(Photo credit: Ollie Crafoord’s photo stream Flickr)

Cross Posted from Biodiversivist

There have been four recent articles in Grist (mine makes the fifth and I would not blame anyone for not bothering to read it) on the topic of population. I put it together mostly as a matter of record. Good luck keeping track of it all. I list them below in chronological order:

1) On World Population Day, take note: population isn’t the problem by Fred Pearce.

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2) To the population doomsayers: What do you propose? by Jason D Scorse.

3) Of course population is still a problem by Robert Walker.

4) Response to the population doomsayers and Robert Walker by Jason D Scorse.

5) Response To The Cornucopians by me.

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Fred’s article (1) contains the words doom, doomed, doomsday, doom-mongers, and doomsters. Jason jumped on (2,4) the band wagon adding the word “doomsayer.”

Victory in the struggle to reign in our human population growth by Fred’s and Jason’s “doomsters and doomsayers” is in sight. Someday in the next several decades it will peak and start a decline. No demographer worth her salt would bet her first born on what that final number will be, but when it finally happens, a new struggle will ensue to allow it to decline, which will have to be fought by a new generation of “doomsters.”

Sustainable consumption has been a target of the environmental community since day one. Environmentalists of Fred’s age have been recycling for decades. Do we need to accelerate our efforts? You bet. Especially as more and more people come out of poverty and can afford to buy more. Can we now ignore population concerns? Not in your life.   

Who would you guess was most likely responsible for the annihilation of Easter Island’s ecosystem, their doomsayers or their cornucorpians?

Essentially, Fred is saying that all of you out there who limited family size, or even adopted a child, in part to ease the burden on the planet, are a bunch of dupes. There is no need to limit your family size if you are concerned about the  impacts of a larger family size on the environment. If you have five kids, consume five times less.

Just don’t tell that to my next-door neighbors who recently adopted an AIDS orphan from Ethiopia.

There are about as many unicorns on this planet as there are eugenics fruitlogs calling for population culls. Fred is tilting at windmills (attacking imaginary enemies).

Fred’s claim is that population not a problem, but slips up several times where he suggests that maybe it is–just not as big a problem as consumption. He does not grasp the concept that it does not matter which is the bigger problem; they are both big problems.

Without the industrial revolution, childhood mortality, warfare, pestilence, and starvation would still rule population growth. If we were all subsistence farmers, there wouldn’t be a tree or elephant left on the planet. The elephants would have been eaten and the wood burned as fuel long ago. In other words, subsistence farming may not contribute as much carbon to the atmosphere, but that lifestyle is obviously capable of doing as much damage to the planet as the rest of us living in industrial societies. India and China certainly managed to devastate their ecosystems without being “rich.”

Fred focuses on carbon emissions, but our problems are much bigger than that.

Lincoln’s log cabin may have used as much lumber as my house. As wood became scarcer, logs were cut into planks, and eventually peeled to make plywood. Now, forests are harvested and immediately replanted. Sustainable consumption has been a goal for environmentalists, along with population concerns, which are part of the same equation, since day one.

Part of Fred’s schtick is to cite fertility statistics that the environmental community has been familiar with for decades as if they have been well-kept secrets, but fails to mention the recent statistical finding that the number of chronically hungry human beings has crossed a billion souls for the first time in human history. Holding hands, they would wrap around the planet about thirty times (assuming four-foot spacing). Go figure.

Below, Jason defends his use of  the term doomsayer in his post (4):

“Doomsayers” is an appropriate term for many of those who think population is a huge problem.

How big is “huge” and if doomsayer is an appropriate term, it applies to everyone who thinks population is a “huge” problem, not just to “many.”

My take is that doomsayer is a derogatory term being used to describe individuals who feel that there is a real likelihood that the accelerating extinction event will continue unabated and that humanity may experience a massive and marked degradation in quality of life as natural resource limits are passed that we cannot compensate for with technology (like plywood in place of old growth trees) thanks to the combination of growing consumption and population. The term derides the likes of David Suzuki, Lester Brown, E.O. Wilson, David Attenborough, and the list could go on and on.

As stated earlier, the number of chronically hungry human beings has passed a billion for the first time in human history, holding hands, they would wrap around the planet about thirty times. Huge?

On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh likes to point out that every human on the planet could fit inside the state of Texas with room to spare–making it the world’s largest cemetery I might add.

The USDA quietly reported a few weeks ago that despite world record harvests for the last three years, we have been using corn for ethanol, exports, and food faster than we can grow it since 2006/7 and have been drawing down reserves to meet demand since that time. Understand that the market will eventually respond to the higher price that shortages command with even more planting. Also understand that a corn field is just one species away from being as biologically impoverished as a mall parking lot. We focus lately on global warming but according to a study published in Nature this year, it is mostly this expansion of human agriculture that is destroying the biosphere.

Here are just a few recent articles making the case, in an unending line of such articles that stretch over the horizon, appearing daily if you have the stomach to look for them:

Will Anything Curb China’s Appetite for Rare Wildlife?

Amazon river dolphins being slaughtered for bait

Africa’s national parks not working properly

Wild tiger population falls 97% since turn of the century (there are about 3000 tigers left in the wild (almost a quarter of a million people are added to the earth every day–221,000, 76 million per year) and 1000 pure bred tigers also in captivity (the rest are essentially mutts).

Jason goes on to say:

…nowhere do I see more apocalyptic and defeastist rhetoric in the environmental movement.

Certainly, anyone who fits the definition of his above derogatory label would find these remarks somewhat offensive. As I posited earlier, who would you guess was most likely culpable for the annihilation of Easter Island’s ecosystem, their “doomsayers” or their cornucorpians?

There’s a new book out called The Rational Optimist–How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley. Go here to see George Monbiot’s critique of Ridley’s economic views. You can see my review of it here. In that review I posited the following analogy:

The “doomsters” are the ones standing next to the captain on the bridge helping to spot icebergs so she can take action to avoid them, while the cornucopians continue to party in the ballroom, deriding the doomsters on the bridge. If they arrive safely in port the conucorpians will use that fact as proof the doomsters were wrong, that the ship will likely never strike an iceberg, and if it should, won’t sink. They are free riders–to borrow a term from economics.

Ridley is a popular science writer and it was his endorsement of Bjorn Lomborg’s  book The Skeptical Environmentalist back in 2001 (recently deconstructed in a book called The Lomborg Deception by Howard Friel) that helped make it so popular.

Jason says:

There really aren’t that many other policies proposed [other than promoting women’s reproductive rights] by the “population is the problem” side because there are very few other options that aren’t extremely coercive.

Population is “a big” problem. Maintaining vigilance, along with accelerated and improved support of women’s reproductive rights is what today’s population activists, excuse me, doomsayers, promote. In addition, they promote via education, the advantages of smaller family size.

There are 40 million pregnancy termination procedures performed annually around the world. Had the religionists won that struggle we would have about 12 billion people right now. We don’t want them to win that struggle in the future either. Imagine them gaining ground on their efforts to end the use of contraception, to promote ever larger (pick a religious cult) families.

It is my opinion that the United States baby boom was a fad, like SUVs. It could return in some form if women get it in their heads again that the cool kids have larger families. It’s already starting to happen in wealthier circles, where having three kids is assumed to be cooler than one or two.

Fred and Jason appear to be under the impression that the peak population number is already set in stone.

Fred and Jason are not population experts. There is tremendous room for improvement (half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned) and the number is not set in stone.

According to Joel Cohen in his book “How Many People Can The Earth Support” nobody has successfully predicted what the human population would be a decade in advance.

Jason asked readers what they thought the optimum population should be:

…these people basically think it would be best if 2/3 to 3/4 of the planet’s people were wiped out.

Actually not. It was a hypothetical question and he conveniently failed to ask readers how they thought this optimum population could be obtained, or if it could be obtained, or when it could be obtained, so he could answer for them as shown above.

Clearly for the long term, the question of optimum population size is academic–water under the bridge. That does not mean that humanity won’t one day strive for a much lower population by maintaining lower replacement rates.

Jason goes on:

…there is no compelling scientific evidence that I have seen that says that 9 billion people can’t enjoy a high standard of living and maintain earth’s life support.

…says the economist as the extinction event rages unabated. There is no compelling scientific evidence that I have seen that says that 9 billion people can enjoy a high standard of living and maintain earth’s life support.

Like global warming, its a probability game with the odds being skewed by population size. The bigger the size the less likely we will stave off degradation.

E.O. Wilson summed the idea up best when he said:

“The race is now on between the technoscientific and scientific forces that are destroying the living environment and those that can be harnessed to save it …

Next, Jason concludes:

And since I don’t want to advocate the demise of the majority of the world’s people, I will stick with this side of the equation

And because nobody is advocating the demise of the majority of the world’s people,  Jason’s essay is just as much of a strawman as Fred’s was.

Jason goes on to point out a fact known by everyone for decades, that there is hypothetically enough food on this planet to feed everyone, its a simple matter of getting it better distributed.

But he’s wrong again. It’s a matter of affordability.

For example, by getting enough obese people to diet, the supply of food will increase causing the price of food to drop, allowing the poor to afford more of it. Good luck with that idea.

Food affordability is a function of supply and demand. The demand is driven in large part by the quarter of a million humans added to the population every single day. Facts like “half of American pregnancies are unplanned” are why that number remains so high.

Let’s use water as an analogy for food. We all know there is also enough water on this planet to quench everyone’s thirst. The problem comes down to this; who pays to move the water to where the thirsty people are?

Population pressures exacerbate problems of all kinds, making it more difficult or impossible to solve them.

His concluding statement:

It’s how we live, not how many of us there are, that will determine our and the planet’s fate.

No. It’s the combination of both and there are no guarantees. The last thing we need is to relax efforts to reduce population growth. “Sensible” environmentalists know that efforts to improve what and how we consume are important as well as efforts to reduce population growth.

So far I’ve concentrated on critiquing the article Jason piggybacked onto Fred’s.

Fred hawks decades-old fertility data as if it were something new. And indeed, it may be new to a few people who have not read anything on the subject since Ehrlichs’ book The Population Bomb published in 1968.

A green myth is on the march. It wants to blame the world’s overbreeding poor people for the planet’s peril.

Strawman #1. I could probably count the number of environmentalists who blame “…the world’s overbreeding poor people for t
he planet’s peril” on one hand.

Some greens think all efforts to save the world are doomed unless we “do something” about continuing population growth. But this is nonsense. Worse, it is dangerous nonsense.

Strawman #2. We are doing something about population growth by promoting smaller families. How could anyone call that nonsense and worse yet, dangerous? Wouldn’t it be more dangerous to run around spreading the word that family size is irrelevant?

For a start, the population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast.

Maybe Fred has been living under a rock for forty years, but it has been well known for decades that fertility rates have been dropping and that the number of people added to the planet every year has been less than the preceding year since about 1989.

Although the percentage of population growth began to decrease in 1968 (ironically the year the Ehrlichs’ book The Population Bomb was published) from about 2.08 percent to about 2.05 percent (see chart below), the actual number of people being added every year continued to increase as a result of population momentum, reaching a peak of about 87 million in 1989. Again, by coincidence, this was the same year that the Ehrlichs’ book The Population Explosion was published and also marked the start of a decline in the number of people added every year that continues to this day.









Figure 1: Population Data
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census,  International Database.

In theory, Fred could have taken credit for discovering that the population bomb was “defused” two decades ago.

Women are cutting their family sizes not because governments tell them to, but for their own good and the good of their families…

Ah, you forgot about China, a land of 1.3 billion people. And Iran’s family planning is government sponsored as well, although voluntary.

…and if it helps the planet too, then so much the better.

And if it helps the planet too? Translation–those of you who have chosen a smaller family size in part to limit the stress on the biosphere are idiots.

Didn’t Fred just tell us that population growth concerns are dangerous nonsense? And who does he think it was who planted the idea (started the meme) that smaller families are better for all involved, including the planet?

This is a stunning change in just one generation. Why don’t we hear more about it? Because it doesn’t fit the doomsday agenda.

Again, has Fred been living in a cave somewhere? This is old news. And the doomsday agenda hypothesis, that’s just bullshit.

Half the world now has fewer than the “replacement level” of children.

And you can thank the doomsayers for that, not the cornucorpians. World population is poised to cross seven billion in about 2 years growing at a rate of about 76 million per year.

Yes, Iran. Women in Tehran today have fewer children than their sisters in New York — and a quarter as many as their mothers had.

This story is also twenty years old. Iran’s reduction in fertility rates was done entirely through non-coercive “government sponsored” family planning and education of both men and women with very little change in income levels.

And China. There, the communist government decides how many children couples can have. The one-child policy is brutal and repulsive.

Millions of starving people is what I would call brutal and repulsive. China’s efforts to reduce fertility rates has prevented the birth of about as many people as now live in the United States and those efforts haven’t been limited to the one child policy. Forming a perspective on that policy by reading sensationalist newspaper articles about the abuses is not a the best way to understand it:

Moreover, in accordance with PRC’s affirmative action policies towards ethnic minorities, all non-Han  ethnic groups are subjected to different rules and are usually allowed to have two children in urban areas, and three or four in rural areas. Han Chinese living in rural areas, also, are often permitted to have two children.[22]  Because of couples such as these, as well as urban couples who simply pay a fine (or “social maintenance fee”) to have more children,[23]  the overall fertility rate of mainland China is closer to two children per family than to one child per family (1.8). The steepest drop in fertility occurred in the 1970s before one child per family was implemented in 1979. Population policies and campaigns have been ongoing in China since the 1950s. During the 1970s, a campaign of ‘One is good, two is okay, and three is too many’ was heavily promoted.[24]

In April 2007 a study by the University of California, Irvine, which claimed to be the first systematic study of the policy, found that it had proved “remarkably effective”

Fred continues:

But the odd thing is that it may not make much difference any more. Chinese women round the world have gone the same way without compulsion.

…Britain wasn’t running a covert one-child policy. That was as many children as the women in Hong Kong wanted.

How brutal and repulsive can the one child policy really be, if Chinese women have been reducing fertility regardless of its existence–both inside and outside of China?

What is going on? Family-planning experts used to say that women only started having fewer children when they got educated or escaped poverty — like us. But tell that to the women of Bangladesh.

Ever hear of a thing called a meme, Fred? This particular meme, that smaller families are achievable and often preferred, spread across the world thanks to environmentalists and women’s reproductive rights proponents, who make up a large part of the audience you keep insulting with this article. That meme was propagated by this audience.

The local joke is that they prefer being sterilized to other methods of contraception because you only have to confess once. It may not be a joke.

I doubt it is a joke. Imagine undergoing a tubal ligation to avoid dealing with your local religionist male authorities. And again, your doomsters are largely responsible for spreading the ideas that have allowed women to take control of family size, even if it takes elective abdominal surgery! Abortion is still illegal there.

Women are having smaller families because, for the first time in history, they can. Because we have largely eradicated the diseases that used to mean most children died before growing up. Mothers no longer need to have five or six children to ensure the next generation, so they don’t.

It’s not that simple, Fred. You showed earlier that economists are often wrong when they cobble together excuses for fertility trends in hindsight (your poor women in India, and Iran). This is another case of them being largely wrong. The American baby boom
is all the evidence you need to water down that explanation. My mom had six kids, my wife’s mom had five–back in the day when a blue-collar worker could support a spouse and five kids.

There are holdouts, of course. In parts of rural Africa, women still have five or more children. But even here they are being rational — they need the kids to mind the animals and work in the fields.

Wrong again, Fred. African women are not consciously breeding farm hands. There are more than enough farm hands in Africa. Rational isn’t the term I’d use to describe someone who has ten kids that will all need their own plots of land to farm for their families. If half of the pregnancies here are unplanned, you can bet that poor African women are mostly overwhelmed by obstacles that prevent them from better controlling family size.

The big story is that rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, Muslim or Catholic, secular or devout, with tough government birth-control policies or none, most countries tell the same story: Small families are the new norm.

This is a good example of what I meant when I said that Fred seems to think this has all been kept a big secret by some unnamed authority. This isn’t news, Fred. This is modern history.

That doesn’t mean women don’t still need help to achieve their ambitions of small families. They need governments or charities to distribute modern contraception. But this is now about rights for women, not “population control.”

Earlier in the article Fred said “Women are cutting their family sizes not because governments tell them to” and here he says governments distribute contraceptives–a government “suggesting” what they should do, as is done all over the world, including Iran, China, India to varying degrees.

Fred’s inaccurate and inflammatory “population control” term is abused by religionists all over the world to fight against women’s reproductive rights.

This is good news for the environment [that the world’s population may begin a slow decrease sometime in the next half century, but not necessarily in the next generation]. But don’t put out the flags. Another myth put out by the population doom-mongers is that it’s all those extra people that are wrecking the planet. But that’s no longer the case.

The above text is another of Fred’s contradictions, where he simultaneously tells us that less population growth is and is not good news for the environment.

Rising consumption today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head count. And most of that extra consumption is still happening in rich countries that have long since given up growing their populations.

Again he contradicts himself. He concedes that a rising head count is a threat. The argument about which is the bigger threat is irrelevant.

Virtually all of the remaining population growth is in the poor world, and the poor half of the planet is only responsible for 7 percent of carbon emissions.

I doubt that is true, not that it matters, and it isn’t just about carbon emissions.

Visualize the world today with 6.7 billion people on it, all living the life of an African subsistence farmer. Would the world be better off? It just isn’t that simple. First, there would not be 6.7 billion people. Without the industrial revolution, childhood mortality, warfare, pestilence, and starvation would still rule population growth. And if there were 6.7 billion subsistence farmers, there wouldn’t be a tree or elephant left on the planet. The elephants would have been eaten and the wood burned as fuel. The bushmeat trade, tiger, rhino, and elephant poaching have poured gas on the extinction event. It all adds up. The planet is bleeding to death from 6.7 billion cuts.

This blame game does not work for me. All human beings are driven by the same instincts, subconscious urges.

According to a report issued by the FAO last year, livestock (much of it owned by the poor) accounts for roughly 18% of global warming. This chart shows how that impact is distributed, which is driven mostly by land use changes. Soot accounts for about 18% of global warming. Here is a recent article in the New York Times discussing where much of that soot is coming from. Deforestation accounts for about a third of global warming, which is being driven by demand for meat and wood by people rising up out of poverty as well as biofuels. Who is more to blame? The poor person logging the lumber or the rich person he is selling it to, the ivory poacher or the rich person he is selling it to (and both would do the same if their role switched)?

Some greens need to take a long, hard look at themselves. They should remember where some of their ideas came from.

Here Fred slams about 99 percent of the people who consider themselves a “green.” He’s telling them that their family planning decisions have been in vain. Those of you who limited family size to save the planet, or even adopted a child, well, population growth is not a concern. It was a gargantuan mistake to have limited your family size based on environmental concerns.

The granddaddy of demographic doomsters was Bob Malthus, an English clergyman who got famous by warning 200 years ago about population growth. He believed that the world’s population would keep increasing till it was cut down by disease or famine. Back in the ferment of the Industrial Revolution, he was a favorite of the evil mill owners and a scourge on anyone with a social conscience.

Above Fred tries to use Malthus (a religionist) to denigrate by association population/women’s reproductive rights activists (who nowadays are indistinguishable). May I point out that Rush Limbaugh could not agree more with Fred.

But in doing so, he also denigrates the likes of Darwin, who incorporated many of the ideas presented by Malthus. Freud blew it with the penis envy thing but got many things right. Darwin was wrong on several things, as was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Karl Marx, and on and on and on.

I think Karl Marx, another contemporary, was spot on when he called Malthusian ideas “a libel on the human race.”

Yeah, well, Karl Marx was less than spot on when one considers the millions who have suffered as a result of attempts to force his Utopian concept of communism onto an  intensely hierarchical social primate species with a propensity to go to war at the drop of a hat.

The population bomb is being defused right now — by the world’s poor women. Sadly, the consumption bomb is still primed and ever more dangerous. Now that would be a proper target for environmentalists.

Ah, no. The defusing has been ongoing for decades, and certainly not by just the poor women of the world. The concept of sustainable consumption is just as old as the concept that small family sizes are better for the planet. The idea that we will concentrate more on the consumption side of the equation by ignoring the population side is disingenuous.