When Environmental Writers Are Part of the Problem

Something’s missing in today’s environmental discussion. When talking about causes and proposed solutions for our ecological plight, few environmental writers are telling us more than half the story. Al Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and long time sustainability activist, calls it “the silent lie.”

It’s the near universal tendency to focus on the importance of cutting fossil fuel use while staying mum on the topic of population growth.

John Holdren, last year’s president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told us the whole story over a decade ago in an article titled, “Population and the Energy Problem.” In it, he observed that the total energy consumption for a country or the world, is the product of population size multiplied by the average per capita energy use. Today, the developers of the “ecological footprint” measure, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagle, echo Holdren when they explain, “[The ecological footprint] for the world as a whole is the product of population times per capita consumption, and reflects both the level of consumption and the efficiency with which resources are turned into consumption products.”

That the size and growth of the global population is a root cause of ecological degradation is, in fact, well known to scientists. Yet statements to that effect get little traction in the mainstream media. We hear all about the need to save energy by switching to florescent light bulbs. We read about the ethanol debate and carbon trading schemes. We urge our representatives to establish tougher fuel economy standards. But in all the talk of ways of reducing per person consumption, how often does anyone mention the need to address the other factor in the the equation? In today’s environmental writing, population growth is the elephant in the room.

What are environmental writers thinking?

Why the silence? Population growth received a good deal of attention in the 1960s and 1970s. But then came China’s draconian one child policy, right wing groups pushing free market capitalism by cheerleading growth and dismissing the need to limit our numbers, and political wrangling among environmental and social justice groups, all seeking the spotlight for their own issues. The result was the demotion of population from its status as social and environmental issue number one.

Indeed, some writers today actively avoid the subject of population despite recognizing its importance. Not long ago, for instance, David Roberts, environmental writer at Grist, made it clear he recognizes that to reduce humanity’s ecological footprint to a sustainable level we’ll need to deal with the population problem. Yet he acknowledged he never writes on the subject. His reason?

“Talking about population as such alienates a large swathe of the general public. It carries vague connotations of totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics. It has been used quite effectively to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. It is political poison.”

From what I’ve seen, Roberts’s view is typical of many environmental writers and organizations. And my purpose is not to single him out. He’s merely one of the few environmental writers who’s been willing to speak openly on this subject. For that he deserves credit. But is his view wise?

What’s better, truth or avoidance?

I have no doubt Roberts and most environmentalists who share his view are well meaning. But I don’t believe the subject of population is, in fact, the “political poison” he thinks it is. Though they do so too infrequently and too quietly, organizations such as the UN, a variety of groups such as Population Action International, the Population Media Center, and the Izaak Walton League , environmentalists such as Lester Brown, and writers in periodicals such as Science, Scientific American, the Guardian/Observer, and the Christian Science Monitor do grapple with it. And there’s no evidence their work has set back the environmental cause. They identify population growth as a problem because it’s the truth, and they know bringing people the truth is productive while avoiding it is ultimately damaging.

That some people jump to erroneous conclusions about “totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics” when they hear about reducing population growth (and ultimately population size) is no reason to avoid the topic; it’s reason to clarify and inform. Addressing population growth means taking humane measures to assist with the social and economic issues which drive it. That means improving education for girls and economic opportunities for women in developing countries. It means increasing access to family planning and reproductive health care services, and encouraging positive attitudes toward smaller families. And it means reducing infant mortality rates. Any notion that it need involve involuntary measures of any kind is a distraction we mustn’t allow to dominate policy.

Is silly, agenda-driven slander a reason to avoid the truth?

Roberts is right that some have tried to use the population topic to try to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. He’s wrong in saying they’ve been effective. These groups presenting irrational arguments from such vantage points as the Christian right and the libertarian right have had, at best, a marginal impact. Their attacks are best dealt with head on, exposing their agenda-driven illogic. It’s unfortunate some of their arguments have been embraced by a small subset of the political left who see population as a distraction from their personal causes. In the US, however, after seven years of the Bush Administration’s decimation of environmental laws, and a decade or more of elective mutism with regard to population, to blame any part of the environmental movement’s struggles on the handling of the population issue is more than a stretch.

Consider as well that few who don’t scour the Web for such niche groups’ writings have ever heard of any negative connotations associated with addressing population growth. I frequently raise the population issue with people in “real life,” and cannot recall an instance in which anyone has mentioned the connotations which concern some environmentalists. On the contrary, I’ve encountered almost universal recognition that population is, in itself, a problem needing more attention. Environmentalists who avoid the the subject of population out of fear of its “connotations” are fretting over esoteric arguments found only among other writers.

Time to correct a damaging strategy

What has been the result of this inattention? A few months ago, a major report from the UK, which solicited the input of scores of scientists, asserted that the last decade of neglect of the population issue had seriously hindered environmental and social causes. It has hastened ecological degradation, the effects of which are becoming increasingly apparent. Indeed, how could this inattention not have set back the environmental movement? It has meant a loss of attention to a key driving force behind our ecological decline.

We need to correct this. Environmental writers who have avoided the subject of population should rethink their stance. Let’s embrace truth, not avoidance.

John Feeney is a psychologist turned environmental activist. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

48 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Max Shields said on July 23rd, 2007 at 7:09am #

    Interesting piece in that it returns us to a debate that seems to have faded. My question would be: where is the greatest growth occuring? We know that the West, and particularly the US are the largest consumers of resources and while our population has grown (much of which is owed to immigation) we are a fraction of the world’s population and the consumer of the largest portion of it’s resources.

    Where there is population growth, the qustion then moves to longevity and consumption. Here I wonder whether the issue of the environment (sustainability) becomes mute?

    There is no doubt that humans are relatively resource demanding (high maintenance survival requriements), wasteful and consumptive creature vis-a-vis the rest of the earth’s living beings. But are the population peaks where the harmful environmental consumption is happening?

    Answers would provide us with the significance of the population argument making it a key element in pursuing an sustainable envirnomental agenda. Without those supporting facts it just seems that our hyper-growth (production) and waste – due not to population size but to an applied economic model – overshadows all other factors (including population). It should be noted that with the exception of the US the West (EU) population is relatively stable.

    But I’m willing to learn more…perhaps a closer look at China or India could begin to make a case. So much of what I understand about China has more to do with centuries of farming devastation (cultural upheavals) and now the introduction of the capitalistic growth model, that I’m not sure it serves to advance the population argument – per se.

    For sure the more people using the free market, hyper-individualistic and endless growth/consumption model the greater the speed of our demise. But if we take those out of the equation and just deal with population what happens? The US is a massive landscape which is barely ustilized; it is how it is utilized that seems at once terrible inefficient and evironmentally unsustainable.

    I don’t buy the “sacred cow” garbage. If Grist is pushing that they’re worthless. Honesty and integity are imperatives.

    As I read Lester Brown he cites the US growth but in relation to US econmics and material demands – which is clearly unsustainable.

  2. Binh said on July 23rd, 2007 at 9:19am #

    This is Malthus’ argument dressed up with environmentalist rhetoric. There is no evidence that population growth as such is the problem for the planet – it’s the way capitalism is set up to put profits above the needs of humanity and nature.

    The highest birth rates are in the Third World, so the practical implication of the “stop having so many babies” crowd is to get all those Third World-ers to stop having kids. Sounds like racism to me.

  3. Daryl Davies said on July 23rd, 2007 at 9:31am #

    I am sick to death of this kind of bullshit.

    Who are the ones who will be asked to stop having children? Not the affluent westerners of course we already have few children per family. No, it is the multiplying poor brown people who will have to put a rubber on it, and sacrificing their economic security.

    Once again we want to make the global poor pay for our crimes.

    I’ll say it loudly for the people up the back.


    You want people to have fewer children? Fight the injustice that causes poverty! And stop trying to make the poor majority pay for the overconsumption of the wealthy minority.

    Yes I’m looking at you!

  4. Dave On Fire said on July 23rd, 2007 at 1:04pm #

    It is the overall growth in human consumption that poses a problem, both from growth in population and growth in consumption from individuals within that population. Both sides must be addressed, but the numbers tend to show that the latter predominates.
    The growth of both terms in this equation is, in large part, driven by the debt-fuelled false-scarcity of capitalism and the intense (and by definition unsustainable) competition for profit that that leads to. I agree with Binh, a focus on population growth is a very convenient way to blame the Third World – the victims – for a problem that really stems from first world consumption and imperialist economics.

  5. JBPM said on July 23rd, 2007 at 1:15pm #

    “The highest birth rates are in the Third World, so the practical implication of the “stop having so many babies” crowd is to get all those Third World-ers to stop having kids. Sounds like racism to me.”

    Of course it does, because that’s how you framed it. Worrying about overpopulation lead me to pledge as a teenager that I would only have one child, and that is what my wife and I have done. We’ve pledged to adopt any further children, which, as an adoptee, seems like a solution to family-building that far too few consider. No racism there, unless I am prejudiced against my own DNA. As well, any informed person knows that the problem isn’t merely overpopulation but overconsumption of resources based on overpopulation. Given that one child in Barrington, IL, consumes something around the resources of 30 kids in Bangladesh, it is incumbent on those of us in developed nations to stop having such big families. Again, that’s hardly racist. And encouraging Bolivian, Bhutanese, etc. folks to have smaller families isn’t racist by definition. A wise course of action needn’t be racist simply because the majority of people to whom it is addressed ain’t white.

    I won’t disagree with you about capitalism’s mis-allocation of natural resources, but to simply dismiss concerns about overpopulation as you do is pretty simplistic. There is ample evidence that overpopulation is a problem, contrary to what you said, and it can be obtained in any entry-level undergraduate course on ecology. The trick seems to be determining precisely what defines human carrying capacity, because of our technological innovations and the like.

    As always, I’d like to advocate for a both/and kind of approach. Yes, dealing with population issues outside of greater contexts isn’t the most helpful strategy, but then again, neither is denying outright the validity of those issues and those concerns.

  6. Max Shields said on July 23rd, 2007 at 2:24pm #

    As Lester Brown puts it, another 5 – 10 billion Indians would not be a problem. The West and particularly the US population is a problem because of consumptive habits which have been driven by an economic model that makes that an consumption an imperative. So, it would seem, size and growth of population is not the root cause of our environmental issue. It is a contributory cause.

    Put another way, if there were fewer Americans, than yes there’d be few automobiles, over-sized homes, and essentially less US consumption. But given our (US) numbers relative to the total population, we would still be devouring the planet. Neither technology fixes or innovations nor population reduction will save us from ourselves. Perhaps it will postpone the inevitable; while spawning other problems.

    The primary problem today is the capitalist model of endless growth fed by endless consumption. These are the key metrics that even the Kyoto signatories are woeful to ignore as they dance around palatable (rather than real) solutions.

  7. Rob Britton said on July 23rd, 2007 at 3:29pm #

    I had the pleasure of seeing Al Gore in person at a recent San Jose trade show, he was the keynote speaker. Several members of the audience raised the population problem. Gore’s response: We know how to solve the population problem–educated girls, women’s rights, access to birth control, low infant mortality, and the problem is solved. What we cannot seem to learn is how to conserve resources. Indeed, we are destroying our world in an orgy of consumption.

  8. John Feeney said on July 23rd, 2007 at 5:42pm #

    JBPM’s comments do a good job summarizing some of my thoughts. I’ll add a few more items which I hope will clarify.

    Realization that population is a key ecological issue starts with recognition that the earth is finite, and that human numbers and activities have exceeded its limits, creating ecological losses such as the mass extinction we’re seeing today.

    Unfortunately, the subject of population has been co-opted by some groups whose agendas are racist, most notably some of the anti-immigration groups. I believe that’s another reason a few on the left have come to be leery of it. But this isn’t the first time a worthwhile cause has been coopted for reprehensible purposes. And as I imply in the article, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it, and it most assuredly doesn’t mean my intent is racist.

    The consensus today is that the best way to bring down population growth is through addressing issues such as the education and empowerment of women, childhood survival, reproductive health care, and economic opportunities. Rob Britton quoted Al Gore’s mention of a similar list. But we’re not doing those things. Funding for programs to help with such issues has been cut drastically in recent years and we now have in place the Global Gag Rule reducing further the availability of family planning services.

    It seems to me, addressing these social issues is the opposite of racism. It means assisting with the social issues which fuel population growth. Those are of course important in their own right. But ignoring them, especially if you’re attuned to the problem of overshoot and its consequences, is heartless. Avoiding mentioning their connection to population growth or the latter’s importance as a proximate cause of much ecological degradation is intellectually dishonest.

    I know it’s easy to skip over the links in an article, but if you check out the last one I provided, you’ll see the recent conclusion of a global team of scientists and policy experts: That the last decade’s loss of attention to population has been a major social and environmental setback, and that we will be unable to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals without turning that around. Their report was summarized in an article in Science, also in the links above.

    Another link shows that the global Ecological Footprint is essentially an elaboration of Holdren’s equation. Do you critics want to throw out the concept of ecological footprint because population figures into it?

    Daryl Davies — “Who are the ones who will be asked to stop having children? Not the affluent westerners of course we already have few children per family.”

    Yes, the affluent westerners! Everyone else as well. I talk mostly about population on the global level, but let’s talk just about the US for a moment. Because in the US our per capita consumption rates are so high, each person added here is like adding several in most developing countries. Population growth here is therefore as much a problem as elsewhere, arguably more so. And I’d be fine with bringing it to a halt solely through a reduction in fertility rates. In fact, make it solely the fertility rates of whites. I’m fine with that. Can we cut the “racism” accusations now?

    Note as well that countries like China and India have fast growing economies. That means fast growing per capita consumption rates. It will only magnify the impact of their population growth. But China’s fertility rate is now low (though I would never condone the way they got there). So there we need to wait for “demographic momentum” to run its course while doing everything possible to assist in the transition to clean, renewable energy.

    Daryl: “You want people to have fewer children? Fight the injustice that causes poverty!”

    Exactly! That’s an important piece of it.

    “And stop trying to make the poor majority pay for the overconsumption of the wealthy minority.”

    How is fighting the injustice that causes poverty or working to empower women making the poor majority pay? I’m urging only a recognition of the impact of population and inclusion of the topic in the environmental discussion.

    Obviously a country like the US also needs a huge push toward lower levels of per capita consumption, a rethinking of economic growth, and an end to militarism. (The latter two are hidden factors in “per capita consumption.”) In any event, we can’t ignore either factor in the consumption equation. We can recognize that simple math without being racist.

    It’s not quite accurat, BTW, to say consumption rates are a bigger global problem than population. I’ve seen comments such as “Total consumption increased much more in recent decades than population.” Of course it did. It’s the product of the equation. We would expect the product to increase more than either of the factors. A comparison of the two factors paints a different picture. Holdren showed that population and per capita consumption had increased nearly equally.

    Dave on Fire — Did you realize we’d been over this before? 🙂


    Max Shields — See the link I provided to Lester Brown. He’s very much among those who emphasize the contributions of population to our ecological plight.

    Binh — For a starter on what scientists say of the evidence that population is a problem try the AAAS link I provided or this from a majority of the Nobel laureates in the sciences:


    In sum, I don’t disagree with any of the comments about the contributions of capitalism to ecological degradation. It’s certainly a combination of factors. But when we enact a “code of silence” on the subject of population, we’re being intellectually dishonest and leaving out one of the largest of those factors.

    For anyone interested in the big picure, I’d strongly recommend William Catton’s classic book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 23rd, 2007 at 7:08pm #

    The main cause of our ever nearer collapse is capitalist overconsumption, particularly in the rich countries and particularly amongst the rich everywhere. Population reduction is essential if we ever get the opportunity to implement it humanely, but the implacable neoplastic nature of Capitalism forbids it. A negative growth society is death to Capitalism, which will destroy its host before it changes its nature. The Capitalists know this, and are planning a Malthusian solution to the world’s ecological crisis. Just as they allowed tens of millions to starve in India in the Great Famines of the 18th to 20th centuries, when not working them to death on rations less than that in Belsen, Market Absolutist Capitalists are planning a massive depopulation through drought, hunger and disease. Just as they refuse AIDS medicines to the poor to protect their profits, or rob the hungry of grain so they can run their SUVs on ethanol, so they will, as climate change induced starvation spreads, wash their hands of responsibility and watch from their walled societies as chaos descends. The occasional punitive expedition a la Iraq may speed the depopulation and secure needed resources, but malign neglect, hunger and disease should suffice. And never forget the tens of billions spent on bacteriological warfare ‘research’ under Bush. The eruption of some new, widely lethal pathogen can be expected some time soon, to speed the process.

  10. John Feeney said on July 23rd, 2007 at 7:57pm #


    I agree with much of what you wrote. I’m not sure there’s really conscious planning to allow huge numbers of deaths, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

    The thing is, nature will cause those deaths unless we take decisive action before that happens. And some think that’s too optimistic . Here. from peak oil activist Paul Chefurka is a solid analysis of the population-peak-oil relationship that should be enough to worry anyone greatly:


  11. John Feeney said on July 23rd, 2007 at 7:58pm #

    Sorry, that’s Mulga.

  12. Trinifar said on July 24th, 2007 at 12:14am #

    China and India will continue to burn more and more coal as they grow their economies and improve their standard of living. One of the most effective things the US can do to mitigate climate change is to pour money into clean coal technology and help China and India implement it. Another thing America can do is help wean the world from the large scale industrialization of agriculture we’ve been pushing for the last 50 years — all of which is oil and energy intensive. By investing in healthy energy production and agriculture in the developing world, the US can lead the way to safer more stable planet for everyone.

    And every single family planning and women’s and children’s rights (and human rights in general) program is only going to help achieve that sooner.

  13. Max Shields said on July 24th, 2007 at 8:30am #

    I think Brown says a great deal about population. He does not present a simple story. I don’t think anyone would deny that there are limits to everything including the number of human inhabitants – particularly given our natural need for resources to support our “adaptability”.

    But Brown talks specifically about food. There is some great work regarding that issue, called: 12 Myths About Hunger based on World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset

    I suggest you take a look at this fine work.

    Please make special note of Myth #3: Too Many People.

    If we are to solve problems we need to be very careful with our diagnosis. Many of our ills have been caused by mis-identification of root causes.

  14. Trinifar said on July 24th, 2007 at 11:20am #

    Lester R. Brown’s 2004 book Outgrowing the Earth contains a wonderful success story of family planning in a developing country which had a rapidly rising population. I wrote about it here: http://trinifar.wordpress.com/2007/03/22/learning-from-iran-about-family-planning/

  15. John Feeney said on July 24th, 2007 at 11:24am #

    Max — No, Brown does not present a simple story. Nor have I.

    Max: “I don’t think anyone would deny that there are limits to everything including the number of human inhabitants – particularly given our natural need for resources to support our “adaptability”.”

    But some deny our current population size and continued growth is a problem. If you read a survey of studies on carrying capacity or a work like Catton’s book, you begin to see the error in such thinking. Al Bartlett has said,

    “A SELF-EVIDENT TRUTH: If any fraction of the observed global warming can be attributed to the activities of humans,
    then this constitutes positive proof that the human population, living as we do, has exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. THIS SITUATION IS NOT SUSTAINABLE!”

    It’s indisputable. And while we obviously need to address the “living as we do” part, it’s folly not to address the numbers issue as well. And it’s much cheaper to address, BTW.

    On the food issue, are you assuming I attributed today’s starvation to population? I didn’t. It’s generally reconized to be a political/distribution problem. There is legitimate concern about future starvation as a result of population growth and the concomitant oil and aquifer depletion. Brown speaks very clearly about the aquifer issue.

    Max: “Many of our ills have been caused by mis-identification of root causes.”

    Do you think I have engaged in such mis-identification? I’ve said that our number is one such cause. You said yourself that no one would deny there are limits to our numbers. A large percentage of the analyses of carrying capacity as well as the ecological footprint analysis have concluded we’ve exceeded those limits. [1] Exceeding them means problems. We can continue trying to stretch the limits, but will inevitably fail tragically (consider peak oil), and will continue eliminating millions of other species in the process as we take over their habitat and usurp a huge portion of the earth’s natural functions. Eliminate too many other species and we’ll eliminate ourselves. See this paper, for example:


    [2] The higher estimates of carrying capacity (numbers like 10 billion) tend to come from economists and demographers. The lower numbers (like 2 billion) tend to come from natural scientists. That should tell you something.

  16. Max Shields said on July 24th, 2007 at 12:54pm #


    My point, beginning with my first post is: [1] where is the population growth occurring? (what is the life expectancy there?) [2] what, exactly, is the ecological damage due to that growth?

    I think you’ll agree that in the grand scheme it is our economic model which drives endless resource consumption that is the primary culprit. And that that consumption produces the greatest unsustainable environmental damage. The extent to which this model has been exported, excellerates the damage.

    Brown indicates clearly that India’s population growth, given their general consumption is sustainable into the forseeable future. The co-relation is between US population and the consumption model (and as its model as mimicked elsewhere).

    WE are the ones with the sprawl. With traffic jams, with superhighways criss-crossing several million square miles. We are the ones that consume needlessly beyond anyone else on the planet. This case is clear.

    This, than, overshadows the global concern about population growth.

    We agree that hunger is not due to population growth. So, if you have the time please answer my first set of questions. I am stating that by focusing primarily on population growth you are re-directing the problem at its heart.

  17. John Feeney said on July 24th, 2007 at 1:36pm #

    Max — I’ll respond to your last comment first, because I think it may point to a source of confusion and may reduce the need to respond to your other observations.

    “I am stating that by focusing primarily on population growth you are re-directing the problem at its heart.”

    It seems some readers are indeed assuming I’m focusing primarily on population. I’m not. I’ve said only that it is a crucial factor in ecological degradation and should not be ignored as it is by many environmental writers. I’ve shown that ecological footprint is a function of population size and per capita consumption. So do you disagree with any of that? Let’s leave out for now the question of what is the most crucial factor. I’m sure you’d agree more than one should be discussed by environmental writers.

    There is much more we could quibble about, some of which I’ve tried to address in these comments, and much of which I’ll tackle in future articles. But perhaps the above is the gist with regard to this article.

  18. Max Shields said on July 24th, 2007 at 2:14pm #

    John “I’ve said only that it is a crucial factor in ecological degradation and should not be ignored as it is by many environmental writers. I’ve shown that ecological footprint is a function of population size and per capita consumption. So do you disagree with any of that?”

    No, I don’t disagree. I think though that this is an important clarification and one that should not be conflated with a Christian Right argument (I don’t pay much attention those).

    Thanks for your continued response. I am an environmental activist and look forward to your next article.

  19. Trinifar said on July 24th, 2007 at 5:08pm #

    Max: “I think you’ll agree that in the grand scheme it is our economic model which drives endless resource consumption that is the primary culprit. And that that consumption produces the greatest unsustainable environmental damage. The extent to which this model has been exported, excellerates the damage.”

    I think looking at the economic model as the primary culprit is too much of a gloss on population growth issues in developing countries. India, Bangladesh, China, the Phillipines, and Nigeria are all stressed from population growth — and it’s continuing. And that growth is damaging the environment in a myriad of ways, land use changes and lowering biodiversity not least among them. In purely human terms it’s also expanding the number of people living in (often abject) poverty not perhaps as a percentage but in raw numbers.

  20. losing faith said on July 24th, 2007 at 7:20pm #

    I am from Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth. We are in the midst of one of the longest droughts in our history. (If there is no significant rain in the next year or so, it could be up there with the worst droughts worldwide)
    Littered throughout the country are towns run out of water; empty mud-holes where dams used to be; and barren farms where old bones and creaking sheds lay abandoned in the blazing sun. We have a country roughly the same geographic size as North America (a bit smaller).
    We have a population of only 21 million people. Less than California alone…
    While there is still enough left of the “lucky-country” illusion for most of us city-folk to pull over our eyes, every new govt. implemented water restriction reminds us of the constantly looming threat of a life in which water is more valuable than gold.
    It is not because we are overpopulated that we are running out of water, it is because the Australian dairy industry uses 1000 litres of water for every litre of milk produced. It is because the amount of water that goes into a single bull to be made into hamburgers is enough to float a destroyer.
    It is, as many have said before me, largely because of the fact that the current system of competitive capitalist economics demands an aggressive use of resources that is neither sustainable, nor necessary to support the current population. A lot of what is produced is thrown away in the end. I have seen dumpsters full of butter, milk and even whole bottles of water. I’ve seen the mass graves where farmers bury the animals they had to shoot because of sky-rocketing meat prices.

    I am not entirely convinced that lowering population levels is any sort of priority. In fact, I think it should be one of the last things on our minds right now. The forefront of this debate should not be: what are environmental writers not addressing, but: what are environmental writers suggesting? Because I truly believe that THIS is the field in which most writers fall short.

    Most of all, why aren’t we discussing real methods of resistance to an empire which is obviously destroying the world, and obviously not going to be swayed by boycotts, peaceful demonstrations or well-articulated arguments.
    And I mean REAL methods of resistance. Not just token gestures.
    How far are we all willing to go, now that we realize what the problem really is? This is not a rhetorical question, I really want people to talk about this, because I have read SO many articles that just confirm my belief that we’re fucked, and SO few articles that inspire me with hope that we can possibly fight it.
    Where do people on this thread stand when it comes to the crunch?
    Are we willing to respond to a desperate situation as if it really is desperate? By acting desperately? By acting aggressively in our defense of the earth?
    Or are we going to wait until something happens. Something we can’t come back from. Something that makes all of our time spent theorizing and arguing worthless.

  21. Max Shields said on July 24th, 2007 at 7:33pm #


    Well we definitely disagree. The poverty in the world is not directly due to population. My link to the 12 Myths of Hunger (above, and reposted below) tries to provide information on this. I see nothing by Lester Brown, for instance, that disputes this. The arguments presented are apples and oranges. He is linking population with consumption; and I agree with the linkage.

    I’ve never said that population has no relationship to environmental degradation. But it is only amplified when high-technology is employed to rape the earth’s environment – through massive air wars (think Vietnam and now Iraq/Afganistan), and large mechanized agribusinesses (primarily in the US, but not the model for some developing countries like China and India). Consumption on the scale of the US seems to be trivialized by those here who are look at places like Bangladesh or the Phillipines. Indian farming is thousands of years of the most refined organic sustainable argiculture until WTO agreements displaced seed sharing with monculture/biogenetic seed. This is clearly not a population issue.

    Here’s some facts from their study:
    “Myth 3
    Too Many People

    Reality: Birth rates are falling rapidly worldwide as remaining regions of the Third World begin the demographic transition—when birth rates drop in response to an earlier decline in death rates. Although rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries, nowhere does population density explain hunger. For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, where abundant food resources coexist with hunger. Costa Rica, with only half of Honduras’ cropped acres per person, boasts a life expectancy—one indicator of nutrition —11 years longer than that of Honduras and close to that of developed countries. Rapid population growth is not the root cause of hunger. Like hunger itself, it results from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security. Rapid population growth and hunger are endemic to societies where land ownership, jobs, education, health care, and old age security are beyond the reach of most people. Those Third World societies with dramatically successful early and rapid reductions of population growth rates-China, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Cuba and the Indian state of Kerala-prove that the lives of the poor, especially poor women, must improve before they can choose to have fewer children.”

  22. Kim Petersen said on July 24th, 2007 at 7:38pm #

    While agreeing with the overall tenor of losing faith’s comments, some points struck me as odd:

    1) “We have a country roughly the same geographic size as North America (a bit smaller).”

    Since Australia, big as it is, is geographically smaller than either Canada or the US, the comparison to Turtle Island (N America) is obviously wrong.

    2) Why would “whole bottles of water” be thrown in a dumpster when there is a water shortage? Or for any reason unless contaminated?

    3) I assume that the reference to farmers burying animals “they had to shoot because of sky-rocketing meat prices” was to keep the prices sky high?

  23. losing faith said on July 24th, 2007 at 8:17pm #

    1) There is a difference of roughly 1 million sq miles, so yeah you’re right. It is more than a ‘bit’ smaller. Perhaps a better comparison would have been the U.K, which is close to three-times smaller than Australia, but has three times as many people.

    2)Why would anything that isn’t rubbish be thrown into a dumpster? I alone cannot possibly fathom what goes through the minds of store managers on their ceaseless quests to throw away all of their goods.
    Have a look behind a 7/11 the night before trash pickup and you might see what I mean.
    Having worked in supermarkets, I can offer a little insight along the lines of, if something is remotely damaged, i.e. label ripped off, one item in a pack of four opened, seal on water bottle opened but water never touched. It is more often than not thrown into the trash.

    3) I am vegan, from the city, and can give little insight into the trends of the meat market. But, I do know that market prices for meat had risen because lack of water was causing the meat to be less valuable. (didn’t taste as good, and animals which required expensive feed to stay alive would not be able to produce enough meat to ‘pay their way’ so to speak) So many farmers found themselves in a position where they couldn’t afford to slaughter the animals for market, because they would lose too much money. The price of sending them to slaughter was more than they would get back etc. I heard of a couple of instances where farmers just drove whole herds of animals off cliffs. Most of them just let the animals die of starvation because they couldn’t afford ammunition. This is a serious problem for Australian farmers right now.
    A problem which, as a vegan, I am mostly unsympathetic to, but which nonetheless highlights the ridiculous nature of the capitalist marketplace. A marketplace where resources are often thrown away rather than given away, almost in a “you’ll never take me for free!” type desperation.

    I wrote that little rant as a result of emotion, not avid research. However, to memory it is pretty accurate, and I tried hard not to exaggerate or make false statements. Thanks for calling me out when I did.

  24. losing faith said on July 24th, 2007 at 8:22pm #

    Also, “why would whole bottles of water be thrown into a dumpster when there is a water shortage” is a question closely related to, “why would the Australian govt. slap it’s citizens with harsh water restrictions, all the while inviting multi-national corporations such as Coca Cola into the country to tap our water supply, steal it, bottle it up and sell it back to us?” Or, “why does the department of agriculture refuse to address the insane amounts of water wasted by the meat and dairy industry?” An industry which depletes it’s supply of water, and is then granted govt. supplements to continue on it’s deathly march.

  25. losing faith said on July 24th, 2007 at 8:23pm #

    also, my apologies to everybody for completely hijacking this thread and steering it in a random direction. i’ll shut up now.

  26. Trinifar said on July 25th, 2007 at 8:38am #


    We are in far more agreement than you seem to think. I’m suggesting that it is more fruitful — more accurate — to accept that there are a number of levers to work to make this a better world for everyone. Certainly how the world economy works is a factor, so are lack of education, women’s rights, human rights in general, and increasing poverty. All these things are intertwined, IMO, obviously so.

    You say, “Consumption on the scale of the US seems to be trivialized by those here who are look at places like Bangladesh or the Phillipines.”

    To say other countries have their own unique problems is not to trivialize the level of consumption in the US. Who has claimed that? Let’s not drive a (completely unnecessary) wedge between people working for the same goal.

  27. Max Shields said on July 25th, 2007 at 10:11am #

    “You say, “Consumption on the scale of the US seems to be trivialized by those here who are look at places like Bangladesh or the Phillipines.”

    To say other countries have their own unique problems is not to trivialize the level of consumption in the US. Who has claimed that? Let’s not drive a (completely unnecessary) wedge between people working for the same goal.”

    What I mean by trivializing – and here I sense real confusion – is that the US economic model (now exported to much of the developing world, particularly India and China) magnifies population. In what some would call a “perfect world” the US would significantly roll back its squandering of natural resouces (say, to 1960s level), and those resources would be more widely distributed to developing nations. All of this would be within a sustainable economic model. This would mean that realistic projected population growth rates would be sustainable into the forseeable future. This is a hypothesis that makes intuitive sense.

    As far as the poverty in those countries you mention, there is some commonality, as well as differences. Globalized capitalism and imperialism has sapped many developing countries economies, creating small pools of capital concentration and an elite class. This has been a cry throughout the third world. We hear it from African, Asian, and Latin American nations leaders. Sustainable economics is part and parcel of the environmental solution.

    But neither you nor John (and I’m sure we agree on many things) has provided the specifics I’ve asked for that demonstrates population growth as the primary cause (John called it root) as opposed to contributory.

    How, to use your example, does Bangalesh’s per capita carbon footprint compare to the US per capita carbon footprint? How many Bangaleshies would it take to equal one US citizen?

    The fluxuation of the human population, and its migration and concentration should not be ignored; but in relative terms it is clearly consumption which is the issue – in some cases too little (Bangaledish) and other far too much (US). And it is the latter, I contend which put the environment in jeopardy, and those life itself.

  28. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 10:59am #


    No, no, you’re misinterpreting my words.

    “But neither you nor John (and I’m sure we agree on many things) has provided the specifics I’ve asked for that demonstrates population growth as the primary cause (John called it root) as opposed to contributory.” (emhpasis added)

    That is not what I said. Here is what I said in the article:

    “That the size and growth of the global population is a root cause of ecological degradation is, in fact, well known to scientists.”

    Big difference. Obviously we’re dealing with an interacting combination of factors.

    It is fruitless, BTW to try to be rigorous in identifying “root” versus “secondary” causes. For every “root” cause, we can identify prior underlying causes. Then what’s the “root” cause? I used the term to mean important or fundamental, as population is as much so as consumption.

    But it is also a mistake, I think, to say “in relative terms it is clearly consumption which is the issue.” It is the combination. And I have pointed you to the Holdren article which I wish was available online, but which does the math to show the relative contributions! I’ve also linked to the AAAS atlas of population and environment, and to a statement from a majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences to support the contention that population is a key cause. Here are two other articles I’ve written on the mistake of saying that either population or consumption is the dominant factor. They should provide more detail. i believe one touches on the conclusions of Holdren’s math:



    Also, here’s an intro to pop-environment linkages from UCS:


    Here’s a quote from the section on biodiversity:

    “The most systematic reviews identify at least a half-dozen major underlying causes for current declines in species, wild breeding populations, and natural ecosystems. In each review, population growth—which can include global and local natural increase and migration—is listed as one of these primary root causes (Soule 1991; McNeely 1995; Stedman-Edwards 1997; WRI, IUCN, and UNEP 1992).”

    Finally, I definitely disagree with this:

    “This would mean that realistic projected population growth rates would be sustainable into the forseeable future.”

    No rate of continued population growth is sustainable. This was one of the first things I learned from Al Bartlett. You should check out his talk, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy.” :


    I can pretty much guarantee you that after watching or listening to it you’ll never again utter the words “sustainable” and “population growth rate” in the same sentence. 🙂

    I’ve already bored everyone with references to carrying capacity estimates etc. Here’s good overview of many estimates:


    We’re likely well beyond the limits now, and even given a chance we’re not, well, the precautionary principle needs serious consideration.

    It baffles me that people think that humans, the only great ape not currently threatened with extinction (thanks to us, including but not limited to our sheer numbers), have some unique ability, not to mention some unique right, to grow their population to levels which cannot help but destroy other species, or that we are uniquely immune to self destruction through overshoot of carrying capacity.

    I’m not sure I see the value of listing the countries where population is now growing the fastest or what the local environmental impacts are. i suspect you already know that various countries in Africa and the Middle East are among the fastest growing in population, and that China is obviously an environmental disaster, and that in many of these countries deforestation and massive species loss is massive. I’ve tried to provide an explanatory concept or two to make clear the pop-environment linkage without listing individual instances about which people can always quibble. If there is a strong enough principle or concept to show the linkage, that should be enough unless one can go on to disprove it with examples. It think it’s tough to disprove that total consumption is the product of per capita consumption and population size.

    Again though, the point of the article was, again, merely to say environmental writers who actively avoid the subject of population are making a big mistake.

    Having researched this question quite a bit, though, I can tell you that the general consensus among scientists is in line with Holdren’s math based conclusion that pop and consumption are both to important to say either one is the dominant factor. And here’s a final link on that:


  29. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 11:02am #

    I responded, but I think it got caught by the spam filter due to a lot of links. Since I didn’t get the message that it’s awaiting moderation I thought I’d follow up with this just to let you know. I saved my reply, but someone will likely retrieve it.

  30. Max Shields said on July 25th, 2007 at 4:42pm #


    I’ve taken a cursory reading of your links. For the most part, without picking at them, they are pretty much where I’ve been on the issue. Adding the population component (if you will) is not what I’ve been arguing. I read your article as making an unambiguous statement about [1] the neglect by environmentalists (even though you used them to support your population point; and including a political element) [2] that population is a predominate (my word/interpretation of your article in its entirety) factor in ecological degradation.

    I’ve been taking issue with your emphasis on population growth, down playing consumption. I sense we are converging. I’ve always stated that population is a factor amplified by human economic models which are driven by technologies to produce goods for endless consumption. Obviously, the relationship is multiplicative.

    But the test of my point is the answer to these basic questions: What is the per capita carbon footprint of a Bangladesh native compared to that of an American? How many Bangladesh natives would it take to equal the carbon footprint of an American? This is the crux of my argument.

    BTW, I agree that root cause or cause and effect is always debatable but they serve to provide the basis of rigor. Applied Statistics and probability theory can provide reasonable rationales.

    Thank you for your links; and persistance.

  31. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 5:20pm #

    Max: “But the test of my point is the answer to these basic questions: What is the per capita carbon footprint of a Bangladesh native compared to that of an American? How many Bangladesh natives would it take to equal the carbon footprint of an American? This is the crux of my argument.”

    The carbon footprint of a Bangladesh native is a fraction of that of an American. How does that negate my points though? We have to consider some additional points. First, we have to ask, is the Bangladesh economy growing? Does that mean per capita consumption is rising and will continue to do so? Does that mean the impacts of any continued population growth will be increasingly magnified? See my point?

    Second, I have emphasized that population size and growth is just as much a problem in the US as in developing countries. I’ve said, in fact, “arguably more so.”

    Third, we have to consider that there’s more to ecological impact than carbon use. I think a lot of the mass extinction we’re seeing, for example, is related to other aspects of our outgrowing the earth.

    Anyway, again, the article said things like, “In all the talk of ways of reducing per person consumption, how often does anyone mention the need to address the other factor in the the equation?” There was no intent (and I don’t think any wording) to argue population was *the* root cause of ecological degradation. Look at the two links I provided to articles on my site. Their whole point is to show it’s incorrect to say either pop or per capita consumption is the dominant factor. They’re both huge issues. I termed per capita consumption “half the story.” That’s oversimplified, but not far off with regard to energy. Yet *only* per capita consumption is ever mentioned by typical environmental writers. That was the point I tried to make. I don’t know why the article reads differently for you or why it would seem I minimized the importance of consumption. I look it over and see nothing to that effect. Perhaps its more the way I’ve defended the importance of the population issue in these comments. The consumption issue gets lots of press and needs no defenders. So in these comments I may seem to emphasize population at the expense of consumption. But I’m really just emphasizing that population *is* a crucial issue.

    So I want to underline that if *either* population or per capita consumption is ignored, we will have zero chance of achieving sustainability. Right now, with an occasional exception, one of them is being ignored.

    Not that my personal view is particularly important, but if you want a fuller view of my stance on the big picture just peruse my site. You’ll see there that I give a lot of attention to economic issues.

  32. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 5:27pm #

    Just a quick additional note. China is a telling example of the importance of both pop and per person consumption. It has now surpassed the US in total consumption of a number of resources and, I think, is right there with us in terms of CO2 output. This, despite its average per capita consumption rates being a fraction of ours. It’s the result of sheer numbers. And its economy (~ per capita consumption) is growing very fast as its population continues to rise through demographic momentum. It’s current and anticipated problems show well the peril in underemphasizing either factor in the equation.

  33. Max Shields said on July 25th, 2007 at 6:32pm #

    China is a producer not a consumer. We are the consumers (the demand side of the economic equation). So, of course China has taken the US economic growth model and applied it in ever excellerted fashion. I have made tis point before. My point is still clearly in tact.

    But I wonder if you understand my point, John? I’m trying to be clear but apparently not enough. If you “load” the total non-renewable utilization of an average American and compare that to say, the average Indian (we could use almost anyone outside of the US – even the EU) you would see that the total human non-sustainable consumption (a term that should cover all environmental degradation by human beings) we Americans dwarf all others.

    In fact, the Indian wouldn’t even appear on the radar screen compared to the American who would skyrocket your Y axis. This considers not only the auto, the oversized house (relative terms), the food delivery from thousands of miles, but your non-essential I-Pod, microwaves, your PC, your phone, your closet full of seasonal clothing, shoes, roads, highways, EVERYTHING – all the STUFF. All of that needs to be loaded into the per capital carbon footprint which is related to the total environmental cost of the material world we inhabit.

    Again, the US is in the driver seat; we are not incidental or simply a big consumer. We and the consumption machine that is propagated by our cultural drift in the global economy DOMINATES the landscape.

    To think otherwise is to trivialize this elephant in the room.

  34. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 6:38pm #

    China and India are not simply producers. They’re consumers too. And my point was that their economies are growing very fast. It’s silly to consider only the present moment. They’re expected within a few decades to be consuming much as we are now. Otherwise you seem to be skipping over most of what I’m saying. Not sure there’s any other way to say it.

  35. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 6:51pm #

    Maybe this would help:

    If the US suddenly ceased to exist today, replaced by another China, do you think the earth would no longer be facing an ecological crisis?

  36. Max Shields said on July 25th, 2007 at 7:36pm #

    I really wish you’d address my questions first.

  37. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 7:38pm #

    I did here:


  38. John Feeney said on July 25th, 2007 at 10:55pm #

    BTW, I didn’t mean that last comment as a snub. As far as I know, I answered your main questions in the comment I linked to, and just don’t know what else to say. I understand US per capita consumption is many times higher than what we see in developing countries, but have explained why I don’ t think that contradicts what I’ve said. Perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree for now. Always willing to talk more on my site as well. 🙂

  39. Max Shields said on July 26th, 2007 at 4:43am #

    I’ll go to your site for further comment. As far as China and India transitioning from producer to consumer, mimicking the US economic model, the answer is simple, the problem continues. I stated this in one of my first responses.

    Now let me give you an analogy (to try to punctuate what I’m saying, not to be condescending in any way):

    If you are hunting deer with a bow and arrow and I come along with an M16, who do you think is going to start killing everything in sight?

    If you put down your bow and arrow, and I gave you an M16, and keep mine; now we have two “maniacs” out their spraying the wilderness with missles, hitting anything and everything that moves.

    If more and more people to our little massacre campaign with the M16, we have devistation.

    Now, there’s a mandate, we all must put down the M16 and go back to the bow and arrows. Even if we add more people to the bow and arrow hunting club, it would take a major factor of X to begin to reach the level of devistation we introduced witht he M16.

    I’m not against the appropriate use of technologies (in fact I’m for it), but increasing efficiencies and ever excellerated churning of non-renewable resources takes the problem to another level; in fact several levels.

  40. Chris said on August 1st, 2007 at 4:05pm #

    Since the beginning of this capitalist Empire the questionof population growth has been central. Malthus’s ideas were adopted and adapted by the ruling class in England which found the idea of a “surplus population” a very convenient way of explaining why the people they had evicted from the land were starving. Malthus was answered most notably by Cobbett who argued, amongst other things, that agriculture organised for commodity production was a very inefficient way of using land.
    In other words a planned and sustainable use of natural resources would allow a large population to be sustained by horticulture or agriculture without much trouble.
    My own conclusion is that the size of the population is not a problem but the sympton of problems. Sudden bursts of population growth occur when a society is being smashed and crushed by capitalism. The great growth of population in early nineteenth century England, which Cobbett tended to deny, arose because village society was being broken up and in the rapidly gorwing (and extremely unhealthy) towns the scraps and remnants of villages in several countries, the flotsam and jetsam of the Celtic fringe and far beyond bred quickly. This is not the conventional explanation: most historians talk of death rates falling thanks to medical advances etc etc but the “optimistic” story just doesn’t make sense except as propaganda.
    What is happening today, I think, is that rapid urbanisation caused by globalisation- the poor being driven off the land to make way for commodity production (including now feed for ethanol) stream into cities and die. But before dying they, freed from all the constraints of traditional culture and with no faith in a future, breed. And populations explode. It is a re-run on a much larger scale (the number of those rural people being displaced in India and China runs into more than eight hundred million) of what happened in Britain in the early nineteenth century.
    In short be very careful of Malthusian arguments. In the past they have been used to justify the most horrendous crimes. The problem humanity faces is not control of its breeding instinct but control of its economy. We cannot sacrifice humanity to the nature God, blind and amoral, of the marketplace.

  41. John Bayldon said on August 1st, 2007 at 5:46pm #

    I’m so glad about the fact that the huge US airforce transporters, bombers, tanks, warships etc do not produce Co2 in either their use or their manufacture. Similarly, that its gigantic, armed services do not either increase the US carbon footprint nor consume any resources.

    I judge this by the simple reasoning that apparrently concerned environmentalists never mention the US or UK military machine consumption/ pollution when they exhort me to replace my light bulbs with insanely expensive dim ones, and that I should be happy to pay double for my electricity, gas and the tiny supply of petrol I need to run my little Fiat- Then, additional to the (UK) fuel tax of 85%. that I should pay a pollution tax to use the roads, that I allready pay annual ‘Road tax’ for, and then on top- an extra ‘toll charge’ to use certain roads- all ‘for the sake of the earth.’

    When Ishould meet a politician- fired up as they all are with this season’s fad for’environmental issues’ I suggest that for my reduction of carbon boot-print, let me continue to tootle along the highways of thirty miles a week, as I do, at 60+mpg in my Fiat, and that they- the government, decommission MY tank, My Eurofighter- or rather, that bit of the Eurofighter that my ‘Green taxes’ have paid for.
    Also, they could just not fire, or even not make, that shell, rocket, bomb which has my tax-name on it.
    They will reply that this is irrellevant- these things do not consume resources, do not pollute. The world’s survival depends on me- my replacing my fillament bulbs that I can see to read with, by a rediculous dim thing, which, if the label is truthfull and it realy does ‘produce the equivalent of a 60 watt fillament bulb’- then it must be mostly light of some strange spectra, discernable by environmentalists, politicians and light bulb pushers.
    But anyway, I should continue to pay my taxes, and further restrict even what little autonomy of movement I still retain, with each new ‘Green tax’ that the goonish ‘Greens’ campaign for and which the government is all too ready to keep imposing.
    I should be delighted that they in return are able to build even bigger and better submarines, aircraft carriers and weapons, with which to distribute their seemingly endless stocks of depleted uranium to the ungrateful Serbs, iraqis, Syrians and Iranians.
    America no longer has any industry- any scientific research project to speak of, that is not in some way or other psrt of the military/ surveillence/ enforcement machine.
    It is not merely ‘the American way of life’ that is so ruinous, it is the American way of death, which consumes dar more resources- does more damage, than would be the case were individual Americans to indulge their most profligate lifestyle, ideas or scientific research.
    They don’t, someone else- in the United States of death-the gangster state, takes their taxes, their labour, and hock’s their future aspirations and that of their children’s children, and turns it into a very efficient mechine for spreading destruction, death and hatred.
    Unless one is brave enough to stand up and regain control from the Ziogangsters, such as the current Emperor of the world Rothschild- who was recently exposed as having a lunatic plan to decimate the surplus peoples of the world (and hence has ushered in as ‘an OK-permitted- subject, the present discussion of ‘population control’) then all talk of environmental issues is mere deckchair shifting.
    Similarly the

  42. Jason dinAlt said on August 1st, 2007 at 6:59pm #

    The gross consumption of natural resources, which we would like to minimize, is the product of population and per capita consumption. This implies one, the other, or both must be curbed in order to meet the objective. The problem is, under free market conditions, it is not possible to decrease one without increasing the other.

    There is a strong inverse correlation between per capita wealth and population growth. Does per capita wealth slow population growth? The bulk of empirical evidence solidly backs this assertion. If true, this implies two modes of positive feedback spirals.

    The first mode being a society in which economic growth exceeds population growth, resulting in an increase in per capita wealth. The increasing wealth puts negative pressure on population growth, which in turn increases per capita wealth until a social/biological limit is reached. The end result is what is seen in western Europe.

    The second mode is where population growth exceeds economic growth. In this case, per capita wealth is on the decline, which in turn pushes the rate of population growth upward until the biological/social limit is reached and the population is in abject poverty. This social mode can be readily observed throughout the world.

    The only ways to counter the trend in both declining per capita wealth and increasing population is to either artificially restrict population growth and bring it into line with economic growth or by pumping additional natural resources into the economy at a rate exceeding population growth.

    Given that natural resources are finite, global reserves have been declining on a per capita basis for a number of decades, and net available energy is flattening and may be on the decline in the proximal future, the prospect of damping population growth by way of economic development appears futile and counterproductive. Global population growth can be curbed by raising the per capita wealth of poor nations to that of western Europe, but we lack the resources to sustain this objective. If we reduce the per capita consumption of developed countries, this will result in boosted population growth, thus negating the savings. Houston, we have a problem!

    The implications are highly unpalatable for the majority, who will deny this truth vehemently. If we do not artificially limit population growth or cap consumption to sustainable levels, we can only expect to see resource depletion increase, while standards of living fall. Given that western societies will be reluctant to voluntarily forgo their present standard of living, we can anticipate further resource wars and an unhealthy helping of sustained poverty in the unfortunate nations lacking the means to defend themselves.

    Ultimately, the theft of resources from the third world will be insufficient to sustain the western lifestyle we have become accustomed to and something will have to give; the cult-of-infinite-growth will come to an end. You have to admire our species ability to pursue a unsound ideal to its logical conclusion, no matter how much it hurts.

  43. Ferdinand Gajewski said on August 2nd, 2007 at 12:30am #

    Yes, this is exactly what I’ve been thinking . . .

  44. chato said on August 2nd, 2007 at 12:50am #


  45. josephD said on August 3rd, 2007 at 7:47pm #

    It is self-evident that population numbers are the root element, the sine qua non, the first cause of the environmental crisis.

    What is there to quibble about, John & Max?

    If some people have a small footprint, and other people somewhere else have a huge one, it is nonetheless the presence of people that makes any footprint possible. We do not speak of the ecological footprint of non-human species. We are the only creatures that can be said to operate outside the parameters of the self-managing natural system. We do not behave instinctively; we are conscious creatures capable of systematically altering our environment.

    If there are no people there is no excess consumption, resource depletion, pollution, and the other ills that have accompanied the human experience since the revolution in Eden. Without humans there is a planet consisting of an astonishing variety of other species living harmoniously within a self-sustaining system, with each behaving in such a way that does not threaten the existence of any other species. The truth of this is self-evident in the great abundance and variety of other species. Peering through a keyhole, modern humans perceive competition among species for survival, when in fact an overview demonstrates a grand cooperative scheme in which each species enjoys the lebensraum required for its survival and quality of life.

    James Lovelock calls this self-regulating system “Gaia”, but we don’t in fact know much about it or how it works. We speculate, we develop little thought experiments like Einstein contemplating space/time. Out in the field hard data is developed by diligent scientists, ice cores drilled, heads counted, assays conducted, and so on, in order to quantify the elements of this system which will then make it accessible to our empirically-based reason.

    We are struggling to define Gaia like the proverbial blind men examining the elephant. We gather our data and assemble computer models of something that bears a resemblance to the whole thing. We run the model a few times and may get a few accurate predictions. But we haven’t actually snared Gaia in the net of our reason because the models become increasingly irrelevant the more we use them. James Hanson would be the first to admit it. We can’t even predict the weather with any impressive degree of accuracy.

    What we call the “environment”, the sum total of all that physically sustains life is essentially mysterious insofar as we can only predict its behavior in terms of probabilities and cannot ultimately control it. When people are introduced into this environment the unpredictability of the system increases in direct proportion to the size of the human presence. The numbers of people can be quite small to produce large effects according to some paleo-archeologists who speculate that Stone Age man caused the extinction of the Ice Age mammals. If a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can “cause” a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, then a few thousand humans can do a great deal more.

    Chaos theory, ironically, was developed to try to explain the mysterious anarchy of the natural system.

    Without realizing it, we contemporary humans are as intimately connected with the environment as is the Amazonian butterfly. We strive to be objective and step apart from it, but this isn’t possible because everywhere we look we see ourselves – there are PCB’s in artic seal blubber, there is a floating island in the Pacific three miles wide and five miles long composed entirely of prophylactics, rubbers. We are only now beginning to awaken to the effect we have. The most oblivious among us, those most alienated from the knowledge of that intimate connection protest that humans could not be causing global warming or otherwise impinging upon an entire planetary destiny. Herman Melville pronounced that whaling could in no way affect the great bounty of whales in the seas in the grand naïveté of his day.

    Even a handful of humans acting beyond the constraints of instinctual patterning will affect the environment in incalculable ways. The human presence in the natural system is transformative and cataclysmic. Among aboriginal predecessors of contemporary humans this fact was keenly appreciated in the ritual observances of American Pueblo Indians who believed themselves directly responsible for the rising of the sun. If they did not practice their rituals faithfully, they believed the sun would stop rising and the world fall into darkness.

    The nearly 7 billion modern humans doing their thing with no sense of responsibility for the functioning of the world system are most certainly a driving factor whether they consume a little or a lot, whether they are subsistence farmers in India, or New Yorkers. The brute fact of human numbers has devastating consequences that are only exacerbated by technological development.

    It is meaningless to argue the virtues of low consumption societies over high consumption societies, especially when these low consumption societies desire nothing more than to increase their levels of consumption. The environmental impact of the nearly 7 billions cannot be substantially reduced because such numbers are not possible except by means of technological exploitation of nature at the expense of every other species and the stability of the global system itself. If it has not been proven that the existence of all other species is irrelevant to the stability of the global system, then no rational person should assume that the snail darter or the black rhinoceros, or any other non-human creature is ephemeral and expendable.

    We are engaged in a great experiment. Can the global environmental system support such unprecedented human numbers? We understand in our bones, so to speak, that the answer is “no”, if we are capable of such honesty, but science-based reason and political correctness demand we suspend judgment until all the data is in and the global system has come down around our ears.

    We cannot pretend that we are somehow co-creators of the world, like superstitious aboriginals, when we seem to break everything we touch.
    That would be intellectually embarrassing, even though it is the truth. There is no possibility that our way of life is survivable, but there is hope that we will one day recapture the undeerstanding of our aboriginal forebears. That is the only hope we truly have.

  46. Nan Jefferies said on October 23rd, 2007 at 12:24am #

    John – It’s terrific that you’re writing on the population component of environmentalism … a very thoughtful piece. Thanks for writing.

    Yes, overpopulation is a large factor in what ails us. At the root of all environmental issues is the human factor — too many people.

    It is good to see enlightened thinking and troubling to see the extent of misguided thinking on some of the posts, but I’m hopeful if people are motivated enough to write, they’re motivated to read more on the subject!

    There’s lots of criticism of capitalism and overconsumption, and of course there’s a huge dark side to our economic system (looking for a better one … who’s figured that one out?). That said, one can’t criticize the system without recognizing its huge contributions as well — and acknowledging that by using it effectively positive change can manifest. Look at the Al Gore effect … companies are starting to see how going green CAN have ROI.

    And to all those who think large population numbers really aren’t an issue, can you really say that when you look at India and China — quite awakened — and wanting the consumption-driven lifestyle of the U.S.? Our overconsumption has been so successful, the two most populous countries on Earth want to replicate it. That’s not a pretty scenario.

    Finally, in California, in recent years, the huge population growth is attributable to immigrants and births to immigrants. [The “white” or “Anglo” population in California — and the country (as well as Europe) — is at replacement level, or below.] In recent years, California essentially has added the equivalent of a large size city annually with 500,000 more people. A large portion of this population growth comes through illegal immigration.

    Americans have the right (and responsibility) to determine the direction (and size!) of our country; we have the right to demand that our laws be enforced; and we have the responsibility to take care of our citizens — unchecked, unplanned population growth is not good (for a list of reasons too long to get into in what was going to be a brief post). Those seem like pretty simple concepts to grasp — apparently they are, as more than 70 percent of the people in the U.S. want our immigration laws enforced.

    For the people who think we should allow everyone in who wants to come to into the United States, I would simply ask what’s the moral number on that?

    There are more than 1 billion people on this planet living on less than $1 per day. No doubt many of them would like to come to America (or Europe, or any country that has some workable economic system). Do you let them all in, or is it just the ones who can walk across the border?

    Education, green technologies, sustainable economic opportunities, sustainable growth and, yes, family planning … that’s what we should be sharing with the world … how are you going to keep ’em down on the farm? Give them a reason to stay.

  47. John Feeney said on October 23rd, 2007 at 10:43pm #

    Hi Nan,

    As I doubt anyone will see these comments at this point (I get them emailed to me.) I’ll be brief.

    First a belated thanks for the insightful comment from josephD.

    Next, I think what you see in some of the critical comments above are the thoughts of folks who are committed to a certain political ideal, but who have not taken the time to study a little ecological science. Comments to the effect that concerns over population are racist are seldom if ever heard among natural scientists. That’s why a majority of Nobel laureates signed on to the “World Scientists Warning to Humanity” back in 1992:


    William Catton’s book, Overshoot makes clear the tendency to miss the ecological bases of some problems, and to view them as political instead. I would recommend it to anyone who thinks it’s not worth some concern that for 2.5 million years we numbered in the millions (at most), then shot into the billions during the last 0.0008% of our history.

    Finally, you raise the issue of immigration, probably the most contentious sub-issue in the whole population discussion. I agree it’s a legitimate environmental issue. It’s a tough one though. In my heart, I’d like the US to have open borders. But I think that would no doubt spell the environmental (and therefore social) end of the country. In the interest, then, of leading by example, I do think there has to be some limit on immigration. There always has been; it’s just much larger now than in past periods of US history. It should be open to discussion from an environmental point of view. Anyone coopting the topic for racist purposes should be exposed for what they are. In the meantime, I try to focus on simply raising awareness of population growth on the largest level. Here’s a paragraph from another article which kind of says as much:

    “And the discussion of population growth in the US need not become fixated only on divisive controversies concerning immigration policy. Achieving widespread awareness and acknowledgment of the need to halt and then reverse our population growth would be a tremendous first step. Movement must proceed, as well, on other components of the solution. They include social programs to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, thereby lowering fertility rates to the sub-replacement levels seen in other developed countries, and assistance to Mexico to improve its citizens’ economic opportunities so they’re not forced to come to the U.S. to earn even a subsistence wage.”

  48. Lara Johnstone said on June 18th, 2009 at 3:28pm #


    I just wanted to inform you of the following Population colliding with Depletion, Finite and Scarce Resources Issues Campaign.

    Firstly, I agree it is controversial; and may I suggest before you totally discard the idea, you please make a fully informed enquiry. It is controversial, because — in my opinion, based on jsutification in the report — it goes to the root of the problem. And furthermore, it is a root cause that is very unpopular, particularly in Patriarchal cultures, and with those who endorse patriarchal cultural values.

    Secondly, if the campaign is supported, it would provide an opportunity for a quality of ‘root cause’ conversation, such as we have never had in South Africa, not to mention the World; such as that would make TRC et al, appear to be a mild tupper wear tea party; because it would require all of us, to take a look at how our procreation policies, — our perceptions to what is ‘loving’ procreation’ and ‘family planning’ and ‘committed child rearing’, and ‘loving cultural family values’ — are a DIRECT CAUSE OF LOCAL AND NATIONAL OVERPOPULATION COLLIDING WITH SCARCE AND FINITE RESOURCES: AKA CRIME, UNEMPLOYMENT, POVERTY, RACISM, XENOPHOBIA, FOOD PRICES, INFLATION, RESOURCE WARS, FASCISM CONFORMITY PRESSURES, ETC…..

    Thirdly, I imagine, the three TRC-RSA individuals referred to; if they really care about South Africa, and particularly the Third Worlds Poor — which I think they do, — would in the final countdown, happily contribute a bit of a dent to their reputations, if such a dent, would contribute to waking up millions of slave and cannon fodder breeding white, black, green and purple poor, to the realities and consequences of Patriarchal cultural procreation policies; which most politicians prefer to keep them ignorant of; for thier future or current human resources as economic, political or military — ignorant easily manipulated by emotive blame game issues — cannon fodder.

    Here follows a brief overview of the Campaign:

    Legal and Political Petition to the Nobel Institute: Norwegian Nobel Committee

    Notice of Legal and Political Request to:

    (I) Withdraw Nobel Peace Prize’s from Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for (a) Intellectual Dishonesty & Hypocrisy; (b) Moral, Political and Religious Prostitution; and (c) ‘TRC-RSA’ Fraud and Betrayal; and

    (II) Accept Nobel Peace Prize Nominations for Dr. Albert Bartlett; Dr. Garret James Harden, and Dr. M. King Hubbert, for Intellectually Honest and Politically Honourable Ecologically Sustainable, Human Rights, Peace and Social Justice Advocacy.

    Full Copies of Lettters to Nobel Institute, and TRC-RSA Peace Prize Recipients

    Sign HARTSSTARH Petititon to Nobel Institute