Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Overpopulation - Killed by K

Ecologists often justify their research by suggesting that it will help save the environment. The justification always takes the same form:

Once we figure out how such and such part of nature works, then we can adjust our human activities to make sure it keeps working in the right way.

Sometimes this optimism is well-founded. For instance, when ecologists figured out that algae blooms in certain lakes were caused by a lack of big fish, they were able to get rid of the algae simply by enacting a "catch and release" policy for the big fish. Science at work!

Unfortunately, what usually happens is that ecologists identify an environmental problem and recommend a solution, but nobody actually does anything about it. Either the solution is perceived as too hard, or there's too much pressure to keep doing whatever it is that causes the problem.

That's how it is now with the shitty water quality in Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks. We know the water used to be clear, and now it's brown, because the land that was covered in water-filtering vegetation is now covered in farms and cities that slough off tons of dirt and crap into the Bay. The solutions that ecologists recommend are improving farming practices, upgrading sewage treatment plants, creating artificial wetlands, preserving green spaces, and reducing urban sprawl. That's all well and good, and IF we actually did those things we could reduce the amount of junk going into the Bay to about half of what it is now. Sadly, that would still be about three times as much scum as entered the Chesapeake in pre-colonial times. The upshot is that with 17,000,000 people going about their business in her watershed, the Bay is never going to be very clean, no matter how lightly we tread.


That brings me to the main point of this post. Saving the environment gets harder, to the point of impossibility, the more our human population grows. Even if we are very clever about reducing the impact each person has on the environment, there's always going to be SOME impact. When you times that impact by enough people, you get a wrecked planet (see formula below).

Total Impact = Per Capita Impact * Number of People

In other words, overpopulation of humans is a BIG deal; the biggest damn deal facing our planet, if you ask me. It may not be politically correct to talk about, but that doesn't change the fact that it's happening, and if we don't fix it, it will fix itself.

Overpopulation will fix itself? Isn't that good? Actually, no. It means human population will be suppressed by the same natural mechanisms that regulate populations of other animals; starvation, violence, and disease. As our numbers approach the invisible maximum known as "K", which is determined by limited resources, death and misery will increase and growth will grind to a bloody halt. Life near K will be hell on earth.


Of course, we can avoid nature's brutal enforcement of K if we preemptively STOP our population growth by reducing our birth rate to match our natural death rate. Reducing birth rate just means people having fewer kids, and / or delaying having kids until they're older. There is a kind, gentle, helpful, non-coercive way to make this happen: Put effective contraception in the hands of people who want it. I'm talking about free condoms and birth control pills on every street corner of the world.

We shouldn't wait until K is imminent to start managing our population, because the best life is one where there's still a surfeit of resources and wild, open spaces for each person to enjoy. Also, we don't know exactly where K is, so we should err on the side of caution. Some scientists and economists say that the global population has already passed K, but that the regulating effects (starvation, disease, violent competition, etc) are currently localized to poor regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. Another thing to be aware of is that the K threshold could move LOWER, dropping like a guillotine onto our necks; i.e. the maximum population that earth can support could decrease. This could happen in several ways: 1) If western habits that increase per capita resource use (i.e. eating a lot of meat) become widespread, then we will run short of resources even without more population growth. 2) If we run out of cheap fossil fuels (eventually we will) we won't be able to support industrial farming and our food production will go down, decreasing the number of people that can be fed. 3) If we mess up global ecosystems through climate change we could lose the agricultural areas and fisheries stocks that we now count on for food, again lessening the number of people that the planet can support. With sea level rise we may lose the habitable land itself!

In summary, it's high time we recognize that population growth is gasoline on the fires of environmental destruction and social disorder, and thus constitutes the number one threat to the quality of life on earth. We've got to address the issue TODAY, or face K tomorrow.


Catapulting Aaron said...

Interesting perspective. I'm one of those who doesn't particularly care to have kids, but I'll tell you my parents and GF are none too happy about it. Reproduction is highly programmed into our being, and it's not just an instinctual thing. I think it's ingrained in most human cultures. We feel like having children is a measure of having accomplished something "real" in life.

When I get asked why I don't want kids I usually respond "because there is no shortage of humans".

Oh and if you didn't know, China is looking to relax its one-child policy:

No politician is going to gain votes by talking about the topic, so it won't end up getting talked about. By most, it's considered a human-rights violation.

The improvement in modern medicine is really putting a crunch on us too, and it will continue to do so. Not only are people living longer, but in wealthy countries like the US, people who are not genetically capable of having children are able to still have children, thus thwarting some type of "natural selection" that is supposed to take place.

Johnny Douglass said...

I agree that we have poor prospects for maintaining or recovering a decent environment as long as population growth continues. Unfortunately population is a very taboo topic. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives want to talk about it. It's considered political suicide.

Most liberals are convinced that if you just feed the poor and lift them up economically they will quit reproducing so much and embrace an environmentally sustainable economy. They're also afraid that adopting any sort of birth rate control measures might lead to racist eugenics.

Most conservatives don't give a rat's ass about the environment anyway. They gleefully embrace any sort of growth, reasoning it's good for the economy, thus their own personal wealth. Or, they think Jesus is coming again really really soon to take us all to our final reward, so why bother. At best, they acknowledge population problems but figure they're going to convince unmarried people to accept the cold lonely anguish of sexual abstinence. Lol At worse they figure if we toughen up, kill all our enemies, and let the poor starve, the problem will fix itself naturally, leaving behind an appropriately sized genetically superior population.

How do we break this mentality and elevate the population issue to the respectability it deserves as a humanitarian issue?

Anonymous said...

Great post. We need more and more people to speak up about population, and it's great when those in the relevant sciences do so!

I especially like that you made the point that our sheer numbers have passed the point at which we can solve our environmental problems solely by reducing per person consumption. The notion that we need only focus on per capita consumption is rampant today among mainstream environmentalists, but is based more on wishful thinking than reality. (e.g., the current mass extinction is tied directly to population growth in ways that simply reducing consumption of energy etc. won't solve. See Jeffrey McKee's book Sparing Nature.)

The comments above are quite right in their assessments of the resistance to the topic. That resistance is based largely on erroneous notions, though, as those working for NGOs such as the Population Media Center and Population Action International would confirm.

Effective ways of addressing population include educating and empowering women, improving child survival (so parents don't feel a need to have many children in the hope some will live), providing role models of the benefits of small families and empowered women through the media (what the Population Media Center does), and increasing the availability and quality of family planning services.

There is one catch - which is that we've waited so long that just bringing fertility rates down to around the replacement level of 2.1 isn't going to be enough long term. Much more discussion needs to be had on how to deal with that. Might we come up with humane ways to bring fertility rates down as far as, say, 1.0? Rates are down around 1.3 in some EU countries, suggesting that the right social conditions might do it.

One big obstacle, though, is that environmentalists and environmental writers avoid the topic like the plague - for the very reasons mentioned in the comments above. I think we need to push them to reverse that. That, in fact, is more or less why I became an environmental writer. No one was talking about these things, and I figured "if you want to get something done, you gotta do it yourself."

Yes, it's a difficult and thorny topic, but we need to call environmentalists, politicians etc. on their intellectual dishonesty in avoiding it.

BTW, it wasn't always a taboo topic. In the '70s Paul Ehrlich appeared on the tonight show some 20 times. There's a good bit on how it became a taboo topic in this post I wrote a while back.

cammar said...

Pretty impressed by the remarkable quality of this post and its comments.
I wish the comments on my blog had been as good lately...

Anyway, let me bring down the level of the comments (not intentionally, but because that's what I have to say) adding that since I figured out that over-population is THE biggest problem we have on earth, I use that as an excuse to justify my selfishness of not wanting to sacrifice any moment/resource of my wonderful life to bring up a kid...

But having a kid in this moment is even more selfish, considering the damage he/she will add. That makes me feel better...

Anonymous said...


I forgot to mention this:

"How do we break this mentality and elevate the population issue to the respectability it deserves as a humanitarian issue?"

That's a key right there. We emphasize that it's a humanitarian issue. Counter the accusations of racism, extermination, etc. with observations that ignoring the topic will cost huge numbers of lives. Turn the tables on critics of addressing population by pointing out (quite accurately!) that it is their avoidance policy which will is inhumane.


You may have hit on a good way of framing it to encourage people to have smaller families!

James Douglass said...

Thanks so much for all your comments and perspectives on this one!

Aaron- I agree; parenthood is not the only way to a happy and meaningful life, and it's not something one should be pressured into. Of course, if a couple decides they really do want a kid or two, that's OK. All things in moderation... :)

Dad- I like your political analysis. Population IS a humanitarian issue and we need to talk as much sense about it as we can until it is properly acknowledged as such.

John- Thank you for your excellent contribution to the post! I'm looking forward to checking out the McKee book and your blog post to learn more about the next steps we can take to address this huge challenge.

Cammar- I like the way you put it! Now no one can say that not having kids is "selfish".

Anonymous said...

You haole California windsurfers feel you can drop in on anyone....

Oh, sorry, wrong thread!

Good post, overlooked topic. Malthus was right, just missed the change that intensive agriculture (then cheap energy) made, but this was a stop-gap of a couple of centuries I am afraid. I believe that if all agriculture switched to organic now, that we would already be starving. Biofuels are not going to help! (well the celullose ones might).

Dave Gardner said...

Thanks for a great post, James. Like you, I wish everybody got it. In fact, I'm working on a documentary to help wake our society up and make it okay to question our obsession with economic growth and our reluctance to talk about population growth. You have a great, non-threatening way of articulating it. I look forward to checking in from time to time.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

James Douglass said...

MF4- That's a good point about how industrial agriculture coupled with intensive use of fossil fuels has allowed our population to grow unchecked for a while. (From 600 million in 1800 to 6,650 million today.) But of course there's only so much fossil fuel left, and only so much land that we can still convert to farms. We'll really be in trouble when we run out of fossil fuels and need farmland both for food and for biofuel. Running out of fresh water for irrigation of arid croplands is also a big concern. Basically, technology gave us a time-out from facing the population crisis, but it won't give us a permanent reprieve.

Dave- Thanks for the comment and the website link. I'm looking forward to your film!

Johnny Douglass said...

I am uplifted by the support here for taming population growth. However, I'm a little unnerved by some people offering comments that they will keep their own number of children at zero or 1. The idea of eugenics disturbs me but the prospect of voluntary reverse eugenics when the best, brightest, and most environmentally motivated elect not to reproduce also worries me. I fear it might deprive the next generation of some important leaders on this very issue and deprive me of some really swell grandchildren.

James Douglass said...

Don't worry, dad. Overpopulation won't stop me from having a kid or two, as long as I manage to get married before too long.

As for the reverse eugenics thing, I agree that it's a real problem. To many brilliant people are abstaining while the Britney Spears and Kevin Federlines of the world go at it like rabbits. I love how the movie "Idiocracy" (see the post below) addressed the issue with comedy. If folks want to talk more about reverse eugenics maybe we can move the discussion to that post. :)

Keith Farnish said...

Good article, population needs to keep being made a primary issue.

You might like to read my take on this, written a while ago:

Cheers, Keith.

James Douglass said...

Keith- Thanks for the link. Your essay fills in some of the details I left out of my post. :)

Unknown said...

I must have missed this post but this is one of my favorite topics. Being the link commenter that I am:

It's Morford at his best.

I constantly struggle with the issue of reproducing but realize I can't have a child just so there will be some children who 'get it' Hopefully I do my part via other mechanisms.

The whole issue of eugenics can be problematic-- especially for genetic diseases that may provide protections against other illnesses/disease (one example is sickle cell anemia and malaria). Being a quasi statistical geneticist/bioinformatics developer, the whole purpose of my job is to isolate genes/conditions for disease so that we can potentially pinpoint targets for therapeutics. Part of me feels that my job is worthy because we are eliminating suffering but then again I wonder if I am contributing to the 'de-evolution' of the human race. But isn't evolution primarily concerned with survival as an end product versus survival from natural circumstances?

Also there is an overarching theme of 'more is better'. It's not just having 'more' children... it's also about having more *things*. Consider the current state of animal husbandry-- we are feeding our cows corn-- a product they cannot even naturally digest-- to make them fatter faster so there will be more meat in the grocery stores. Even the environmental movement has turned into a business proposition-- "buy this trendy bag so you don't need to specify paper or plastic". Morford also wrote a commentary about receiving free gifts with purchases and how inane it was. But I'm limiting myself to one link per comment...
OK, I hope I haven't rambled incoherently. I'm on my second beer to inaugurate my first session in the Gorge this season and I'm a lightweight.


Unknown said...

And before I get flamed for my comments,I do realize that I am of a certain socio-economic status to suggest that our current animal husbandry practices to ensure plentiful food is in our markets has dire consequences on our environment. I think providing nutritious meals to the mass populace is a noble cause; I just question our current tactics and wonder/hope that there are more environmental friendly ones?
After beer, will look into that McKee book.


James Douglass said...

Sophia- Ha, that's a great article by Morford. And thanks for introducing the evolutionary / medical perspective on eugenics. I agree. If civilized humanity manages to avoid destruction by overgrowth and / or war, such that the "soft" selective environment we are currently living in can persist, then yes, we may an increased frequency of "sick" and "dumb" genes in the population. It's probably not too early to start thinking about how we can deal with that in an ethical way.

PS- Columbia River Gorge sessions and beer... Sounds nice!

Unknown said...

Now that I'm slightly more lucid, I also wanted to add that 'natural selection' is only relevant for diseases or attributes that afflict an individual BEFORE reproductive age-- meaning mostly children. And as mentioned in previous posts, no politician would advocate curtailing any research to cure childhood diseases. If the disease/phenotype manifests itself after reproductive age (presumably after the individual has reproduced), the disease gene would be passed onto the next generation. For example, medication that treats high cholesterol isn't really diluting the gene pool since the repercussions of high cholesterol manifests itself after reproductive age. What this medication does do, however, is contribute to longevity. But what role does longevity play in the destruction of our environment? If you isolate longevity, you can look at certain species of turtles that live for centuries. I realize that I am being incredibly reductionist but what impact do these turtles have on our environment, living for hundreds of years? Is it a combination of longevity and resources then that creates such havoc on the environment?
I realize that this post is old but I do love discussing/ruminating this topic.
And yes the Gorge and beer were great-- although the river water was frigid and for a girl who hasn't quite perfected her water start, it was a bit too cold. But nice nonetheless!


Unknown said...

What do you say to the comment that overpopulation isn't a problem (the earth has a possible carrying capacity of 30-40 billion and we haven't reached 10 yet.

Also the real problem is overconsumption which would continue even if we halved the current population.

I notice that the USA is a prime example of overconsumption as we use more resources per person than anywhere else in the world. We also pollute more.

China will overtake the USA in those categories but not through population growth (which has been stable due to their population control measures). Instead they will overtake us through continued industrialization (more new coal power plants and factories) and increased consumption per person.

Thus the most dangerous situation the world faces isn't by overpopulation, rather the increasing consumption & pollution by those states which have reached a high enough development level that population there is already slowly shrinking (as it would in the US if not for immigration).

James Douglass said...

Nathaniel- I agree with part of what you're saying; that overconsumption is a real problem that must be addressed. However, I stand by my contention that overpopulation is a real problem, as well. Clearly there is a multiplicative interaction between overconsumption and overpopulation. They are two terms in the same equation.

Total impact = (per capita consumption) x (number of people)

Doubling per capita consumption (i.e. if everyone adopted a Western lifestyle) would have the same negative impact as doubling the population.

The scary thing about our current situation on earth is that BOTH per capita consumption AND population are increasing. Especially in America.

I'm not sure where you got the figure that earth can support 30 - 40 billion people, but I think that's unrealistically high. It might be possible, but it would require the minimum per capita consumption and the maximum production of food and energy. That would mean a closely-enforced, low-impact lifestyle, and total replacement of natural ecosystems with efficient industrial farms and aquaculture. There would be no nature, and no room for error in the human life-support system. That's not a world I want to live in. Which is why I think we need to address both overconsumption AND overpopulation now, instead of just addressing overconsumption and waiting until we are stretched to the limit to address overpopulation.