Sam Smith, inimitable editor of The Progressive Review, perhaps the world’s first progressive blog (if you count its days as a print publication), reports that even he finds it difficult to bring up discussions of population.

I have experienced something like what Smith talks about, where even mentioning Bartlett (who has been campaigning against exponential population growth for decades) is enough to get you called nasty names by liberals and "anti-life" by church members.

Here’s today’s series of looks at the issue, with Smith’s preface first:

Electric Politics recently featured a low keyed discussion of an extremely hot button subject: population growth. The guest was Al Bartlett, professor of physics emeritus at the University of Colorado, who has been working on sustainability issues for decades. It is an issue that we raise from time to time, get a few letters accusing us of being racists or eugenicists and then move on to easier topics. But if what people like Bartlett are saying is true? Then much of we believe about economics and the environment may eventually seem extraordinarily short-sighted or just plain wrong. Nothing we do about the environment, for example, will matter if the world population continues to grow because that presumes an ever larger depletion of the natural resources of the earth. Interestingly, we avoid the issue even more than we did 35 years ago when a national commission issued some important suggestions on dealing with the matter. Some insights follow.

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In March of 1970, President Nixon signed a bill establishing the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, known as the Rockefeller Commission, for it chairman, John D. Rockefeller 3rd. In 1972, the Commission released, its recommendations, including:

  • In view of the important role that education can play in developing an understanding of the causes and consequences of population growth and distribution, the Commission recommends enactment of a Population Education Act to assist school systems in establishing well-planned population education programs so that present and future generations will be better prepared to meet the challenges arising from population change.
  • Recognizing the importance of human sexuality, the Commission recommends that sex education be available to all, and that it be presented in a responsible manner through community organizations, the media, and especially the schools.
  • The Commission recommends that the Congress and the states approve the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and that federal, state, and local governments undertake positive programs to ensure freedom from discrimination based on sex.
  • The Commission recommends that (1) states eliminate existing legal inhibitions and restrictions on access to contraceptive information, procedures, and supplies; and (2) states develop statutes affirming the desirability that all persons have ready and practicable access to contraceptive information, procedures, and supplies.
  • The Commission recommends that states adopt affirmative legislation which will permit minors to receive contraceptive and prophylactic information and services in appropriate settings sensitive to their needs and concerns.
  • In order to permit freedom of choice, the Commission recommends that all administration restrictions on access to voluntary contraceptive sterilization be eliminated so that the decision be made solely by physician and patient.
  • With the admonition that abortion not be considered a primary means of fertility control, the Commission recommends that present state laws restricting abortion be liberalized along the lines of the New York statute, such abortion to be performed on request by duly licensed physicians under conditions of medical safety.
  • The Commission recommends that this nation give the highest priority to research on reproductive biology and to the search for improved methods by which individuals can control their own fertility.
  • Recognizing that our population cannot grow indefinitely, and appreciating the advantages of moving now toward the stabilization of population, the Commission recommends that the nation welcome and plan for a stabilized population.
  • The Commission recommends the creation of an Office of Population Growth and Distribution within the Executive Office of the President.
  • The Commission recommends the immediate addition of personnel with demographic expertise to the staffs of the Council of Economic Advisers, the Domestic Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of Science and Technology.
  • In order to provide legislative oversight of population issues, the Commission recommends that Congress assign to a joint committee responsibility for specific review of this area.

CHRIS RAPLEY — By avoiding a fraction of the projected population increase, the emissions savings could be significant and would be at a cost, based on UN experience of reproductive health programs, that would be as little as one-thousandth of the technological fixes. The reality is that while the footprint of each individual cannot be reduced to zero, the absence of an individual does do so.

ROGER MILLER, SUNY POTSDAM — Loss of biodiversity and natural habitats, depletion of the aquifers, air and water pollution, our eventual inability to grow sufficient food or to generate sufficient energy are all problems cause by a large and rapidly growing human population. Not only is it the primary cause of these problems, but no solution exists to solving these problems as long as the population continues to grow.

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Populations cannot grow indefinitely in a finite environment. The United States population is currently growing at a 1% annual rate, and the worldwide population is growing at a 1.3% rate per year; rates that are fairly low compared to historic levels. If the world’s population continued to grow at 1.3% for approximately 800 years, there would be 1 person for every 1 square meter of the earth’s surface, and if it could continue growing at this rate for approximately 2200 years, the mass of humanity would equal the mass of the earth. Clearly before this happens we will reach a zero population growth level if we are lucky, and if we are not lucky we will have a period of enormous decrease in the population, whether by famine, disease or some other natural or man-made catastrophe.

JIM LYDECKER, GROWTH IS MADNESS — The biggest crisis is overpopulation. Every problem, be it environmental, economic, social or political, is directly or indirectly connected to the 6.8-billion-pound gorilla in the room. We have known this for years but it is one of the issues no one, conservative or liberal, will touch. Instead, the official policy is one of ignorance allowing the human species to breed itself toward a massive die-off …

In just a little more than 130 years, humans have run through more than half the world’s reserves of oil and natural gas. Since population growth is contingent on a readily available supply of cheap oil, collapse is inevitable. The slippery slide down the slope of peak oil will be quicker than the trip up.

Without cheap oil and natural gas, the green revolution and the ability to feed all us billions will be history. Few industries will be affected as great as agriculture. Two that will be are those medical and pharmaceutical.

Thus, a future die-off of biblical proportions will be primarily due to starvation and disease. Throw in mass migrations and social strife and, boy, do we have problems.

BRIAN CZECH AND HERMAN E. DALY, WILDLIFE SOCIETY BULLETIN 2004 — A steady state economy with long human life spans entails low birth and death rates. In our opinion this is preferable, within reason, to a steady state economy with short life spans, high birth rates, and high death rates. The same concept applies to capital and durable goods such as automobiles. We opine that a relatively slow flow of high-quality, long-lasting goods is preferable to a fast flow of low-quality, short-lived goods.

Nothing about a steady state economy precludes economic development, where development is defined as a qualitative process. Various sectors may come and go in a steady state economy. For example, organic farms may supplant factory farms, the proportion of bicycles to Humvees may increase, and professional soccer may attract more fans while NASCAR attracts fewer. As long as the physical size of the economy remains constant in the long run, a developing economy is a steady state economy.

Nor would any type of cultural stagnation result from a steady state economy.

John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest economists and political philosophers in history, emphasized that an economy in which physical growth was no longer the goal would be more conducive to political, ethical, and spiritual improvements

A steady state economy means a constant rate of employment … Economic development continues in a steady state economy so that in the extractive sector, oilfield roughnecks may decrease in number while wind-power facility attendants may increase. In the arts, guitar playing may wax while flute playing wanes. In the sciences, industrial chemists may be replaced by wildlife ecologists …

In a steady state economy, the average amount of money in real dollars earned by workers from the current generation to the next remains constant.

“Real dollars” means that inflation has been accounted for. Because income reflects the use of natural resources, stabilized income reflects a stabilized “ecological footprint,” which is the area of land required to support a human being …

If the steady state economy is established at a relatively low population level, the potential exists for each worker, and his replacement in the next generation, to earn a high income. This scenario is similar to that of a low-density deer population with plenty of forage per deer. If, on the other hand, the steady state economy is established at a high population level, less income is available for the average worker, as in a high-density deer population with little forage per deer.

We think it important that a steady state economy be established at a relatively low population level. This scenario is conducive to incomes high enough to allow retirement savings and social secu rity (in the generic sense), making the economy more politically acceptable and therefore more stable. If the steady state economy is established with-in ecological carrying capacity, each new generation may expect its workers to accumulate retire- ment savings of the same magnitude as the previous generation. So we think it important to establish a steady state economy as soon as possible. As the population grows, it becomes less likely the steady state economy may be established whereby incomes are high enough to support reasonable periods of retirement.

Won’t the stock market crash if a steady state economy is established? … Many people view the stock market as predicated on economic growth, so they wonder if a stock market could even exist in a steady state economy. It certainly could and probably would. In a steady state economy, firms still need to invest in capital–namely, at the same rate at which capital depreciates.

Publicly traded stocks provide the social benefit of liquidity to investors and offer an efficient mechanism for the acquisition of investment capital.

Stock markets tend to expand and contract in concert (though often with lags) with gross domestic product, the dollar value of newly produced, final goods and services. There are winners and losers in bullish and bearish markets, though the winners tend to be more prominent in the former. The stock market in a steady state economy of stable GDP would be neither bullish nor bearish for extended periods. It, too, would have winners and losers, with perennial losers becoming insolvent and being replaced by more competent firms. But in a steady state economy the stock market would be less of a casino than in the growth economy.

Economic growth, on the other hand, is bound to cause an extensive and extended stock market crash because demands for capital eventually will exceed the productive capacity of the earth.

Therefore, advocating a steady state economy is appropriate not only for purposes of wildlife conservation but also because it would reduce the volatility of the stock market.

There are, of course, alternatives to the stock market for purposes of financing capital investment. For example, capital may be financed by private banks, cooperatives, and governments. In fact, all of these institutions are active financiers throughout the world. The relative prominence of each in a given nation helps to describe that nation’s history, ideology, and “political economy,” which brings us to our next question — a very big one.

Doesn’t a steady state economy require a socialist government? More generally put, what kind of government is most conducive to a steady state economy? Might it be, for example, a capitalist democracy, a communist state or a dictatorship? In theory, each is capable of producing or coexisting with a steady state economy, but we do not think any of these is particularly conducive. Each has exhibited far more concern with GDP growth than with other important endeavors, such as poverty alleviation and, of course, wildlife conservation.

We think the form of government most conducive to a steady state economy, in the context of twenty-first-century nation states, is a constitutional democracy somewhat more socialized than the current American version. “Socialist democracies,” as the term is used in political science, already exist in many nations, most notably such European nations as Sweden, Switzerland and England.

Economists more frequently call them “mixed economies.” These are democratically operated governments in which the state plays a more prominent role in the economy than the American government plays in its economy.