Population growth isn't really our problem

In the course of preparing for a panel here at the Conference on World Affairs, I ran across a 2009 editorial by environmental journalist Fred Pearce, in which he explains why current global population trends aren't as horrific as they're often made out to be. I thought you should read it.

Global population is going up, Pearce writes, but that's not the same thing as saying that birth rates are going up. And, in the long run, that distinction matters. Around the world—not just in the West—human birthrates are decreasing. And they've been decreasing for a really long time.

Wherever most kids survive to adulthood, women stop having so many. That is the main reason why the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.

This is getting close to the “replacement fertility level” which, after allowing for a natural excess of boys born and women who don’t reach adulthood, is about 2.3. The UN expects global fertility to fall to 1.85 children per woman by mid-century. While a demographic “bulge” of women of child-bearing age keeps the world’s population rising for now, continuing declines in fertility will cause the world’s population to stabilize by mid-century and then probably to begin falling.

Far from ballooning, each generation will be smaller than the last. So the ecological footprint of future generations could diminish. That means we can have a shot at estimating the long-term impact of children from different countries down the generations.

What I really like about this essay, though, is how well Pearce articulates the real problem, which is over-consumption. Population and consumption might appear to be intrinsically linked, but they're not. As Pearce points out, global consumption is increasing far faster than global population and the average American family of four uses far more land, far more water, far more energy and produces far more emissions than an Ethiopian family of 11.

This is important. I've heard many, many Americans express their fears about population growth over the years. Pearce's essay makes it clear that, when you do that, you're pretty much being a concern troll. The population problem, while still real, is well on its way to solving itself. The consumption problem, not so much. Population growth is a problem of the poor. Consumption growth is a problem of the rich (which, from a global perspective, includes pretty much everyone in the United States). So when you ignore consumption and pin the blame for global sustainability issues on population, what you're doing is blaming the 99% for the mistakes of the 1%.

Read Frank Pearce's entire essay on Yale Environment 360

Image: Family Portrait, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 12567713@N00's photostream


  1. Well-stated and argued. I’m surprised at how many people I meet who fail to understand (or acknowledge) the distinction between population growth and birth rates.

  2. Moreover, as an Indian I’d like to point out that couching the problem in terms of population has always seemed horribly racist to me: Americans burn more energy, eat more meat, and generate more trash, per capita AND in aggregate, but somehow it’s the teeming brown masses that are causing the real trouble for the planet.

    1. Well yeah.  WE can’t be the problem, can we?  That’s why we got rid of our OWN brown people.

      And why we can’t let the other brown people come North.

    2. A lot of folks are less worried about the ongoing destruction of the planet’s ecosystems than about the prospect of being overwhelmingly outnumbered by people who don’t look like them. (Or talk like them, or worship like them…)

    3. Yes, because as the masses develop, the potential problems are unimaginable. As we move to a global world, consumption will even out much more… for instance, imagine how polluted India shall become as those masses begin to consume more, while continuing to multiply… Americans consume many times more per capita while still maintaining a beautiful country and leaving room to grow. India is already far beyond capacity.

  3. A mathematics/philosophy friend of mine studied overpopulation arguments in university and concluded that: A) overpopulation is not really an issue; and B) overpopulation arguments are nearly always a thin guise for racism.  You don’t have to read much about overpopulation to confirm this.

    1. Your mathematics friend didn’t do the math. 

      Luckily, Isaac Asimov did, in a straightforward essay that demolished the arguments of the overpopulation-not-problem crowd.

      He did the math. I could find the essay, but I recall the broad points.


      The first item to keep in mind: doubling rate. The world human population has been doubling in roughly 30 year increments. That is easier to understand than going on about geometric progressions, which no one wants to hear about. 

      He worked it out. The exact number of decades to double isn’t really important, not in the long run, so don’t worry about the precise numbers. It doesn’t matter much at all about whether 30 or a 100 years is the doubling rate. 

      In centuries, every square foot of the planet is covered in human beings. Standing room only. 

      A century or two more,  the oceans are covered with a carpet of people, patiently standing in their assigned places, making more babies.

      In two thousand years or so, the entire planet earth, all the mass of the core, mantle, crust, all of it, is converted into a sort of human neutron star. Nothing but humans. Every atom.

      Now assume the expansion continues. Faster than light, faster and faster still, the solar system, stars, galaxies, dark matter, everything that is, coverts to humans mass. Every neutron mated to proton and electrons, converted to elements that comprise human stuff. 

      That is something on the order of four-six thousand years.

      After that, we blow through universe after universe in decades (my addition).  

      All the debate about race and wealth and consumption mean nothing in face of the simple impossibility of the human race continuing to grow at *any* rate for an infinite amount of time. It cannot happen, not even if we open portals to other universes. The bow wave of human growth outstrips relativistic possibility.

      The obvious fact is that we are wiping out the major fauna and almost all the forests, and will continue to do so. That continued growth creates enormous numbers of young people with no jobs. That it makes necessary stupid and suicidal decisions to take the brakes off oil exploration and conversion of wildernesses to ever more human depredation. That it is the direct and unobvious, to human perception, cause of our wars and  environmental disaster. 

      1. What a bunch of idiocies written in comment form.

        I’ve seen enough folly of people trying to predict what the world “will be” within 20, 30 years, but you certainly take the cake by trying to predict the world within a couple of centuries, heck why not a thousand years.

        Your discussion about the “problems” we will face within a hundred years will be laughed at by our grandchildren. Histerically.

        1.  Or cat didn’t get its point across by writing too humorously. 
          Obviously, if you keep doubling, you’ll run out of space ‘n stuff. 

          Resources is a spongy word. 
          Humans are not the only creatures that deserve their space.  And stuff. 

          1. Name is Catbeller; if anyone can give me a tip on how to fix that displayed name…

            BTW – Luis is calling Isaac Asimov a purveyor of idiocies. I’d go with the Ike.
            EDIT: Ah, got it, Luis. Yes, the Good Doctor was illustrating that it was idiotic to try to grow the human race at that rate.

          2. How to change your display name:

            If it’s a Disqus account, sign in to Disqus.com and go to Edit Profile in the drop-down menu under your name in the upper right.

            If it’s a Boing Boing account, log in here:


            …and also Edit Profile under your name in the upper right. Don’t get freaked out by the fact that it looks like you’re in the guts of WordPress. For some reason, it’s the default page when you log in.

        2. It’s math. You can’t refute it.  If you grow humans at a 30 year doubling rate they cover the planet, every inch of surface, in about a thousand years. This is a simple, unbreakable reality.  No emotion, no optimism is allowed. You deal with it. Or the Four Horseman ride, first for the animals, then for us.
          The best case would be a worldwide city. But that only buys you a few years, because in 30 years you need TWO worldwide cities. Then 30 years more, FOUR worldwide cities. Tech doesn’t make reality change. And long before that first thousand years is done, we’ve killed everything else on the damned planet.  YES. It is idiotic. Thanks for understanding that.

          1. Right, you notice how your the setnence “If you grow humans at a 30 year doubling rate…” begins with the word “if”?

            Why on earth would anyone think that this was true?  Every population in a resource limited environment grows according to an S-curve – a curve which happens to look something like an exponential curve up to a point.  Don’t you think that maybe when there isn’t enough room for all of us to lie down we might start producing less children?

            Please demonstrate that humans have doubled in population every 30 years since the beginning of humanity.  What, is that plainly not true?  Why is this… could it be because the rate of our population growth changes?  But making an argument founded on the premise that it will never change again is totally valid?

      2.  Cat, you’re dismissing the core proof of the “over-population isn’t the problem” argument, which is that the birth rate has been in decline for the past 50 years.  This means that the population-doubling-every-30-years figure which Asimov puts forth is out of date, and was only true looking back.  Looking forward, the birth rate has dwindled from an average of 5-6 children born to every 2-parent couple to 2.6 – far too few to “double” the population in another 30 years.  And it’s expected to decline further to 1.85 children per 2-parent couple by 2050.  You might want to read THIS current argument before arguing that Asimov’s somehow trumps it.  Because it doesn’t.  In fact, Asimov’s is now the lesser informed opinion, as it’s figures are no longer pertinent to modern birth rate and population flux.

        1. ” Looking forward, the birth rate has dwindled from an average of 5-6 children born to every 2-parent couple to 2.6 – far too few to “double” the population in another 30 years.  And it’s expected to decline further to 1.85 children per 2-parent couple by 2050.  ” 

          No, it has not. It may have done so in Japan, Russia, the EU ( those who aren’t recent immigrants), Canada and the USA, but most countries in Africa/Asia/South America/Indonesia are growing in the expected fashion.  And immigrants from those regions to the so-called western nations are growing just as fast as their counterparts back in their home countries. 

          For instance, Egypt, from Wikipedia: 
          Population: 82,079,636 (2013 est.)
          Growth rate: 1.96%
          Birth rate: 25.43 per 1000
          Death rate: 4.82 per 1000
          Doubling rate: 29 years

          The population doubling figure of 30 years is not important; it is the same problem if it is 40, 27, 50 or a hundred years. It’s a simplification, an illustration. The doubling rate is a way to make people understand, by showing the how-many-pennies-if-you-double-them-daily-for-a-month answer, or the doubling rooks story… The greatest failure of the human race is their inability to understand the difference between arithmetical growth and geometric progression. First, the expectation that growth rates are going to decline. Hmm… the rates we’re talking about aren’t simple.  If the rate drops or increases in particular decades, that doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. We’re STILL DOUBLING- we’re at 7 billion now, and I’ve always suspected that the numbers are underreported.  The rates will increase – they are not static!I see no evidence whatsoever in Africa/Asia/South America that they are even considering limiting their birth rates. Islam, Hinduism and Catholicism are unchallenged in their authorities in the poorest countries, and they forbid birth control, or at least local cultures forbid it.  Recursively, the religions’ dictates assure there will be ever more poor people who will in turn resist change and, even more than the so-called educated countries, will have no concept of geometric progression and why they *can’t* keep having three-seven kids per couple.The birth rate exceeds the death rate, and will continue to do so until disease/war/famine intervenes – we are increasing. And as the current generations in Africa/Asia/India/South America are almost all under 30 – which means they are about to increase the rate in a geometric curve, as expected of bacteria, deer, cancer cells or people. 

          China is also screwing up our data; they have bravely and forcefully limited their population growth for decades, because they had clerks who DID understand math. But that policy has been rescinded – and they haven’t even begun to show us what happens when you reignite that population bomb.

          The rates are slowing locally – but they are going to *increase* in most places on the planet, and those increasing the rates are precisely those who will not countenance reducing the growth-in-the-growth rate, much less what they need to do, which is to STOP GROWING AT ALL. So whatever gains we make in stopping the explosion around these parts, there will be an enormous and totally expected counter from those parts which haven’t stopped and override-by-baby. Those who keep growing always wreck the pattern – they simply start becoming the planet’s human population.  And the rate increases…

          The doubling is still on track. The planet as a whole is still doubling at a rate of 29-40 years. And the rate itself – this is THE crux – will increase, so that the doubling rate will accelerate.It won’t happen in Peoria, but it will happen almost everywhere else on the planet. 

          And there will be war. Blame energy shortages, greedy industrialized nations, whatever. But the wars will be about too many people in too small a place trying to find blame and grabbing for resources. And it can’t be any other way. Not in the medium run.

          The birth rate must equal the death rate just to keep us at the disastrous level we are at now. Even that isn’t happening.

          1. Populations follow an S-curve.  That means they approach an asymptote, or, in your words, they stop growing entirely.

            Birth rate is in decline and will approach death rate.  It’s just that death rate goes down first.  People don’t stop having lots of kids until their kids start living.  When death rate declines there is a massive boom in population simply because population is a snapshot at a point in time.

            Here’s the simple version – there are two people and they have two children, every generation forever.  They die around the time their grandchildren are born.  Population is stable at four.  Through technology they increase their life expectancy so they live until their great grandchildren are born.  Population has increased to six.  Your argument is that it will continue to increase 50% every generation forever now.

  4. Maybe just misinformed instead of “concern troll”?

    In any case, great entry. Tons of important points. I would like to see the next step on analysis that addresses structural issues of consumption. I think at some level it matters that I consume more water than an Ethiopian, but live next to one of the largest sources of fresh water in the world. I think the pure stat of “four times more” is also somewhat misleading and doesn’t help people in places like the U.S. appropriately target areas of overconsumption.

    1. That is a good point.  Weighting consumption by local availability (and thus the LACK of energy consumption used to get it) matters.

      Really, I think all goods should carry a kJoule rating, representing the sum cost of producing the good from raw resources to reaching the store.

        1. Only imperfectly. If you waded through subsidies, past expenditures that make today’s consumption “cheap” etc. it might work. What does it cost to move a ton of vegetables? Well, it depends how you account for the expense of roads (among other things) doesn’t it?

        2. No, actually.  Dollar value, while related to the sum cost, is not  an approximation of it, due to varying profit margins, discounts, etc.
          Additionally, the variable cost of kJoules in dollars has a lot to say about it.  If the product is made in the NE USA, from coal power, it would have a very different $ cost compared to a product produced in Wyoming with energy from a natural Gas generator.

  5. Pardon me? Of course, this is the overwhelming attitude among the (already few) who accept that overpopulation is a real problem at all, but also exactly why nothing gets done. The world has been overpopulated since at the very least 1960, when the human population reached 3 billion, and likely even before that, so unless the population will get back to some reasonable values, which’d certainly be no more than 3 billion, and perhaps even below 1 billion according to some estimates, within a reasonable time frame (and something of the order of centuries isn’t a reasonable time frame), this is the world’s top problem, period.

    Of course, no point in saying it, nobody who isn’t already convinced will ever allow themselves to be on this issue, but uh well… Just going to point out that if we currently consume 150% of what the planet can regenerate and it’s said that the top 2% use 50% and the bottom 80% use 20%, then if all (so both the 2% and the 80%) would be brought to the level of the remaining “middle” 30% (which likely include you and me and most of those who may be reading, and who also still justifiably feel they lack this or that), we’d be up to 250%! And when we’d need to be even below 100%, because we also need to fix the damage already done, which is a lot, there lies the problem.
    And then there’s also the space problem, as most people need some room, a space of their own, not to be crammed together as they currently are in urban areas, and yet the other species we share this planet with have already been driven away from most of their habitats because of our territorial expansion.
    But even if you keep it just to the consumption problem, what you have is a consumption problem driven by a population problem. Sure, you can and should eliminate waste and get rid of unnecessary consumption, but you also should provide everyone with what they need for a truly decent, and in fact even good, life, and do so without being “at war” with the other species that we should be sharing this planet with. In addition, this should also happen without additional resources and efforts being put into finding ways to make the most of the available resources in order to draw them out to be enough for so many, because that just means wasting our time, resources and ingenuity to mitigate a problem we ourselves create, the correct solution being to solve the problem so we’ll then be able to put all that time, resources and ingenuity into actually advancing and evolving, and also into fixing damage already caused.

    1. You didn’t even RTFA, did you? The whole point of this post is that it is NOT population that is the problem, it is consumption. The consumption problem is not driven by the population problem, as you can clearly see by the fact that places which have already undergone their demographic transition and have lower-than-replacement fertility rates (i.e., the US and Europe) have HIGHER per capita levels of consumption than places that still have high fertility rates. That is, there is no direct relationship between fertility and consumption. Population is a canard.

      So, come back with another long diatribe that does not contain this fallacy.

      1. Is the idea then that the Americans come down a lot, and the Ethiopians are raised up a little bit? I would think we’d want the standard of living for everyone be improved, and while Americans use way too much, you’ll still need increased consumption to raise the standard of the example Ethiopian family.

        1. I think the idea is to stop thinking in terms of “standard of living” as a quantity directly proportional to your environmental footprint. It is not, as others have illustrated here. Clean drinking water might be something that is trivial to produce (gravity-fed snow-melt piped into your home) or extremely difficult (desalinated at sea level and piped across the desert to my mountain stronghold).

        2. But the Ethiopians are not suffering because we have food and refrigerators. They are suffering because their numbers depleted the land and they no longer can support themselves – and they still insist on having too many babies and will continue to try to double every 27 years. If they don’t manage to double, it’s because the Four Horseman will ride, as they are doing this very moment. You either stop the growth and manage to survive until the giant generation grows old and dies, thus achieving steady-state or depopulate, or you get war, disease, and famine. And death. This is not an opinion. It is a fact, a fact we have no problem accepting with kangaroos or rabbits or deer when they grow too numerous.  Let’s try doing it the sane way, rather than watch the blood flow and the children die, which is what we do now.

      2. The article it links to? Well, no, I’ve seen this argument too many times before.
        And my point isn’t the current per-capita consumption, but:
        a) The total consumption.
        b) The consumption increase required for everyone to have a good life, seeing as at the moment the large majority of the world’s population doesn’t.
        Never claimed there was any relationship between fertility and consumption, just that more people having a good life use more resources and more space than fewer people doing the same. But maybe that just seems to make perfect sense to me.

        1. You are exactly right, the world can ill afford at the present inefficiencies to provide over 2 billion Chinese and Indians the same standard of living enjoyed by Europeans and citizens of the U.S.A.

          Though I would not agree the world is over populated, we just refuse to distribute our resources equally. There is no reason children should starve to death or die from preventable diseases merely on the chance of their place of birth.

          We have more than enough for everyone to live well nourished reasonably healthy lives, we just refuse to make it happpen.

          1. So in fact you disagree (or you got me wrong, more likely). I really don’t think we have enough. At a good standard of living for all and without wasting even more time, resources and ingenuity on mitigating the effects of the problem instead of solving it right out, really don’t see how we’d have enough for more than about 2.5 billion. And if we add the need to fix the damage already done too, that number will probably drop below 2 billion.

    2. Pardon me? Of course, this is the overwhelming attitude among the (already few) who accept that overpopulation is a real problem at all, but also exactly why nothing gets done.

      It’s the “nothing gets done” part we’re disagreeing on. Did you miss this part of the post or do you just choose to dismiss it?

      Around the world—not just in the West—human birthrates are decreasing. And they’ve been decreasing for a really long time.

      Now maybe those birth rates aren’t dropping fast enough for your tastes. Fine, whatever. But calling that overwhelming trend “nothing” hurts your overall credibility.

      1. Something getting done would imply the world’s human population dropping at a steady pace (and reasonably rapid, but all right, that’s about “enough” getting done, not simply “something”). That may start happening around mid-century at best according to the current estimates, or then again it may not, but it’s certainly not happening now and it won’t be happening in the near future.

        1. I’m not sure what you are suggesting for population beginning to decline during the first half of this century, but there isn’t much beyond Soylent Green that would have that quick of an effect. And besides, if that were accomplished while consumption (both total AND per capita) was still increasing, it would not have had the desired effect.

  6. Most of the people I know who feel population is a problem feel that the best way of solving it is promoting sex education, women’s rights, and easy availability of birth control worldwide, the United States included. This seems like a very good idea, population aside. They also include overconsumption as a natural part of the problem, and work towards sustainable energy, green technologies, reducing waste, and conservation. It’s not an either-or situation, reducing overpopulation and overconsumption are both important in long-term quality of life for future generations.

    While I get the point this article is trying to make, the people it seems to be trying to make it to- racist, overconsuming Americans who want fewer poor brown people in the world so they don’t have to cut back on the oil- are something of a straw man. They certainly exist, but the people who are genuinely concerned about population growth are well aware that overconsumption is a massive part of the problem, and most certainly aren’t racist in their motivations or actions.

    1. I agree that there are things that can be done that lower birthrates in certain areas, like education, medical care, etc., but as you say, those are things that should be done for many reasons – the reduced population growth rate just comes along for the ride.

      As for the racism thing – I think there are very few explicitly racist population control folks – the very outward “eugenics” based population control arguments are largely out of date now. But what is much more insidious is the implicit biases that many people have which manifest themselves in the form of racist behavior, even while the individual doing the behavior believes they do not have those biases, or in fact believes themselves to have exactly the opposite biases than they actually display.

      Subtle beliefs we have about the ability of people with less education to make good decisions, beliefs about our own ability to make good decisions for others, and the fact that it is easier to lay problems at the doorstep of someone who lives far away all make for fertile ground for unintentional discrimination.

      Check out “Project Implicit” from Harvard Univ., which is a project aimed at the idea that while people don’t always speak their minds, they may not even know their minds either – but there are ways to test for it. You might be surprised at the biases you have that you truly believe you do not have (I know I was). Sometimes this means that you need to aggressively call something out as racist even though it doesn’t FEEL racist, in order to force a little uncomfortable introspection. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

      1. As for the racism thing – I think there are very few explicitly racist population control folks – the very outward “eugenics” based population control arguments are largely out of date now.

        That group seems much more focused on getting white people to breed more.

          1. The only country where that’s likely to get mass support is Russia. And I still doubt that it will affect the birth rate enough to notice.

        1. If you live in the Bible Belt it can certainly seem that way. But we all have our prejudices.

          1. There really are political leaders offering incentives for their nationals to breed.  Putin wants days off for Russians to fuck.

  7. In part, I disagree.  I agree that the overpopulation “problem” in poorer nations will eventually solve itself.  But a real problem exists among wealthy populations who continue to have as many children as possible (most often directly or indirectly for religious reasons), and are thus growing exponentially even when the normal demographic factors would suggest they would be have 2.3 children per family.  It only takes one population group maintaining exponential population growth for the world, in the long run, to keep having its population grow.  And therefore, I think it is necessary to talk about the population problem, not in India and China where the growth rate is decreasing, but in parts of the US and Europe where the population is still growing exponentially.

    1. So… in less than PC terms, we need to target the Mormons?

      Not that I disagree – with our consumption rates it makes sense to have less children.

    2. Uh, where in the West do you see exponential population growth that is not attributable to immigration? As desperado said, Utah?

    3. The overpopulating peoples of the world, squeezed out of their homelands by the Four Horsemen of Overpopulation, do bring high birth rates to their adopted homes, causing joblessness, overburdened school districts, and ever more population growth. They do tend to obliterate the good effects of the reduced birthrate of their adopted homeland. This could slowly wither as their attitudes towards birth control change, but for decades they grow enormously faster than their new homes can absorb properly – and their very numbers begin to create a backlash against adopting birth control, as they tend to *become* their new home, in numbers, and tend to not assimilate ideas about limiting growth. In other words, they keep having more than a replacement number of children, and their doubling rate goes unchecked, causing ever more problems with funding schools and finding ever more land to house them.

  8. i don’t think that it’s necessarily racist to maintain that although overconsumption is a major problem, the human population is STILL too high, and it’s the responsible thing to do to do what we can reduce birthrates.  certainly racism is some individuals’ agenda, but not everyones’.  i don’t say that we need to reduce birthrates while casting a sneering eye overseas; i mean that we ALL do.  if anything, i blame affluent first-world dwellers MORE for overpopulation because WE are the ones with the resources available to freely limit our reproduction, in spite of what certain right-wing government officials seem hell-bent on reversing lately.  i blame the duggars, i blame octomom, i blame everyone who composts, bicycles, drives a hybrid, recycles, buys only local produce, whatever, and STILL pumps out children as though THAT doesn’t undo everything else they’ve done to help our planet.

    1. Absolutely. It should happen everywhere, but efforts to lower population more notably should start where:
      a) The per capita consumption is highest.
      b) The “infrastructure” is already in place for a significant impact of such measures to be likely in a short amount of time.
      If nothing else, that’ll buy time for the long-term projects required to drastically reduce family sizes (and greatly increase the number of childfree people – and in fact introduce the concept in all the parts of the world where it’d be incomprensible) elsewhere.

  9. I would love to read, think about and comment on your post Maggie, but I cannot stop staring at that mustache.

  10. “So when you ignore consumption and pin the blame for global sustainability issues on population, what you’re doing is blaming the 99% for the mistakes of the 1%.”

    Isn’t this what we been doing all along?

  11. i cannot imagine how, even if our consumption rates were lowered, one can even begin to honestly believe that we are not overpopulated when there are other species on this planet that are dying for lack of resources AND space.

          1.  For realz?! 
            I had never even heard of Socotra island. 

            A quick GIS initially confirmed my suspicion. 
            That vegetation looks decidedly extraterrestrial. 

      1.  Actually… in Wyoming I can speak to how the animal species are losing their natural habitats due to resource extraction, which obviously is due to our continual use of fossil fuels.  It’s natural gas extraction now that’s causing problems.  And though it may seem like there’s a wide open frontier in Wyoming, that’s just not the case.  Every square inch, aside from National Forest, is carved up, owned, and fenced off, for ranching mostly.  Couple that with the fact that it’s an arid high-plains desert – Wyoming by itself could not support all the farming needed to support it’s current population, let alone more people.  The water table is getting lower and lower (thanks in large part to the natural gas extraction)…

      2. Have you spent any time in Wyoming, Nunavut, or Mongolia?

        Empty land with no water supply is non-habitable. Unless you think that Las Vegas is a model for the future.

        1. It’s not the amount of water that Las Vegas drinks (or even bathes with) that makes it so incredibly wasteful. It’s the amount that goes to irrigate golf courses, fill swimming pools and maintain gigantic ornamental fountains. Again, more an issue of consumption than population.

          1. But they’re still importing all their water.  It’s already dried up some major water sources.  It’s a limited resource.

          2.  I agree, grass is the largest irrigated plant in this country and golf courses account for a huge percentage of water use in some areas. Xeriscape landscaping should be the law instead of deed restricted lawns,

          3.  They’re sitting on a fossil aquifer. Unless it starts raining a lot, or rivers meander towards them, the area would run out of groundwater no matter how many people or golf courses there are. It’s completely unsustainable, regardless of how long it takes to run out.

          4. @Antinous_Moderator:disqus

            But they’re still importing all their water.  It’s already dried up some major water sources. It’s a limited resource.

            Yes, and people who live in arid areas are using it like it’s not. That’s the problem.

            Even inconveniently-located cities like Vegas wouldn’t be drying up major water sources if the people there were mindful of how they used it. One rich golfer with a swimming pool is probably responsible for as much water waste as a whole tribe of indigenous Mojave Indians.

        2. I was responding to the argument made by octolover that it is ‘obvious’ the Earth is over-populated by humans because “there are other species on this planet that are dying for lack of resources AND space”.  I think our greed for resources, rather than our aggregate number, is what causes the problem (agreeing with Maggie’s premise, in fact).  There is a lot of room for all sorts of species on this planet, especially those who can live where humans find it difficult….which includes places like the ones I’ve mentioned, and even the Las Vegas area.  And when those areas are ruined because of human intervention, it really isn’t because of population, it’s because of our rapaciousness with natural resources (including foundational ones like water and air).

    1. This is still a consumption problem, not a population problem – in this case consumption of land area. There are families of four who live on carefully manicured lawns and huge homes who’s land area and energy usage could happily feed and house an extended family of 20 (at a high standard of living). The number of people is a piece of the puzzle, but the behavior is what really creates the issue.

  12. The rough estimate that the U.S. of A. accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population, yet uses over a 25% of the world’s energy resources is not as troubling as it may seem. While it is obvious the U.S.A. is not energy efficient and is struggling to reach a consensus on energy policy, it is not so obvious that the U.S.A. is a leader in manufacturing, only recently being eclipsed by China, and a leader in food production. Vast amounts of the energy consumed in the U.S.A. is sent overseas in the products we export.

    Only the European Union, China, and little old Germany export more goods than the U.S.A. Also, this country is one of the top producers of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Russia.

    Likewise, while the U.S.A. imports and consumes the lion’s share of the world’s resources, much of that is used in the products exported around the world. The size of the U.S.A.’s economy is staggering. We must be careful not to assume that all of the energy and resources consumed in the U.S.A. are destined for the consumers living here. This country supplies in excess of 1.5 trillion dollars worth of food production, energy, and manufacturing to almost every country on earth.

    Do we have a lot to learn and change? Yes. But never forget this country is huge by any standard. This economy at its weakest is still one of the largest most powerful economies on Earth. This country is also one of the most productive countries in the world, as measured by GDP divided by hours worked.

    Not trying to be all we’re number one, etc., everyone knows we suck on so many levels, but let’s put this in a little perspective.

  13. Factor in increasing lifespan, and the possibility that birthrate will one day be dramatically higher than deathrate and you have a possible recipe for continued over population, among a variety of other social problems that will and have already arisen due to historically high proportion of seniors.

      1. Fewer people = less competition for resources = better for everyone already around. I don’t see how not having any more babies hurts third worlders any more than it hurts us Americans. We can afford to go all Children of Men for a generation or two. 

  14. When you remember that the reason for overpopulation being a concern is not because of our inability to support ourselves but because of our crowding of other species and destruction of natural habitat and environement, it ceases to be a matter of consumption versus overpopulation anyway. Whichever society raises up to first world levels develops first world consumption–let’s take a NON-United States country like Australia or Germany as our example.

    So long as population grows, and humans, no matter how densely or sparsely consumptive, crowd other species, we diminish the ecosystem around us. Obviously a country like the US is far more damaging due to that consumption, but raising up the third world to first-world levels of living, despite decreasing birth rates, would be absolutely unsustainable by the ecosystem around us, including our own crops. Jared Diamond, I thought, made that point pretty clear.

  15. This is partly an issue of terminology. Whether you specify population growth or overpopulation, it is still obvious that there are too many people on the planet right now, let alone how many there will be in the future, and something must be done about it ASAP. Very similar in some ways to global warming, which is a ridiculous term as the effects of man-made climate change (a much better term) may include some or all of the world getting colder.

    Sadly, while journalists and politicians argue over the right terms, the obvious problems go largely unsolved.

    1. “the obvious problems go largely unsolved”

      Well, cut through the B.S. and tell us the solution. And not the result (i.e. have fewer people), but how to get there.

      1. Population control and economic reform. The idea that you can have as many children as you want and a business as big as you want is not sustainable.

        1. Yes, but how do we do that? Come on, say it. “Population control” is too vague. That could mean using riot police. Come on, Mitchell, just say what these policies are.

          1. How about universal access to effective contraception?  Is that too totalitarian for you?

          2. Why is it that you think that little old me has a detailed plan for solving a problem that involves 6 billion people? There is no magic wand. But one starting point would be to tax the hell out of people with lots of children instead of giving them write offs. And yes, universal access to family planning and contraception.

          3. Whenever I read the expression “pop control” I cringe @ the naiveté of the writer. Please, stop advocating potentially really bad ideas.

      2. One think I’d like to see is a willingness of our religious leaders to condone (or at least accept) the concept of birth control. I don’t know how effective secular meddling in dogmatic philosphy would help, but if I were the POTUS I’d probably take the pope aside sometime and respectfully discuss/suggest thinking of quality of life for his followers instead of just quantity of life.

        We could use some basic cultural rearrangement of priorities in this area. Why is the “correct” reaction to hearing that somebody is pregnant “Oh! Congratulations!”? Causing the death of even a fetus of which a criminal (or the fetus’s mother) is unaware is punishable under US law. Shows like 19 Kids and Counting and Kate Plus 8 are celebrated, and celebrity tabloids and TV shows are cluttered with breathless announcements of who’s expecting, who might be expecting, and who wishes she were expecting. Every sperm is sacred, I guess, but Monty Python covered it better than I ever could.

        Even on a small scale, it’d help if people didn’t automatically equate the term “planned parenthood” with Planned Parenthood, godless provider of abortions rather than the rational process of family planning.

  16. I’m not sure you can accurately say the problem is not as horrific as they’re made out to be based on this, for a couple of reasons. 1) If the high birthrate of the past was the problem – face it, a lot of those kids died before reaching adulthood, where they would be consuming much more than an adult wound. 2) With birthrates falling, and lifespan increasing, the amount of care needed by people in their later years requires even more resources than before, thus compounding the problem. That’s why Japan is freaking out so much they’re actually loosening their immigration laws, so they can get more caregivers into their system. In 20 years, a huge portion of adult caregivers in Japan will be either robotic or Filipino (no joke).

  17. Well, it sucks to see so many wild species of animal go extinct when their habitats are slashed to ribbons causing inbreeding, all while global black markets hunt them out. Just about everywhere humans show up, whether they exist in 20th century first-world milieus or not, they kill the animals around them. The more people, the harder it gets for the animals. Or maybe not. Maybe human ability to extirpate animals at an unprecedented rate must be to consumption, rather than unprecedented population. After all, it’s not like total human population encircles the globe and jumped fourfold or more in only 100 years and is fracturing species habitats at an incomprehensibly high rate or anything. Racism!

  18. Though it’s easier to label the blame as consumption – fact is we, as a species, are too numerous AND consuming too much.  Brazil was destroying it’s rainforest for US-bound cattle first, but now it’s for domestic ethanol…

    Taking the broad view, look how the fertile crescent was the birthplace of civilization. In only a few thousand years desertification sterilized the soil, now lacking the rich biodiversity of, say, the pacific northwest, where western civilization has only been for a few hundred years.  And yes, we’ve proven rainfall is dictated by the vegitation that creates the conditions for it to fall.  Wipe out the vegetation, and the rain will pass right over that area.

    Population and consumption are an intertwined problem.

  19. I enjoyed how the article and commentary talk about over-consumption being the actual problem, then immediately below that is advertisement trying to get me to buy things from the Boing-Boing Shop.

      1. Home suicide kits aren’t scalable enough. You need “Spree Killer” starter kits or maybe a ‘Weaponized Ebola” or “Thermonuclear Device” maker guide. 

    1.  Made all the more funny by how almost every item in the shop is as frivolous as it could possibly be. Shirts, sure, people need clothes… cutting board, also useful. But there’s not a single person on Earth who needs a neoprene jacket sized to cover a single pear, or a plastic trophy-shaped cupcake holder, or squirrel underpants.

  20. The commentosphere should be awarded the nobel peace prize for identifying and naming concern trolls and concern trolling. I know I have learned something about argument and debate and how they can be sidetracked by bogus but difficult to combat, apparently altruistic, whining.

  21. So we are currently living at the peak of human population? There will never again be more people alive at once than right now? (give or take a decade). That’s bizarrely sobering.

    1. Hey, if antibiotics start losing their effectiveness you could see many fewer people on the planet in your lifetime! How’s that for bizarrely sobering.

  22. Maggie, I think your commentary here is at odds with your own past writing:


    In that article, you link to the 2008 MIT paper which found that even a homeless person in the US consumes approximately double the global average of energy in a given year. You go on to conclude that “The problem isn’t individual choices. The problem is the infrastructures that we share, infrastructures that often limit our energy choices and incentivize wasting energy rather than conserving it.” 

    This seems to not accord with your above statement concerning the “mistakes of the 1%,” which strikes my ears as hitching your energy policy horse to a fashionable and mostly unrelated political movement.

    1. She implies that even the poor and/or homeless in the US and other first-world countries are still part of the 1% in global terms. I don’t see a contradiction, though it’s obviously an oversimplification.

  23. Sorry, but this post is well below the level I’ve come to expect from Maggie. Yes, there is a huge difference between population growth and birth rates. That doesn’t change the fact that there has not been a serious dip in human population growth since the bubonic plague. We are still on pace to continue doubling the world population every 30 years or so. That is not well on its way to fixing itself. That is a serious problem even after remove any petty racist fears of having some other group endangering our life of consummate waste.

  24. Pearce’s essay makes it clear that, when you do that, you’re pretty much being a concern troll. The population problem, while still real, is well on its way to solving itself.

    Then I must politely ask Pearce to fornicate himself with a large unlubricated toilet float.

    If we weren’t overpopulated, we could pollute and overconsume to our hearts content – just like most species do – and the environment would handle our excesses.  The reason I can’t just dump my used motor oil on the side of the road and let the biosphere feast on it is there’s too damn many of us.  This is a basic biological principal; it’s called “carrying capacity”.  Humans have exceeded the carrying capacity of our environment.

    From Wikipedia:  “The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely”.  The key words here are sustainable and indefinitely.

  25. “The area of this rectangle is too big”
    “The problem is with the width”
    “NO, the problem is with the length”

    You can frame the problem either way you like.  Either it’s a problem of consumption (in which case you can support 7 billion people to a low standard of life), or it’s a problem of population (in which case you can support ~1 billion people to current Western standards of life), or some mixture of the two.

    I don’t appreciate being tarred as a racist for holding the view that fewer people with a higher standard of living is preferable to more people on the Malthusian limit. Racist is if you start specifying where those people should live and what colour they should be: factors which I find of little interest.

    1. Obviously both factors (overall population and per-capita consumption) are part of the equation. But one of those factors has steadily been fixing itself while the other has been steadily growing worse.

    2. Nice analogy, because it *is* indeed perfect. Consumption per capita times population is the aledged problem to solve.

  26. > I’ve heard many, many Americans express their fears about population
    growth over the years. Pearce’s essay makes it clear that, when you do
    that, you’re pretty much being a concern troll.

    Concern troll? That’s pretty nasty and unwarranted. It’s a term much better reserved for situations where there’s malice involved, rather than actual,  you know – concern.

  27. What is a party of concern trolls called? 

    Let’s not all miss the point while working so hard to avoid it. Here it is (I think) For first world people to say the problem is over-population is to attempt, consciously or not, to point the finger away from our own damaging intransigence and toward others.

    1. Saying that we should ignore one problem because, ooh, look there’s a different problem is the heart and soul of concern trolling.

  28. Poorer nations can “solve” growth in either of two ways: control population growth, or wait for something to cause mass die-off. There are no other possibilities. Religion and culture and the human consensus that we need to keep breeding at all costs, along with an inability to perform a geometric expansion to understand the impossibility of eternal growth, is precluding the former. The latter method is not voluntarily chosen, but always, always happens when a population grows too large: the Four Horsemen ride.  War, famine, pestilence and death. 

    The only other biological organism that tries, and succeeds, to continue its growth at the expense of all other living things around it is called a cancer. 

    And it doesn’t work out for a cancer, either. It dies with the host.

  29. The richest fishery the world has ever known, the Grand Banks, has collapsed. The bluefin tuna is approximately extinct, having been entirely converted into sushi. The only reason we can produce enough vegetables is by strip mining groundwater and petrochemicals. The Ogalala aquifer is all but dry and will take 10,000 years to recharge. Every drop of water thrown on the Arizona desert to grow cabbage also gradually salts the soil.

    The only reason we do all this is because it is the only way to feed the enormous number of people who populate this planet.  Okay, overpopulation and and consumption are not the same thing but you can’t have the former without the latter. What Pearce notes is what controls the rate of increase, not the fact of increase.

    Every square inch of arable land on Earth is under cultivation, in the process driving multiple species to extinction as their habitat becomes farmland. Much of it will go out of cultivation when we run out of petroleum and groundwater. It is hard to see how that doesn’t correlate with population.

    1. Every square inch of arable land on Earth is under cultivation

      Careful; a phrase like this can really undermine an entire comment’s credibility.

      1.  Yeah, ok. Almost every. There’s still some jungle that hasn’t been slashed and burned yet and there’s still some desert that hasn’t had an aquifer thrown on it. Hyperbole aside, the fact that we are rapidly consuming nonreplaceable resources in order to farm land that shouldn’t be farmed does indicate that we’ve exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth for people already.

  30. I’ve thought about this for awhile now. Pardon my ignorance on the subject, but I’ve felt that after living in the west and driving across america a number of times in the last 7 years, I think we have more than enough room for growth in population. 

    I do think the real issue is consumerism, but wouldn’t supply/demand play a role? 

    I wish I was more knowledgable on the subject.

  31. Peak oil will limit consumption times population much more effectively than any solutions that man comes up with. 

  32. Not to worry, folks.  Political will or no political will, when resources are sufficiently depleted, the consumption “problem” will take care of itself.  It’s the nature of life on earth to use what resources are available and, in that respect, we humans are no different than any other life form.

  33. There are no easy answers.  A radical reduction in birthrate leads to a big bulge of elderly, and that happens pretty quickly.

    Plus, we’ve been in an economy that has been driven, in part, by the growth of population, as increasing numbers of people need goods and services.  Change that, and you change the economy.

  34. Gosh, Madeliene Weld’s response to Pearce didn’t read much like concern trolling to me. She indulges in a few too many rhetorical questions for my taste, especially in the paragraph on Africa, but a lot of her arguments seem spot on, and fit other things I’ve read elsewhere. I’m not sure if Occidentalism is much preferable to Orientalism (not really the right term, but better than racism) on questions of climate change, when a lot of data seems to say that both hemispheres suck horribly in their own unique, interconnected ways on questions of population growth and resource usage. The deforestation of the Amazon alone would seem a good, intuitive counter to Pearce’s argument. Would like to see a combination of both views.

  35. One point this argument is overlooking is that over consumption is caused by over population. Mass production only makes sense when there is a over population to provide the demand.  Mass production also requires over consumption to sustain itself. Hence, over population is the source of over consumption! 

  36. I’m not sure what problems people are trying to prevent.  Do we want less disease, less war, less famine?  Why do we want these things, is it to limit human suffering and death?  And what is our proposal so solve this – that half the world die off to make room?  Why bother to try to implement a solution that is basically the worst case scenario outcome of the problem?

Comments are closed.