Letter to an Overpopulation Alarmist

I really dislike becoming as outraged as I do, but what you are saying is simply outrageous.

Perhaps you should write up your proposal for the elimination of at least 9/10 of the world’s population, with reasons why it makes sense to you.  That way I can pick it apart and then later remind you of what you have forgotten we agreed on.

Why do you think this is necessary again?  Some ecological catastrophe?  I believe we have agreed that any particular ecological catastrophe is uncertain, though you would like to believe it is inevitable that some disaster on a scale of a mass extinction event will occur.  Since you can’t actually prove there will be any particular catastrophe, that belief in its certainty seems unfounded.  This is not a reason to ignore the possibility, but nor is it a reason to assume its certainty.

You must be aware that the 200 year history of the Malthusian catastrophe argument about over-population was based on precisely the same kind of fears, fear  that we will run out of food and we will never adjust in time.  But it never happened, and it is illuminating to understand why.  That doesn’t prove it will never happen, certainly.  But it should take some wind out of your sails, and motivate you to prove your point rather than merely assert once again that it is an inevitable certainty.  You are basing the desire and willingness to unconditionally eliminate at least 9 out of 10 people on an uncertain conjecture of some catastrophe.

I do absolutely acknowledge and agree that mass extinctions are already underway, caused by human impact on the environment.   Looking at it that way, the event that “triggered” this Holocene extinction was the advancement of agriculture starting around 10,000 years ago, and even more rapidly, the dawning of mechanization over 1000 years ago when the population was under 1 billion, and then the acceleration during the industrial revolution.

I am certainly not in denial of the extinctions and our responsibility for them, but then we are mostly talking about a continuation of this trend, not a particular catastrophe that we might be able to avoid, since it is already happening.   I am also not in denial of the increase in population that paralleled the increase in extinctions.

What I object to is that you effectively assume everyone in that population is equally at fault for causing the extinctions.   Quite the opposite, evidence shows that it is generally a small fraction of populations that are causing most of the problems.

We are talking about human beings prospering at the expense of the rest of nature, and I agree that this has been the trend, but you would choose now to knock us all back to the agricultural age to supposedly reverse that trend.  Your mistake is that you are assuming it was the increase in population that caused these problems rather than the increase in non-sustainable practices of a few.  You’ve got it backwards, blaming the entire population rather than the non-sustainable practices of a relatively small fraction.

Who would be eliminated in your plan?  You have said you prefer a random culling across the planet,  which is consistent with your thinking that it is about the population as a whole, ignoring who among us is causing the most problems.  But you have also said any criminal elements should be the first to go, along with the aging and the sick and handicapped, I suppose.   You suggest this because why?  Would it help avoid the real problems which could result in ecological catastrophe?    Are poor criminals who are trying to survive on scraps in slums causing the ecological problems more so than the well-off non-criminals who are eating more than they need to and driving more than they need to, mostly oblivious of their effects on the world because they are hidden away in the exploited poorer parts of the world?

I might agree with eliminating criminal elements, if we focus on the powerful individuals who have criminally taken control and responsibility away from the rest of us, essentially forcing us all to continue on unsustainably, despite the willingness of most people to do the right thing, if they only knew what to do.

You have said you might prefer a voluntary program to reduce the number of births, but you believe people are too selfish and stupid to participate in that.   You should be aware that people have, in fact, been reducing their birth rate to match the death rate, and most of the world is rapidly moving toward having just 2 children per family.  Also, don’t forget that, because our current average lifespan is over 60 years across the world, even a couple decades of zero births would do very little to reduce the overall population.  So this would be no solution at all, assuming population were the main problem.  And so, if you really want the population reduced to 1/10 of what it is now in a short period of time, you really require some way of eliminating a large fraction of the world by dramatically increasing the death rate.  You are talking about genocide of 6 billion people.

I agree that the ecological footprint of all human beings is large, but it is not nearly as large as you are assuming it is, by most reasonable estimates.  The difference is about 1.4 times carrying capacity compared to your 10 times.   How does it make sense that we have survived 2000 years, when we were about 1 billion people, while increasing our footprint the whole time and somehow managed to pass the carrying capacity by 10 times?  Where does your assessment that we are 10 times over carrying capacity come from?

You agree that the more developed parts of the world contribute a much larger share of the footprint.  But when you multiply the average footprint by the total size of the population that ignores the fact that different people have different footprints, and then you blame the entire population for the problems caused mostly by a relatively few people.

Here is an analogy that might clarify the error in your thinking.  Twenty people go out to eat, and one guy orders 4 times as much as the average, and then he blames everyone else for not wanting to pay his bill.  That guy is America.

You have suggested we should come up with a value function that determines the contribution or damage of each human on the environment, and on each other.  (If we are going to be so objective, we might end up valuing the individuals who eliminate those people who are causing more of the damage to the environment.)  And your goal, your calculation, is that we need to maximize this function until we reduce the overall footprint (not the population necessarily) by 90%, assuming our footprint is 10 times what it should be.

I’d say that is a step in the right direction.  But despite some awareness of addressing the real problems based on our ecological footprint, you revert to a solution based on overall population reduction.

You repeatedly assume population reduction will be a solution to whatever unknown catastrophe might occur, whereas the real problems are caused by the more developed parts of the world, a small fraction of the world,  due to unsustainable practices.   That’s why, if you really want to try solving the problems by reducing population, it would make more sense if your target is the people in the more developed parts of the world.

If you don’t eliminate the more developed parts of the world, then the unsustainable practices would be allowed to continue, and essentially they would be rewarded by having more resources to exploit.  It would not address the real problems, but will more likely make the problems even worse.

So suppose you do eliminate the more developed parts of the world.  To be efficient, you might target all the major cities, the urban centers of industrialization.   What would be the result?  The rest of the world in the rural areas, is almost half the population, say 3 billion people.  They would be knocked back to the pre-industrial, agricultural age, but with a much larger population.  That should tell you something about whether the size of the population is the problem.   Those 3 billion people would probably scale back further, because there is some dependence on industrialization which no longer exists, but do you really believe they would still be 3 times over carrying capacity?

On the other hand, some urban areas are more efficient in their energy usage per person than rural areas, particularly in the US, Europe, and Australia.  So by eliminating those cities, you would be making the problem worse.  See World Energy Outlook: Energy Use in Cities.

The problem is not the scale of the population with unsustainable practices, but the fact that many people are living unsustainably, some worse than others.  And the scale of the problem, if you want to focus on that, is not really a function of population, but a function of how unsustainable they are.   Having more people is not the problem, if they are all living sustainably, but living more unsustainably is the problem.  A totally automated factory, with no people, could be run sustainably, or not.  Sustainability is what we need to focus on.

You seem to believe that sustainability is very difficult to achieve, even if people were very willing to change  (which I am confident they are).  Maybe that stems from your assertion that we are 10 times over carrying capacity, and therefore we would have to reduce our footprint to 1/10 of what it is now.  That would be a large and difficult change, so difficult, in your mind, that since we can’t solve the sustainability part of the equation, we are forced to reduce the number of people.  I might agree with you if that were true  (but even then, there are better ways to go).  But your assertion about being 10 times over carrying capacity is not based on any facts I am aware of.   Please provide some proof.  Let’s focus on that.

We agree on the problem of using non-renewable fossil fuels, particularly oil since it will be increasingly expensive as the supply tapers off over the next 100-200 years.  Coal is also a problem since it is so dirty, or much less efficient if some of its energy is used to make it clean.   So we agree that we have to find ways to eliminate our use of non-renewable, dirty resources.  And yet you are aware that renewable resources are enormously abundant, and close to being competitive, and the increasing cost of fossil fuels will therefore very likely stimulate production of renewable resources as demand goes up for more energy.    And we agree that this is already starting to happen.

So where is the problem of being 10 times over carrying capacity regarding energy?  Does it stem from an assumption that we would need to continue using non-renewable resources, and we would need 10 times as much, which just doesn’t exist?  Why is 10 times even enough?  Why not 100 times or 1000 times?   Why can’t we replace all our non-renewable energy production with 100% renewable energy production?  We should be able to agree that this just doesn’t make sense, and energy is not the problem.

The problems for supporting a 30% increase in human population, peaking at about 9 to 10 billion around 2050, are mostly about ensuring we will have enough food and water in the places where people choose to live.  But if we have enough renewable energy, the food and water problems are taken care of fairly easily.   This includes replacing our non-sustainable agricultural practices with more sustainable means, which we already know how to do.  So where is the problem of being 10 times over carrying capacity regarding food and water?  If you really have such an extreme disregard for human life as to consider eliminating 90% people, why should you even care if there is starvation at levels of just 30%?

The problems of ecological damage and species extinction are tragic and significant, but not critical and catastrophic for all life at this time, unless we cross some lower threshold of a minimally sustainable ecosystem.  But we are talking about the whole world, not isolated independent parts.  Certainly we can point to many ecological disasters on islands and sensitive areas near deserts and wetlands, and we have several bad situations around the world, with dead zones in the ocean and now this awful oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and hundreds of other problems that we have caused.  I don’t deny that we have these problems, but you would be exaggerating the extent and magnitude of these problems to suggest that all life on earth is therefore doomed given what we know.

Life has ways of adapting to compensate for any abuses.   I think we agree on that.  One consequence could be an increase in life forms that will metabolize the many toxic substances we emit by our non-sustainable practices.   The long term effect might be that life is harder for humans, but you would instead choose to preemptively eliminate a large fraction of humans to do what?  Save humanity from itself?  Hmm, my irony detector is flashing?

Oh, you don’t care about humanity at all?  You are just trying to protect all the rest of life, and you are satisfied to eliminate most of humanity to maybe preserve 100% of the rest of life.   This is not making much sense, especially because it is not most of humanity that is the problem, as discussed above, but a relatively small percentage that is the cause of most of our problems.

I agree with your general concern that we should be addressing the ecological problems.  And from what I can see, we do address them, when we can see them publicly, when the public then gets up in arms about why these problems were allowed to exist and continue so long, when it becomes apparent that it is the abuses of a relatively few powerful individuals who are causing most of these problems.

Global warming is one problem that has been harder for people to see, because it is a very long-term gradual trend, and it is only within the last couple decades that the science has been clear enough to make a strong case for urgent action.  And urgent action is required because of the enormous momentum and destructive consequences.  And where do we see the most resistance to taking action?  The very same powerful few, the fossil fuel industry, who have fooled media and a large percentage of Americans into believing there is no problem, or that it is still debatable.  This is the worst kind of problem, not even so much because of the magnitude of the problem which is huge, but because it is difficult to see, difficult for people to then demand action be taken.

Back to the culling…  Let’s get rid of those pesky poor people who are demanding we resolve the real problems.  Oh wait.. that can’t be right.

When would you start this program of elimination?  The sooner the better?   Should it have been done 10 years ago?  100 years ago? 1000 years ago?  If not then, why not?

You would prefer that the population had never have grown as large as it did, that we should have been more responsible 1000 years ago and focused on being 100% sustainable at that time.  I would agree with being sustainable from the outset, but do you believe it is so difficult to be sustainable that, if we had, we could never have grown beyond 1 billion people?

Why would eliminating 9/10 of the population solve any problems?  Can you prove any of it?  Seems that such a penalty on humanity should require extraordinarily strong proof, that there is nothing else that can be done, and if we don’t do it now, we are all doomed anyway, along with the rest of life, on a scale that is much worse than eliminating 9 out of 10 people.  And it seems to me you have nothing much to go on, nothing but your fears, and a solution that would not really solve anything.  And you are serious in believing such things.

Basically, your solution is not a solution to anything, but just giving up, as far as I can see.

Meanwhile, we do have real solutions to the real problems that don’t involve eliminating anyone, and they would not cost very much if we start now.  We can become 100% sustainable in a matter of decades.  This would not be the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic before it hits the iceberg.  It is slowing down enough to reduce the risk, and changing direction to avoid the icebergs we can see ahead of us.  See “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet” by Jeffrey Sachs, and A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables, by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, Scientific American, November 2009

Would you rather ignore those solutions, and focus on non-solutions?  If you are really serious about the real problems, then you should be focused on real solutions.


One Response to “Letter to an Overpopulation Alarmist”

  1. Daniel LaLiberte Says:

    I just learned that my friend, the population alarmist, is not reading any of these blogs. He repeatedly, blindly sticks with his beliefs, and now says simply that he doesn’t believe me. If he ever gets around to reading this, I bet he will have merely skimmed the surface of what I am saying before heading to the comments to find this. He has a strong resistance to finding out whether his beliefs are actually supported by reality.

    Maybe you, dear reader, fit the description of a population alarmist. Of course you would call yourself a realist and me an unrealistic optimist. But I am looking at the data as measured in the real world, so that would make me the realist and you the unrealistic pessimist. If you believe otherwise, please present your case. Otherwise, I rest my case.

    I am not asking anyone to believe me. I don’t want your belief. And I am not about to just believe you either. I want your understanding of the facts of what has happened in the past and what is likely to happen in the future. I want you to prove to me what we know for certain versus what is based on some misguided belief in unfounded assumptions.

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