The root problem: too many people?

world population by 2050

The question is being raised more and more. In the coming era of climate change and peak oil, where resources are becoming depleted and carbon emissions change the weather, isn’t the underlying problem one of overpopulation?

SusHI raises the question in a thoughtful post (the graph is from them) as does an Op-Ed in The Guardian.

As the environment finally gets the prominence it deserves, some environmentalists are prepared to assert that population management has to be on the agenda.

There’s no point giving up your meat and your car, recycling your rubbish and producing lots of children. The challenge is to have that debate while steering well clear of racism – or of the authoritarianism that lurks in the background of environmentalism.

China mandates that families only have two children. An unfortunate result of this is that first-born girls sometimes are deliberately killed so the parents can try to have boys instead. There’s little chance repressive authoritarian methods like that could ever be instituted in the U.S., nor should they be. And the obvious racism that could happen when an area decides to keep Them out must also be avoided.

Optimum Population ran the numbers and concluded

Even if the world managed to achieve a 52 per cent cut in its 1990 emission levels by 2050 – not far off the IPCC’s 60 per cent target – it would be canceled out by population growth.

Can the planet really handle 2.5 billion more people in the next 43 years? I doubt it. Sane and rational ways to slow population growth need to be found else Mother Nature might do it for us.


  1. The problem is that even with the current population our globe cannot handle bringing everyone to the standard of living (and energy usage) of the major industrialized countries (4.7 TOE) from their current level (0.8), much less to the U.S. level of consumption (8.4). Hence any discussion of CO2 limitation that omits population reduction condemns the vast majority of the world to abject poverty.

    Racism is inherent in the idea that “we” should be able to use more than “them.” Thus we must define a standard of living acceptable to all, to which every person on earth can aspire, and then calculate the number of people who can safely attain that level. That (and no more) is the carrying capacity of the planet– and permitting a higher population level enforces poverty. While rising standards of living (in conjunction with urbanization) tend to reduce birth rates, we raise standards of living before birth rates fall at our peril.

    BTW, China’s policy is “one child.” It claims to have prevented population growth to the tune of 300 million– the population of the U.S. (See

  2. The difference between us and fleas is that we have the capacity to make a different choice. But clearly we do not always make it.

    It’s ironic that those who will die are in large part not those with the choice to change course. Rather, we, the lucky few who can use 8.5 TOE per capita, will (to put it bluntly) kill many who are limited to 0.8 TOE per capita– not because we are fitter (unless you believe you personally did something to deserve this current elevated status) but because we were lucky enough to be born in our place and time.

    IMO, when we become enlightened enough to say, “People will die, get over it” when the gun is pointed at our own heads, only then will we have earned the right to say it.

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