Here’s a grim thought about the environment.

There is no way of life for humans on Earth that is ecologically sustainable for a global population of more than a billion. Our per capita environmental footprint doesn’t really matter at this stage.

If we retain our current population and return to a Palaeolithic lifestyle, we’re still fucked in the not-too-long run. If we quit having so many children and get back down to a global population in the hundreds of millions, it won’t matter any more how each of us splurges and consumes.

You don’t need to recycle milk cartons. What you really need to do is convince people to have no children. Two good ways to do this is to give all women at least a high school education, and to convince the Catholic Church that contraceptives are a gift from God.

The population will of course come down eventually. We choose whether this will happen by us not having so many children, or by billions of people dying catastrophically.

Comments

  1. #1 Thomas
    November 16, 2008

    Obviously our per capita footprint matters. Perhaps you ought to rewrite that first paragraph as: “It’s impossible to get a per capita environmental footprint low enough to sustainably support a population of more than one billion people”. Then all you need to do is to justify that rather arbitrary number, and since you made such a general statement you need a show it true for all possible levels of technology and lifestyles. Personally I think it is completely bogus.

  2. #2 Martin R
    November 16, 2008

    Statistically, of course there must be some population interval where per capita environmental footprint does matter. This would be the interval where milk carton re-cycling is a good idea. But I believe that this interval is narrow and located very far below the point our population is at right now.

    Of course, if we could get people to concentrate upon re-cycling with such fervour that they no longer had time to procreate, then it would be useful even in our current dire straits.

  3. #3 jayh
    November 16, 2008

    That is a key point. By scrimping, maybe you can reduce your footprint… 20%, 30%? That is totally dwarfed by the footprint created in children and grandchildren. The childless person ‘living large’ does less longterm damage than th the ascetic with 3 kids.

  4. #4 Matt
    November 16, 2008

    On what information do you base your one billion figure?

  5. #5 Erwin Blonk
    November 16, 2008

    Two things come to mind:
    - I think there might be a relation between the population, the technology required to sustain that number of people (i.e. you can’t have 6 billion people living on stone age technology) and thus a combined footprint that grows exponentionally with the population
    - Simply stop having children will result in a world-wide post baby-boom effect: a population with a high average age and not enough younger people to support the elderly population; you need to build it down slowly.

    Simply stop having children until there are few enough of us overlooks the effects on a population’s age spread. Also, fewer people will mean we have to bring down our technology level. A billion people might brings us back to an early industrial level.

    In short: things ain’t quite that simple.

  6. #6 Richard Simons
    November 16, 2008

    I’ve long felt this way. I don’t think anyone with any training in ecology and population dynamics could look at the world’s human population graph and feel sanguine about the prospects. It looks too much like a population from which the normal restraints have been removed and that is undergoing a boom, to be followed by a crash.

    There are mounting problems in a range of areas, including food, water and energy. Right now, a crisis is looming with a major food disease of wheat spreading east across Asia. It is expected to reduce yields in India and China, the two most important wheat producers, by about 40% in the next four or five years. This will have serious consequences for the world’s grain supply which is already in a worse state than it has been for a long time.

    In the medium term (less than 100 years) oil will become too expensive to use for burning. Then it will become necessary to grow enough crops to provide well over six billion people (assuming there hasn’t already been a crash) with fuel to power all vehicles including aircraft and farm equipment, plus things like irrigation equipment, iron smelters and air conditioning, in addition to growing food for the population. In the longer term things like plastics and rubber would also have to be produced entirely from crops, that we hope would not be vulnerable to epidemics. I know that in principle renewable sources of electricity could provide power, but in practice could it be implemented quickly enough and are there enough raw materials to build them?

    If humans do not reduce their population to more sensible levels quickly it is likely to be done for us.

  7. #7 Mattias Pettersson
    November 16, 2008

    If to choose one single factor out of the main bunch of co-operating global problems, the one factor from which all the others fundamentally derive, it is of course over-population.

    My children are 2, 4 and 6 years old respectively. They will live into a probably very different world, which is a fascinating and at the same time scarifying fact.
    I´m learning them how to flake quartz, which makes excellent cutting edges. Just in case…

    /Mattias Pettersson

  8. #8 Thomas
    November 16, 2008

    Let’s go all hypothetical here. Population is concentrated in large cities using public transit. Energy comes from fusion or solar energy. Food is grown from algae in closed systems. Consumption of material items is low, and everything is designed to be easily recycled. I can easily imagine such a world being able to handle 10+ billion people. Politically achieving a state like that may be difficult, but it’s going to be easier than reducing the world population.

    In the meantime, recycling milk cartons may not do much, but it’ll buy us some extra years to come up with something better.

  9. #9 stewart
    November 16, 2008

    I’m not sure about the billion mark (although I have no evidence, and I’d be willing to go up to 2 billion in the right circumstances), but I agree with the general point. The old world is experiencing slow depopulation (in the new world, this is slightly overbalanced by immigration) but the poorer countries are on the verge, or in some cases already into, environmental/food/health challenges that will have major effects over the next 20 years. I can’t imagine we will ever reach tat 9 billion mark on this planet, but I’m worried that we’ll be held back by disasters, not choices.
    As an example of what the world used to look like, our clinic waiting room has National Geographic magazines from the 1950′s (yes, it’s some sort of record, they have magazines older than the building – I think waiting rooms get a kit when they open). Looking at articles on Canada, Florida, South America, China, India, Africa, etc., shows a different world than the one we live in now.

  10. #10 Alex Besogonov
    November 16, 2008

    Bzzzzzzzzzt! Wrong! More than one billion people is not sustainable with yesterday’s technologies.

    Even now we probably have enough technology to create a green and sustainable world for 6 billion people. Such technology is not widely deployed yet and probably will be replaced by more effective technology before widespread deployment.

    Think about it: cheap energy from nuclear plants (fission or fusion), electric cars and public transport, mostly-vegetarian food, etc. It can reduce our environmental footprint several times.

  11. #11 Pär
    November 16, 2008

    Say hello to Pentti Linkola.

  12. #12 Alex Besogonov
    November 16, 2008

    Richard Simons:

    There’s several times more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. The catch: currently most of this food is used to feed animals. So there’ll be enough food if you stop eating steaks every day.

    Ethanol from grain/corn is a failed idea, it’s clear by now. We’ll probably use electric and hybrid cards which require a small fraction of liquid fuel. This liquid fuel then can be synthesized from coal or more effective biomass source than corn. Or we might start using hydrogen.

    There’s a lot of options.

  13. #13 Trin Tragula
    November 16, 2008

    There is no way of life for humans on Earth that is ecologically sustainable for a global population of more than a billion.

    Soylent Green.

  14. #14 Larry Ayers
    November 16, 2008

    Martin, this is the subject nobody wants to talk about. Of course we should quit reproducing so freely, but unfortunately we have ingrained instincts to reproduce. They are hard to resist. These instincts made great sense thousands of years ago, but they are counterproductive in this day and age.

    After my ex-wife and I had been married for several years she began to try to convince me that we should have kids. I felt that there was no shortage of people in the world, but she finally convinced me. I’ll never forget seeing my first infant child for the first time. All sorts of latent feelings which I had no idea even existed came bubbling to the surface. I was ecstatic, caught up in primordial parental and nurturing feelings.

    We are hard-wired for such feelings but these instincts are going to lead to some sort of global catastrophe within a few decades. Or maybe just a drastically reduced quality of life, if we’re lucky. Grim prospects indeed!

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    November 16, 2008

    It’s good to see this point being raised again, after decades of silence.

    I’ve yet to see a good analysis of just how overpopulation dropped off the radar since its heyday four decades back, but have a strong suspicion of a combination of religious anti-contraception “sensitivity” and third-world nationalistic pro-natalism, plus the corporate backlash against “doomsday scenarios” (read: environmental reporting) and the media’s never-ending quest for simplistic short-term narratives with sensational images.

    As for footprint reduction, that may have reached its easily achievable limits over there where the sentiments powering the Green Party have had a significant influence, but it’s still a major – and very worthwhile – hurdle here in Gawd’s Country.

  16. #16 Christian A.
    November 16, 2008

    My gut feeling when I was around 17 or sowas that the earth could hold around 1 billion people. That way, we would not have to pile up in megacities of 100 million. Besides, I like being on my own. I hate being surrounded by other people I don’t know. Instead, I like riding my bike through remote areas (hard as it is in densely populated Germany, but I used to life in a rural area) or in general knowing the next person is a mile away. So, maybe I am biased about this. But megacity utopia is definitely not the vision of the future I’d like to have.

  17. #17 Richard Simons
    November 16, 2008

    I have no doubt that more efficient use could be made of current resources but I do not see the changes happening fast enough. The scale of the problem is enormous. For example, based on some approximate figures gleaned from the web, to replace 10% of fossil fuel consumption by plant oils would require more than a doubling of current production, although it seems that algal oil production might be more feasible if it can be demonstrated on a commercial scale.

    Using liquid coal is not a long-term solution as it would be good for only about 300 years, while hydrogen is a method of storing and transporting energy, not an energy source in its own right.

    Has anyone produced a serious estimate of what is required to provide all the needs of a population on a completely sustainable basis? It would not be easy to do and various assumptions would have to be made but I think it could be instructive.
    (BTW my meat consumtion is 1/4 of the national average and I eat steak about twice a year.)

  18. #18 natural cynic
    November 16, 2008

    ‘ve yet to see a good analysis of just how overpopulation dropped off the radar since its heyday four decades back…

    The predictions of Paul Erlich in the 1968-70s time period of The Population Bomb turned out to be very wrong:

    “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines . . . hundreds of millions of people (including Americans) are going to starve to death.” (Population Bomb 1968)

    “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” (1976)

    “By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.” (1969)

    “By 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million.” (1969) from the wikipedia on Ehrlich

    Now there are too many people overfed than underfed. Of course this is due to increasing [and presumably unsustainable] resource depletion. What we have seen is a greater productivity and substitution that has taken care of things so far, but I’m not sanguine about the future.

  19. #19 Martin R
    November 16, 2008

    On what information do you base your one billion figure?

    Vague recollections of stuff I’ve read. Anybody with better information, please chime in.

    fewer people will mean we have to bring down our technology level. A billion people might brings us back to an early industrial level.

    No, tech we already have isn’t forgotten just because there are fewer engineering schools in the world. Being able to afford the follow-up to the Large Hadron Collider is another issue — but we’ll probably have to choose between survival and another LHC.

    If humans do not reduce their population to more sensible levels quickly it is likely to be done for us.

    As a species, I’m sure we’ll stick around. But we need to choose if we’re willing to make do with 0.5 child per couple or if we want our individual great-great-great grandchildren to die catastrophically like flies.

    Say hello to Pentti Linkola.

    Errr, Linkola is more like “kill the children” than “use a condom”.

  20. #20 Joseph Hertzlinger
    November 16, 2008

    By “billion,” do you mean 109 or 1012?

  21. #21 Martin R
    November 16, 2008

    109, a thousand million. I wasn’t aware that this was an ambiguous term!? The planet’s human population is currently 6.7 billion.

  22. #22 yogi-one
    November 16, 2008

    The obstacles are huge.

    First, the people who most need to practice having fewer children – the third world’s poorest, believe that their greatest chance of not dying miserably lies in producing more kids to take care of them when they get old.

    Second, religion preaches not to use contraception and that big families are desirable.

    Third the overwhelming instinctual drive is to procreate. Has anyone watched the history Channel special on 10 ways the Earth will end? At the end there’s interviews with people asking them what they would do if they know the world would end? A surprisingly high number of woman said they wanted to have a baby before they died – regardless of the fact that the baby would be doomed also.

    Fourth, denialism. People just don’t want to deal with it, and as we have seen with tobacco and creationism, there’s good money to be made by lawyers and talking heads who want to represent the ignorant viewpoint, even though they know it’s wrong.

    Fifth – political will. Find me the politician who is willing to stand up there and say “quit having babies!” There has been exactly one in my lifetime – Chairman Mao. Not my idea of a good leader to emulate, to be sure, but he was probably right on that one point. Oh, yeah, and the only way he could enforce such a policy was by the threat of police-state brutality.

    There are energy sources that could power us very well (like the sun, and the splitting of water atoms to produce hydrogen and oxygen molecules), but we are still decades or more from developing those sources to where they could power 10 billion lives cleanly.

    With that kind of a population, I am afraid megacities will become the order of the day, because people have always flocked to population centers to find work and the conveniences of large cities.

    Again, theoretically you could spread everybody more evenly over the face of the earth, but you still have big obstacles, plus large chunks of more inhospitable environments such as deserts and high mountains.

    The new energy sources are worth doing regardless, of course, and of course it is worth trying to educate the people why population-reducing and energy-wise policies should be practiced.

    Even if the odds are getting longer, we can still reduce the amount of catastrophe we will face, and plus, it’s just morally and ethically the right thing to do. And generations down the road, if we are able to put the brakes on our overpopulating and planet-destroying habits, it will make life much easier for our children’s children’s children.

  23. #23 dveej
    November 16, 2008

    “Billion” is used differently in the U.S. and in the U.K./Commonwealth/former Commonwealth countries.

    Wikipedia says that the difference is “long scale” and “short scale”. Never heard of that, but I have often seen the British English term “thousand million” in texts written by non-U.S. English writers.

  24. #24 Jeremy
    November 16, 2008

    I agree absolutely in principle with the idea that reducing our population is the way to go. What concerns me is that if all the people who support this stop having children while all the people who oppose it keep having children, we’ll end up with just people who want to keep breeding. Not that I can offer a solution for that. Involuntary sterilisation is not usually a very strong policy in politics :P

  25. #25 Jeremy
    November 16, 2008

    Sorry double post; Just in response to this;

    “Bzzzzzzzzzt! Wrong! More than one billion people is not sustainable with yesterday’s technologies.

    Even now we probably have enough technology to create a green and sustainable world for 6 billion people. Such technology is not widely deployed yet and probably will be replaced by more effective technology before widespread deployment.

    Think about it: cheap energy from nuclear plants (fission or fusion), electric cars and public transport, mostly-vegetarian food, etc. It can reduce our environmental footprint several times.” – Alex Besogonov

    Nuclear power is obviously not a renewable energy, so it can’t become a power source for a sustainable society. The same goes for almost all technology. Anything that involves mining is unsustainable. Much of our high yield agriculture is also unsustainable. Anything that relies on fossil fuels such as oil is unsustainable. Our fishing practices are unsustainable. Maybe it’s possible to build a sustainable society of over 6 billion with technology that doesn’t exist yet, but it seems much better to try and work with what we can do right now, and change our long term plans when the circumstances change – as opposed to having a policy of assuming the circumstance will change and will change in a very positive manner for us.

  26. #26 Kris Rhodes
    November 16, 2008

    Wind and solar technology is sufficient to power the world and sustainable. It’s just a matter of paying for the infrastructure, which won’t happen as long as coal electricity benefits from being able to externalize much of its cost.

  27. #27 Colin Bartlett
    November 16, 2008

    It’s one thing to tell people not to have any children, and quite another to suggest that they have one, extra spoiled, child, and push for people to adopt a child rather than to make one.
    There’s a pretty strong, cross-cultural trend that wealthier, healthier people tend to have fewer children than unhealthy poorer people. This makes sense as an evolutionary strategy. If your living situation is very bad and most of your children are probably going to die before they reproduce no matter how well you take care of them, it makes sense to have a lot of children in the hopes that at least one of them makes it (this especially works when you can use the older children as allomothers to assist in childcare). If your living situation is very good and your children are guaranteed survival barring accident or murder, it makes sense to have only one or two children and sinking all of your resources into them (this is especially true when, given that everyone is guaranteed reproduction, the competition turns to that of social hierarchy, and you can use those resources to better prepare your child to achieve).
    Not that we couldn’t use some specific reform of both the top-down and bottom-up variety to encourage people to make fewer children and adopt, but it seems to me like giving the lowest-income people more resources, a better education and universalizing quality healthcare would do the job of lowering population growth itself.

    The other strong cross-cultural correlation is that of feminism with a lowered birth rate. This makes sense both because, given the huge cost to a woman of carrying that child around, she should want to maximize the success of her offspring in a way that involves having fewer children, and because when women are given the same chances to better their positionin the social hierarchy, they tend to put off having children until later in order to make sure those children can benefit as well as possible from any achievements they make.

    I guess, like any good evolutionary biologist, I am led by the evidence to support feminism and socialism…

  28. #28 MartinC
    November 16, 2008

    Countries like Britain and The Netherland have a much higher density of population than most of the developing world and consume much more resources on average. How will you manage to reduce the populations of places like this?
    Theres a difference between slowing population growth (education and increased societal wealth seems to do this nicely) and reducing populations. For the latter the only reliable process to date has been the actions of pandemics which we’ve (so far) managed to overcome through public sanitation, vaccination and antibiotics. Its pretty difficult at this stage to go back to a situation where a reasonably rapid population reduction is a likely event.
    As for your comment point about recycling, I think that is a red herring. The only real benefit I’ve seen of recyling in Sweden has been an accidental benefit for the old people who have an extra source of income collecting coke cans and bottles from rubbish bins for the 1 kr deposit at the supermarket. It probably also provides some jobs in the recycling industry that wouldnt be there otherwise but lets not kid ourselves that its doing anything significant to protect the environment.
    We probably need to face up to the fact that the earths population WILL continue to grow and figure out means to solve the problems this growth will bring. Nuclear power is a medium term energy solution and better genetic engineering of crops will probably solve the emergent disease situation but longer term we may need to develop fully electric cars (in other words much better batteries) and to switch the consumption of beef to another animal that doesnt produce as much methane – or engineer cows or their gut flora such that they don’t do so.

  29. #29 Pär
    November 17, 2008

    Errr, Linkola is more like “kill the children” than “use a condom”.

    Well, how do you enforce a “use a condom” or “don’t have more kids” law/rule? I believe Linkola suggests birth licences, btw (not for everyone, of course).

  30. #30 Martin R
    November 17, 2008

    how do you enforce a “use a condom” or “don’t have more kids” law/rule?

    For practical purposes, if you want to enforce it, you need a dictatorship à la China. But luckily, you can do it in a more palatable way, by making high school education mandatory for girls. It amounts largely to the same thing.

  31. #31 Cecilia
    November 17, 2008

    Alex B said:
    More than one billion people is not sustainable with yesterday’s technologies.
    Totally agree on that one.

    Christian A said:
    I hate being surrounded by other people I don’t know. Instead, I like riding my bike through remote areas (hard as it is in densely populated Germany, but I used to life in a rural area) or in general knowing the next person is a mile away.

    Thinking of a quote, something like this:

    “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city in this world” /Steve McQueen :)

    If one wants to nitpick on the greek prefixes, i would say 1012 would be the billion, but the English language got it wrong, somehow.

    Explanation:
    million= 106 (6 zeros)
    billion = bi-million = 1012 (2 x 6 zeros)

    Josephs question was actually more than defendable

  32. #32 RickrOll
    November 17, 2008

    yep the only way to do it is to tell people point blank: ONE CHILD!!! Will that work? never. Technology: even if we had the technology of 20 years past ourselves, the 3rd world would be living on the technology of at the very best, the present. Implimenting technology is more important than aquiring it. If we all went down to africa and built say 15 cities like NY or San Fransisco, then we would see the moves that are necessary to the survival of our species, like fewer kids. Hey, legalise Gay marraige! Legalize abortion, both contribute to slowing population growth. I would be absolutely happy to see a religion that preacticed not Celibacy, but sterilization for 90% of it’s congregation (only the Godly shall inherit the earth, you see). The population growth is in fact the least human thing you could ever do to other humans, for the simple fact that more people are going to die 10 years from now that even existed in 1980, and the population still won’t go down. It’s horrendous. By preventing people from having kids, you are doing a service to the world.
    The only thing that would remendy the situation is if People could be hybridized like cars, and the sun were to be captured in the ways that they suggest (beaming down mircrowaves from space for the energy) or helium 3 for fussion on the moon. Hell, if they could colonize the moon, that would be an amazing help. Meat will be outlawed. end of story. wow, talk about the Prohibition!!

  33. #33 MartinC
    November 17, 2008

    A billion is 1,000,000,000 (at least it is in most scientific measurement systems (3 billion bases of the human genome, Neptune is 4.5 billion km from the Sun etc).

  34. #34 John_in_Oz
    November 17, 2008

    Thus the fantasy of ecological sustainability is refuted.
    A one- child policy will not lead us to sustainability. Wikipedia asserts that during the period of the one-child policy China’s population has grown from 1 billion to 1.3 billion (1982-2007) It has also been subject to appaling abuse.
    Socialism is not ‘green’; the world’s Socialist Nations all have greater population growth than Capitalist Japan.
    Medical science is going to extend life expectancy significantly with the mapping of the human genome and understanding of protein folding.
    The world must develop genetic engineering and nuclear technology. It’s not a question of whether it will be done, but only how much additional human misery will be caused by delays in doing so.

  35. #35 Cecilia
    November 17, 2008

    In Swedish: ’1 biljon’ = 1012 (Tera)

    In English: ’1 billion’ = 109 (Giga)

  36. #36 PJ
    November 17, 2008

    Martin… whilst good to hear someone break the taboo on discussing this major issue one might ask why you have 2 children yourself if you consider this subject to be so fundamental or did you have a late conversion? “Do as I say and not as I do” is not a particularly convincing argument.

  37. #37 Abindarraez
    November 17, 2008

    I thinkr, I heard a 3 billion number for sustainability… I can´t exactly say where, probably in the Attenborough series State of The Planet. Also, as far as I remember Alan Weisman´s The World Without Us also mentions something similar.

    The greatest problem is, as Konrad Lorenz wrote, that there is no unlimited developement in a limited space, and the population growth will continue because it is impossible to enforce no- or one-child policies in a state that is not an perfect totalitarian dictatorship, because it is cruel, inhumane and it goeas against our most basic instincts. We might feedthe current population if we try really hard, but in less then 100 years, it´ll at least double and that will be big trouble. After (or even before) that, population collapse is bound to happen which will be really ugly, but it will solve the problem for a few hundred years. I can´t really see anything we can do, apart from heading into space, but that is just a little bit less impossible then achieving sustainability..

  38. #38 Martin R
    November 17, 2008

    PJ, I haven’t really become aware of this until recent years. But I can defend myself to some extent: my two kids have different mothers, and both were their mothers’ first child. So through my own personal movin’ and shakin’, three adults have had two kids, which is below replacement rate.

    But I agree, it is a problem. Very few people should have any children at all. How do we choose the prospective parents?

  39. #39 Jonathan Jarrett
    November 17, 2008

    In English: ’1 billion’ = 109 (Giga)

    In US English. UK usage is 1012, a million million, and this is where the confusion in these comments is coming from. In the sciences I believe the US billion is standard unit, but you can never be sure if people know that.

    There is a more archaic and unambiguous English word for ‘thousand million’, milliard, which I offer for your delectation.

  40. #40 Cecilia
    November 17, 2008

    Jonathan
    I hear you. Milliard (miljard)is the word that the rest of the world is using for Giga. But not the US.

    On topic again: Isn’t the question really about how much pollution of CO2 we produce?
    I mean, the manners of human life 100 years ago (with a lot fewer individuals) probably wasn’t sustainable.

    Population growth means more communication and ability to adopt different ideas and technique.
    But of course, it has to stop somewhere…

  41. #41 shaun
    November 17, 2008

    “But I agree, it is a problem. Very few people should have any children at all. How do we choose the prospective parents?”

    They must have a blog at scienceblogs.com of course! :)

  42. #42 Ian
    November 17, 2008

    Martin -

    I see a lot of talk here, but I see no science. “Vague recollection” is not a scientific basis for a proposition, yet this entire discussion has taken flight as though your original statement (regarding the 1,000,000,000 figure) is now scientifically valid.

    If a creationist had tried to launch a discussion in this manner, they would have been pilloried, and quite appropriately!

  43. #43 Martin R
    November 17, 2008

    Ian, if you have better knowledge, then please share. Where would you put the limit? At ten billion? At a hundred million?

  44. #44 Erwin Blonk
    November 17, 2008

    “No, tech we already have isn’t forgotten just because there are fewer engineering schools in the world.”

    I understand that, this is however not what I had in mind.
    Let’s take it to extremes. If, with the present knowledge, the population would be 100,000, worldwide, I don’t think we can sustain space exploration at our present level. Every technology will have different parameters (absolute minimum population, percentage of the population involved).
    It is why especially smaller countries cooperate with others in many technologies: they have the technology but lack the numbers. It is why the USA can manage its own space program and a per capita much wealthier country like Monaco cannot (they actually need France for a lot of basic things).

  45. #45 Hugo
    November 17, 2008

    What can you do?

    “The rich get richer and the poor get…children.”

    The idea of a ‘family unit’ has been beaten into the heads of so many men and women, it’s often considered “wrong” or “strange” not to be thinking of marriage/kids.

    And I think most people will have children now just to spite you, Martin :P.

  46. #46 Martin R
    November 17, 2008

    What you can do is educate people. It may not be enough, but we have to try.

  47. #47 Kris Rhodes
    November 17, 2008

    Ian’s right. The claims in this post are not supported by any evidence.

    “There is no way of life for humans on Earth that is ecologically sustainable for a global population of more than a billion”

    Oh rly? facts pls?

    As to what the correct answer is, we shouldn’t be asked to make up a different number for you. I mean, his whole point was that making up a number isn’t satisfactory.

  48. #48 John Scanlon FCD
    November 17, 2008

    Let’s go all hypothetical here. Population is concentrated in large cities [camps] using public transit [cattle trucks]. Energy comes from fusion or solar energy. Food is grown from algae in closed systems. Consumption of material items is low, and everything is designed to be easily recycled. I can easily imagine such a world being able to handle 10+ billion people.

    Now that‘s Soylent Green.
    Anybody who wants to live like that, there’ll be room for you, but then… why not let the future offworld colonists do your living for you, and turn yourselves in for recycling at the earliest opportunity?
    There’s a 70′s-vintage slogan that sums up the vegetarian/recycler/algae-sucker mentality, and that I really hate:

    Live simply, so that more may simply live!

    Oh really, and how many more do you fucking want? Ten billion, a hundred? Do you really want that many neighbours, or that many competitors? Some of us would rather live among trees and wildlife.
    From a long-term planetary view, human impact won’t be measured by the height of the peak but the area under the population curve (proportional to total non-renewable resource depletion, including loss of soil, clean air, species and viable ecosystems). I don’t expect it’s going to be a wide peak, and pandemics seem likely to have even more influence on this century’s level than secondary education of girls. Rather pestilence than famine and war, but education is best because – apart from positive effects on future population and culture – without it we are no different from termites.

  49. #49 RickrOll
    November 18, 2008

    I still think if people were to be cyberized to the extent that thier brain may have some disjoint with their bodies, there would theoretically be no upper bound to how many “humans” that coiuld live in the world. Especially if we impliment all the technology that would say, capture the sun’s energy in space and beam it down to earth, with microwaves. There is good science behind this particular energy fix. After all, compared to all the room on the surface of the earth, low orbit has many many times more to offer. I can’t remember the formula for the surface of a sphere (much less the proper correction for the equitorial bulge), but the orbital altidude would offer ar least 100x as much room to work with, correct? An amazing amount of energy radiates from our quaint little star, and capturing the small amount that passes within our area of control (i.e. the earth’s orbit and the moon, which may also be coated with solar panels as well, in addtion to mining for helium 3), we would undoubtably solve our energy problem, but the issue is truning that energy into food. the best thing would be, as far as i’m concerned, to cut out the middleman. Until then? I have no idea, but a third World War seems to be a quick fix. But it’s the prevention of a global Baby Burst after the fact that would be the proper response, regardless of the actual event, whatever that might be. Even assuming the population continues to grow completely unrestrained, the two symptoms that would manifest would be a continued escalation of death and poverty all over the planet. but we would survive the second Dark Age. so there is a silver lining. either way we will likely survive.

  50. #50 AR
    November 18, 2008

    A Messiah-figure will return soon to magically solve our problems, says the Christians, the Shiite Muslims, some Jews, and even some Buddhists. Hundreds of millions have no incentive to have fewer children if they believe this fairy tale.

  51. #51 SharonH
    November 18, 2008

    I’ve known that I never want to have kids for over a decade, but I still can’t find a doctor to sterilize me. There are a lot of reasons not to have them – even more for me than most – but there is still so much stigma about it that doctors feel the need to tell me that I’m going to change my mind.

    It’s a bit insane out there.

  52. #52 Martin R
    November 18, 2008

    Sharon, your girly gonads are hard to get at surgically. Popping a day-after pill now and then is far less painful and dangerous to your health than going through female sterilisation. If you settle down with some guy, have him tie his tubes instead!

  53. #53 Andrew
    November 18, 2008

    Unfortunately, because of the dominance of liberal-left orthodoxy in world development affairs, to question population growth, which is overwhelmingly in the third world, is now RACIST. So absurdly unsustainable trends like Ethopia’s population DOUBLING SINCE THE 1980′S FAMINE, are ignored, not even mentioned.

    London Mayor Boris Johnson explains how the politically correct left, not the religious right, is the main cause of the crackdown on demographic discussions. (as the former, not the latter, runs world development programmes)

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/10/25/do2501.xml

    “As for the Left, they dislike suggestions of population control because they seem to smack of colonialism and imperialism and telling the Third World what to do; and so we have reached the absurd position in which humanity bleats about the destruction of the environment, and yet there is not a peep in any communiqué from any summit of the EU, G8 or UN about the population growth that is causing that destruction.”

    Here’s another article

    http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/africa-is-giving-nothing-to-anyone–apart-from-aids-1430428.html

  54. #54 Martin R
    November 18, 2008

    Educate Third World women. In Sweden, women are now so busy having careers that the country’s population would dwindle dramatically if it weren’t for immigration! And I say that as a politically correct lefty liberal.

    Immigration, by the way, rocks. You should see my wife!

  55. #55 c23
    November 18, 2008

    Carry your idea to it’s logical conclusion:

    Rich countries should end immigration. Not only does immigration increase their own population problem, it increases the population problem overall because immigrants tend to have more babies than people from the countries they came from.

    “However, the birth rate among immigrants can be even higher than in their native lands. Mexican-born women who live in the U.S., for example, have a fertility rate of 3.2 children, while the overall rate in Mexico is 2.4. ”
    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=11476

    Instead, you say “immigration rocks.” Really, how can you think this, if thinking is even the right word, if you believe that we’re overpopulated by a factor of 6 already?

    Coercive measures to reduce birthrates would be required. You don’t really think you’re going to convince every church or other religious organization and everybody to limit their fertility, do you? Not everybody wants your “education.” Even if you did, there are people who aren’t playing with a full deck who will have kids because they weren’t thinking about birth control in the heat of the moment. Voluntary population control would only select against people who practice it in the long run.

    If you think the brain is magic and not subject to natural selection, and people who fail to reproduce themselves will not be selected against, then you shouldn’t believe that there’s a long-term problem anyway because birth rates are dropping almost everywhere. Population growth would be negative in most of the developed world without immigration.

    Finally, you’d want to stop preserving human life that is unable to support itself. I’ll just quote Malthus:

    “A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work on the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour…. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity…. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh corners when her table was already full.”

    Check out Garrett Hardin’s writings if you want to see the results of a serious person thinking seriously about overpopulation and what to do about it.
    http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/articles.html
    The results are not pretty from the point of view of a liberal, but then again, neither is overpopulation. I don’t see any way to escape his conclusions other than to bury your head in the sand and assume that everybody wants to be childfree like you, and that this trait magically fails to select itself out.

  56. #56 c23
    November 18, 2008

    I just noticed that your mini-bio under your picture says that you have two children. Your education didn’t even work on yourself!

  57. #57 Martin R
    November 18, 2008

    This reminds me of a story.

    A cruise ship full of musicians and their families springs a leak and starts to sink. Everybody heads for the life boats.

    Sting, Phil Collins and Bob Geldof yell “Save the children! Save the children!”.

    Lemmy, Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons snarl angrily in reply, “Oh, shut up. Fuck the children!”

    Michael Jackson squeals excitedly, “But is there time?”

  58. #58 Dunc
    November 18, 2008

    c23: complex human behaviours, such as reproductive decisions, are not genetically predetermined. How many kids you chose to have is not, strictly speaking, a heritable characteristic.

    The simple empirical fact is that most people, when given the choice and the opportunity, chose to have fewer kids. Maybe not fewer enough to fall below replacement level, but certainly a lot fewer.

  59. #59 andrew
    November 18, 2008

    So true c23. Like most on the liberal left, Martin is incapable of taking what he says to its logical conclusion.

    So he’s for lower population growth but pro-immigration.

    He believes in evolution, except when it comes to things like IQ, sex, behavoural or race differences, when something magical called ‘culture’ displaces millions of years of selection.

    And I do wonder if he even believes that fertility is being selected for, which is a fact http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2008/10/britney_jamie_lynn_falsify_ste.php#more

  60. Why on earth do you postulate that it is impossible to have a low enough per capita environmental foot print to support the current number of people. It defies loigic, where is the proof?

  61. #61 Martin R
    November 19, 2008

    It doesn’t defy logic. Humans can’t have an infinitely low calorie consumption, and calorie production can’t have an infinitely low environmental footprint.

    Where is the proof? I offer none. Have you any proof for the opposite assertion?

  62. #62 Dunc
    November 19, 2008

    Why on earth do you postulate that it is impossible to have a low enough per capita environmental foot print to support the current number of people.

    You missed the most important word out – sustainably. Given that our current agricultural systems are almost totally dependent on fossil fuels and phosphates (neither of which are renewable), are rapidly degrading soils and aquifers, and are destroying habitats essential for biodiversity and ecosystem stability, I’d say that the burden of proof rest with anyone claiming that we can support the current population sustainably. We certainly can’t the way we’re doing it now.

  63. #63 DianaGainer
    November 19, 2008

    Actually, it may interest you to know that most women don’t need much education as long as they have access to birth control and protection from men in their lives who’ll beat the snot out of them for using it. At least, my experience as a nurse suggests that’s the way it works. I never met a woman with more than 2 kids at home who really wanted to go right on having wagonloads more. It was her hubby in the waiting room who insisted on that (keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant, you know). He was the one who had to be convinced, or he’d beat her brains in, educated or not. The women tended to think it was more important that the ones that were born be loved and tended properly. So even the Catholics used birth control when it was available and figured Jesus understood. Even if He didn’t, they were sure, Mary knew their hearts were pure.

  64. #64 Jim Thomerson
    November 23, 2008

    Some years ago I advocated a total earth population of 100 million. My thinking was that everyone would live at an American middle-class level in terms of consumption. At the time the USA population was 200 million, and we were consuming a large percentage (80%, maybe?) of the world’s non-food resources. I figured that, with some ingenuity, recycling, etc., humanity could run forever on half the resources used by the USA at the time.

    I pictured maybe 10 cities of a million each; some smaller population concentrations, and a fair number of people living a rural life. Some sort of mixed means transportation system to link everyone to goods and services. No internet at the time, of course. It was interesting to think about how such a society might be structured.

  65. #65 mof
    November 23, 2008

    (c23 wrote)

    “Instead, you say “immigration rocks.” Really, how can you think this, if thinking is even the right word, if you believe that we’re overpopulated by a factor of 6 already?”

    That was a tribute to his wife :) If you had been thinking you would have understood. Immigration is very good from that point of view. A friend of mine once met a girl in the same class as me. She is 1/4 Morrocan or something, and his words were simply, “future looks bright for Sweden”.

    (Dunc wrote)

    “The simple empirical fact is that most people, when given the choice and the opportunity, chose to have fewer kids. Maybe not fewer enough to fall below replacement level, but certainly a lot fewer.”

    What opportunity and choice is this? I find it more correct to say that people make their choices as to maximize reproduction times quality. Sometimes it is right to have few kids with better prospects, and sometimes it is better to just try to make as many as possible. The point here is to highlight that we have to create the right conditions for the few kids choice.

  66. #66 johannes
    November 24, 2008

    > when something magical called ‘culture’ displaces millions of years of selection.
    > And I do wonder if he even believes that fertility is being
    > selected for, which is a fact
    > http://scienceblogs.com /gnxp/2008 /10/britney_jamie_lynn_falsify_ste.php#more

    But in the case of the Spears sisters, culture (= the idea that a girl has a moral obligation to take a lower middle class loser as a partner, spread by thousands of movies, Titanic being the prime example) has obviously defeated natural selection – wich would select for alpha males rather than Kevin Federline :-).

  67. #67 RickrOll
    November 25, 2008

    yay, i actually Found this post again! now that i know it is in aardvarchaeology, i can come back at my leisure. the problem of sustaining the old seems to be a big problem in countries like japan, and if you think this isn’t the case in america as well, then you’re an idiot. Baby Boomers will possibly take the economy with them when they go, a scary thought. After all, in the Great depression, what were the stats on the eldarly? I assume far less, both because of the time and also because there wasn’t a big boom in population 50 some-od years previous. that will be a big strain…
    It is interesting to note where the quiet dignity of cutting one’s culture off from caring for you when you get inescusable old seems to have vanished. Many primitive cultures had this in practice, and the lack of this selfless social conditioning leads us to the current delema.
    You may point out that there was deep reverance for the old in some cultures, nut the eldarly were very often rare due to conditions. They had wisdom and knowledge to impart, but even so, there was likely a point where they in sisted on putting their tribe above themselves. Feel free to correct me

  68. #68 Marcus
    January 30, 2009

    Martin R: Didn´t you write a blogpost on a similar topic not too long ago? I know I have left on comment on this subject on your blog, but I couldn´t find it here among the comments..

    I think you happen to be wrong, but I´m too lazy to flesh out the arguments again, since I know they are somewhere here on aardvarchaeology already.