Peak Population: when will population growth stop, why, and how?

Worldchanging's Alex Steffen's got a good, thoughtful piece up about "peak population," the idea that we'll crest humanity's most rapid period of population growth and that it will -- and should -- slow down from here. I love this quote from Kim Stanley Robinson, speaking of birth control: "empowering women is the best climate change technology."
It would be a mistake, however, to fail to see peak population as a hugely important insight, because when we know that we are riding a wave of increasing numbers (and increasing longevity) that will crest sometime after the middle of this century, we can also see that

1) The longer population growth rates remain high, the more total people there will be on the planet when we reach peak population, so one of our biggest goals ought to be seeing to it by every ethical means possible that the wave of population growth crests sooner rather than later.

2) If we are successful in reaching peak population sooner, at a lower number of people, rather than later with more people, we will be much more able to confront the myriad interlocking crises we face -- a comparatively less crowded planet is an easier planet on which to build a bright green future.

3) Since we know the single best way of bringing down high birth rates is to empower women by giving them access to reproductive health choices (including contraception and abortion), education, economic opportunities, and legal protection of their rights, empowering women ought to be one of our highest priorities. (As Kim Stanley Robinson puts it, empowering women is the best climate change technology.)

4) Our other main task is to preserve natural systems and transform human economies in order to best withstand this wave of human beings, avoid catastrophe and leave behind as intact a world as we can -- to save the parts (including not just biodiversity but also the diversity of human cultures and histories) so that future generations have as many options as possible.

5) Our best hopes for both avoiding catastrophe and preserving our heritage all hinge on our actions over roughly the next two decades. In that time we have enormous work to do: create at least the model of a zero-carbon, zero-waste civilization; begin deep and widespread impact reduction here in the developed world; sustainably raise the prospects of those (especially women) living in the developing world; and preserve as many working parts of our planetary heritage as we possibly can. After that time, all of these jobs will grow progressively harder, trending quickly towards impossibility.

Peak Population and Generation X


  1. Is a zero carbon, zero waste society even possible? Or is that a sort of “aim for the stars, and land in Pittsburgh” overstatement?

  2. I have a bowl of yeast here. They’re going to hit peak population soon, I’m pretty sure of it. Question is, are humans smarter than a bowl of yeast? I have my doubts.

    And as far as the yeast are concerned, there ain’t no population “slow down”. It’s genocide in there.

  3. The more educated people are, the fewer kids they have.
    The more urbanized people are, the fewer kids they have.
    The less less poor people are, the fewer kids they have.

    Of course, if you don’t watch out, you end up with negative growth, as in Japan, and that’s also got some major problems.

  4. Cory deserves credit for invoking the most troubling and ignored aspect of man-unkind’s future survival.

    There is a kind of Stonehenge in Georgia that describes in seven languages how folks will live and survive in a “better” world. You can see it here:

    The Georgia Guidestones suggest that billions of people will be removed for its particular utopia… What might happen to the listless John Haggee admirers, the WalMart masses?

  5. Extremely important points from Worldchanging. All the good work done by environmentalists is snuffed out every year by the growing human population. As controversial as it sounds, there need to be minimum income requirements/I.Q. tests for prospective parents. No more teens (or any else, for that matter) having children they can’t provide for.

  6. Aside from empowering women by giving them access to basic human rights like education and contraceptives, it’s also vital to educate/brainwash/beat men into respecting those rights. Legal protection is great, but social change is necessary.

  7. I’ve been involved with environmental/eco politics since the early ’70s – before green was invented – and back then discussion of the ‘population explosion’ or ‘population timebomb’ was top of the agenda. Where did it go? Too emotionally fraught to face, I guess…let’s plant a tree every time we take a flight instead. Education is the answer, surely? And hang the expense. Strevalex will be making a black joke, of course, when suggesting minimum income requirements/I.Q. tests. And “no more teens having children they can’t provide for” will be an ironic comment on immature, self serving governments worldwide and their preference to provide for the already wealthy whilst penalising the poor for, errmm…being poor.

  8. I apologize if I sound draconian, Scorzonera, but I am quite serious. Yes, I realize “immature, self-serving governments” are part of the problem, but let’s not deny reality. The poor – at the risk of making a generalization – often breed without any consideration for their situation. This is irresponsible. Preventing the poor from having kids they can’t take care of is helping them, in my view. It is certainly not penalizing them.

  9. I’m profoundly pessimistic that we’ll reach a sustainable long term human population without human misery, suffering, and premature death on an almost inconceivable scale. As with climate change, the scale of the changes in human behaviour required to get ahead of the curve before it reaches a Bad Place are just too fundamental for the tremendous inertia of behaviours driven by direct, short term self-interest to be overtaken by the greater good until it’s too late. It’s really hard to take things (such as the right to have children) away from people once they have them.

    Yeah, I’m really a hit at parties. *shrug* People don’t want to know, just as they didn’t want to hear about the economy being driven by an unsustainable asset price bubble, or…

    *gets coat.

  10. Some statistics for everyone: At present, the world’s population is a round the 6.8 billion mark. By 2050 it’s expeceted to rise to 10 billion.

    Most of this increase will come from Western, Central and Eastern Africa, each of which has a predicted growth of over 100%. India wil overtake China as the world’s biggest country.

    Personally, I reckon education is the single biggest factor in reducing populations (by reducing birth rates).

    @Daemon: Yes, absolutely. Italy’s another example: It’s Birth Rate is 9 and it’s Death Rate is 10 (per 1000 people per year). Immigration is the only thing keeping the total population high.

    P.S. This Wikipedia article might be interesting.

  11. This is not about poor people having children they cannot afford. This is about people having more children than we need. You cannot expect people to give up their desire, their right to have children simply because they are poor. If that were the case, most of us would not be here. Besides, if poor people didn’t have kids, who would do all the dirty work for the rich kids?

    The ridiculous part of this post is the bit about preserving the diversity of human cultures. Are we going to ask for volunteers to live in permanent Jamestown like tourist attractions, while the rest of us live in the future? Come on, we can record the histories, arts, and religions of various cultures, but it is silly to think you are going to preserve some sort of cultural diversity. That is like saying we are going to make sure there will always be redheads, or people with blond hair and blue eyes.

    Cultures come and go, and one day we are all going to have dark hair and dark eyes, and there will not be any so-called white people left. Get ’em while you can!

  12. This is a fundamental problem of existing in a physical world. It ceases only when we can eradicate our desire to live. Good luck!

  13. There are four things that have always been missing from the way we talk about being green. The first is smoking, the second is over-consuming, the third is over-producing, and the last is over-extending.

    I’m glad that over-production of humans is starting to gain notoriety. Now, if we could get to some of the others, we could walk away from “green” SUVs and improve our lot!

  14. I support education, empowerment and reproductive freedom for women (and men for that matter), but not this goal of minimizing the peak world population.

    Alex Steffen says, “If we are successful in reaching peak population sooner, at a lower number of people, rather than later with more people, we will be much more able to confront the myriad interlocking crises we face.”

    Only Julian Simon said the reverse: that population concentration and numbers of brains is what correlates with problem- solving and good treatment of the environment.

    The ease of assuming that of course we want fewer people, that people are a net liability for the planet, is a little chilling.

    So was it Tielhard de Chardin or Paolo Soleri who said we are converting the planet to intelligence?

  15. One of the dilemmas we have to face eventually is our own growth and consumption oriented culture. However many more poor people inhabit the Earth, we still consume more than they do.

    Does anyone remember the global footprint test a few years back? Whoever here can claim their lifestyle only takes up one Earth if everyone lived like them either is either a hero or deluding themselves.

  16. While a limited population would be a great thing in many places in the world, people need to take a BIG step back and realize that less people does not mean a better world. Negative or even zero population growth has some ugly consequences. One need only point to Japan, a rich nation of the idealized future the author advocates to realize that negative population growth represents serious challenges. For an even more stark example of the ill effect of negative population, look upon Russia, which is fiscally fucked, even with their oil money.

    There is also something to be said about the virtues of having a large population when it comes to solving the world’s problems. Some times quantity really does have a quality of its own. Sure, more mouths to feed means you consume more resources, but it also means that you have more brains working on the problem and more opportunity for extraordinary people to rise and bring about solutions. It isn’t a coincidence that technological innovation follows the same exponential curve that population growth follows.

    The idea that zero population growth is a great thing is flatly contradicted by reality which shows that, at best, it is a thing that is neither great nor horrible. Nations with zero or negative growth induced by wealth and positive social conditions (like Japan) face challenges that are as daunting if not more daunting than the challenges faced by nations with slowly rising populations (like the US). In fact, there is a lot to be said about virtues of slowly rising population growth.

    Finally, consider that technology might render the whole argument moot. More than one person has predicted wide spread doom due to population growth and have had their predictions of doom fall short. People who believe Malthusian doom have existed in every single single generation, and they have consistently had their predictions of doom swatted away by technology.

    Maybe this Malthusian doomsayer will be right, unlike the hundreds who came before him. I wouldn’t place any bets on it though. Far more likely this futurist, like most futurist, will be so far off the mark that we will laugh at the absurdity of his ideas 50 years from now.

  17. @ Rindan:
    I suspect these “Malthusian Doomsayers” are influenced more by blatant misanthropy then any real evidence.

    The right to reproduction is as old as any other human right, arbitrary and meaningless limits on this most ancient of rights is a moral wrong. And highly ineffective as well, China’s population control methods did not stem growth, only increased overall misery for all parties.

    Global population growth rates have been tumbling down since the 1970’s and new technology has always increased overall food production.

    Female empowerment and rights are good things in themselves. They do not need to be justified by population control.

  18. “Only after the last tree has been cut down
    Only after the last river has been poisoned
    Only after the last fish has been caught
    Only then will you find you cannot eat money.”
    — Cree prophecy

    Without some kind of fundamental change, we will behave exactly like yeast.

  19. @Futurenerd (#15)

    Let’s pull in another thought, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. You seem to be saying that the more brains there are, the more brainpower there will be to devote to our trickiest human problems. I might be overreaching, but some of the observations in Gladwell’s book seem to undermine that observation.

    I’m probably misrepresenting his ideas somewhat, but he seems to be saying that great accomplishers are made, not born. Those who go on to do great things are often those who get the opportunities and training that prepare them for their future success.

    Even if I accepted your presumption that overwhelming our problems with brains is the best approach, we still shouldn’t be producing brains beyond those for whom we can provide excellent educations.

    Or look at it from another perspective: Which would be the more environmentally sustainable approach to maximizing brainpower: Having significantly more children, or ensuring that the children who aren’t currently getting an adequate education are able to graduate from good K-12 programs and go on to college?

  20. Strevalex said:

    “there need to be minimum income requirements/I.Q. tests for prospective parents”

    And who gets to decide what IQ test, and what about the very obvious cultural problems with IQ test? Who gets to decide what human value is? You? Our government? The UN?

    “The poor – at the risk of making a generalization – often breed without any consideration for their situation. This is irresponsible. Preventing the poor from having kids they can’t take care of is helping them, in my view. It is certainly not penalizing them.”

    Um… My problem with this is the assumption that poor people are stupid because they are poor… I mean, after all, if they were smart they wouldn’t be poor would they? One group of people that other people love to point to as having a large population growth and contrast with the rest of Europe is Albanians. Someone I know said this last week as if the pop growth of Albanians were somehow connected to their ethnicity or their religion, and that this fact was self evident. In fact, just replace “poor” with “black” or “native” or “Albanian” and restate what you just said… The reason for high pop growth is more complex than it’s because they are poor. Here are 2 reasons, and I know less about Albania and more about Kosova, so this is from that country- most Kosovar Albanians live in rural areas and are agrarian. Add to that the higher infant mortality and less access to birth control, or even basic health care (right up into the wars in the 1990s). Oh, and don’t forget that rural Kosova is being administered not by the UN, or non-religious groups, but by Saudi/Wahhabi funded charities who have an agenda that involves the subjugation of other versions of Islam. Guess what- higher birth rate is one of the outcomes. Pointing to a higher birth rate, in other words, is only part of the picture… Look at the urban vs. rural divide, for one. Saying “poor people breed more, because they are poor” is just reductionist. Poor people likely have a higher infant mortality rate and less access to effective birth control and health care, so their children die more… Not that that is ever anything other than a statistic to some of us apparently.

    And I totally agree with Rindan, #19, on Malthusian doomsayers. Yep. They keep singing the same line. Dasdave is right about China too. If we pursue the same course, are we headed to a world of forced abortions, where those with means get to have kids, because they can put $$ into the right hands, and those without are brutalized by the system…

    I’m not saying that population growth is not a problem, but I am saying that we can deal with it in other ways… Creativity is needed, not calculating and number crunching. We are dealing with human beings. Why not try a little complexity and compassion when thinking about this matter.

  21. I don’t understand people here arguing against ZPG/NPG. We all agree that population is increasing, so it seems to me you would have to believe one of two outcomes:

    1) We can sustain an infinite number of humans.

    2) The human population will, at some point, exhibit a contraction.

    To believe 1), it seems like you would need to have a great deal of faith, either in a deity or in technological advancement (to the stars? downloading consciousnesses? nanoscale humans?). Unfortunately I don’t. Does this make me a misanthrope? I don’t believe I am.

    If you believe in 2) instead, how can it not be better for us to try to control the contraction in a humane, moral way rather than plague/genocide/what have you? Certainly one could argue “Whose definition of humane or moral?” but I see this as a more enlightened argument than flatly asserting a “right to reproduce.”

    Or is my choice above a false dilemma? Am I missing something?

  22. You guys worry too much from your specie’s point of view. The hunk of ice due to arrive next decade really doesn’t care that you spent all your money building mosques and cathedrals instead of that Dark Side lunar colony. Didn’t matter how many dinosaurs there were in total either.

  23. To believe 1), it seems like you would need to have a great deal of faith, either in a deity or in technological advancement (to the stars? downloading consciousnesses? nanoscale humans?). Unfortunately I don’t. Does this make me a misanthrope? I don’t believe I am.

    If you were to ask a human of 10,000 B.C. what is the max number of humans the world could support (and said human fully understood the size of the Earth and could do the math), what would he respond? What if you asked a human from 1 A.D., 1000 A.D. 1800 A.D.(which is the time of Malthus for anyone keep track)?

    Everyone would give flatly wrong answers. Even a human from 1800 would have an extremely hard believing that 6.5 billion people could be stuffed onto the planet without doom immediately following. They all thought that the resources of Earth couldn’t possibly support such a population. Now consider for a moment that the rate of technological advancement today blows out of the water of all of these other time periods.

    I would argue that Earth doesn’t have a limit to its population for all practical purposes. Asking a human at another time in history what the limit is, and they could give a reasonable and utterly wrong answer. What we are doing today is no different. The only question one needs to ask is, is technology keeping pace with humanity’s growth?

    I personally would argue that, as far as we know, it is. People today live longer and healthier lives than at any time before now. By metrics of human health and well being, the world is getting MORE habitable as time goes on. The world’s capacity for humans is not only growing, but the lives of this expanded population is longer and healthier. To me, that indicates that things are getting better. Not only is Earth’s capacity to hold humans expanding, it is expanding so rapidly that humans are doing more than filling the spice, but thriving and living longer.

    That isn’t to say that we don’t have serious environmental challenges that we need to deal with. All times have had their challenges though. Who couldn’t look at the height of the industrial revolution and predict environmental catastrophe was about to doom humanity? What happened though? We cleaned up industries, produced more with less, radically improve work safety, and in general the time after the industrial revolution was more pleasant that the time before.

    I personally give humanity a lot of credit. I think we will find a solution to global warming one way or another. I think that concerns around food will ring just as hollow as they did when Malthus was predicting mass starvation and doom. The consumption of all of the oil will be as much of a yawner as it was when we used up all the river power with water wheels. That isn’t to say the future isn’t going to have its bumps, but when all is said and done, I think humans will keep doing what they have been doing for thousands of years. They are going to expand Earth’s carrying capacity for humans radically beyond what their ancestors thought was possible, and they are going to live longer and healthier lives while they do it.

    So, I am not against the author’s proposals. Reproductive rights, education, and wealth are all good things well worth spreading for their own virtues. I just don’t hold his belief that doom is around the corner and the best we can hope to do is make the coming years of misery more bearable by trying to have fewer humans around when doom hits.

  24. #6 @ StRevAlex:

    In regards to your idea of an I.Q. test for prospective parents: This idea, although it has grounds in good reasoning, is called eugenics. Although it certainly sounds like a good idea, this will never come into practice again because Hitler did it so it’s now considered evil. No one human is fit to decide what are the best qualities in the human race, therefore it will never get off the ground.

    Your call for income requirements, however, is harsh and frankly, kinda offensive. Me, for example. I certainly have a low income. Why is this? I’m plenty smart, but I don’t have the money to go to school full-time and get a degree. If (perish the thought) this recession lasts for 10 years and I am still stuck in a low income job, that won’t stop me from having a kid in my 30s as I look forward to doing.

    Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they can’t contribute positively to the gene pool. I also have a theory as to why you think that money has something to do with genes, although this is a shot in the dark since I don’t know you personally, let me guess. Your parents are rich, they paid you through college, and now you are rich. Yes, they passed the money down to you, but this has nothing to do with genes, my friend, and getting cash from Mom and Dad instead of hard work is not a genetic attribute to be proud of. Hey, I thought Idiocracy was a great movie too, but their ideas were guidelines, not the rule.

    But, back to the subject of the original post, I once heard that scientists did a study on overpopulation with mice. This was quite a while back so unfortunately I don’t have the link anymore. Apparently, in situations of gross overpopulation, the mice reacted in one of two ways: they either became homosexual, or they became violent. I thought that this was great, seeing as either way solved the problem naturally, though I am certainly hoping for more homosexuality and less violence.

  25. Yeah, the anti ZPG mindset baffles me. Uh, huh, let’s all be crowded cheek by jowl. Let’s have no wild spaces left. Ugh.

    More minds to solve our problems? Well, hey, let’s dump it all on future generations, why don’t we? My brother, a narcissist, announced his intentions to have a huge family and we argued about it. How, I asked him, could he justify it morally? Oh, sez my brother, perhaps one of my children will be the one to cure cancer. To which I replied, that’s dumping an awful lot in their laps, to justify your desire to breed wantonly. Why don’t you get off your ass and find a cure for cancer yourself?

    The right-to-breed mindset goes hand-in-hand with the parents have the right to raise their children any way they want, because, after all, children are chattel. Enough said on that.

    Rights are generated by societies, not by nature, not by biology. In the natural world, one breeds if one has the fitness and circumstances (luck) to survive, attract a mate (if that is the way you go about such things, not all organisms do) and go as far as your particular sort of creatures go in getting the next generation to go about their business. Then you die. There are no RIGHTS. And the reward is to pass along your genes. For the next generation the game starts anew. There are no guarantees.

    We get a leg up, in some ways, on some other types of organisms because of the kind of intelligence we have, of the kind of cultures and technologies we develop. This has allowed us to become a very fine weed species. Just now, at this moment, we are thriving.

    But all of human history is less than a moment, looking at the big picture. And the way we are headed, it is not likely that we will last much longer. Right now, it seems very mechanisms that have allowed us to flourish will cause our doom, and we’re dragging a lot of species with us. Which is just the way it goes. In the fullness of time, a new diversity will arise to take the place of what had been here before we got so terribly busy. It won’t be the same one, which makes me sad. I’m a sentimental sort. I love the coral reefs and the forests. I’m sad about my own species too, all the art and science and literature that will be lost. No more farmer’s markets or birthday parties. No more toddlers or teens, no more wonderful, horrible, crazy and brilliant people.

    And it seems inevitable because the vast majority of people refuse to see it, to take responsibility for their actions, their consumption, their wanton breeding. Some are ignorant, some are of that aggressively ignorant stripe that have been so in the forefront of our culture these last eight years, some should damn well know better but practice self-serving rationalization.

    It might require more education that the average advocate of wanton breeding has to understand all the nuances of ecology and earth science that tell us we are heading into deep shit. But in some very obvious ways, you don’t have to be all that sophisticated to understand that resources are finite. The planet is finite. To say otherwise, while you grab as much as you can, is mind-bogglingly selfish. It’s like a child at a birthday party gobbling up as much candy as he can so he won’t have to share it with the other kids. The other kids, in this case, being future generations. As it goes with the economy, so it goes with the planet. Smoke and mirrors is not going to save us.

    As for the desire to stabilize the population being misanthropy, I guess I have a different definition of what it is to actually like people. I’m all for them having a decent quality of life. To me, misanthropy is rationalizing just keeping on the way you’ve been keeping on, because it serves your needs, rationalizing loudly, while you use up all the resources you can and leave your children and grandchildren to clean up your mess, and to clean it up when they are in a state of poverty and debt and misery.

    That’s just plain ugly. When I hear people denying responsibility, I am pessimistic. But the people who do care, who are trying to envision a better future, one that is not selfish, but altruistic, it gives me a spark of hope. And if hope isn’t a wonderful thing, I don’t know what is.

  26. Why don’t we have everyone executed as they reach the age of 30. We could have a little gem on the hand that starts to glow when people get close to that age so they know when to report to the incinerators.

  27. Medra:
    There are four things that have always been missing from the way we talk about being green. The first is smoking, the second is over-consuming, the third is over-producing, and the last is over-extending.

    Smoking? How about beer, and other carbonated drinks? Will you give up beer, or suffer non-fizzy varieties?

    Here are some very rough maths IAMAMathematician: (caveat: Numbers are for beer sales only. Carbon/gram is based on Pepsi, not beer. All numbers are rounded here, but not in my calculator)

    Beer sales, US: 218 Million barrels/yr [*]

    1 barrel = 31 gallons

    1 galleon = 3,785 milliliters (in mils because my carbon figures are in mils)

    454 mils (16 ounce bottle) = 2.2grams of carbon dioxide [*]

    3,785 mils (a gallon) / 454 mils (a soda bottle) = 8.3 bottles/gallon

    8.3 bottles x 2.2 grams of CO2 = 18.34 grams/gallon

    18.34 grams x 31 gallons = 568grams/barrel

    218MM barrels = 123,951,246,818 grams


    123,951 metric tons, which is about 27, 544 average cars worth [*]

    That’s the figure for beer alone (in the US, alone), soft drinks need to be included and that’s a bigger figure, I presume.

  28. Caveat 2: Soft drinks are probably carbonated from left over industrial CO2 (I’m not entirely sure if that’s harvested or generated) so there is probably some neutral leeway. Beer on the other hand is sugar and yeast, so it’s definitely not carbon-neutral (I think).

  29. Like #2 NOEN I have for years likened the human population growth to the growth of yeast in a closed environment– but I don’t think we will “drown in our own waste” like yeast, rather some virulent disease like ebola or hanta will breakout and spread quick– the ease and speed of international travel, the vast population centers, it almost guarantees a dark-ages scenario of black plague proportions. I don’t think the CDC can hold back the tide forever, eventually one of those diseases will move quicker than any organized medical resistance.

    I don’t see humans listening to reason when it comes to notions of birth control or global warming– too many of the people opposed to birth control do so because of religious belief, which is far outside of the realm of reason.

    Logic dictates that we cannot have unlimited population growth if physical space on Earth is limited. Duh. The notion that technology will somehow fix this, or that because past societies incorrectly predicted (or would have predicted) optimal sustainable population size we should throw then disregard all current predictions, well. . . that’s all wishful thinking for people who are afraid of an increasingly dark future. I recall a conservative talking point (from Limbaugh maybe?) stating that the population explosion was bunk because if spread out evenly the human population would amount to one-person-per-square mile. A simple fact check in any encyclopedia shows that total surface area is 200 million square miles, and total human population is around 6 billion (and that doesn’t even take into consideration that less than a third of TOTAL surface area is LAND, the rest of course is water. . . and then how much of that land is actually inhabitable? You know, like deserts, tundra, ice caps? And how much would we need for growing food?) So where they got those numbers I’ll never know. Of course the true believers won’t bother to check the math, preferring to believe the bright fairy-tale future.

  30. Tak@38 phew! My tiger milk farm is only getting getting off the ground, investors will be much easier to procure with green accreditation.

    Oh, and guilt-free smoking, drinking, doping and driving fast cars will be nice too.

  31. we’ll run out of things like energy, fresh water and cheap food long before we run out of space.

    I’m thinking epidemic flu. That with economic chaos, widespread war and the usual stupidity will trim the global population by starvation.

  32. Has anyone considered the global ramifications of how our minds, if trained properly, have the ability to create?

    Hypnosis and mind training is being used to enlarge gonads at a successful rate of return. The mind is a powerful thing.
    The breatharians do not need food to survive then I wonder if we can be that way too. I will lay that aside for the moment however, while I beg you to question this:

    Has anyone considered the effects of the studies done to prove that potatoes grown in a lab where human energy, attention, and love are systematically applied to the presence of the plants will yield very over size potatoes which have a higher nutritional value then those left to grow with out the intervention of human love?

    This example may be a hint at what we should be doing to give true love to this planet. I am referring to more then just mere appreciation. If we can lead ourselves into normal natural states of consciousness where the end result in about unity, connectedness, and self acceptance. Our normal natural ability to project these truths into the world could be evidenced on a physical level.
    We can use our minds , education, knowledge about these facts and apply it new ways and so forth to see that maybe, just maybe, the idea that we are co-creators of this world is actually true.
    Being in distress calls us to remember to go within and quiet and train our brains to be here now. The silver lining of the ADHD dilemma. Perhaps bought about by such human inventions as the TV Video, and automobile red light green light one two three systems put in place to aggravate our ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER. We have entered into an age forcing us to find solutions to build concentration and focus. This has forced us to address the needs to use as many effective techniques as you can get your hands on to join the effort to participate in the human evolution going on as we reach conscious contact with divine states. In this perhaps we could be EMPOWERED to utilize human energy for a global cause.
    Once we see the evidence in our daily lives that in fact our thoughts create, we may want to look at our true ability to use our lives more productively in regards to giving and RECEIVING this gift.
    (I have been laughed at many times over the last 5 years for saying this…so get ready to go ahead and laugh, enjoy your giggles: please have one on me… it may just as well heal..)
    I will call it “The new green mantra”:


    VIsualize all the positive effects human love will have on the entire universe as a result of the changes.

    It is actually plausible.

    With the extremistan factor presented by Nassim Nicholas Taleb perhaps this will be an option.

    This way at least we will be seizing the moment to have some meaningful happiness and bliss as we reach the upcoming unknown future.
    Of course that is not to leave all the side effects that will have to be dealt with as the land grows. However if this occurs the factors involved in elevating human thought and consciousness to this level will engender the birth of the new generation. Perhaps they will have these new concepts written on their DNA and my guess is that they will have solutions to apply to the new problems that will arise as a result of the changes.

  33. This subject always reminds my of this YouTube video: The Most IMPORTANT Video You’ll Ever See It’s “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” by Dr. Albert Bartlett.

    He’s a Malthusian of course and his numbers are correct given the assumptions that he makes. Then again, those assumptions could be wrong. Unlike yeast we really can change our behavior. We can create and innovate our way out of problems and traditionally we have done so. There is that great big ball of fire in the sky pouring out peta joules of energy every second. So there really shouldn’t be a problem.

    What I am skeptical of is not our technical ability to find a solution. I’m worried some people might get it in their heads that they can ride this out and come out the other end looking pretty good. With an added bonus of having rid themselves of those pesky dark-skinned poor people always demanding luxuries like food and water.

    Larry Niven in his Ring World series talks a lot about “water monopolies” or “Hydraulic Empires.”

    “According to Wittfogel’s analysis, central control over the vital resource of water gave rise to social classes and social and economic specialization, while it also gave the government power of life and death over its population.”

    That’s just human nature. If you have something people need – oil, water, carbon credits, whatever. Then some greedy f*cker is going to use that to gain power over others. Human greed and the need to dominate others is the final problem, I believe.

  34. I usually consider myself a goodnatured misanthrope, more pitying than contemptuous of my fellow fucked humans, but after reading this thread, I dunno…

    Apre moi le Meteor!

  35. I’m not going to be the one to tell people to not have children for the sake of the environment.

    This post, and more particularly the comments, makes me kind of upset. It seems as though some think human life is of less value the more people there are. And poor people are too stupid to not have lots of kids.

    I’m not going to go further than that. I’m just kind of disappointed.

    1. some think human life is of less value the more people there are

      Most humans do not value human life except their own and maybe some close relatives. Species survival is irrelevant to those who aren’t even managing personal survival.

  36. I am all in favour of people having as many children as possible. And they should bring them to my newly opened daycare centre, down by the docks.

  37. I wonder what short circuit of our biology makes this misanthropy so attractive. Same with the illusion of this great and perfect everlasting stasis.

  38. Dderus, but it’s not just “for the sake of the environment”. Surely the very humans that you and I are concerned about have a general responsibility to preserve our ability to survive in the future – for the generations to come.

    While I don’t agree with StRevAlex‘s tone or general idea; is there not a point at which the mouths-to-feed outnumbers the space-to-grow?

    Even in a human-biased solution, the sustainability of the planet, our ablity to provide fundamental technologies and food supplies is paramount. What do we do?

  39. StRevAlex (WorldChanging Proponent on BB)
    Alex Steffen (WorldChanging Executive Editor)

    I can haz Conspiracy Theory?

  40. “Even in a human-biased solution, the sustainability of the planet, our ablity to provide fundamental technologies and food supplies is paramount. What do we do?”

    Wouldn’t the answer be to support, and participate in the systems which have proven to develop and apply these technologies and resources as widely and effectively as possible?

    (Not trying to be snarky, my actual answer.)

  41. Logic dictates that we cannot have unlimited population growth if physical space on Earth is limited. Duh. The notion that technology will somehow fix this, or that because past societies incorrectly predicted (or would have predicted) optimal sustainable population size we should throw then disregard all current predictions, well. . . that’s all wishful thinking for people who are afraid of an increasingly dark future.

    So basically, you are just saying that just because every single civilization before us has incorrectly been shown to be wildly wrong about their prediction of pending over population doom, that doesn’t mean that we should reconsider the wisdom of apply our own bad predictions using the same bad assumptions of constant technology too?

    I am not really sure if logic is on your side here.

    Personally, I would put the following in your logic pipe and take a few hits.

    1) Doom by over population has been predicted every single generation for hundreds of years. It has always been wrong.

    2) The human population is not only continuing to rise, but humans continue to live longer and longer. The implication is that despite all the bad things we are doing to the planet, the earth is becoming MORE habitable. Not only is its ability to hold humans expanding, but those humans LIVE LONGER.

    This flatly contradicts the notion that somehow we are plunging forward towards d00m. On the contrary, it looks like the ability of technology to make the world a more habitable place for humans is not only keeping up with, but OUTSTRIPPING humanity’s ability to grow the population.

    If the population was rising and humans were living shorter lives, you could make a fair argument that we were outstripping the planet’s carrying capacity and stuffing more people onto the planet that the planet can’t hold. However, the fact that not only are we adding more people, but these people live longer than the people before him suggests that reverse is true. Our ability to make the planet habitable is actually outstripping our ability to crank out new humans.

    Considering that you are making the same prophecy of doom that thousands before you have made and that all those before you were wrong, and the very fact that all evidence right now points to the earth’s habitability expanding faster than the population, perhaps you are the one who needs to reevaluate what makes logical sense.

    Your arguments are just as wrong as they were when Malthus made them 200 years ago, and the evidence is flatly on my side.

    Personally, I wish you all, even the doomsayers running around declaring that THIS TIME the sky is falling for real, a longer and healthier life than your parents and grand parents.

  42. but humans continue to live longer and longer

    You may have picked the wrong time to haul out that argument. Life expectancies have dropped in a number of countries recently, due to starvation and war. Problems which might maybe just possibly have something to due with population pressures.

  43. Buddy66
    “I usually consider myself a goodnatured misanthrope, more pitying than contemptuous of my fellow fucked humans, but after reading this thread, I dunno…”

    Confirmation bias. The subject tends to do that. People see the topic and then add to it from their own perspectives. There are plenty of good and wonderful people performing acts of kindness every day.

    Greed, hate and bigotry have their reward, hasn’t the GOP going down in flames shown us that? Hope and working together for the better of all won, cynicism and greedy self interest lost. We are taught to be cynical and to believe “No, we can’t” because it’s in someone’s interest that we do so.

    If there is a solution to over population it won’t be through individual acts of greedy self centered rich bastards. They’ll be among the first to go down. I’m looking forward to someone publishing “Eat The Rich”, complete with recipes.

  44. I’m with Bill Hicks (and Gene Roddenberry) on this one, actually. If we take all the money spent on defense and use it to solve the universal cheap energy problem, we end poverty and hunger, and begin to explore space together. A new life in the off-world colonies awaits!

  45. #28@Razzabeth:

    I think I could probably have better phrased or annotated my point: I don’t think poor people are somehow “less worthy” of having kids. Far from it. The only standards (in my opinion) ought to be:

    1. Are you smart enough to understand all this could entail?
    2. Can you provide a child with the basics of a good life; home, food, love and support?

    Of course, you said yourself that you’re smart so that answers #1. Then it becomes rather a moot point.

    The irony is that I’m definitely not wealthy by any means, nor have I ever been. My opinions are based solely on my own firsthand experience, not any rationalization of inherited wealth.

  46. antinous @ 57 – “Most humans do not value human life except their own and maybe some close relatives.” – harsh!
    “Species survival is irrelevant to those who aren’t even managing personal survival.” – If we survive long enough to propogate our genes +/or memes, surely we have a stake?

  47. Antinous @ 62 “Read the news every day” is that directed at a particular post, or is it general advice for life? ’cause if it’s directed at me, i do (see) the news every day, but i’m aware that only the extremes of human behaviour are usually deemed newsworthy. Perhaps that 84 degree heat you’re basking in isn’t as good for you as you think?

    1. People are being slaughtered in the millions every year. If not directly by violence, then starved because arable land is being used to produce biofuels to keep the Hummers rolling. Value for (non-related) human life is not widespread.

  48. #55 RINDAN

    1. Every past prediction of doom by overpopulation has been wrong, fair enough, but that doesn’t automatically imply that all current and future predictions will also be wrong. Past civilizations were wrong about lots of science (whether it was “rain dances will bring rain” or “too many bad humors are causing your illness”), perhaps I’m wrong but I put more trust in current science than science from 100 years ago. To say “the evidence is flatly on your side” is like saying “so far so good” as you’re falling out a 30 story window.

    2. “Life expectancy increasing” might be something of a numerical illusion, I suspect a point of diminishing returns will be met eventually. If we are warring over fewer and fewer natural resources life expectancy will go down. What goes up must come down, whether it’s a football or the stock market or life expectancy.

    But the real issue: at some point we are going to have to have the “quality versus quantity” debate with regards to population. Sure, technology can make it feasible for several times the current human population to survive on Earth, but WHAT will that really mean? It will probably mean housing people in ever larger population centers in huge high-rise apartments (face it, we can’t all live in beautiful houses with backyards if there are 100 billion of us). And what about land to grow food? We will probably need to start huge ocean farms to meet our food needs, or we may need to cut out meat almost entirely as cattle are less efficient than crops per acre of land. Or let’s say we can turn the Sahara into a huge garden for some valuable crop, if we find a way to turn it from a desert into a breadbasket how will this disrupt weather patterns? It may just cause some other mass of land to become a desert (granted– maybe not, but who knows?)

    There has been a growing concern with “sprawl” the last few years. People buy a nice house away from the noise of the city, only to find that ten years later the city has followed them, and they are slowly surrounded by shopping malls and fast food and traffic. This is the kind of future we can all look forward too, zoning laws can’t stop it forever.

  49. I think value for non-related human life ~is~ widespread, just many/most people don’t join up the dots, or if they do they underestimate the impact of their decisions on other people and on the world at large.

  50. Going back a bit:
    The first is smoking
    Smoking? The FIRST? Smoking harms no-one but the smoker, and has entirely negligible pollution rates. Add to that, if smokers die sooner, they are HELPING with population growth.

    (Note that I’m simply talking about smoking, not how tobacco is grown, processed, transported, packaged etc. — in all of those I suspect that any other crop would be equally carbon footprinty.)

  51. Dimmer @ 68 – smoking is pretty good for slowing population growth, as it not only increases the death rate, but also decreases fertility in men and foetal survival rates! Go Smoking!

  52. Saucer pulls up to low Earth orbit, bullhorn on lazy tongs extends and Ron Burgundy-type voice proclaims: “Greetings pathetic Earth scum! Your miserable planet is about to be destroyed for the greater glory of the Empire! Select one million of yourselves to be preserved as slaves, you have 24 hours. That is all.”

  53. Kinda stomped on my own point re value for non-related human life a bit there, didn’t I? and yet reinforced my point on boingboing’s holiday gift guide – “looking stupid does not necessarily equal being stupid, and being stupid on one occasion does not equal being stupid generally.”

  54. U.S. has 103,671,742,065,706 sq ft.
    World Pop 6,600,000,000

    They can all live here, each on 17,000 sq ft, while the planet renews – then gtfu.

  55. well there’s me and mine – maybe a thousand ’til i can’t hear the wailing at the edges… are we allowed to bring animals?

  56. !! most of of here ~are~ primates Mr. T. – it might’ve been kinder if you’d declared that at the start, rather than getting our hopes up…

  57. Eradicate all rural territory, murder millions of species, wish for the techno-genius way for earth to accept infinite human populations….

    Thank Dog for Technogeek madness.

  58. @ Dimmer – Non-smokers that live with smokers have a significant increase in lung cancer probability. Second-hand smoke is classified by EPA as a carcinogen. For the most part, people smoking on the street aren’t going to kill anyone else, as the smoke is quickly dissipated.

    Where do 90% of smokers put their butts? Out the window or in the gutter. Most (not all) are constantly littering.

    My wife still smokes, but is considerate, smoking only outside, using an ashtray at all times, and never leaving butts or smoldering tobacco on the ground.

  59. “They can all live here, each on 17,000 sq ft, while the planet renews – then gtfu.”

    This is about as idiotic as the idea you sometimes hear from people who say the world population could all fit in Texas on one square meter each. Yeah, and they’d all be dead four days later. Now that is some serious stupid.

  60. “giving them access to reproductive health choices (including contraception and abortion), education”

    those two are in the wrong order. the first follows naturally from the second.

    @many above. negative population growth is economically dangerous only when the world economy is based on a ponzi scheme.

  61. Noen,

    “Area of Texas is 268,581 square miles. Assuming 6 billion people, that’s 22,340 per square mile; this means each person gets 1248 square feet, which is about the size of a respectable apartment. So, yes, you could fit everyone in the world quite comfortably in Texas.”

    That’s hardly one square meter each, as you suggest. The reality is, the Earth is a huge place and the available land mass it provides to humans is more than comfortable, in the opinion of many, to support many more times the population currently in place. That is not to claim that the available resources of the planet that are *currently* viable would suffice for a population of 18-30 billion, but one would have to make the assumption that currently viable resources are all we have to work with.

    As population grows, over time, so does technology and innovation. What, in our current position, might seem limited resources, may, in the future where advances are able to more efficiently extract energy, prove to be more than is needed even for 2-5x the current population. I for one am in the camp of the optimists.

    Where you see potential for failure, I see potential for innovation and game changing new technology, both in agriculture and water renewal. Humans, when faced with strife, are fairly reliable when it comes to finding smarter and better ways to do things.

    One of the most succinct arguments against the ‘danger’ of over population is the reliable trend of population curbing in first world societies. Central and Eastern Europe, Japan, and others are experiencing negative population growth. Western Europe and the US are expected to do the same, simply because the tendency in developed countries with a “graying population” (read: older and older) is not toward growth but toward stability and decline.

    Negative population growth is actually seen as a threat for developed nations because there is a drop off in the influx of able bodied citizens to provide resources and care for the less able. Reports out of Russia are claiming it is a critical problem which must be addressed.

    I for one don’t see the danger in letting the less fortunate (read: 3rd world countries) build societies in which lifestyle and comfort levels allow for older population growth and negative birthrates. In fact, this would seem to be a natural solution that restores balance and addresses the fears of over-pop conspirators first hand. The more industrialized societies across the globe become, the less population growth occurs, and thus the more stable the global population becomes. It is not outrageous to imagine China, India, Latin America and Africa all becoming globalized, self sufficient, and roughly in the same position in the future as Central Europe and Japan are now.

    The idea that the Earth can’t support the industrialization of these societies is a concept based on pure antagonistic greed. There is no shortage of land, and with innovation and smarter agriculture practices, there is enough food and energy to go round for many generations. The grain belt of the USA, with its high yielding efficiency, would be sufficient to feed the world comfortably, right now, if only we didn’t needlessly feed the grain to cattle (thus reducing the efficacy of the food chain to fractions of what it could be). The world is a big place, and your fears should not discount the human tendency toward innovative solutions when faced with dire consequence.

    1. Except, that our resources are dwindling. The Sahara was once arable land. The oceans used to have fish in them instead of poisons. We have diminished resources, not only per capita, but in the absolute sense. Our technology and innovation have destroyed the earth and enriched the few. And yet, obviously, the predator still cozens the prey.

  62. One final comment from me.. The idea that population growth is somehow threatening to the lifestyle we enjoy now is based on poor assumptions about the innovation and ingenuity of those who would be faced with it a “drain” on current resources. Are you willing to bet that the future Einsteins of the world are incapable of innovating solutions to current “problems”, in ways you might never have imagined? Take for example nanotechnology, which is rapidly becoming more reality than science fiction. If we figure out a way to develop self sufficient ocean based nanotech platforms for water purification and food production, where do the doomsday scenarios go? By the wayside, as they have time and time again since Malthus and others. Humanity is not a static, mindless organism like yeast. When we grow, we grow in all areas, and what makes us unique is our ability to solve problems, often, unwittingly, before they even emerge.

    1. Are you willing to bet that the future Einsteins of the world are incapable of innovating solutions to current “problems”, in ways you might never have imagined?

      Yes. I am absolutely willing to bet that. Because future Einsteins will be owned by Monsanto, Wal-Mart and Weyland-Yutani. Because I’ve listened to people blather the same nonsense for forty years and we’re in far worse shape than we were when I first heard it.

      Santa Claus is not going to come.

  63. Atinious, like I said in that first post, that is an assumption based on current technology. (And even then you have to make bold, bold claims about how much oil and water and land we really have available)

    Right now we are in a period of excess, if that changes surely you must believe that we can react positively. What if we crack the fusion problem? What if nanotech can be implemented to produce endless food from readily available molecules? What if we discover ways to extract energy from the virtually endless resources we haven’t yet tapped (sunlight, coal shale, gas, hydrogen, etc) These aren’t science fiction scenarios, people are working on them right now.

    Tomorrow is a brand new day, and the claim that “resources are dwindling” discredits the whole of humanity, because what we time and time again prove to ourselves is that ‘resources’ are only limited by what we can imagine doing with what we have. And we have a lot more than you think. We have ourselves, the best and brightest resource the universe has ever seen (as far as we know).

    1. What technological advances have not come with an equal number of problems? I don’t mean that against science and technology, but against the way that it’s implemented. 99% of innovation goes toward producing wasteful, disposable consumer goods while people starve en masse. I see nothing in the human race to suggest that we’re about to have an epiphany.

  64. we have had the technology to end hunger throughout the world for decades. We chose not to. Even if unforeseeable break-throughs happen in technology regarding pollution and food production, why would we chose to apply them when mindless,suicidal cruelty is our tradition?

  65. I just disagree fundamentally. Most of the innovation we’ve seen over the past 200 years has immeasurably improved the quality of life for anyone fortunate to live in the societies that have propagated them. From running water to vaccines, to electricity, to the combustion engine to the computer, we have time and time again improved the quality of life for everyone involved.

    Sure, these innovations haven’t been widely and fairly distributed to humanity en-masse, but that isn’t to say they can’t be. The fact that we’re trying to bring clean water and good medicine to the world, even considering the hurdles those fighting the good fight face, is a positive sign for future of humanity.

    Cut away the red tape and greed and the stupidity and suddenly the sky opens up. Surely you don’t think first-world medicine and agriculture is harming more than it is helping? Some people do, and I think they are crackpots who don’t appreciate the potential that is there. The future doesn’t lie in caves and Neo-Luddite retro living.. it lies in innovation and compassion.

    1. I think they are crackpots who don’t appreciate the potential that is there.

      Potential is only potential. The world is administered by the greedy. Until that situation is rectified, no amount of science and medicine is going to be sufficient to keep up with population increases. Do you have any idea how many people starve to death every year? How many die in armed struggle? How many go blind from a disease that can be cured with soap and water? Expecting science to solve problems for an increased population when it isn’t even keeping up with the current population is pie-in-the-sky fabulism. The world’s problems will be solved largely by education, gender equality and a change of regime. In the meantime, it needs to keep its legs together to keep the problem from becoming even more unmanageable.

  66. Has anyone come up with the ideal number of children a couple should have to maintain the Earth’s current population? The minimum would be two (one for each partner), but will in fact be more because of factors that prevent a couple’s children from reproducing themselves, such as infant mortality, sterility, etc. I would think it would be possible to compile statistics for different regions of the world and come up with a hard number.

    I do of course, believe that the number of children a couple chooses to have should be up to the couple. This is a basic human right, maybe one of the most important.

  67. These arguments about the ratio of land to population are illusions, they are just numbers and don’t gauge quality of land mass– who wants to live in Antarctica? or the Gobi desert or Siberia or Greenland (all substantial land masses)? Then there are mountain ranges — shall we build housing complexes in remote valleys (or on peaks) in the Andes? And then there is food production– we can’t turn all our farmland into condos and gated communities (or maybe we can, and THAT will solve the population problems). So if you want to have that kind of argument, FIRST set aside all inhospitable areas (Antarctica, etc.), then set aside x-amount of square mileage for crops (logically at least what we have now), then ask yourself “do we want to open up national parks and forests to development?” (Which brings up another problem– national forests are often logged– we’ve just defined another type of “crop land”).

    Or better yet, ask yourself if you are OK with them building a high-rise next to your suburban split-level ranch, or next to your cottage on the Jersey Shore, or ski chalet in Aspen. That is the crux of the matter.

    Unless some “future Einstein” can come up with a Tardis-like device that is bigger on the inside than the outside, I don’t see him solving our problems.

  68. I heard an interesting discussion about this the other day regarding perception vs. reality. The fact that more and more people are living in higher density urban areas today means that even if the populations were decreasing, it would feel as if it were increasing for the urban and sub-urban.

  69. Ill Lich, how about you start with asking the question, “Does the current amount of livable land currently exceed or fall short of the needs of humanity, as a whole?”

    To answer that you would need to define what constitutes livable vs unlivable. By all accounts, the sheer amount of good quality land in the US of A would be sufficient to house each and every one of the 6 billion current residents of the world. Comfortably and equitably. With room left over for agriculture and energy production and whatever else you could imagine.

    If you believe anything else to be the case your numbers are flawed. The world is gigantic compared to the necessary living area for humanity as a whole… it simply is.

    If you don’t believe me take a tour of Google maps across the USA, and keep in mind as you scan across the country, zoomed in to a small city scale, how much sheer empty and unoccupied space there is in relation to city development. You will find, as I have, that 90% of the landmass you look at is completely devoid of human settlement.

    To put it simply, if you increased the size of cities and towns across the US by, I dunno, 10%, you could accommodate above and beyond the rest of the world suddenly “moving in” to our cities and towns and still have vast untapped areas of land in reserve. I refer to the Texas experiment, where it is mathematically proven that the entire world could have 1200+ square feet of living space, in just Texas alone. Spread that out over the country and I’m willing to bet you increase the total population of each town and city by less than 10% overall, with room to spare. Your numbers are so wrong that its not even worth arguing with you unless you are willing to do a survey and calculate for yourself the reality of perfectly viable land.

    Please respond if you can mathematically discredit this notion.

    1. palindromic,

      You’ve tried to reduce the life of the earth to a math problem. I don’t acknowledge the right of humans to cause the extinction of even a single species. Life on Trantor isn’t worth living. I’d rather the plague swept us away and left the earth in peace.

  70. #65 Ill Lich

    Every past prediction of doom by overpopulation has been wrong, fair enough, but that doesn’t automatically imply that all current and future predictions will also be wrong.

    There isn’t a scrap of evidence to support the idea that humans are any good at predicting the future, especially not 50 years out in a time like ours. Hell, take a step back in time to the 1970’s, look at their predictions for the year 2000, and have yourself a good laugh. Anyone making predictions 50 years out can be safely be tossed into bullshit bin. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading futurist theories for fun, and if they shoot enough theories out someone eventually bound to guess right at least once, but I am not preparing for a soylet green future any more than I am preparing for Kurzweil’s AI singularity to eat me.

    No only do futurist suck at predicting things, but the doomsayers are the worst and most wildly inaccurate and wrong of all the futurist (and this goes for all doomsayers, not just Malthusians).

    “Life expectancy increasing” might be something of a numerical illusion, I suspect a point of diminishing returns will be met eventually.

    You might expect that the trend will reverse, but thus far it hasn’t. In fact, life expectancy has been rocketing upwards as time drags on. That isn’t to suggest that life is all dandy everywhere. In Russia (where the population is falling) life expectancy is dropping off for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with a lack of resources or overpopulation. Overall though, worldwide life expectancy is continuing to climb, indicating that the habitability of Earth is outstripping our ability to make more humans.

    In other words, so far it is technology FTW. It might change in the future, but anyone who predicts what technology is going to bring 50 years down the road with a straight face is jackass or a prescient. I’ll place my money on jackass.

    But the real issue: at some point we are going to have to have the “quality versus quantity” debate with regards to population. Sure, technology can make it feasible for several times the current human population to survive on Earth, but WHAT will that really mean? It will probably mean housing people in ever larger population centers in huge high-rise apartments (face it, we can’t all live in beautiful houses with backyards if there are 100 billion of us).

    You are probably making this argument to the wrong guy. If I was an SUV wielding suburbanite who isn’t complete without a driveway the size of a landing strip for my tank/car combo and few acre of perfectly manicured grass to prove the size of my penis to my neighbors, I might be sympathetic. Instead, I live in one of the greatest towns in the US… which also happens to have the highest population density in New England. I have to say, Somerville, MA is a pretty damn awesome place. I can probably count on one hand the number of residential buildings in Somerville that are over 5 stories. If this is what our horrible overpopulated future looks like, I wish it would hurry the hell up and get here.

    Finally, you make the mistake in believing that you understand the shape of things to come. If you were to ask a 1000 AD peasant what a world of 6.5 billion people looks like, he would probably envision 6.499 billion peasants slaving away in a world of nothing but fields to keep from starving to death.

    What does a world with 20 billion people look like? Who the hell knows? It could be an idealic place with more room than there is today because someone found a nifty way move food production out of sight. It could be an Earth that is nothing but automated industrial complexes as the human population wanders around doing its thing in a web of computers. It could even be your soylet green hell. It could be anything, but chances are it isn’t going to be anything that anyone saw coming.

  71. I cannot imagine how empowering women can be more prevalent in my mind than it already is. This desire to empower women to limit population pales in comparison to, you know, empowering women for equal rights.

  72. Palindromic: maybe you know about this already, but check out the article on wikipedia about our ecological footprint. And here’s a list, by country, of the footprint (and reserve available) required to sustain us.

    The total world ecological footprint is 2.7 global hectares per capita and the ecological reserve, or biocapacity – the amount of land availible for production, is in deficit at -0.6 global hectares per capita.[38]

  73. Rindan,

    There are some prophets, some “futurists” who get it right. How about 150 years ago?

    This guy said, waaay back then, that capital accumulation, the growth of credit markets, and the formation of the newly emerging corporations would lead to the concentration and centralization of capital into fewer and fewer entities; and that with these large corporations would come a number of undesirable social consequences: a new aristocracy of finance, a new sort of parasite in the shape of promoters, speculators, and managers, and a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporate juggling, stock jobbing, and stock speculation. Possibly no other vision of the future of capitalism was more spot-on prophetic than that of the concentration and transformation of capital into giant multinational corporations.

    He also predicted they would all fall down and go boom.

    Aww, you know it was, don’tcha?

  74. “I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
    I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
    Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
    Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters”

    “Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
    And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
    Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
    Where black is the color, where none is the number”

    “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
    And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
    And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
    But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
    And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
    It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”

  75. Pascal’s wager time: There are 4 possible scenarios with regard to the population growth question and our future ability to sustain increased numbers of people.

    1) Population continues to grow unchecked and we innovate to be able to sustain that population. In this scenario, everything is more or less fine, though the world is a different place than before.

    2) Population growth slows or stops and we innovate to be able to sustain that population. By this I mean we restructure our economy in such a way as to support those who cannot produce with the labor of those who can more efficiently than today. In this scenario, everything is just peachy, and the world is more or less as we see it now but with better scenery and better distributed quality of life.

    3) Population growth continues unchecked and we fail to innovate to keep up. Mathusian doomsday scenario.

    4) Population growth slows or stops and we fail to innovate to fail to innovate to sustain that population. In this scenario we would go through a seriously tough time in terms of taking care of our elderly citizens, and those not capable of work. It would be rough, but we would get through it over the course of a couple of decades as the population curve flattened out again.

    Out of those 4 scenarios, 1 is good, 2 seems great to me, 3 is worst-case, and 4 would suck for a while. It seems, then, that we should avoid making choices that create the possibility of the worst scenario.

    Whether the population is too high or too low for our current system, we are going to need new technology and new ways of structuring our society to cope. Both paths require incredible human innovation. Both paths require social change. The difference being that with slowing population growth, both the worst and best case scenarios are better than those we find in the unchecked growth scenario.

    How will we accomplish the needed population slowdown in a socially just, sustainable, ethical way? I wish I knew. Maybe we can focus some of our much-touted human innovation on societal level behavioral sciences?

  76. Rindan and Palindromic–

    Hey, maybe I’m wrong, maybe the Earth can sustain 20 billion people. I just see so many of the world’s problems connected with population growth. 15 years ago when I heard that many Chinese were eschewing their bicycles in favor of cars, I saw problems coming. 20 billion people are going to drink up all the oil mighty quick, and deplete the oceans quicker. A 10% increase in every city in the US is one thing, but we’re talking unlimited increases in complete world population. In other words, how big is the metaphorical human footprint for each person?

    If you want to say there is enough space to house everyone, OK, but I grew up seeing my once rural neighborhood demolished and turned into industrial parks and housing developments– that’s what the “quality vs. quantity” debate means to me, I don’t want to see all that extra livable space turned into cookie-cutter housing developments, with more runoff, more traffic, and more of the services needed to sustain a community. I like being able to find semi-wilderness nearby instead of driving to a national or state park to get my fix of green. Green space has value not just as development land.

    Just because we CAN find a way to sustain a 20 billion population doesn’t me we SHOULD.

    And Rindan, if Somerville is so great, why is it always referred to as “Slummerville”, and why is the drinking water there among the dirtiest in the Boston area? To be fair, Somerville is an OK place and I’m just ribbing you about it, but I would prefer if rural towns in New England didn’t turn into Somervilles, and that is what I fear from population growth.

  77. Wouldn’t it be cool if a million year from now, there would still be descendants of today’s humans, and they’d still be sentient, and they’d have become something that would be excruciatingly hard for us to wrap our brains around? I think it’s still possible. If. We start behaving like intelligent, conscious creatures, rather than a yeast culture, now.
    Part of that is the Viridian ethic of better, not more, but that alone won’t cut it. We are too many. Our species is overbearing on the ecosystem it’s part of and the ecosystem will right itself, with or without us.
    Whether it will be here in ten, a hundred, or a thousand years, there will be a Peak Humanity. What we can do to make it as smooth as possible is have one child, max. I don’t think we need the horrifying totalitarianism that StRevAlex proposes, or something like the Chinese one-child policy. I’d think of a moral/social/superego approach. Like, “you have three kids? Three? Sheesh, you’re a dim bulb.” It worked for smoking.

  78. It’s as if the doomsayers and eugenicists out there haven’t even read the original post here. The point is that you don’t have to worry about whether Earth can house 20 billion people or institute draconian sterilization measures because as long as education, wealth, human rights, access to drinking water, etc. continue to spread, people will simply *choose* to have fewer children. Population growth is slowing down already, and will continue to slow and possibly even reverse itself as long as general social progress continues.

    And there will be plenty of people having fewer than two children to offset the occasional “narcissistic” brother who wants to father his own football team.

    1. If people who have children because of social and cultural expectations or lack of access to birth control didn’t, people who really love children could have ten apiece and we’d still have a population decrease. Not everybody really, really wants kids.

  79. On the one hand,

    On the other:

    Yes, technology has greatly increased the aggregate (and average) human standard of living. Yes, we could probably support many times the current world population by dint of some sort of handwaving in the area of metaphysics that brings about a fundamental change in our psychology.but there isn’t a whelk’s chance in a supernova that’ll happen, even if some technological deus ex machina arrived that made it possible. Reprogramming the species? Have fun storming the castle!

  80. I could guess you could say i’m poor but i haven’t had any kids yet, i’d like to though. My point is this though, People are not going to stop having kids, one planet is not enough, efforts must be made to branch out our civilization to planets that can be terraformed to sustain life. there are many untapped resources outside our planet. if we fail to reach beyond our home planet then we won’t survive.if you think it might be expensive, just look at what inaction might cost us.

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