Global Sensemaking

Tools for Dialogue and Deliberation on Wicked Problems

Is high population a problem or an amplifier of other problems?

I have a friend who believes that the high population of the world is a problem in and of itself. I maintain that the population is not the right thing to focus on and that the real problems are elsewhere.

Certainly having a higher population means that if each person is, on average, net-negative with regard to resource usage, waste production, etc, then multiplying up the population only magnifies the real problems that much more. But if, in contrast, the average net impact is zero or positive, then population is irrelevant, or (when positive) even better.

So if it is possible to be net-positive on average, and if we need to get there anyway, then why are we concerned about population so much? A legitimate question is how fast can we change the world's population to be net-positive. Then we have to look at what parts of the population are the worst offenders, and then we come to the realization that the worst offenders are a relatively small number of people living off the hard work and resources of the rest of the world, namely us in the western "civilized" world.

Another factor to consider is the birth rate vs death rate in various parts of the world, and it turns out that the high birth rates are often balanced by a high death rate, but that has been changing, and most of the world is now enjoying longer lives, and lower birth rates.

Another relevant observation is that the parts of the world with the lowest population increase (equals births minus deaths) also have the highest education and standard of living. In fact, many countries have a negative growth rate. In other words, over population is self-correcting with education and a higher standard of living. We do have to be careful about simply raising the standard of living without changing the habits of making more babies than we can support, but education seems to work well there.

So we get to the ultimate question of how many people can the world actually comfortably support, if we are all, on average, net-positive? I don't have an answer, but I doubt that the current population of about 7 billion would be a huge problem. The problems are all caused by stupidity and political inequities that we need to fix anyway.

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Replies to This Discussion

Hi Daniel,

I'm unsure if classifying resource usage as being net positive or negative is the right approach. In our lifetimes we will leave some resources depleted (breathe in oxygen) and leave others more plentiful (breathe out CO2). A balance can only be viewed at the eco-system level. So to definitively work out if there are too many people or not we need to work out the carrying-capacity of our planet. Efforts in biospheric science (the Biodome, the Biodome II etc) have shown how difficult this is to work out.

I understand what you're saying in that this carrying capacity would be vastly different, depending on how we live our lives. I would suggest however that even if we abandoned the global economy, and all polluting activities and lived more like animals there would still be a carrying capacity that we could reach, if we're not there already. In this situation it would be population that was the problem, and I would have to agree with your friend. At that carrying capacity, we would be eating much less, and competition would be fierce.

My idea of utopia would include living some distance below this level, a stable role for us in our ecosystems with a buffer to blunten competition for resources. I often wonder how we can get to there.

Education is essential as you suggest. But I'm not sure if we would all agree on what should be taught, and if top-down lessons would be appreciated and assimilated into various cultures. Cultural shifts that work against our pro-creation biological imperatives or any other biological imperatives are a unique challenge that only we as humans are capable of. But it is a huge ask. I too have seen the (very) recent leveling-off of population growth rates in developed nations, having been walked through various population models and economic theories in a Developmental Economics paper and am not convinced that we are witnessing a significant trend in the context of human history. If you have ever tried to discuss the pros and cons of large families and their impacts on other people with somebody who thinks large families are desirable for religious reasons, you will have some insight as to some of the difficulties we face.

I think this is a fascinating topic, and hope to hear from people from all perspectives. Would the use of limitations on children (like the former policy in China) ever be condonable if we knew, knew we were over our carrying capacity? Is it ok to have more than five children? What would we teach if we wanted to affect cultural change in your community?

I believe it is essential to understand our relationship with the environment in terms of whether we are net positive or negative.  How can it not be so?  

I don't mean that we should consider this in isolation, as if we are just naked animals, but that we take full responsibility for the balance you refer to at the eco-system level.   I would not rely on, for example, just planting enough extra plants to absorb our extra CO2 output, because we need to basically shut down the entire fossil fuel industry.  

Nor would I rely on consuming all arable land for the benefit of people, but instead, on the one hand, we must restore the desertified lands and grasslands at risk (about 1/3 of the Earth's land mass, it turns out), and we need to eventually return most of that back to the wild.  On the other hand, we need to work out biospheric science, as you say, but on a much larger scale, at the size of whole cities, not that we have to isolate ourselves completely from the rest of nature, but we should be able to manage everything we need within a limited space on the order of the size of the cities we live in.

Doing all this, we should be able to achieve the goal of Zero Footprint, and then the number of people will no longer matter.  And furthermore, we can go negative, with more people contributing even more to restoring life and thriving on planet Earth.   We will thus be increasing the carrying capacity of the planet in proportion to number of people.  But by then, we will also be able to move off the planet.

By the way, I have written a lot more about many of these issues in my blog.  A good place to start is "World Population is Stabilizing".

Huge problem for whom? ;-) Every human, no matter how simply she lives, displaces habitat for other life forms except human parasites and those that thrive on our waste. A robust, diversified biosphere provides the best long term habitat for our progeny and future generations of ALL species. In the opinion of biologists, the quadrupling of the population of a large mammal in approximately 5 generations from a previously gentle growth curve constitutes "Plague Phase." 

See Reg Morrison's _Plague Species_ (first issued as _The Spirit in the Gene._) Forward by Lynn Margulis, microbiologist and co-developer of gaia theory.

My review is the second link here:

Last comment: changing the biological predispositions of humans which were selected over thousands of years is extremely difficult to expect in a century or two. (not impossible)

"If we don't halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity- and will leave a ravaged world."

-Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendall

Do you believe it is impossible to achieve the goal of Zero Footprint?  I suspect you do, and hence people become a problem just by the numbers.  But it is relatively simple to show that we can achieve Zero Footprint, and we must do so if we are to advance civilization for all, including the 9-10 billion peak population that is expected in the next 60 years.  

First, we need to add up all the energy we are currently using, and replace all non-renewable sources of energy with 100% renewable energy.  Fortunately we have available to us thousands of times more renewable energy than we need, but we will have to build the infrastructure to tap into it, which requires some fraction of the energy.    But it is easy to see how we can eventually collect much more renewable energy than we currently need, and this extra supply will bring the cost way down.

Second, we have to shift to recycling all materials that we utilize, to avoid dumping anything back into the environment in ways that it can not accomodate.  Imposing 100% recycling, zero waste, on ourselves will cost some additional energy to do it thoroughly and completely, though in the short term, we can reduce a large fraction of our current waste just by working smarter, and save money and energy in the process.

Third, both of these transitions will require time.  And time is approximately equivalent to money.   Moreover, it will take us time to figure all this out.  Many things are easy, but I admit the zero waste goal will be a challenge.  But we have to go further to undo the last couple centuries of negative impact, and we have to do it in the next few decades.  The biggest problem is not the physics of obtaining enough energy, or the biology of integrating seamlessly with then environment, but the socio-political-economics of how we need to collaborate on a global scale to achieve these goals.

You haven't replied to my points. Also, you obviously believe that homo superstitious is capable of behavior unlike anything evidenced in thousands of years to date. I wager on future outcomes for charity at  

You are wearing rose colored glasses or smoking some fine stuff. ;-)

We are a complex mammal. You can make book on our behavior. I have been successful doing so for 35 years or so. 

Get real if you want to help your progeny.

Well, I can say the same.  You haven't replied to my points, except to be merely dismissive, which is not an argument.  Not helpful.

Most of what I said in my reply was in direct response to your claim that "Every human, no matter how simply she lives, displaces habitat for other life forms except human parasites and those that thrive on our waste."  

In contrast, I showed very simply how it is possible to have zero footprint, and thus displace no habitat.  Do you not believe we have available to us thousands of times more renewable energy than all the energy we currently consume?  Do you not believe we can recycle 100% of our resources?  This is certainly possible, and the only thing really stopping us is non-starter arguments like yours.  

I don't disagree that we want to promote a robust, diversified biosphere.   But I go further, to claim that we should have as our goal a biosphere that barely notices we are around.

Do you deny that the world population growth rate is declining, and has been declining for 30 years, and will likely reach 0 in another 60 years?  Why would that be happening?  How do you reconcile that with your plague people philosophy?

If the energy you claim is available, then there is a quote you should see:

 Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich: If we were to tap cheap, inexhaustible energy, he said, it would be "like giving a machine gun to an idiot child."

see from Donella Meadows archive:

The plague is a function of the rapid increase to date in the last century (maybe 150 yrs) since we gained access to energy and massive technological leverage. My last point is to repeat that you think rationality can trump the auto pilot in all species including us. History belies that as we are destroying our habitat/nest faster each day despite all the good options you claim are available. ;-(

Unlimited energy, by itself, would be a problem, especially if it is inherently dirty.  That is essentially the problem with fossil fuels in the early days when it appeared to be an unlimited supply.  We would be a lot better off if the supply had been much smaller.  But, and here is the key point, the 100% recycling and zero waste is the other critical half to the zero footprint equation, which you seem to be ignoring.  Paul Ehrlich obviously didn't have this in mind either.  Powered by 100% clean renewable energy, and combined with whatever restraints are necessary to keep people from dumping any waste, or consuming more than a small finite amount of any resources, what is the problem with using all the renewable energy we can?   

By saying "If the energy you claim is available" you expose your relative ignorance about the nature of renewable energy.  There should be no question that it is available.  Vast amounts of nuclear power is also available, but at considerably higher cost and long delays to make it safe enough in order to exploit it in time.  

I am a strong believer in doing systems modeling to help us understand what is happening, and it is essential that we understand feedback loops and everything we can about complex systems.  I was an avid reader of the first "Limits to Growth", and I have studied Donella Meadows last book "Thinking in Systems".    My concern is misinterpretations and misapplications of an otherwise fine and powerful tool.   

You believe that I think rationality can trump the auto pilot of humanity?  Quite wrong in about 3 ways.  I have no illusions about the impending catastrophes if we do nothing to change the direction we are headed.  But understanding what is actually happening instead of what some people believe is happening is essential if we are going to properly address the problems.  Blaming the wrong causes and trying to fix those could be counter productive, disastrously so.  

I see massive willful ignorance about all this by many people, but I believe that most people are concerned and want to do what is right, but just don't know what to do.  Far worse, I see a few people, well intentioned as they appear to be, getting it very wrong, and they would most likely make things worse if we give them the chance.  You fall in to that bucket, I am afraid.  

It is not mere rationality that we get us to change our ways.  We need to channel market forces to get capitalism on the side of making true progress rather than accelerating our decline.   There is a lot of very challenging politics and sociology that must be worked on by many people, but that is not my forte.  I am here now to explain as clearly and rationally as I can to people like you that you have been espousing incorrect notions about the real causes of our predicament, and that there is a way forward that can resolve many of our problems.

By the way, we are already starting to turn in the right direction, even while strong forces are trying to pull us in the wrong directions.  Renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, but it could be a lot faster if we, for example, eliminate billions in subsides for oil companies.  

So where is most of the destruction of our habitat coming from?  I hope you are aware that most of the destruction is due to pressures by the half of the population that is growing least, namely us.  And the half of the population that is growing fastest is the least destructive, and would probably be a lot better off if not for the destructive effects of western imperialism.   In other words, it is essential that we don't just average the entire world's population growth and average the footprint, and see a correlation between the two average numbers and assume that population growth causes the footprint.  


Sure the RATE of growth is slowing. Attrition includes myriad feedback loops including reduced fertility, both intentional and not. (chemicals lowering sperm counts, malnutrition lowering fertility, etc) But when a species is in hundreds of % overshoot, that is inevitable. Drug resistant bugs are on the rise too. 

see 1 pager:

I have nothing more to add to this discussion. You are wearing roe colored glasses if you think reality can change rapidly from what it is and has been to date.

And when the rate of growth reaches zero, the growth also reaches zero.  

So you seem to agree, as I do, that population growth has declined due to environmental pressures, but the story will be different as we increasingly eliminate our negative impacts on the environment.  We are gradually moving in that direction more and more, partly because we are forced to.  But we can encourage it to happen faster in many ways, and why should we not do so?  What's stopping us?

Physically, there is nothing stopping us from doing all this in a very few decades.  As I have said, that is not the problem, but changing minds is. 

Here is another way to look at it.  We can cut our global footprint in half much more easily than we can cut the population in half, assuming we have excluded genocide as an option.  

Your idea of zero footprint deserves debunking. I had implied that with my habitat displacement comment early on. No biologist or ecologist I know of would agree with your claim. It is widely known in the life sciences that humans are a "Patch Disturbant Species" like the beaver, for example.


  1. Patch Disturbance and the Human Niche

    Patch Disturbance and the Human Niche, overshoot, crash, die-off, Easter ... by JohnM. Logan ..... GENERAL DISTURBANCE AND PATCH DISTURBANCE ...
  2. Why do beavers build dams? | I Always Wondered
    Apr 4, 2011 – Patch Disturbance and the Human Niche by John M. Logan: page78.htm · Post to Twitter. Tags: Animals, Beavers, Dams ...
  3. The Sustainability Handbook: "The Complete Management Guide to ... ...
    William R. R. Blackburn - 2012 - Business & Economics

See this short piece on Thermodynamic Footprint:

Paul's comment on above article:

This concept came out of a lot of work I'm doing to wrap my head around a new law of thermodynamics that was published in 1989 by Rod Swenson. The law is called the Law of Maximum Entropy Production (LMEP). It basically says that if you open a window in the winter your house cools off faster than if you leave the windows closed, because the heat flows out through the window.
That little bit of "Duh!" turns out to have profound implications for the ordering behaviour of the universe. It seems to be the principle that is behind the appearance and steady increase of form, structure and order in the universe - all the way from galaxies and stars, through life itself and on to drive the development of all human culture. The appearance of that 130 number is evidence for the validity of the hypothesis.
The whole thing is a lot bigger and deeper than a FB conversation, but I've become certain over the last month that this one law of thermodynamics actually explains everything from the Big Bang to the Exxon boardroom. All the things we think are unique and special about life and being human amount to "domain-specific expressions" of this single law and its order-producing effect.
I'm still trying to digest this elephant, but the TF concept is the first thing that has fallen out of it.
For anyone who wants a deeper understanding of WTF I'm on about, this paper is as good a place as any to start:
Figure 1 from that paper is what prompted me to come up with the TF idea.  And yes, Rudy, so far it works better as a measure of globally aggregated human impact.  That's the level I'm operating at most of the time these days.
I’m realizing that the concept of “sustainability” contains some invalid assumptions, specifically about the nature of reality and human action within/upon it. We create our environment, yes. But according to what template do we create? Is the template one of our own devising? I used to think so and as a result I saw our problems as failures of understanding, morality or our inherent nature - human beings were either stupid, bad or broken.
I no longer think that we devise our own templates for action in the world. We may be more like skilled and clever draftsmen who draw up blueprints to implement an architecture that has been embedded in reality since the universe began. We do appear to have a failure of understanding, but the understanding that seems to be missing is not the understanding that if we do X, then Y will happen. It seems to be much deeper than that – we don’t understand how the universe really works. Instead, we understand how we think it works, which is not at all the same thing.






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