Overpopulation vs Overproduction

The reasoning for this post is an interesting topic which we discussed in the EOS Facebook Group recently. indian_family_22_oct_2003

When you put a dozen greens in a room, you generally get 60 differing opinions on various topics. One topic which usually makes the room go silent is the topic of population growth. There are three different reasons for population growth being a hot topic in green circles.

Firstly, this issue, when formulated as a problem, begs for political solutions – which often means intrusive measures carried out into the personal lives of people. This creates a natural cringe reaction, especially as many greens are young parents. It also leads to natural associations with various authoritarian governments, like Nazi Germany’s eugenics laws and the People’s Republic of China’s one-child policies. Even if the person claiming to want population control doesn’t specify how – or maybe exactly because of that – people’s thoughts are led to the nightmares of forced sterilisation, adoption clinics, police state measures and sex regulations. And nothing scare people as much as the thought of the state scrutinising their personal lives.

Secondly, harking from this, a lot of greens are aspiring politicians – even in smaller “deep green” parties. They are aware that if you talk about population control, people will flee your party like the cat is fleeing a cold bath. Population control is a kiss of death in western politics. The reasons for this are not irrational. Nobody (or at least a miniscule minority) are wanting intrusive measures into their own lives by the government.

For me, the most important argument against population control as the main source for combatting the ecological crisis is scientific and moral. I will discuss the scientific reasoning first, and that would make the third reason why the subject is cringe-worthy, and the reason which personally makes me tick.

The claim is that we have too little resources to sustain the current population of Earth, and that the population will constantly rise due to the “arithmetic factors” of growth. Professor Al Bartlett of the University of Colorado is claiming this in a lecture which has found its way into Youtube. He is contested by mainstream science, represented by professor Hans Rosling. While EOS has many criticisms against Rosling, it is worth noting that Malthusians like Al Bartlett are doing sustainability advocacy a huge misservice. Having listened to Bartlett’s lecture and read about his resumé, I cannot find any information which shows that he is an expert on population growth curves and trends.

Human beings are not bacteria, and do not reproduce mindlessly. The first warning sign was when he claimed there is no correlation between a “population growth reduction” and education and healthcare, but instead took wars and diseases as positive examples. All research examples are showing that when life expectancy and education are going up, population growth is dropping and eventually stabilising. While a peak of 9 billion might be a little optimistic, it stands clear that if current trends continue, human population growth will stagnate. PopulationGrowth

The main question then is if it is stabilising on a level which represents an acute threat to the planetary eco-systems. Proponents of expansion of agricultural production are usually claiming that we need to increase global production in order to sustain for all people who are starving. This is a misconception. We can feed more than ten billion people today more than adequately. The famines around the world would not exist if the system was designed to accommodate all human needs. Currently, the demand in supply’n’demand is very much designated by the demand of money, which means that if you lack money, you lack demand (and don’t presumably have any needs). The food scarcity is rather a monetary scarcity than a real scarcity at the moment.

Then what is the real problem?

If you look at the graph above, it shows that the global population was almost at  2 billion in the year 1900. Today, the world population is slightly above 7 billion. That represents around a 3,5 times increase since 1900, which is indeed something worth thinking about. That is dwarfed however, by the growth of the economy since year 1900. According to J. Bradford de Long of UC Berkeley, the global economy (GWP) has grown from 1 to 41 trillion USD (1990) between year 1900 and 2000, representing a 40 time increase, or 4000%. Economic growth is not de-attached from the physical resource economy, and the physical resource economy is co-existing in the same environment that constitutes the global biosphere.

That can explain why we are using more resources than the Earth can renew on an annual basis, the annual eco-deficit (a gradual reduction of the Earth’s bio-diversity visible in statistics). This continuous destruction of the Earth’s habitats is driven by the need of the current system to maximise growth figures, and not by people in the third world gaining access to education and healthcare. Those who claim that overpopulation is the main reason behind the ecological malaise are doing a very great disservice to the planet and to future generations. By misdiagnosing the disease, they are advocating faulty remedies which would not cure the problem.

I won’t claim that the overpopulation advocates are driven by any ulterior motives or malevolence, but the idea that overpopulation is the main road towards an ecological collapse in the latter half of the 21st century is looking very much like a shift of the blame from the wealthy parts of the world, where 80% of the world trade is traditionally conducted and where most flashy new products are made, to the poorest and least developed parts of the world, those parts which incidentally have the lowest global footprint. It is also a very real return to the discourse of the 1970s.

Saying that, I won’t omit to mention that we need to engineer social and institutional policies which are leading to a responsible human procreation and family planning. Ultimately however, according to The Design, this should be an issue determined democratically, not scientifically. Human beings must be encouraged to grow up into responsible citizens who can act as stewards of their planet. The purpose of the technate is not to babysit the population, but to ensure that the planetary resources are used in a wise manner.

Needless to say, the Facebook discussion pretty much ended with the population control advocates in disarray.


Enrique Lescure, EOS Sequence of Relations Director, the Earth Organisation for Sustainability

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