Population Growth is Not the Problem

I have a friend who believes that the high population of humans in the world (almost 7 billion in 2009) is a problem in and of itself, and the population growth is only making things worse.  I maintain that the population is not the right thing to focus on and that the real problems are elsewhere.

What are we honestly going to do about the size of the population and the rate of growth in order to have any sufficient impact on the real problems?

What is your guess about how overpopulated we are, assuming we are?  Are there 10 times too many people?  Would you advocate that we somehow eliminate some large number of people (9 out of 10 people!?) to reduce the population to what you believe is OK?  Of course not (or I certainly hope not, but I do worry about a few deranged extremists who believe that would be a good idea)!

Can we even reduce the population fast enough by reducing our growth rate to address the problems soon enough?  With a worldwide average lifespan of over 60 years (you may be surprised by that fact) if we all stop having babies now, we could only reduce the population by at most 1/2 in 60 years, but then the remaining half would be over 60 and unable to make more babies. So obviously we can not slow down that fast – maybe we could achieve a 25% reduction with drastic controls.

If you are planning on a greater reduction of population to solve our problems, then face it, you must be expecting a much higher death rate, perhaps by a madman’s act of genocide.  Or perhaps you have just given up trying and expect nature to take its course by, for example, creating a disease that will wipe out billions in the more concentrated urban areas.

It is not just the size of the population that concerns some people but the rate of growth.  Thirty years ago, it did appear that the population was exploding exponentially.  But in fact, since 1980 we have been slowing our growth, and most of the world is moving to a replacement rate of 2 children per family.  We will very likely stabilize at around 9-10 billion people by 2050, assuming nothing else changes.  (see World Population is Stabilizing)

In short, population growth simply cannot be considered the most important problem, at least not in isolation.   What exactly is it about the population that some people think is a problem?  If you don’t like people, then ya, lots more people would be a problem.   But it’s not that.  It’s the resources that each person uses, and the waste that results.   And the more people we have, the faster we will use up finite non-renewable resources, and the faster we will pollute the environment, and we are already doing so at a rate that is causing mass extinction of a large number of species of life on earth (see Holocene Extinction).  We humans, by crowding out all other life, could cause a cascading ecosystem collapse that might result in our own extinction.

Certainly, I agree, if each person on average is net-negative with respect to resource consumption (meaning we consume more resources than we produce), and waste production (meaning we produce more polluting waste than we clean up), then multiplying by a larger number of people only magnifies all those resource and waste problems.  But here is the key thing to be aware of:  If the net impact per person can be reduced to zero, then the magnitude of the population becomes irrelevant. This is the goal of those who strive for a Zero Footprint, treading the earth as if we were invisible.  Better yet, if we can make the net impact per person be positive, then more people will actually improve our situation even faster.

So is it actually possible for us to be net-zero or net-positive on average?  I believe so, and that is a subject we need to explore in great depth in other articles.  But here is another key concept: If we need to achieve net-zero impact anyway, then why are we so concerned about the population?

A legitimate question is how fast can we change the habits of the world’s population to achieve the zero footprint goal.  We also need to look closely at which parts of the world are the worst offenders, and then we will come to the sad realization that the worst offenders in the world are a relatively small number of people, namely us in the “civilized” world, living off the hard work and resources of the rest of the world.   If you want to target anyone for genocide, it should be us, not the majority of the world’s population that would live much better without us.

Here is quote from an article that exposes the misunderstanding about how population relates to the real problems of the world.

A paper published in September 2009 in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions(2). – from The Propaganda of Over Population and its Impact on Global Warming

The problem is not the number of people living, but the solution is people living sustainably.

If we were to continue with the same non-sustainable habits, then reducing the population will only delay the inevitable.  But changing to a sustainable life style is what we really need to do in any case, and once we do that, once we are able to produce enough extra renewable energy to clean up the mess we have been creating, the size of the population will no longer matter.

So we get to the ultimate question of how many people can the world actually comfortably support, if we achieve zero footprint? I don’t have an answer, but I doubt that the current population of about 7 billion would be a huge problem.

The real problems are all caused by stupidity and social inequities that we need to fix anyway.  Let’s get busy solving the real problems.

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