Economist Lester Brown, in the latest book of his Plan B series, states that “socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.” In its frenzy for more consumers and an apparently equal frenzy to ravage ecosystems, capitalism ignores the obvious truth that human overpopulation may already have reached plague status.
Dr. Alan Watt once told a New York City audience that, “You didn’t come into this world at all. You came out of it, in just the same way that a leaf comes out of a tree… Our world is peopling, just as the apple tree produces apples, and the vine grapes.” He explained that, if we are intelligent beings, it must be that we are the fruits of an intelligent Earth, symptomatic of an intelligent energy system, for one “doesn’t gather grapes from thorns.” We should realize that we are intelligent products of a sentient Earth. If we wish to “survive” in what is likely an intelligent cosmos, we must heal planet Earth, which we have been steadily maiming. Reducing our population is essential.
Today’s economic problems will remain unsolvable as long as the illusion is maintained that Earth can support an infinite number of people. Scientists understand that a species can remain healthy only as long as its population does not exceed the environment’s carrying capacity. World population five centuries ago, in 1500, was just 400 million. It quadrupled to 1.6 billion by 1900, and in little more than one century has now mushroomed to seven billion.
Physicist Fritjof Capra, in The Web of Life, states that “scarcity of resources and environmental degradation combine with rapidly expanding populations to lead to the breakdown of local communities and to the ethnic and tribal violence that has become the main characteristic of the post-Cold War era.”
It is an ecological maxim that species are healthiest in under-populated habitats.
A homocentric focus enables people to assume they own Earth and can extract from it whatever wealth and amusement will sate our boundless avarice. We are trapped in a syndrome which combines the maximization of both the production of goods and the number of potential consumers.
In Collapse, Jared Diamond repeated the Malthusian insight “that population growth proceeds exponentially, whereas food production increases arithmetically.” This was exemplified in Rwanda’s genocidal bloodbath. A population increase from 1.9 to 8 million people took place there between 1950 and 1994. The amount of land allowed each individual for growing food declined from one-fifth of an acre to one-seventh. Forest growth could not equal the demand for firewood, the traditional cooking fuel. People started using crop residues such as straw as cooking fuel. Soil fertility then declined from lack of needed organic matter. Land scarcity contributed to the massive attack by Hutus on Tutsis, which led to the massacre of 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis. Entire Tutsi families were slaughtered so that no survivors would be left to claim the available land.
Today’s focus on the economy largely ignores the problem of human numbers and the Malthusian consequences: war, famine, and disease.
The economic focus also ignores Plato’s insight that a stable society can be preserved only if deeply moral philosophical concerns guide advances in technology. Lulling materialists with a never-ending cascade of new toys, our industrial society has foolishly felt itself exempt from judicious moral restraint and so has recklessly set the stage for disaster.
In his book Ecological Ethics, Patrick Curry, senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, informs readers that a studious neglect of population problems has become a modern characteristic. He advises that England’s present population of 60 million people is twice what the nation will be able to support as energy problems grow more severe. He quotes an Optimum Population Trust researcher who states that only by extravagant use of fossil fuel can England support its present numbers and that, as such fuel runs out, the sustainable population figure “at most” will be 30 million. In England as well as North America there is “little evidence” of public concern or political awareness of this problem.
A recent issue of Worldwatch Magazine offers population growth figures for several nations — figures for 1950, for today, and projections for 2050: “Afghanistan 6, 28 and 79 million, respectively; Pakistan 37, 170, and 292 million; Somalia 2, 9, and 21 million; Sudan 9, 39, and 73 million; and Yemen 4, 23, and 58 million. The projections for Africa as a whole: 242 million, 922 million, and over 2 billion.”
Alan Weisman, in The World Without Us, states that every four days the planet’s population rises by 1 million, and that in 12 years hence population will increase by another one billion.
Humanity has eliminated predators, introduced sanitation, mechanized agriculture, and improved medical treatments, and has thus unwittingly accelerated population growth.
Sometimes increased knowledge can become a two-edged sword. In Seeds of Change, Henry Hobhouse writes that the British in India became supersensitive to the impact of malaria. When India’s population was 150 million, each year a million babies under the age of one year died from the disease and another million between one and 10 years succumbed, while 2 million mostly over 10 were crippled by recurrent fever. Malaria, Hobhouse conjectures, was a population control factor. The British answer was to invent the Wardian Case (terrarium) and import thousands of cinchona trees to plant in India’s Nilgiri Hills and thereby making quinine available to the native people.
The population of India has now risen to 1.1 billion.
Yes, our species’ survival has been enhanced by such advancements, but to an extent that the growing size of human population now threatens the planet. Humans need to realize the ramifications of their skills. Controlling our numbers is now a procedure we have usurped from Nature, but continue to ignore, and the ecological consequences are calling us to account. A terrible fate awaits humankind if we do not grasp the reality that Earth provides a limited carrying capacity for all species — and act on that knowledge before it’s too late.
As J. Anthony Cassils points out, “The good news is that populations that grow exponentially can shrink exponentially.” If all fertile women, worldwide, were to have only one child, global population would drop one billion by 2050. By 2075, human population would be reduced to 3.43 billion, and by 2100 it would be reduced to 1.6 billion!
An awareness is growing that our planet is becoming overpopulated. Harper’s, a widely read magazine, has repeatedly published full-page advertisements stating that, unless restrained, the U.S. population, now 300 million, will rise to 400 million within 30 years. Increasing demand for water, food, housing, recreational sites, and other resources are a natural result of increased population.
Recent examples given by UN Earthwatch clarify this understanding. To wit: The 20 per cent of us who live in industrial nations use 80 per cent of the world’s aluminium, 81 per cent of its paper, 89 per cent of its iron and steel, and 76 per cent of its timber. An average citizen of the U.S. during his or her lifetime contributes to the use of 540 tons of construction supplies, 18 tons of paper, 23 tons of wood, 16 tons of various metals, and 32 tons of chemicals.
More examples could be given, but consider this salient point about increase in consumption-population ratios: “In the U.S., total consumption of virgin raw materials was 17 times greater in 1989 than it was in 1900, compared with a threefold increase in population.” (Young 1995a)
We must choose between starting now to reduce our population, or move rapidly toward apocalypse.
Bob Harrington lives at Galena Bay, B.C. His latest books are Testimony for Earth and a new edition of The Soul Solution with a foreword by Dr. David Suzuki. See reviews athancockhouse.com.
“Anyone who thinks that an economy can be expanded forever, within the confines of a finite planet, is either a madman or an economist”
~ Kenneth Boulding.
The human population reached plague status about 8 to 10 thousand years ago. The ecological and evolutionary history of the population of an animal species about our size and comparable to our diet is probably most often not more than 10 million or so across the planet. Our population reached higher levels in the wake of the Pleistocene and we in turn organized ourselves in agricultural-urban systems. The exponential trend in our population growth and resource-energy use began back then. What ever limits there are to our numbers and power have been often circumvented by solving a problem or using a new resource. The growth trend of our species began to reach growth rates obvious within an average lifetime several centuries ago, and Malthus made the first analysis of the situation at the close of the 18th century as our population approached one billion. His analysis suffered from the same problem analyses of these nature have, which is that they make errors with respect to numbers: when, how, what bounds etc. Malthus’ analysis did not foresee the industrial use of steam power and coal fired energy. Yet we all know the bounds must exist and that they are less than infinity. Boundless exponential growth is impossible, and the world likely has some limit to available energy and biological life support which our species can endless draw upon
Further, we seem to be on a trend which can’t be artificially reversed in any easy way. Nations which have low population growth rates, seen in Europe and Japan and to some extent the United States are facing economic difficulties. A part of this is a reflection of the lack of youthful population and the growth of an older and less productive population. The regions of the world which currently experience the most rapid economic growth are those which have a large percentage of youth in their populations: China, India, Brazil, and so forth. China will face its own limits along these lines as the “one child policy” will mean that nation will face a huge form of the greying population seen in Japan. Of course without that policy China would now have nearly double its current population, about 1.4 billion, and be faced now with an unsustainable situation and collapse. Nations which have elected to have low population growth face the prospect of a population replacement. The United States could become the next Latin American nation, Europe could become a Muslim region or Caliphate, and Japanese could be replaced by N. Koreans or Chinese and China could in 50 or 100 years face a population replacement.
It is likely that the human population will reach 9 to 10 billion sometime by 2050. It may not grow much beyond that, but it is not likely to shrink back from that for a while. A part of what will be happening is that developed regions will experience population stability followed by population replacement. This will continue until the last undeveloped continent reaches development, which is Africa. I don’t see Africa becoming a developed region for at least 50 years. Also emergent developed regions of the world are not likely to be middle class developed regions seen so far in the US or Europe or Japan. They will more likely resemble China with a minority of wealthy and a majority of the poor and marginalized. Further, if we were to assume this continues until 2100, with an average world population of 8 billion, this has to be compared to the conditions of the 20th century world with an average population of about 3 billion. This means through this century our species will consume twice or more the energy and resources we did last century, with two to three times the levels of pollution, garbage production and ecological damage done to the planet. We will likely also change the global ecological system of this planet in ways which make sustaining our large numbers increasingly difficult. The planetary biosphere is becoming sick.
Realistically it is hard to see it working any other way.The end result is most likely a global collapse, which at best will be a severe dark age, or at its most worse a set of circumstances leading to our species’ extinction. To be honest there is no sustainable human condition other than a foraging or hunter-gatherer type of society with technology on the paleolithic level. Once we began to live in towns and cities with large scale agriculture we entered a situation where we began to extract from this planet more than we gave back. We have been in this situation for at least 7 thousand years, and so long as we remain on it we will exist in an unsustainable manner, and returning to a sustainable situation I outline is almost impossible to accomplish in some voluntary basis, and if we do reach it it will be in the wake of a global collapse.