy to maximize profit is killing the planet. I put purveyors of rapacious religious dogma in the same category.

  • melharte

    Excellent discussion. Given that easy accessibility to highly effective contraceptives is what many women want and need, a good project for students might be for them to investigate the problem of unintended pregnancies in our own backyard: California. Gaining an understanding of the nuts and bolts of what needs to be done – outreach, training (already happening), and easy accessibility (both physical and financial) – will arm them for the next step in eliminating unintended pregnancies in the largest economy within the nation of highest consumers on the planet. If that can be achieved, the model it will create could set off a cascading effect nationally and worldwide.

    • Geoffrey Holland

      Yes, waking up young people to the reality that their own hopes and dreams are dangerously threatened by human overreach is critically important. They must take charge of their own destiny. The sooner, the better. It starts with sweeping away the political corruption that is carrying us all toward a very dark abyss.