Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

Environmentalism and Overpopulation: The Solution, Part I

One of my favorite wordpress blogs is Skepchick, which is sort of a clearing house for news stories about the the triumph of reason, or not, in the world and place for like minded folks to meet. I got in an online argument on skepchicks. The  very fact that I have this problem reveals how little enjoyment I get out of normal face to face interaction, and is mildly embarrassing. Anyway, they were talking about climate change, and a lot of ideas were thrown around, the basic one being that climate change largely the result of human overpopulation.

Now, I believe man made climate change.  I’ve seen the facts and correlation and do believe from them that man has the power to change the environment. I also have read man’s history.   All the mega fauna is dead except the ones that co-evolved with man in Africa, and the ones that were protected from man by long voyages.  (The Wrangle Island mammoths were alive in 1700 BC later than any other mammoth.)  The post ice age mega-fauna are almost all dead, and most likely because we hunted them to death.  That represents an enormous man made change to the ecosystem.   

And I believe in overpopulation.  I think biodiversity is not only nice, but necessary.  Everything we learn teaches us a lesson.  To understand some strange process only utilized by some strange species might necessitate the creation of new technology or mental tool.  That tool could be the key to something we want very badly, like the cure for cancer, faster than light drive, inertialess thrusters, or functional communism.  We don’t dare let anything slip away because we have no idea what we are missing.

All that said, environmentalism and overpopulation policy scares the crap out of me.  I feel like there are two main groups on these issues: those who want to pretend that there is no problem at all and nothing should be done, and those who want to pretend that problem is so serious and so big that absolutely any protectionist policy is good, no mater who it hurts.  Then, are these two subgroups.  People who believe that the problem is real, but the solutions hurt to much so we should just do nothing, and people who believe the problems can be fixed without anyone being hurt at all.  

None of those perspectives are true.  First, the problem is enormous and serious.  Second, the problem is not so serious that it is OK to hurt a lot of people to solve it. Third,  the fact that some people will have to be hurt does not mean that it’s not worth doing.  Forth, it’s a lie to pretend that the solutions aren’t going to hurt anyone.  There has to be a process in place that works to fix the problem with a solution that does the least harm to the least number.

Since all human problems are going to be proportional to human population,  human population is a logical and fair starting point for issues of how humans effect the environment.   I’m all for people reducing family size.  But the term “overpopulation” is an awful one.  “Over-” what exactly?  To say the phrase over population is to say there is an ideal population for the planet that we are over.  To make overpopulation policy is say you want to work toward the goal of that ideal population, from our current overload.

Well, there is only one way to do that:  The death rate must exceed the birthrate.  I’m not being dramatic. That’s the plain facts.  If you want to work back to the ideal number, the death rate must exceed the birthrate.  There are three ways to do that.  Increase the death rate, decrease the birthrate, or some combination of the two.   If writing policy which seeks to kill people or prevent people doesn’t scare you, you have far, far more faith in democracy and human nature than I do.

I’m sure some people read that and are offended that I would imply that mass homicide is a tool to reduce the population, barbaric and proven ineffective, they would claim.  They would point out the millions lost in wars over the years and the still burgeoning population, a point that I see from the other side.  Mao killed 70 million one generation ago in country which is now one of the most populous on earth.   So if killing 70 million people does nothing to reduce the population, is handing out free condoms really going to cut it?   Coitus interruptus was known at least as early as 500 BC, since it is at that time it is written in Genesis 38:8.  Yet, the population seems to have kept right on doubling for the last 2500 years. 

So apparently, more coercive methods are necessary.  Forced contraceptive? Forced abortion? And for who?  My sister lives in North Dakota.  There is 3 billion square feet per person in North Dakota.  Is it even remotely fair for her to held to the same standard as a mother in Mumbai, with a mere 500 square feet per person?  Does a mother in Mumbai love her child less? Who decides?  Soviet communism fell largely because command economies simply cannot compete with free market ones.  It takes over 10,000 decisions from field to plate just to eat a potato.  Under a free market, these decisions are taken care of without guidance, in Russia there were never enough potatoes.  When the governments have been proven totally incapable of serving potatoes, we dare to trust them with a command structure of who gets to procreate or how frequently?

It’s a logistical nightmare.  That alone would not bother me.  Many things necessary laws are logistical nightmares.  The real issue with overpopulation is What is the ideal level we are over? Without knowing that, we will always be over populated according to some metric.  Policies to address open ended problems don’t work.  Ever.  Despite the billions spent on the “War on Poverty” since it’s inception by Lydon B Johnson, poverty in the US is now worse than ever.  The “War on Drugs” is the most 2nd most expensive war in history (after the War on Poverty), and totally ineffective. (More people are per capita addicted than ever before.  Cocaine, in particular, had per capita less addicts when it was legally the “Coca” in Coca-Cola than it does now.)    Ask Vietnam vets how well a war which was fought for the open ended purpose of showing continued willingness to fight rather than for a quantifiable victory worked for them.   

To determine the ideal number of humans for earth, we must first decide what kind of an earth we want.  I bet if we want a handful of obscenely wealthy plutocrats living in clusters around the last bits of natural beauty while the rest of humanity totters on the edge of starvation in a vast global slum, well, I’m sure the planet could support a good 15 billion.    If we want to have no impact on the earth whatsoever, then the earth cannot support a single one of us.  Life impacts life.  That’s the nature of it all.   The ideal number is going to be somewhere between.  So the question of “What is the ideal number of humans?” can only be answered if another question is answered first “How much environmental impact is acceptable.”

If you say “None at all!” then by all means, will yourself out of existence.  Any other form of dis-corporation would cause environmental impact.  Humans are not God’s stewards of the Earth.  We are not god’s upon it, and it is not God over us.  We are the biosystem, as much as the trees, and the frogs, and the insects (most effective life form, by biomass fraction.  Collectively, they outweigh us all.)  We have at least as much a reason to be here as the other higher functioning mammals.   I don’t support an open ended command to limit environmental impact for the same reason I don’t support many other open ended commands.  Without clearly defined victory, and a method of measuring that victory in quantifiable terms, there will always be some metric that says “too much” impact, and some subgroup that demands less.  

I can’t, in good conscience, support policies which coerce human beings towards some totally undefined future.  Nor am I content to simply sit on my hands while the ice caps melt.  In my next blog,  I’ll offer a solution that I don’t entirely like.  But, it is the one that works the most with freedom instead of taking it away, that I can imagine.

December 5, 2008 - Posted by | atheism, Ecology, Government, Politics, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,


  1. First, a few random comments:

    I think you are conflating population density with overpopulation. Just because there’s thousands of square miles in North Dakota (or Siberia or the Sahara) that are not densely populated does not mean that the planet is not overpopulated.

    You ask what is the “ideal” population level that we are “over”. The “ideal” population is probably up for debate and interpretation, but it is certainly something less than the carrying capacity of the planet, which various estimators using various techniques all seem to end up saying is about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque “life”.) In any case, since we are now rapidly approaching 7 billion, the planet is without question “overpopulated”.

    We are now in “overshoot” (visualize a car sailing smoothly and quietly through the air after having been driven off a cliff).

    We don’t have to hurt people to reduce population: just stop making babies. It’s making more babies that assures that more and more people will suffer in the future: resource wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice).

    PS: One question to consider adding to your “But why?” default might be my favorite, which I often find to be quite revealing: “cui bono?” (“who benefits?”)

    Comment by Bakakarasu | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  2. For more and better info on this topic I suggest:

    Approaching the Limits

    Bruce Sundquist on environmental impact of overpopulation

    The Oil Drum Peak Oil Overview – June 2007 (

    …and of course the classic “Overshoot” by Catton

    Comment by Bakakarasu | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  3. The very first thing I said about overpopulation was that I believed it is real. But density is enormously important to the issue. It is totally possible to have local overpopulation and general underpopulation. I believe that part of the solution is a reduction in headcount, but part of the solution will be relocation to reduce local densities, thus local damage.

    “The “ideal” population is probably up for debate and interpretation” Yes, that’s my point. And why I recommend the least draconian solutions possible until the number is fixed.

    “We don’t have to hurt people to reduce population: just stop making babies.” Yes, I said that. That is the most humane way to make the birthrate lower than the death rate. And if it could done voluntarily, it would have been done sometime within the last 3 millenia. Obviously, it’s going to take at least some level of coercion. Coercion hurts. Even when it is for the best, being forced to do something you don’t want to do hurts. The right to procreate is guaranteed by the UN bill of human rights. Changing that to “limited procreation” is going to be very hard, and some people are going to be very hurt by being told they can’t have as many babies as they want.

    Forced relocation hurt. Economic change hurts. Land use pattern change hurts. In a nutshell, change hurts. It’s going to hurt. To me the best solution is to accept that it’s going to hurt and make it hurt as little as possible.

    I thank you for the sites you posted, I’ll most likely reference them when I write my solution post later. Thanks for stopping by.

    Comment by truthwalker | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  4. First let me point out something that I think is a mistake on a commentary you spent a long time thinking about and putting together.

    You said that global warming is man made and I agree with you. But I also think you said that it is proportional to the population. I think this is an assumption rather than a fact-and that it is an error.

    It assumes man causes problems in proportion to population. Let me point out to you that China (which you mentioned) has long had a larger population than the USA and only recently started putting out CO2 emissions that were larger than those of the USA. Throughout the whole of the 20th century the US likely emitted more (and certainly did in the later half of the century). If problems were created in proportion to population then China should have had a history of easily emitting more than the USA. The fact that it does not is evidence that thinking of the problem as in proportion to population is likely a mistake.

    Furthermore, the more recent decades of Chinese history included a very strong population control policy that was broadly successful in lowering China’s birthrate. This means that the number of addition Chinese added to the population of China grows smaller year after year. There is still some growth as China’s population hasn’t started to shrink yet, but if the trend continues it will at some point in the future.

    If emissions of pollution occur in proportion to the population then the shrinking number off addition Chinese would mean that the amount of addition Chinese emissions would be shrinking year after year as well. Yet this hasn’t happened. The amount of emissions China generates has been rising rapidly during the years its population control policy has successfully lowered its birthrate.

    As mechanical devices (such as cars) tend to be a direct source of CO2 emissions (as they burn fossil fuels) it makes more sense to measure the number of them in proportion to the amount of emitted global warming gases. Note that cars do not appear in various nations in proportion to population either. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the USA the average number of cars per family has been increasing even as the average number of children per family declines. Note that this has been a national trend. In a strange way it is almost as if we (in the US) have been replacing children with fossil fuel powered machines.

    Thus I would put forward the argument that population control may be utterly ineffective at preventing global warming-as it appears to be in China.

    I think a better case can be made (though I don’t hear of many people looking into it) that CO2 emissions should be measured in proportion to the size of an economy rather than population size. I say this because a larger economy is more likely to have purchased, assembled, and put into active use fossil fuel powered machines.

    Thus one of the few possible bright spots of this global recession is that emissions may have dropped worldwide.

    Rather than trying to enact population control in functional form I would suggest that reducing and eliminating the amount of emissions an economy generates would actually be successful in slowing and stopping Global Warming.

    Note that the two are not necessarily related.

    Comment by Nathaniel | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  5. I was unclear for sake of brevity when I talked about global warming because I found that when blogs get much over 1000 words, people stop reading them. I believe in global warming as a single part of man made environmental change, and I don’t believe that global warming is more or less important than other aspects.

    Plants need CO2 to live, and the existing CO2 emissions would result in less global warming if more forests were still up. Solving the deforestation problem helps to treat and prevent global warming.

    Methane from cow digestion (I’m not joking) is actually a very potent green house gas, orders of magnitude more effective than CO2. More people means more cows, at least if more people are eating beef.

    You’re correct that population reduction alone doesn’t guarantee reduced CO2 emissions. And you’re right about China’s CO2 emissions, but I feel like just looking at China’s CO2 emissions doesn’t tell the whole story. During the time period that China had far lower CO2 output than the States, it was creating the most poisonously polluted waterways on earth. It has, of late, exchanged it’s more localized pollution for a form of pollution that effects us all. I can’t say that’s an improvement, however, just a difference. Population and pollution still go hand in hand.

    Further, the US gets a bum rap. Yes, the US is the heaviest polluter on earth, and that is despicable. The most profitable export in the US, is military technology, the dirtiest sector of the whole economy. Every F-16 is made in the states, her manufacturing pollution stays in the states. The planes themselves serve in 25 nations. If pollution is placed at the foot of the consumer rather than the producer, the US pollution fraction drops noticeably. That doesn’t excuse it, but the numbers are somewhat inflated. This goes to China as well, who is polluting to produce goods sold all over the world. Much reduction of pollution by the major western powers has actually just moved the pollution to Asia, where it is less controlled and actually worse per ton of product.

    In the end, I agree with you: population control is probably not effective controlling the single issue of CO2 emissions, but I feel there are other equally as important tasks that it does work to solve.

    Note, I am against forced population control. I have a theory that I will put forward in my next blog to reduce population with far less coercion.

    Thank you for stopping by, please feel free to pick apart my ideas at anytime! I don’t get smarter unless people better informed than I disagree with me.

    Comment by truthwalker | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  6. And I haven’t thought about looking at measuring pollution generated through consumption rather than production. So you gave me something new to think about as well.

    Beef is expensive to produce compared to some other food sources and may be seen as an increase in the economy as the same number of people that existed before can now purchase pricer food.

    That said, a good amount of methane (which you are correct about in terms of it being a worse global warming gas than carbon dioxide) is trapped in areas of permafrost and frozen tundra that are being thawed by CO2 related Global Warming. Thus CO2 emissions are perhaps an early domino in Global Warming and its effects.

    Maybe this has changed, but my understanding of China is that it still has many rivers that are toxic. As well as other problems such as deforestation or dust storms (which also include toxic particles that are on land rather than rivers). I think many of these issues have gotten worse after the enactment of population control policies as well. So the situation may not be of just change from local into international pollution.

    I bring up China as an example of population control not because I want you to reflect on its coercive manner in doing so (though if it was enacted I may prefer non-coercive methods than coercive), but because it was actually effective in lowering the birthrate. And problems remained, if not worsened, as the birthrate fell. Thus I tend to question the need for effective population control and its effectiveness in actually providing solutions-especially when many forms of pollution can be tied directly to economic practices rather than population size.

    Thanks for the encouragement. I noticed that each of us tend to create long comments so it may be easier for us and on other people (that try to read along) if we to try to make shorter comments.

    Comment by Nathaniel | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  7. It think it’s fair to say that some human caused problems can be reduced by reducing the headcount, but also to say that my first implication, that pollution is directly coupled to population, is wrong.

    It’s tempting to relate it to production (The nations with the highest productivity are some of the most polluting) but that’s not a perfect comparison either. I don’t think it’s fair to complain about China’s pollution when they are providing goods being imported into much “cleaner” areas.

    Some of the worst pollution is in some of the areas with the highest population density. On the other hand, Europe has a significantly higher population density than the US with identical manhour production (The US productivity is higher because of a 55 hr rather than 35 hr work week) and much less per capita pollution.

    It’s a multivariate problem. Which I hope to address in my “Part II Solution” post, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around all the variables simultaneously.

    Was that shorter?

    Comment by truthwalker | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  8. Oh, and China still has truly awful water pollution. It’s just now they ALSO have burgeoning CO2 emissions. So it’s local and international now. I want to say that China’s waterways have some of the worst heavy metal pollution on earth, but I can’t remember where I heard that.

    Comment by truthwalker | December 6, 2008 | Reply

  9. Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life. I’m not talking just about the obvious problems that we see in the news – growing dependence on foreign oil, carbon emissions, soaring commodity prices, environmental degradation, etc. I’m talking about the effect upon rising unemployment and poverty in America.

    I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

    This theory has huge implications for U.S. policy toward population management. Our policies that encourage high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

    But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

    The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight third world countries – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China – as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050.

    If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit my web site at where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It’s also available at

    Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph. I just don’t know how else to inject this new perspective into the overpopulation debate without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

    Comment by Pete Murphy | December 7, 2008 | Reply

  10. Yes, it was shorter.

    I wouldn’t be surprised by waterway conditions as I’ve also heard several Chinese locales are on the most polluted cities in the world list. Though it appears the methods of generating that list may be questionable.

    Comment by Nathaniel | December 7, 2008 | Reply

  11. Peter Murphy, hey thanks for stopping by. I don’t fault that your theory has validity, but it doesn’t seem to be possible to me that it’s looking at all the variables. (I’ haven’t written a book about it, so bear with me on my first blush thoughts.) For starters, population density is a local population issue, not a global one, Second, reduction of durable property is only one form of consumption. I have a friend who has an even terabyte of downloaded movies. The hard drive takes up cubic inches, if it was all 70mm film stock it would fill a house. But he still had to pay for all of it, encouraging the economy.
    Besides, couldn’t the economic conditions you describe also produce greater consumption? Wouldn’t a reasonable response to the conditions you describe be to replace durable goods with disposable ones? A person might buy a paper shirt, wear it for the day and chuck it.

    Further, density also reduces dependency on automobiles. In a dense enough city, everything is in walking distance. Since automobiles are the a source of pollution, this should reduce pollution.

    Further still, rich but dirty industrial sectors SHOULD go. To merely say that something is bad because it impacts the economy is false. I’ve not read your book yet, though I am interested to do so. Just throwing some ideas out there.

    Comment by truthwalker | December 7, 2008 | Reply

  12. […] Overpopulation The Greatest Threat Edward O Wilson Paul Ehrlich Overpopulation and sustainable life Environmentalism and Overpopulation Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The electronic Dick wants immigration to Australia […]

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