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Cattle in feedlot, storks carrying babies

Free Webinar to Settle Controversy on Overshoot

One of the three podcasts I host is called The Overpopulation Podcast, a project of World Population Balance. One episode this year featured a conversation with author Laura Carroll about making the choice to be childfree. One listener emailed this comment:

“Dear Dave, It’s not population as population is leveling off. It’s consumption, consumption, consumption.”

I’m writing about this today because this is a fairly common occurrence. That’s one of the reasons I’m hosting a free webinar this week:

Solving Overshoot: End Overpopulation or Stop Overconsumption?

Solving Overpopulation Webinar

I suspect most people think they know the answer to that question. I think I do. So I doubt many will attend hoping to actually find out the answer. I think most who attend will be there to make sure someone doesn’t offer the WRONG answer. Interestingly, there are differing opinions on what the correct answer is.

If you’re familiar with my film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth or my media analysis at www.growthbiasbusted.org, you know that my answer is we are so deep into overshoot we must do both. That’s no secret. But there are many who seem to have picked one answer, and one answer only, and defend that stridently.

UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot fairly regularly rails against the population solution. In The Population Myth (9/29/2009), Monbiot wrote:

“It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed. The brilliant earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for example, claimed last month that ‘those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.’ But it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.”

For a minute, maybe even for a day, Monbiot’s crass comment about old white men actually made me feel inadequate. Who am I to have a something valuable to contribute to this conversation? Certainly, if I already had 5 kids, was jetting from one vacation home to the next, and advocating we need only address overpopulation to solve overshoot, I should be shot. But, that not being the case…well, let me tell you it didn’t take long for me to realize how utterly ridiculous the statement is. And it’s just as ugly, insensitive and prejudiced as if he had singled out women, Asians, or Africans to exclude from having positions worthy of consideration. In fairness, there were some truthful, useful parts to this column. But statements like the above disappoint.

In There’s a Population Crisis Alright. But Probably Not the One You Think (11/19/15), we got:

“While all eyes are on human numbers, it’s the rise in farm animals that is laying the planet [to] waste.”

And in Population Growth Is A Threat. But It Pales Against The Greed Of The Rich (1/29/08), we learn:

“…population growth is not the most immediate issue: another sector is expanding much faster. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation expects that global meat production will double by 2050….”

Earlier this year, another Guardian columnist, Lucy Siegle, gave us, in The Eco Guide To Population Growth (6/12/16):

“Every hour 10,000 people are born. Fortunately a new crop of eco innovations will help tackle the pressures on our planet.”

Poverty and overconsumption are the prevailing problems, not overpopulation, according to Siegle, who advised:

“…rather than fearing more people, let’s believe that the new ones will make a difference, fix the energy gap, work out how to develop sustainable protein sources and so on.”

I don’t mean to single out the UK Guardian. Perhaps I get these examples from that source because it’s one of the few news organizations that doesn’t shy away from such topics. I frequently cite excellent stories and commentary from the Guardian.

But I am left to wonder why the overpopulation subject so often inspires a certain kind of protest. I believe I see a distinct difference in the protests brought on by a column, essay or other statement about addressing overpopulation and the protests generated by a piece about overconsumption. See if you agree.

If someone writes about overpopulation, almost certainly someone is going to respond with the claim that overpopulation is NOT the problem; we just need to go vegan, stop wasting food and over consuming. If someone writes about overconsumption, there is typically not a backlash claiming the writer is in error to harp on overconsumption; just a complaint that the writer is leaving out overpopulation, and the problem(s) cannot be solved if overpopulation is ignored. See the difference?

There must be something threatening about the idea of making a conscious effort to contract population. Perhaps that’s tied to the baggage overpopulation brings with it. Some past efforts to reduce conception and birth rates were ugly. But we all know today that many of the things that reduce fertility rates would be noble and desirable even if they didn’t reduce births. Respect, empowerment and education for women are just the right thing to do. So we ought to be able to get past that historical baggage. Yet here we are. We can only promote gender equity if we avoid mentioning its importance in addressing overpopulation.

We have much work to do, and it would be best not to waste time and energy arguing whether overconsumption or overpopulation is the problem. Yet, I know this can be a hot topic. So, yes, I chose it as the title of the GrowthBusters webinar this Wednesday. It should attract a lot of interest. If I wanted it to be a sensational “fight of the century” kind of debate, I should have invited George Monbiot to face off with someone who talks only about overpopulation. It would have been exciting. Darn, opportunity lost.

Instead, I invited two enlightened people with slightly different perspectives, but neither of whom is going to advocate for just one solution (at least, I don’t think they will; we’ll find out). In other words, they’re smart enough to know we need to deal with both issues.

One might think Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich would be an overpopulation demagogue. After all, the title of his first book, The Population Bomb, has followed him for more than 40 years. It sold more copies and generated more debate and dialog than any of the dozens of other books he and his brilliant wife, Ann, have written. He is still introduced as “author of The Population Bomb.” I’m guilty of doing that. But (spoiler alert) Paul will be the first to tell you the problem is bigger than that. In fact, The Population Bomb did not address only population.

And one might expect former UK Guardian columnist Madeleine Somerville, author of All You Need is Less, to tell us we can ignore overpopulation and just get busy scaling back our level of consumption. But Madeleine impressed me with this UK Guardian column:

Are Eco-Friendly Initiatives Pointless Unless We Tackle Overpopulation?

This column began with:

“The overarching theme of this column is living with less, so it really shouldn’t surprise me when each week I venture into the comments section to find dozens of people insisting that all efforts to do so are in vain – unless we are also choosing to reproduce less, too.”

Big surprise. Not. Naturally, I was very interested to learn Somerville’s response. I recommend you read the entire column. I became a fan. But here I’ll skip to her conclusion:

“…commenters, I concede the inarguable truth that you may be right. There may well be too many of us, and far, far too many of us if we all wish to live like North Americans. This is why it’s at least as worrisome to me, if not more so, that those of us who are here are – particularly those of us in developed countries – are consuming so much, so fast, with so little regard for the world around us.”

Regardless of where you sit on the big controversy (or whether you even think it is a controversy), you’ll learn something interesting at Wednesday’s webinar. It’s hosted by the GrowthBusters project, and co-sponsored by Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB). We’re offering it free. If you plan to be asleep or at another affair at 9pm U.S. Eastern Time December 14, we’ll send you a link to view the webinar later (if you’ve registered). Register here: Solving Overpopulation.

Dave Gardner
Director, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

PHOTO CREDIT: Storks cartoon graphic courtesy of Nina Paley (Creative Commons License)

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Comments (9)

  • Avatar

    Jem Randles

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    Monbiot is ideologically opposed to any discussion about population. He cannot see past his socialist / post-colonialist inspired guilty trip: it blinds him to the mathematics and the facts.

    Reply

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    Brian Sanderson

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    Indeed, since 1980 the average American has reduced her* oil consumption from 27 barrels a year to 22 barrels. Over the same period of time, USA oil consumption has increased by 23%.
    Why?
    Because population grows faster than consumption diminishes….

    So why does population grow faster than consumption diminishes? Well, that’s because of the human breeding strategy. Paul Colinvaux proposed a model for the human breeding strategy in 1980. At that time, his model seemed to align with the broad sweep of history. Since 1980, Colinvaux’s model just seems to fit the data better and better.

    But we can’t talk about the human breeding strategy, can we?

    * I don’t know if the average American is a woman, but certainly the median American is…

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Dave Kruse

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    I=PAT tells me I can make more progress working on P.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner

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      Not sure I get why that is, Dave Kruse. A and T both represent consumption and have equal weight in the equation, no?

      Reply

      • Avatar

        Jem Randles

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        Because increasing “P” has a geometric / exponential effect on the equation i.e. the person who is not born prevents that person’s lifetime of consumption and the consumption of any children, grand-children etc, that they may subsequently have had. Whereas, changes in “A” (consumption) can only have an arithmetic (spot change) effect. E.g. we all reduce our per-head consumption by a third, but we allow the population to grow to 10bn in the next 40 years then the reduction in total consumption is wiped out. So we all reduce per-head consumption by another 20%+ but reaching 11bn at the end of the century wipes that out. Changes in per-head consumption are an important and immediate thing that we can & should (must!) do, but can never keep up with the exponential effects of growing population (see Malthus circa 1798). Same with “T”, such as making something more efficient to reduce the per-person energy consumption (which we also must do) – but it doesn’t have an on-going exponential effect, just a step arithmetic effect when introduced.

        Reply

        • Avatar

          Dave Gardner

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          Excellent points, Jem Randles. Thanks for the thoughtful comments on this.

          Reply

      • Avatar

        Brian Sanderson

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        The problem with I=PAT is that neither A nor T are independent of P.

        We know that more people will drive technological advance and vice versa — but only up to a point; a point we have long passed!

        We also know that technology (T) saturates. Max Born said it perfectly: http://users.eastlink.ca/~bxs/PopulationGeniuses.html

        We also know that there is a lower limit for A below which nature will force population to decline. Driving population to the point that A starts to decline is madness. That is where the world is headed now!!

        Presently the advantages of improved T are squandered by increasing population. And presently A is actually diminishing for most people.

        It is the human breeding strategy that must be addressed!

        I=PAT is too simplistic to be useful. Colinvaux provides a much better way of thinking about the issue — a way that is consistent with standard ecological knowledge.

        Reply

        • Avatar

          Dave Gardner

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          Thanks, Brian. I just wanted to point out that the IPAT formula does include both consumption and population. In the webinar, time permitting, I’ll actually bring up one or two valid Monbiot points (reluctantly) that would fortify his position a bit (but not decisively). I, for one, don’t think it’s wise or realistic to think we’ll survive if we don’t get busy on all fronts.

          Reply

          • Avatar

            Brian Sanderson

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            Indeed, I think that privation due to the present level of population pretty much forces a reduction of A (affluence) on most people. It’s past the point of being a matter of choice.

            That is why the question of the human breeding strategy is of primary importance.
            Human Breeding Strategy: “Each breeding couple has as many children as they think that they can afford.”

            Thus, couples with high aspirations for their children have a small number of offspring because each child will cost a lot. Conversely, other couples can have many offspring if each child requires little investment (low aspiration).

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