Engaging the Population Debate

More pregnancies =  More followers, right?source

No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus. Yes, climate deniers, human industry can and does affect earth’s natural systems. And yes, growth proponents, there is such a thing as overpopulation. While I have yet to encounter anyone who disagrees with this notion when presented with a small scale example (i.e. only so many people can live in any given apartment building), many of those same folks balk at the idea that earth itself has a holding capacity. Or a productive limit. The thinking seems to be that there will always be some new parcel of land to cultivate (there won’t), or that technological developments such as bioengineered agriculture or vertical farming will negate the need for more land (they won’t). The simple and incontrovertible truth lies in the most basic of economic models, which in turn has become the most fundamental of sustainability relationships: supply and demand. Finite resources cannot sustain infinite growth.

This is a topic I’m going to come back to repeatedly, but for now I want to share some info from the website of the UK-based Optimum Population Trust. I’ll preface it, however, by saying that the debate surrounding overpopulation has two distinct phases. The first, which itself can be divided into dozens of phases, consists of determining just how many people the planet can comfortably support. The second revolves around the myriad ways in which that number can be achieved. The first is mathematical, built on models of supply and demand. The second is much more complex and controversial, with profound political and social implications, and is many ways shaped by the conclusions of the first. So, like the song says, let us start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

Optimum Population Trust

Defining an optimum population

An ‘optimum’ population, in dictionary terms, is the ‘best or most favourable’ population. But a dictionary cannot tell the whole story. Best for what purpose, and best according to which criteria? For OPT, a green think tank, an optimum population means, at its simplest, a population size which is environmentally sustainable in the long term, affords people a good quality of life, has adequate renewable and non-renewable resources necessary for its long-term survival and consumes or recycles them to ensure it will not compromise the long-term survival of its progeny.

Few would argue with the statement that ‘population cannot continue to increase indefinitely’. But how do we define the limit? Using a tool called Ecological Footprinting*, which provides a snapshot of human ecological impact under given circumstances, it is possible to throw some light on this question.

(* Ecological footprinting data given in this paper have been taken from Global Footprinting Network research published in the WWF Living Planet Report 2006, using 2003 data.)

A sustainable population for Earth

  1. Assuming the global biocapacity and average footprint [F1] remain stable at the 2003 level, then, to become sustainable, the world population needs to contract to a maximum of 5.1 billion.
  2. For a ‘modest’ world footprint of 3.3 gha/cap (without allowances for biodiversity or change of biocapacity), the sustainable population is 3.4 billion.
  3. For a ‘modest’ world footprint of 3.3 gha/cap, plus a 12% allowance for biodiversity (but none for attrition of biocapacity), the sustainable population is 3.0 billion.
  4. For a ‘modest’ world footprint of 3.3 gha/cap, plus a 20% margin for biodiversity and attrition of biocapacity then the sustainable population is 2.7 billion.

keep reading at optimumpopulation.org

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2 Responses to Engaging the Population Debate

  1. James D says:

    The problem with this type of planning / level of service (LOS) issue is that planners get outraged at a higher LOS than the free market (i.e. effective demand by the public) determines. This is why you cannot build your way out of congestion: people take advantage of economic opportunities planners think unthinkably intolerable. Some amount of congestion is inevitable. And it’s likely to be the same with claims about population capacity: planning types will set an artificial limit, then ordinary people will prove them all wrong. Of course there is a hard limit, but I would argue that it’s impossible to know, and people will determine it for themselves. The focus has to be on education, so that demand is as far as is possible rational: for instance, all women should know that having a large family is a choice, not an inevitable consequence of society or of libido.

    Ultimately, we have a choice: on a somewhat over-simplified level, it amounts to a value judgment of the merits of human civilization. I am on the humanist side. There are plenty of others on the anti-humanist side, but all I ask is that they accept enough of liberalism to not interfere with my and my neighbors’ free practice of humanism. I equally accept their freedom to go away to a ranch in the mountain West and live a Daniel Boone existence.

  2. Josh Grigsby says:

    I completely agree that population is not an issue that can be dealt with via traditional methods of planning. I don’t think that direct polices, such as China’s One Child Law, will ever solve the situation, and even if they could it would be at the expense of our freedom, or even our humanity. Mandates and coercion won’t get us anywhere. I also completely agree that education is the key. That’s why the first step is to determine an optimum population level. Not a hard and fast goal to reach, but a metric that demonstrates the relationship between population, consumption, and resources. Ecological footprints are still somewhat rudimentary, but I think the idea is right. Especially given that virtually all increases in greenhouse gas emissions and the demand on natural resources will come from the developing world’s efforts to become, well, developed.

    A rough idea of how many people, living at something approaching current developed-nation standards, our planet can comfortably support gives the conversation a direction. Another part of the conversation, not dealt with in the article, is the notion of by-right. Does the earth belong to us simply because we can take it? Are we stewards, and is the management of the rest of nature our burden to bear? Or are we one of many millions of species, many millions of owners, and should we work to reduce our extraction, our consumption, our sprawl, and as a result our level of responsibility?

    I do think that we are too close to too many tipping points (if we haven’t already crossed them) to ignore the issue and let people figure things out, or not, on their own. The conversation must be had. The issue must be addressed. But whatever steps are decided on must be decided on by a global community. Eventually there won’t be any wilderness for the would-be Daniel Boones to escape to.

    What are your thoughts on this?

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