An upper limit to growth? Population vs. consumption

Image courtesy of Flickr user Digital Dreams

I have an online acquaintance who has sort of abruptly switched tacks several times on the issue of climate.

Previously, he had professed a deep hostility to the field, and was one of those people who believed that climate science as a whole was little more than toying around with computer models of dubious skill. I did my best to break through these misconceptions from any and all angles- illustrating that there was far more going on than modeling, pointing at paleoclimatic and observational evidence, and how these dovetailed nicely with a lot of that “suspect” modeling he so distrusted. There was a bit of a breakthrough when we were able to civilly discuss the possible drivers of the Americas’ medieval megadroughts. I think he finally began to understand that climate science was “real science” at that point, and although he occasionally would sneer at imagined inconsistencies in media reports of potential impacts, he seemed to largely accept that there was good evidence underlying the attribution of current warming and the general shape of what could come absent some sort of limit on GHG emissions.

Predictably, his attitude shifted from “we can’t say we’re causing it or that it might be bad” to “we can’t change our energy infrastructure, so we’re hosed and might as well not rock the fossil energy boat with carbon pricing”. I introduced him to the conceptual framework of stabilization wedges, demonstrating that we indeed possessed the technological capability to address the issue in time to minimize the magnitude of the change we’ll have to ride out. After initially dismissing it out of hand, he eventually seemed to accept this as well.

He then seemed to grow fixated on the issue of population growth as the main problem and thus potential solution to climatic change, as well as other environmental problems like overfishing, habitat destruction, etc. He demanded to know why the IPCC and other organizations weren’t aggressively pushing population control as the silver bullet fix for climate change.

Needless to say, I was more than a little shocked at this turn of events. This acquaintance’s politics had always seemed more of the libertarian bent than anything else, probably the last sort of person I could imagine pushing for sweeping, UN-led population control. I explained that while my own personal interests in social justice led me to advocate for increased female education and autonomy in reproductive health, which demonstrably reduces the childbirth rate in developing and lower income areas, I didn’t see population growth as quite the overwhelming threat that he seemed to.

I explained that most credible projections showed global population levels peaking around mid-century even without a massive international effort to reduce its growth. I explained that while an additional 2-4 billion people would no doubt significantly increase the environmental problems we’re facing, I was more  concerned with existing billions of people becoming increasingly American in their waste and consumption habits.

We went back and forth on this issue for some time, and during the course of many conversations, it became clear that his anti-population growth position was just a fig leaf for anti-immigration sentiments that had little to do with climatic concerns and a great deal more to do with a set of prejudices that are commonly found among American males of European descent residing in the American southwest.

I appreciated the debate with him (up to that point) however, because it really divested me of the last residual concerns I had about a ticking “population bomb”, as opposed to an “over-consumption bomb.” Discussions about the delusion of neoclassical economics on a finite planet tend to conflate these two issues as a single problem, perhaps in seriousness or because it works to good rhetorical effect. Humans as an exponentially growing plague of ravaging locusts destroying the fruits of the biosphere is undeniably evocative imagery regardless of whether one finds it to be  an accurate depiction of our actions on this planet.

Unchecked economic growth, at least as the term is used in current politico-economic discussions, seems self-evidently impossible to people such as myself. The idea that we can- let alone should- pretend that it represents a viable forward plan seems to be incredibly reckless, even dangerous. The “limitless growth as suicide pact” notion has been addressed at this blog previously here and here, as well as at MT’s blog.

In previous discussions here and elsewhere, I’ve never really attempted to articulate why this should be so, as it hardly seems necessary to explain. Fortunately, a recent paper has been published that illustrates the problem in rough strokes. Brown et al. in BioScience attempt to demonstrate through macroecological tools that energetic constraints apply to human economies, just as organisms’ energy usage constrains their body size.

Their “money” graphic is Figure 4:

This seems to bear out my concerns as argued to my crypto-anti-immigration acquaintance. We can, in theory, sustain a growing and peak population under current global trends in consumption. This is obviously not an ideal outcome, as it would mean billions living in destitute poverty.  But even if we freeze population at 2006 levels, we cannot support a human population consuming like Americans. This is why the consumption part of the equation seems to deserve the lion’s share of attention, even if one does not accept that population growth will peak around mid-century of its own accord.

From a social justice standpoint, I would like to see everyone pulled out of poverty and able to enjoy the health and safety enjoyed by those living in developed nations. But in order to do that and not run up against the biogeophysical limits of the planet (of which climate change seems to be but one incarnation), we have to ensure that we don’t all become (or remain as the case may be) wasteful Americans.

Reference: Brown, J.H., et al. (2011): Energetic Limits to Economic Growth. BioScience, 61, 1, 19-26, doi:10.1525/bio.2011.61.1.7.

26 responses to “An upper limit to growth? Population vs. consumption

  1. I agree that energy consumption is more of an issue than population, mainly because the differences and the growth rate in the former surpass those in the latter. I collected some nice figures and my thoughts on this here:

    A few months ago I also noticed a blog discussion of a paper (forgot the ref) arguing that tackling population via the kinds of development-measures that you also propose (e.g. increased female education) are also very cost-effective in terms of mitigating climate change, besides being a win-win situation for development and climate.

    Neither economic growth nor population growth should be taboo subjects, though of course, when they’re just being used as figleafs for another agenda, it’s good to mention that. Unfortunately, as important as both issues are, they are very susceptibe to be hijacked by other agenda’s.

    • Maybe:

      Huesemann, M.H. (2008): Ocean fertilization and other climate change mitigation strategies: an overview. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 364, 243-250, doi: 10.3354/meps07545.


  2. On another note, if we get our energy from fossils or from wind/sun, what relevance does the NPP have in that comparison? Skimming the paper, I didn’t find an answer to that question, so perhaps it’s only in the graph for illustratory purposes?

    • Hi Bart!

      There are two parts to the “energy use” in this paper, energy for “human biological metabolism” (basically food) and what we more traditionally think of as energy (i.e. fossil fuel, renewables, etc.). My reading was that NPP represents the upper limit for the former without some sort of massive increase in the latter, which is considered unlikely on our present trajectory because much of the traditional energy growth is already “spoken for” in terms of increased demand for industry, transportation, etc.

  3. I think the link to MT’s blog is incomplete.

  4. The population bomb is a significant component of the over-consumption bomb. The mistake of people on the left who want to ignore it (mainly because it ties somewhat to immigration issues) is to say that something is only part of the problem, and solving it only solves part of the problem, and therefore it should be ignored.

    It is highly regrettable that so many people that are concerned about immigration are, in fact, big ol’ racists. There’s an excellent environmental argument to be made in favor of a no-net migration policy whereby immigration and emigration should balance out.

    I find this general issue similar to Roger Pielke Jr’s argument that economic growth is a far larger cause of future disaster damage than climate change will be, and therefore climate change should basically be ignored (perhaps I’m being a little ungenerous to the man, but not much).

  5. Nothing we do now can prevent global warming and consequent climate change. The net result of climate change will, over time, mittigate the problem of overpopulation. The earth can sustain a population somewhere around 2 billion without adversely impacting the natural environment.
    The rapid warming during the current interglacial period, with some exceptions, compares well with previous periods.

  6. If you’re concerned about 7 billion people pursuing a growing economy, you ought to be even more concerned about 9 billion doing so. And I imagine the UN’s population projections did not build in an assumption that everyone would shrug off the need to eliminate population growth, reassured that projections are it will take care of itself. Nor did they build in the assumption that many nations would adopt public policies to turbocharge fertility in an effort to keep their economies growing and their demographic Ponzi schemes propped up.

  7. I’m delighted that someone out there can see the light and write about it. While we are still keeping an eye on what global warming is doing to the climate (the projections are changing almost daily) I (with credentials as a geologist- not a climatologist) cannot help but put project food shortages, caused by climate change, into the formula for world population projections. If the major wheat producers in the world (USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia) end up producing less, due to climate change, a lot of people in the world will starve, especially those that rely 100% on imports. Rice and corn may also face reduced outputs. There is little room for expanding agricultural production, as most of the suitable areas are already heavily cultivated.

    As for consumption, I have elsewhere remarked that there is no possible way that the living standard in the world can be uplifted to American standards. There are simply not enough resources. Eventually, we will have to share such resources as are available, but somehow, I don’t see Americans cutting their living standard. They have been spoiled for far too long.

    A single example of a potential disaster. Bangladesh, where I worked for a year, is very low lying and extremely flood prone. With sea levels rising-even one metre, millions of people will be displaced and agricultural production will nearly cease. The only place they can go is northward to India, which already is overpopulated. How long it will take for the sea level to rise a full metre is the subject of much argument and many projections

  8. Dear thingsbreak,

    Please fix this cuz I can’t figure it out (pea brain alert):

    “The idea that we can let alone should pretend “

  9. NPP was calculated from all organisms, not just those humans plant and tend, right? Please refresh my memory, this is a difficult concept.

  10. There really is no need for developing countries to look at America as an example for development. The Northern European countries have a better standard of life on almost every count, but use half the energy per person that we Yanks do.

    It is more expensive, and this is important. Good stewardship costs money. So it is also natural to see developing countries start off on the cheap consumption binge that characterizes the U.S. But there’s no real need for them to stay on it, if they continue getting richer and have alternatives available.

    It will not solve the emissions problem. Even if developing countries fall neatly into the Scandinavian model, consumption trends for energy bring us to about 2,000 quads per year worldwide. But if they go full bore towards the U.S. pattern of consumption it will be 3,000 quads. And that’s a lot of coal.

  11. Could you please point to the post in which you deal with this issue:

    “I explained that most credible projections showed global population levels peaking around mid-century even without a massive international effort to reduce its growth. ”

    I’ve searched, but unsuccessfully. Thanks.

    • Click the hyperlink in that sentence. It’s not from I prior post of mine, it’s an external source.

      • Thanks. The external link is not that friendly to me (I see it finishes in 2050, but I don’t see where they mention that’s a peak; I see that growth slows down in some projections (medium fertility variant or instant replacement fertility variant), but not in ohters (constant fertility variant). Thanks anyway.

        I take the opportunty to pose a question I don’t find the answer to. On the one hand, I understand that a healty population pyramid must be wide at the bottomo but narrow at the uppert part (like a pyramid), so that young productive people support the old less productive people. Therefore, you need more births than deaths, i.e., you need population growth. On the other hand, population growth poses a pressure to resources, so that we cannot growth indefinitely without risking our own supply of food, energy, etc. Do you know what’s the solution to this dilemma?

  12. Great! You have walked into a backdoor to lure backstate and red state Conservatives into the pro-consensus climate position. All you need to do is stoke their latent anti-immigration sentiments by playing up threats of mass influx of brown and black skinned humans due to climate change. You’ll be tapping into a vast and endless subterranean pool of emotion there.

    “Better keep the climate unchanged or else ya got deal with ‘em immigre…”. Unbeatable. Joe Romm can retire now.

  13. This is the major issue we should talk about more in these days. The land price will become more valuable than is today. Not just as a place for living but especially to grow crops to feed people. The worldwide fertility of crops is attacked by the climate changes and hence it makes thing worse. To protect the land will become to be priority sooner or later. Frugality in consumption especially in developed countries should start today… Actually it’s slightly decreasing because of lack in employment and then pays for mortgage and other expenses.

  14. We are routinely presented with plenty of factoids, figures and statistics. Where is the scientifically-driven evidence regarding the population dynamics and unbridled, skyrocketing growth of the human species on Earth?

    As humanity’s most luminous beacon of truth, science provides us with a last best hope for the survival of life as we know it on Earth. We must make certain that scientific evidence is never downplayed, distorted and denied by religious dogma, politics or ideological idiocy.

    Let us not fail for another year to acknowledge extant research of human population dynamics. The willful refusal of many too many experts to assume their responsibilities to science and perform their duties to humanity could be one of the most colossal mistakes in human history. Such woefully inadequate behavior, as is evident in an incredible conspiracy of silence among experts, will soon enough be replaced with truthful expressions by those in possession of clear vision, adequate foresight, intellectual honesty and moral courage.

    Hopefully leading thinkers and researchers will not continue supressing scientific evidence of human population dynamics and instead heed the words of Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston regarding the emerging and converging, human-driven global challenges that loom ominously before humankind in our time, “we’ve got to make sure that population is recognized…. as a multiplier of many others. We’ve got to make sure that population really does peak out when we hope it will.”

    Sir John goes on, “what we want to do is to see the issue of population in the open, dispassionately discussed…. and then we’ll see where it goes.”

    In what is admittedly a feeble effort to help John Sulston fulfill his charge to examine all available scientific evidence regarding human population dynamics, please give careful consideration to the following presentation and then take time to rigorously scrutinize the not yet overthrown science from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation.

    Please accept this invitation to discern the best available science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation; discover the facts; deliberate; draw logical conclusions; and disseminate the knowledge widely.

    Thank you.
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, NC

  15. Much more intellectual honesty, moral courage and humane action is needed. We are about to become a species of 7 billion overconsumers, overproducers and overpopulaters on a finite and frangible planet where its resources are dissipating and environs degrading rapidly.

    During my lifetime, when human numbers explode from less than 3 bn to 7+ bn worldwide, many experts may not have known enough about what they were talking about when they spoke of human population dynamics and all causes of the human overpopulation of Earth. Their research appears not to be scientific, but rather issues from ideological or totalitarian thinking, or from specious group-think consensus. Their all-too-attractive thinking, as viewed by greedmongers, is willfully derived from what is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerable and culturally prescribed. Widely broadcast and long-accepted thinking of a surprisingly large number of so-called experts in the field of population dynamics appears to have an unscientific foundation and is likely wrong. Their preternatural theorizing about the population dynamics of the human species appears to be both incomplete and misleading. Most disturbing of all, a widely shared and consensually validated theory about a “demographic transition” four decades from now is directly contradicted by unchallenged scientific research. As a consequence, and it is a pernicious consequence, a woefully inadequate thinking and fundamentally flawed theory was broadcast during my lifetime and continues to be broadcast everywhere by the mainstream media as if it is not only science but the best available scientific evidence. The implications of this unfortunate behavior, inasmuch as it appears to be based upon a colossal misperception of what could somehow be real regarding the human population, appear profound. This failure of nerve has slowed the momentum needed to confront a formidable, human-driven global predicament.

    In their elective mutism regarding an astonishing error, are first class professional researchers with expertise in population dynamics behaving badly by allowing the “ninety-nine percenters” to be misguided and led down a primrose path by the “one percenters”? The power of silence on the part of knowledgeable human beings with feet of clay is dangerous because research is being denied that appears to shed light upon a dark, non-recursive biological problem, the understanding of which appears vital to future human well being and environmental health. Too many experts appear to be ignoring science regarding the human population and instead consciously through their silence consenting to the leviathan scale and unbridled expansion of global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities that are being adamantly advocated and relentlessly pursued by greedmongering masters of the universe, the tiny minority among us who are primarily responsible for ravaging the Earth, ruining its environs and reducing its fitness for habitation by the children. If this assessment of human behavior is indeed a fair representation of what is happening on our watch, then the desire to preserve the status quo, mainly the selfish interests of ‘the powers that be’, could be at least one basis for so much intellectually dishonest and morally bereft behavior. Could it be that the outrageous per capita overconsumption, large-scale corporate overproduction and unrestricted overpopulation activities of the human species worldwide cannot continue much longer on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of a finite and frangible planet like Earth?

    For human beings to count human population numbers is simple, really simple. The population dynamics of human beings with feet of clay are obvious and fully comprehensible. We have allowed ourselves to be dazzled by the BS of too many demographers just the way human beings have been deceived and victimized by a multitude of economists on Wall Street. Demographers and economists are not scientists. ‘The brightest and the best’ have sold their souls to greedmongers, duped the rest of us, made it difficult to see what is real, proclaimed what is known to be knowable as unknowable, engaged in the their own brands of alchemy. In their dishonest and duplicitous efforts to please the self-proclaimed masters of the universe, also known as the keepers of the ‘golden calf’ (a symbol now easily visible as the “raging bull” on Wall Street), they perpetrate frauds at everyone else’s expense, threaten the children’s future, put life as we know it at risk, and are consciously, deliberately, actively precipitating the destruction of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Never in the course of human events have so few taken so much from so many and left so little for others.

    There are many too many overly educated “wise guys” among us who see the blessed world we inhabit through the lens of their own hubris and selfishness, and see themselves somehow as Homo sapiens sapiens and masters of the universe, as corporate kings and emperor’s with clothes. They supposedly are the brightest and best, the smartest guys in the room, like the guy who used to run the global political economy without recognizing that there was an “ideological flaw” in his economic theories and models, the same guy who reported he could not name 5 guys smarter than himself. These are guys who have denied science, abjectly failed humanity, forsaken life as we know it, the Earth and God. These ideologues rule the world now and can best be characterized by their malignant narcissism, pathological arrogance, extreme foolishness, addiction to risk-taking and wanton greed.

  16. How can large numbers of human beings with feet of clay not see that the Earth is being overpopulated by the human species? Humanity appears to be on the verge of precipitating some sort of unimaginable global ecological wreckage. Scientists readily located virtually everywhere on the surface of Earth in our time have unaccepted responsibilities to assume and unfulfilled duties to perform by speaking out loudly and clearly about whatsoever is believed to be true with regard to the incredible human-driven planetary emergency that looms so ominously in the offing. Can it be that ideological idiocy and outrageous greed of a tiny minority of self-proclaimed masters of the universe will be permitted to rule the world and bring about its ruin on our watch?

  17. Pingback: My apology to the field of economics | The Way Things Break

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