Arid Landscape.

Port Augusta. SA.

John Reids article "De-populate or Perish"

Long article but well worth reading.

John M Reid PhD is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Monash University

2nd October 2009

Climate change and overpopulation are the two problems that threaten the future of life on Earth. The two problems intersect and are interactive, but they are separate and distinct, and either is sufficient to cause the Holocene (6th) Mass Extinction.

Planet Earth is becoming warmer. This may be due solely to natural phenomena or there may be an anthropogenic contribution to the process, but it is certain the planet is undergoing a cyclical change in surface temperature and in climate. The regional distribution of hotter/cooler, wetter/drier areas is changing as part of the overall change in the climate. If the change is largely attributable to natural processes, it may be beyond the power of humans to do anything about it, except, perhaps, to stop pouring accelerant on the fire.

Overpopulation is not a “natural” process: it is an artefact, the outcome of human behaviour. We caused the problem, we can solve it. Unfortunately, it is inherent in the collective mindset of our species that most people avoid even thinking about the problem, let alone acting to try to solve it.

What is the justification for saying there are too many human beings on Earth? It comes down to simple arithmetic. The capacity of the Earth to provide the resources we need to sustain us - that is, the arable land, grazing land, forests, fisheries, potable water, fossil fuels - and the means to dispose of the waste we generate is limited.

How many people the Planet can support depends primarily on how much “bioresource” each of us consumes. The Planet is not a Magic Pudding that is continually replenished as it’s eaten; it is more like a can of ice-cream - if everyone has a one-scoop cone it can supply, say, 100 people, but if every customer demands a two-scoop cone it can only supply 50 people. And this is the trade-off: the more people, the less bioresource available for each person, and conversely, the fewer people the higher each person’s sustainable level of consumption.

The total capacity of Planet Earth to sustain life, which is referred to as its “biocapacity” in the Living Planet Report (LPR) 2008, is expressed as billions of “global hectares” (Ggha). The LPRs are published biennially by The Global Footprint Network (GFN). The most recent of these, LPR 2008, is based on 2005 data. The methodology by which LPRs are prepared is scientifically sound, and they provide the data used by a number of sovereign states in formulating their environmental policies.

In 2005 the biocapacity of the Earth was 13.6 Ggha, and the population was 6.5 billions; therefore, the sustainable per capita global footprint was 2.1 gha. But aggregate demand was for 17.5 Ggha, which represents a per capita demand of 2.7 gha.

In other words, in 2005 we were overdrawing the bioresource account by about 29 per cent per annum.

Since 2005, the world population has increased to over 6.8 billion and the demand for resources from developing economies, such as China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia has increased substantially. On the supply side of the ledger, the biocapacity of the Planet has, if anything, been reduced as the result of ongoing land degradation, forest destruction, and fish stock depletion. Consequently, at a conservative estimate, demand now exceeds supply by something like 35-40 per cent per annum.

According to the UN’s most-likely, medium growth scenario (PDF 1.77MB), by 2050 the population of the world is projected to have increased to at least 9.1 billion, although it is understood this figure is likely to be revised upwards. Some would suggest the 2050 population will be nearer 9.5-10 billion.

Under appropriate assumptions relating to population increase and increased consumption by poor and middle-income countries, total world demand in 2050 will be for about 34.8 Ggha, which represents the biocapacity of more than 2.6 Planet Earths. This is obviously not a feasible scenario, even in the very-short term. In fact, even if nothing changed, the present overconsumption (1.3 x the biocapacity of the Planet) cannot continue. Business as usual is not an option.

And bear in mind, these data make no allowance for wildlife species that have the misfortune to need to share the arable land, forest, and fishing grounds we use.

As I said earlier, the number of people the Earth can support depends on the amount of bioresources each person demands. Please note, I did not say the amount of bioresources each person needs. If we had to live as hunter/gatherers no doubt some or, perhaps, many people would adapt to that level of consumption, but I doubt if many of us would enjoy such a lifestyle.

Let us take Australia as an exemplar of the living standards people might expect to enjoy; but then suppose Australia could halve its carbon footprint so that the total footprint per Australian person dropped from 7.8 gha to 6.8 gha. In 2005, the total biocapacity of the Planet was 13.6 Ggha, so in these circumstances the Planet could sustain a population of 2 billion people - less than one-third of the present world population - and, parenthetically, the population when I was a child!

Of course, this calculation makes no allowance for the effects of climate change on the world’s biocapacity. In aggregate, these effects will be extremely negative although some regions may become more productive. (A map of the world in 2100 published in New Scientist, February 2009 shows most of Australia, Southern Europe, USA and South America, China and India as uninhabitable desert.)

Even the UN low-growth (unlikely) world population projection peaks at 7.4 billions in 2050 and gradually declines to 2.3 billions by the year 2300, but I doubt if we have 290 years grace in which to avert disaster. In fact, I suggest it is highly probable that by 2050 our demise will have become a very unpleasant, bloody process as mass migrations of people from inundated and no longer arable areas occur, and the starving billions slaughter each other for the last handfuls of rice.

Assuming climate change does not become so severe that the Holocene mass extinction kicks in (although I believe it is already well underway), how can the world’s population be reduced by non-lethal, non-discriminatory means, quickly enough to avert disaster? Leaving aside contingencies such as Earth being struck by a large extraterrestrial body, or the super-volcano Toba erupts, the only means I can think of is universal contraception: and the only question then is, is contraception to be voluntary or involuntary?

I think most people who agree contraception is the answer say it must be voluntary. The world’s population must be persuaded of the need to practice contraception, and must be provided with the means to do so. These people say that educating and empowering women, and giving everyone a reasonable standard of living is the way to achieve voluntary contraception.

Unfortunately, there are counter-arguments that seem to me to be a lay-down mazaire.

Argument - educating and empowering women

Counter arguments

1. It doesn’t work - US and Australian fertility rates are increasing. Women in these countries are among the best educated, and with the highest standards of living.

2. There is implacable religious hostility towards contraception, as Pope Benedict recently demonstrated. Fundamentalists in the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are united in opposing contraception and, in the case of Islam particularly, against educating and empowering women - although there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for empowering women in both Judaism and Christianity.

3. Having no children is not just a change of preference, it is a fundamental shift in the mindset, “It is the inalienable right of every woman/couple to reproduce and have as many children as they want …” In fact, this proposition is stated in Articles 12 & 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Even if the will to reduce population growth were there, generational change processes such as this take 25 years to begin to take effect, and then another generation to be fully implemented, which is just about the timespan for the UN’s medium growth curve. We do not have time for this process to take effect!

4. There are no signs politicians anywhere, except in China, support universal birth control. In Japan, for example, women are being pressured to have children, and in Australia financial incentives are offered to induce couples to procreate: we all remember Peter Costello’s dictum, “One for the wife, one for the husband, and one for the country”.

5. There will be pressure to have “replacement” children, to make up for populations lost through war, famine and disease - and by extension, as voluntary reduction in birth rates begins to take hold in a proportion of the population there will probably be a compensatory tendency (“equal and opposite reaction”) in the other proportion to increase family size, in the short run, leading to homeostasis.

Argument - eliminate poverty

Necessary conditions

1. First, there would need to be a change of government in most of the low-income countries. The corrupt élites that sequester the bulk of the income of most of the poor countries would have to be disempowered - not an easy task since often the military and the politicians are either one and the same or are in collusion. All too often we have seen how reluctant our politicians and the UN are to take effective, even non-military action against brutal, corrupt governments, such as Zimbabwe and Burma.

2. Second, rich countries must pay market prices for the product of the poor, which is antithetic to “free-market” capitalism (“Never give a sucker an even break”, W.C. Fields). Rich countries must make long-term investments (NOT provide assistance via the “aid” model) directly into poor countries without demanding high rates of return on their investment.

3. Health services (affordable pharmaceuticals, enough health professionals, hospitals and equipment, community health services, clean water, healthy living conditions, and so on) must be made available by training local medical and other health workers; allowing quality assured, generic drugs to be supplied; and insisting the IMF subsidises the purchase of equipment and projects to improve environmental conditions.

4. Existing sovereign debt must be written off - and so on, and so on…

Do we really believe the rich countries are likely to come to such an expensive party?

Involuntary contraception

If voluntary birth control will not work, what about involuntary contraception? The objections to enforced contraception are moral/ethical and practical.

Moral and ethical objections

People have the inalienable right to choose whether they have children or not, and to decide how many children they will have. Some would say, “the God-given right …”


If we are 99.9 per cent confident that voluntary contraception will achieve sufficient population decrease within, say, 30 years - and remember, we are talking about reducing the world’s population by two-thirds; we are NOT talking about zero-population growth, AND if we believe the rich and middle-income countries will voluntarily reduce their demands for bioresources to a sustainable level (about the standard of living of the average present-day Syrian), then voluntary contraception is the way to go.

If not, the survival of all life on earth must have absolute priority over human constructs of moral and ethical behaviour.

Practical objections to involuntary contraception

How can you achieve involuntary contraception? By government edict? The Chinese government instituted a one-child policy in 1979. The policy is regarded as repugnant by many people both inside and outside China, and it is said to have led to unacceptable consequences, such as killing female children, and forced late-term abortions. In any case, the policy is now referred to as the “1.5-child policy”, and the Chinese population is continuing to increase, albeit at a slower rate than that of most other emerging economies.

To be effective, such a government-mandated policy requires a political system that is free from corruption, has strong central control, and is not subject to judicial review. It is difficult to see how a one-child policy could stand against appeals to constitutional rights in countries such as USA and Australia.

The alternative to mandatory, involuntary contraception is covert biological sterilisation, and this is where moral objectors become most vociferous. But if you are persuaded that Planet Earth cannot support the projected population living at a reasonable standard of consumption, you must face the alternative,

De-populate or perish

A word about politicians: I do not believe senior politicians in the developed-country governments are either innumerate or unable to recognise the impossibility of having both population growth and economic growth. This does not mean most politicians necessarily accept the “strong” version of the argument, namely that the world’s population must be reduced to about 2 billion, but I suspect many of them accept the “weak” version, namely, that supply and demand for bioresources must be brought into balance.

Unfortunately, politicians are not leaders when it comes to contentious issues; they sniff the mood of the electorate for the scent of political advantage, and sail downwind. At present, politicians the world over are not even saying we must forego economic growth, and they are supported by the Stern Report, the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Garnaud, inter al. These all say we can have economic growth provided we reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even the Green political parties are not prepared to say, “We must have negative economic growth and we must drastically reduce the human population!”

A final conclusion

Whatever good things human beings may have done to benefit our own species, we have done nothing that has benefited either the Planet or any other species - although some good people have done some things to try to ameliorate the bad things others have done.

It is a sobering and discomforting thought, but each and every one of us must be entered as a liability in the books of the Planet. Every single person, with the possible exception of desert Aborigines and other hunter/gatherers, departs this life leaving the Planet a bit poorer than when they arrived on it.