Population surge difficult to halt and almost impossible to reverse

My article, as it appears in this morning’s Irish Times:

Today, just like every day for the last 50 years, around half a million babies will be born. Every 16 days or so, the equivalent of the population of Ireland is added to our burgeoning numbers. Annually, that’s a new Germany.

Astonishingly, the number of human babies born in just one day exceeds the total number of our closest living relatives, the great apes, alive in the world. Almost all our cousin primates are now in in sharp decline, with some in an extinction spiral. All, that is, except one. Our gain is nature’s pain.

To describe us as super-abundant is a heroic understatement. “Humans are 10,000 times more common than we should be, according to the rules of the animal kingdom”, notes biologist Dr Steve Jones.

Right up to the dawn of the industrial revolution, global population never exceeded 600 million – or less than one tenth of today’s level. Fossil fuels changed all that.

Today, human beings, for good or ill, are the greatest single force of nature on the planet. Our sheer numbers, combined with ready access to cheap hydrocarbon energy, mean we are quite literally reshaping the world. The pace, scale and consequences of this colossal endeavour are becoming ever more apparent.

“Science makes clear that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilisation safe for the past 10,000 years. Evidence is growing that human pressures are starting to overwhelm the Earth’s buffering capacity”, according to a recent statement from a group of Nobel laureate scientists. “Humans have propelled the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene – the Age of Man”.

Our hegemony has manifestly not been accompanied by a widespread awareness of the limits of our finite world. Twenty, perhaps even 10 years ago, it could still be argued that we simply didn’t truly grasp that human activity could jeopardise the biosphere as a whole.

Over the last two decades, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed, with ever increasing certainty, that the by-products of the activity of billions of humans, their industries and their agriculture, are drastically altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

The scientific evidence is surprisingly unambiguous: the price of persisting with our current twin trajectory of population and economic grown is a near-certain abrupt ending this century of the benign global climatic conditions that have prevailed since the end of the last Ice Age.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, there were repeated warnings that global food production could not keep up with rapid population growth, and large-scale famines could be common by the 1980s. This didn’t happen, thanks in large part to the ‘green revolution’, which combined new high-yield grains with the massive expansion and industrialisation of agriculture. In short, the process of turning oil into food.

In accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in boosting food output, Dr Norman Bourlag warned: “the green revolution has won temporary success in man’s war against hunger…but the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed”. Failure to rein in human numbers and impacts, Bourlag added, would mean: “the (21st) century will experience sheer human misery on a scale that will exceed the worst that has ever come before”.

The geometric nature of population growth makes it extraordinarily difficult to arrest, and almost impossible to reverse. The last population doubling took only 40 years. Even if global population growth rate drops to just one per cent, today’s seven billion would swell to an unimaginable 14 billion in 70 years.

This will manifestly never happen. Already, the biosphere is showing signs of acute system failure. The sequestration of vast swathes of the land surface for agriculture has compromised the planet’s self-regulatory systems. Pollution is further crippling the absorptive capacity of these systems.

More humans and ever more unequal ‘economic growth’ mean less and less space for the millions of other species which comprise the complex interdependent web of life. Levelling the rainforests and overfishing the oceans produces short-term profits for some, but at a fearsome cost to our children’s generation. “We are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history”, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which has tracked a catastrophic 30 per cent decline in biological diversity on the planet since 1970.

The convergence of crises that threaten humanity and the wider biosphere are the by-products of an unprecedented spasm of growth, in both population and expectation. Neither is sustainable; in combination, they are lethal. What is truly remarkable is not just that there are seven billion people alive today; rather, it’s the lack of any sense of existential awareness of what this actually means for us all.

Decades of economist-inspired cornucopianism, which enshrined impossible growth as somehow normal and desirable, have numbed us to our predicament. As the US satirist H.L. Mencken put it: “It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting”.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and is on Twitter: @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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22 Responses to Population surge difficult to halt and almost impossible to reverse

  1. seafóid says:

    Virtually all of the population growth in the last 30 years has been in the not developing much world . Conditions are dreadful . So many people get shafted.


    The slums many move to are awful.
    And now the investment bankers are making bets on the prices of basic foodstuffs.

  2. Pidge says:

    Monbiot had a good article on this recently. I’m inclined to agree with him that – due to the vast gulf between life in the developed and developing worlds – it’s consumption more than population that matters.


  3. Barry Reilly says:

    Good piece, John, your arguments don’t leave a whole lot of room for dispute. Taken in totality, the evidence is pretty compelling – too many of us, wanting way too much – infinite needs and wants colliding with a finite world can only lead to predictably grim consequences.

    But as your concluding quote put it, we’d much rather listen to reassuring untruths than profoundly uncomfortable and disconcerting truths. My guess is this explains in a nutshell why people like you remain on the fringe of this “debate”. As Captain Smith doubtless told his first mate, “icebergs, don’t bother me with icebergs, I’ve got a ship to run!”

  4. John Gibbons says:

    I too am a fan of Monbiot, and I read the piece you refer to above. I can understand and sympathize with his argument that inequity (aka “greedy rich bastards”) is the real bogeyman here. However, the best way I’ve found to think about population versus consumption is to see them as the length and breadth. One is multiplied by the other to give us the “area” of the sustainability/climate crisis.
    Monbiot’s (entirely well founded) antipathy towards over-consuming white males tut tutting about the over-breeding lesser orders blinds him to the fact that even poor humans exert a huge influence on their immediate environments. Poor Africans are helping to wipe out primates and other jungle species for “bush meat”. They are also cutting down the trees that keep the soil from blowing away for firewood. They do this from necessity, but the damage is no less real. Quadrupling of the population of Africa in 50 years has been a demographic, social and political disaster for that continent.
    The major drivers of global climate change, on the other hand, are us in the “west”, our reckless over-consumption and resource plunder is rapidly using up the shared atmospheric resource, while of course directly immiserating people in the so-called developing world. It may be politically correct to focus on your favourite bogeyman; to my mind, it’s the combined effect that is decisive.
    In the short term, climate change exacerbates inequality, but it will, I believe, prove to be the great leveller. Perhaps the ultimate social justice is that by the end of the 21st century, it looks like all of us will indeed have been cremated equal!

  5. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for the feedback. That’s pretty much as I see it too. In many respects, its hard to imagine how things might have panned out that much differently. As individuals, we are poor judges of risk, and collectively, we are prone to powerful shared delusions (just look at the property bubble and its supporting mythology). I see no grounds for reasonable optimism in believing humanity capable of both recognising and adequately responding to one existential crisis, let alone the three, four or more rapidly coming down the track towards us…

  6. seafóid says:

    The worse conditions become in the poor countries, the less hygienic slums become, the more desperate the poverty, the greater the likelihood of a global pandemic. Climate breakdown will only exacerbate the problems. Ultimately destitution in India or Yemen is everyone’s problem.

  7. John,
    thanks again for another great article – I will share it along my networks.

    Just in response to your last paragraph and @Barry in regards to why the wider population appears so disengaged with our alarming biospheric realities – I’ve been looking at the wider cultural aspects of this and have come across a body of work on the ‘psychology of climate apathy’ – from George Marshall’s 2001 paper of the same name.

    Seems there is much evidence there why we counter such bad news – I expect you have come across him before? He has recently uploaded his video series – they are great and surprisingly he’s very funny and this one on how we distance from such information and the stories we tell ourselves and how we are so great at compartmentalising information http://youtu.be/Wb5Zu_YGxjw

    George Marshall is the UK Climate Outreach and Information Network’s (COIN) founder and Director of Projects, and runs a successful weblog exploring the psychology of climate change denial – with observations and anecdotes about our weird and disturbed response to the problem.

  8. John Gibbons says:

    Feedback appreciated. Will follow up your link to George Marshall on countering bad news. Am currently reading a recent book on how economics and economists are leading us, pied piper style, over the cliff, and hope to write up a review of same here shortly.

    If you’re looking locally for some seriously messed up thinking, I found a text book example on a website that, curiously, describes itself as helping to clear up public and media misunderstanding of science (this article achieves the exact opposite):

  9. seafóid says:

    This economics paper by Martin Wolf is very interesting and explores the difficulties in overcoming vested interests in the search for a stable economic system (under the current rules )

    “Unfortunately, as the crisis has shown, it is extremely hard to make such surveillance effective. It is vital to understand why that should be so. I will analyse those reasons in terms of what I shall call the six “I”s – ignorance, ideology, insularity, incentives, intimidation and impotence.”


    and this is superb

    The role of decision making bias in Ireland’s banking crisis


  10. Hugh Curran says:

    This is another of the plethora of articles on this topic that have a simplistic presentation & leave out a clearer ecological understanding. Ecological footprints are of more significance than total population numbers. For instance, if North Americans use, on a per capita basis, ten times the resources of people in the “developing world” then 300 million Americans use the resources of 3 billion people. If Europeans use five times the resources per capita then they too use the equivalent of 3 billion people from poorer countries. It has been noted, for instance, that Bangladesh citizens leave a very small ecological footprint since they are so poor that everything they use is sustainable. Of course there is an over-population issue but reducing it merely to numbers misses extremely important factors. The Euro-American blind spot is to focus on numerology so as to avoid facing the implications of the vast overuse of resources that has been expropriated from the rest of the world.

  11. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for dropping by and thanks also for pointing out the shortcomings in my simplistic presentation, and apologies for my omission of a “clearer ecological understanding”. Had you not just skimmed my article, you’d have seen that I am quite clear that impacts are the sum of absolute population multiplied by economic impact (or iPAT, where impact = Population x Affluence x Technology, as it’s sometimes expressed).
    I referred, for instance to the combination of: “More humans and ever more unequal ‘economic growth’” as being at the root of the crisis. I went on to refer to “economist-inspired cornucopianism, which enshrined impossible growth as somehow normal and desirable”. It’s self-evident that the ‘impossible growth’ referred to here is primarily economic, not population.
    Elsewhere, I stated: “The convergence of crises that threaten humanity and the wider biosphere are the by-products of an unprecedented spasm of growth, in both population and expectation. Neither is sustainable; in combination, they are lethal”. Once again, population in combination with ‘economic growth’, not in isolation.
    I appreciate you appear to have come with a pre-determined view of finding “another of the plethora of articles” that totally divorce population growth from economic impacts. The fact that the above is not such an article appears to have in no way deterred you from galloping to your own conclusion. I’m happy to have readers judge both this article and the numerous other pieces I’ve written on the themes of population and the cult of economic growth to decide whether they accept your analysis or mine.
    Finally, even poor people, while contributing little to the overall atmospheric CO2 load, can wreak havoc on their immediate local environments, overwhelming flora and fauna in the process. This is primarily done out of absolute necessity, while we in the west do much of the macro environmental damage in the process of amusing ourselves and seeking levels of personal comfort and convenience that once could only be dreamed of for emperors or sultans.

  12. Eric Conroy says:

    Well done again on a good article. I’ve always believed that it is a combination of population growth AND increasing materialistic lifestyles that is leading to climate change and resource depletion etc. Curbing population growth has always been a taboo subject, and I’m unhappy that many environmentalists (including Monbiot) are coy about mentioning this elephant in the room. David Attenborough (who has a new nature TV series out on the Poles where he warns of climate change regularly) has bravely spoken out about population growth – more of us should do likewise.

  13. seafóid says:

    There is another angle that a Swiss political scientist , Silvano Moeckli, explored in the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag this Sunday. Unfortunately it is not online. The economic system is a Ponzi scheme.

    “In the long term the Swiss dilemma will become ever more visible. If you stop immigration economic prosperity and the stability of the social welfare system come into question. If the population continues to grow the whole basis of life is threatened. Switzerland could support 20 million people (currently 7.5 m) but at what price ? the Swiss plateau is already one of the most densely populated corners of Europe. In a fixed space with unlimited resources unlimited growth is possible. This is also true for Switzerland. The Swiss people live off the interests of future generations and from other parts of the world with a much smaller ecological footprint. The collapse can only be prevented if the dilemma is resolved early and decisively . Perpetual momentum will in any case eventually come to a complete stop.

    Discussion with him in German


  14. Thatcher says:

    Hey Hugh
    Whatever article your comments may be related to, it isn’t this one. Maybe it’s a cut-and-paste comment you generically post onto as many websites as possible? You sound like quite the expert yourself on the topic in hand, perhaps you could include a link to something substantial you have written on this subject? Or do you prefer being a hurler on the ditch, lobbing insults at real commentators while contributing nothing yourself? Just askin! Feel free to prove me wrong by posting up a link to a stunning contribution of your own…
    BTW, you refer to the “focus on numerology…” in the posting above. Doubtless a well-read guy like you knows that numerology is about the occult significance of numbers. Either you know that, and you’re just having a laugh here, or you don’t, in which case, you shouldn’t use big words you don’t understand…

  15. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for your comments, and glad you noticed that yes, this was about population in combination with economic growth. I have never been a cheerleader for demonizing the poor while giving us in the over-rich ‘west’ carte blanche to pollute like there’s no tomorrow. Other articles I’ve written in the last couple of years deal in depth with practicalities on how to assist women (and it’s mostly about women) to get access to the family planning services they need so they can have the family sizes they want. The single biggest cause of mortality among teenage girls in the ‘developing world’ is pregnancy-related death. Avoiding unwanted pregnancy and delaying the age of first pregnancy is good for girls, good for society as a whole and good for the planet, but unfortunately, patriarchies all over the world are fighting tooth and nail to keep women and girls ‘barefoot and pregnant’.

  16. hugh curran says:

    I reread the article & still don’t see any references to “ecological footprints”. “Ecological footprint” refers to “a standardized measure of demand for natural capital…contrasted with the planet’s ecological capacity to regenerate”. Using words associated with “economics” do not make for much clarity on such an important issue. Nevertheless it’s good to see that your article has addressed the issue, despite the limitations.

    To the person who seems to think that gibes & jeers are a meaningful response & that “numerology” has only one meaning, you should do a bit of checking before attempting your lame sarcasms. Numerology can also mean “an excess faith in numerical patterns…”.

  17. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for dropping by again. Comments that are patronising (such as your opening lecture about this being one of “a plethora of articles…simplistic presentation…” etc.) are likely to elicit a saucy response. That’s hardly surprising to you. Thanks also for the lecture on what an “ecological footprint” is, and delighted you notice that my simplistic little piece did in fact address economics, “despite the limitations”.
    I have an archive accessible via this site of around 150 articles published in national newspapers and magazines on a range of environmental/ecological/sustainability/energy issues, plus a couple of hundred more articles on this blog since 2007. In all, I’ve written around half a million words (not including responses like this one). That doesn’t make me infallible, far from it, but it does make me a little skeptical of keyboard critics tut tutting my “simplistic” pieces – without offering their own, doubtless superior, alternate commentary.
    I’m not an expert on, for example, peace studies, and would be unlikely to harangue someone working in that field with my (unqualified) opinions and assume that people who are active in that field are all eejits. That would be incredibly arrogant on my part, and if, say, experts in peace studies, who have lectured and written extensively on the subject, took umbrage at my suggesting they are clueless and simplistic, I’d probably see their point, politely withdraw and move on from there. Mind you, said peace studies experts should have worked out by now that launching unsolicited barrages of condescension at people you don’t even know is, let’s say, not the typical path of the successful peacemaker! Anyhow Hugh, enough already, I’m sure you’re not as bad as you come across, and I can assure you, I’m not either!

  18. Hugh Curran says:

    Enough said! The intention in my responses was not meant to be patronizing. If you interpreted them that way I’m sorry to hear it. I would think you would welcome some healthy remarks that seek to clarify aspect of your article. It was well-written but seemed to me to miss a couple of points. I too have written my share of articles, some on topics having to do with health coverage in America, some on peace & some on related issues. I can assure you that the responses I receive are sometimes obsessively negative & often ideologically based. On the whole, you seem to have a good share of admirers & that speaks well for you.

  19. John Gibbons says:

    Well said! Blessed indeed are the peacemakers. I can see now that you were on the level in seeking to clarify my article; like you, I too get my share (and then some) of folks who are terminally argumentative and, frankly, more interested in fighting than in facts. That does leave me a little sensitized betimes, and inclined to ‘get my retaliation in first’, as they say in rugby-speak. I wish you well.

  20. Hi John

    Love the article. And also the gentle ping-ponging of ‘population’ versus ‘inequity’ in the comment thread. At the risk of being overly simplistic, maybe we can square the .. er.. square.. of (population * consumption) if we focus on reducing the area (= ecological footprint in its broadest sense).

    Ideally we would want to see the area going down quickly – and so have both sides of the rectangle shortening fast. However, a reducing population sounds far too nasty, utilitarian and brutish to me. But a shrinking consumption, whilst population growth slows and stabilizes, and ebbs back? That might just see the area of our rectangle slip back down, taking a load off the planet. And the shrinking of consumption, from the current levels of obscene waste and pointless excess, seems eminently practical, and somewhat less brutal — if not politically plausible, as things stand.

    Which shrinks the problem down to standing things in a different way. Or how to persuade the population we don’t need vast quantities of stuff for happiness. But maybe capitalism will gift us that one as it teeters on the brink of an endless series of resource-constrained recessions…

  21. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for comments, enjoyed visiting your blog, my eye was drawn to your graphic on Arctic sea ice minima from 1979-2011. Terrifying. Five more years and we’re going to be ice-free every summer on the top of the world. How many years/decades ahead of IPCC projections is this now running? The impact of the above will undoubtedly redefine the axes of the ‘rectangle’ above…

  22. seafóid says:

    Capitalism and Environmental Catastrophe
    by John Bellamy Foster
    This is a reconstruction from notes of a talk delivered at a teach-in on “The Capitalist Crisis and the Environment” organized by the Education and Empowerment Working Group, Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park (Liberty Plaza), New York, October 23, 2011. It was based on a talk delivered the night before at the Brecht Forum. Fred Magdoff also spoke on both occasions.


    But climate change is only part of the overall environmental problem. Scientists, led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, have recently indicated that we have crossed, or are near to crossing, nine “planetary boundaries” (defined in terms of sustaining the environmental conditions of the Holocene epoch in which civilization developed over the last 12,000 years): climate change, species extinction, the disruption of the nitrogen-phosphorus cycles, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater usage, land cover change, (less certainly) aerosol loading, and chemical use. Each of these rifts in planetary boundaries constitutes an actual or potential global ecological catastrophe. Indeed, in three cases — climate change, species extinction, and the disruption of the nitrogen cycle — we have already crossed planetary boundaries and are currently experiencing catastrophic effects. We are now in the period of what scientists call the “sixth extinction,” the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs; only this time the mass extinction arises from the actions of one particular species — human beings. Our disruption of the nitrogen cycle is a major factor in the growth of dead zones in coastal waters. Ocean acidification is often called the “evil twin” of climate change, since it too arises from carbon dioxide emissions, and by negatively impacting the oceans it threatens planetary disruption on an equal (perhaps even greater) scale. The decreased availability of freshwater globally is emerging as an environmental crisis of horrendous proportions.3

    Recently climate scientists, writing for Nature magazine, one of the world’s top science publications, have developed a concrete way of understanding the planetary boundary where climate change is concerned, focusing on the cumulative carbon emissions budget. This is represented by the trillionth ton of carbon. So far more than 500 billion tons of carbon have been emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. In order to have an approximately even chance (50-50) of limiting the increase in global average temperature to 2°C, the cumulative CO2 emissions over the period 1750-2050 must not exceed one trillion tons of carbon; while in order to have a 75 percent chance of global warming remaining below 2°C, it is necessary not to exceed 750 billion tons of carbon. Yet, according to present trends, the 750 billionth ton of carbon will be emitted in 2028, i.e., about sixteen years from now.
    If we are to avoid burning the 750 billionth ton of carbon over the next four decades, carbon dioxide emissions must fall at a rate of 5 percent per year; while to avoid emitting the trillion ton, emissions must drop at a rate of 2.4 percent a year. The longer we wait the more rapid the decrease that will be necessary. The trillionth ton, viewed as the point of no return, is the equivalent of cutting down the last palm tree on Easter Island. After that it is essentially out of our hands. 6

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