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Nature Conservancy’s Chief Scientist Pooh Pooh’s Population Growth


By Donald A Collins | 24 December 2012

(Photo: Tuca Vieira)

No sooner had I sent in my membership renewal to The Nature Conservancy than Joe Bish of Population Media Center sent me his Yuletide email which included a piece by Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist for the NC entitled “Are There Too Many People on the Planet?”.

I suggest before you read my comments that you read what Mr. Kareiva has written about how population growth is uncertain as a major driver of current world woes:

Are There Too Many People on the Planet?

Are There Too Many People on the Planet?
By Peter Kareiva

Before you read any further, please answer the question in the headline. Finished? Now read on.

I’m guessing that a lot of you answered yes. Now let’s think this through: We have 7 billion people on the planet.

Were 5 billion too many?
Were 3 billion people too many?
Were 1 billion people too many?
Were 1 million people too many?

How would you make those decisions? I doubt any real science comes into play. Yet at a recent meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, I was in a conversation with several colleagues in which one person said there are too many people on the planet—and everyone nodded in agreement. This statement, together with the group’s certainty of its truth, offers a revealing window into conservation.

Here’s what I bet goes on when this question is posed—and I want to say up front that I think this way myself. I do not like long lines and traffic jams. I do not like that I have to drive 60 minutes to get to a decent natural area or that when I get to the Cascades for my hike, I’m likely to run into dozens of others on the same trail. I do not like how built up our coastline has become and how hard it is to get access to beaches. And so on.

In other words, I do not like the impact of “too many people” on my personal happiness. Rarely do we admit that this is the basis of our concerns about human population. Instead, we couch them in terms of “exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity” or “causing the extinction of species.”

For example, one common mantra is that we are already using up the equivalent of 1.5 Earths—so how could we add even more people? But that refrain is based on an ecological footprint calculation that is deeply flawed and has been widely critiqued in the literature. (1, 2) The simplest way to expose the fallacy of the ecological footprint calculation is to emphasize that, simply by planting half the U.S. area with eucalyptus, we could change the current total human footprint from 1.5 Earths to only one Earth.

The other mantra is that an excess of people is causing the extinction crisis. I certainly agree that people are, sadly, causing extinctions, but I am not convinced it is a “number of people” issue per se. The most spectacular and massive extinctions of megafauna were associated with human populations of fewer than 1 million—the so-called “Pleistocene overkill,” when humans entered North America from Asia. During that period, the world lost mammoths, giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, the dire wolf, giant beavers, and numerous other awesome species that would today inspire and enthrall us if they still existed. It did not take 7 billion people for this to happen. In fact, these extinctions occurred at extremely low population densities. (3)

And when we so easily jump to the conclusion there are too many people on the planet, what solutions does it suggest? Who should be eliminated? Who should not be allowed to have children? And who gets to decide? Is it really that there are too many people on the planet? Or is it more about the kinds of settlements and economies we have built?

Lastly, the entire notion of too many people neglects those studies showing that large numbers of people, especially concentrations of people in cities, are engines for innovation and cultural advances. (4) For example, new patents and inventions overwhelmingly come from cities—and the larger the city, the more patents and inventions are produced.

Given all this, I still think there are probably too many people on the planet. But I’m a little embarrassed by that sentiment—I know there is no clear analysis behind that conclusion and that it is to some extent a reflection of the fact that occasionally I like to get away from people. More importantly, the question of whether there are too many people is the wrong one for conservationists to ask. The right questions are: What quality of life do we want all people on the planet to share? And how can we achieve that quality of life while preserving as many species and ecosystems as possible?

Conservation of nature has a lot to contribute to answering those questions and to enhancing that quality of life. So don’t automatically nod in agreement when a colleague says: “The problem is, there are too many people on the planet.” People can be the solution as well as the problem.

Apparently, this scientist is conflicted by possible guilt about fingering the likely quadrupling of world population. Since I was born in 1931, when the population was 2 billion, we now have over 7 billion, the most massive numbers on the planet by far in human history. The author must know that by later this century that number could be 10 billion. Yet, he decided to abandon the obvious and go into the kind of relativism fantasies which have been raised by growth gurus like the late Julian Simon for years and now most alarmingly by most of our current world leaders. Growth, growth and more growth is the answer to what?

I would wonder how much foreign travel the author has done. I have for decades been an extensive visitor to countries around the world too numerous to name on every continent. My take on pollution, crowding, and the urgent need for birth control is now well understood by many overloaded foreign government leaders (although not enough), who are amok in civil strife and resource mismanagement.

After reading this piece, my friend Dave Gardner of Growth Busters in Colorado Springs, CO chimed in as follows:

Dave Gardner says:
December 9, 2012 at 6:17 am

Please pardon my taking exception to much of what is written in this piece.

Most of the arguments here do not disprove the hypothesis that the world is overpopulated. The idea that we may just need to rearrange the way we live is far from scientific proof that Earth can sustain 7 billion of us. The fact that densely populated cities may be engines of innovation has nothing to do with whether the world is overpopulated. Even the fact that there were significant extinctions at times with smaller populations does not disprove the existence of overpopulation today. So one is left to wonder exactly what the purpose of this commentary is.

While this list may not be conclusive proof, it is a pretty clear indication human numbers have reached a point that we cannot manage our affairs in a sustainable way:

climate change
massive species extinction
depletion of aquifers
rivers over-appropriated
toxification of our freshwater
ocean dead zones
fisheries decline
fertile soil depletion
doubling of resource prices in the last decade
continued large-scale hunger

Being embarrassed at feeling your quality of life is lower due to the number of people in your community, your state, your country, or the world, is one of the things that prevents us from dealing with the issue of overpopulation effectively. Don’t be embarrassed. If we have to give up quality of life because we are afraid to talk about overpopulation, then we will get what is coming to us.

Another is repeating the tired, completely off-the-mark mantra about who should be taken out, if indeed we are overpopulated. Those truly interested in the science, and not just interested in distracting us from the problem, know and will tell us that we can humanely, voluntarily reduce human population significantly over the next century simply by choosing to limit our own family size. Fear not; no one has to be executed.

Making contraception more accessible, giving women more equality in these decisions, and making accurate information about overpopulation available are all important ingredients. Let me repeat: making accurate information widely available. Being embarrassed and spreading disinformation are really not helpful.

Dave Gardner
Director of the documentary
GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

But of course the plausible argument that we and other developed nations are the world’s major polluters and thus not the fault of population size comes back at Dave from Rob Moir, founder of Ocean Research Institute:

“Dave, climate change is caused by industrialization putting out too much carbon – not overpopulation;
massive species extinction is cause by over harvesting, habitat destruction and American consumerism – not overpopulation;
depletion of aquifers is caused by industries drawing too much water without regulations and injecting too much pollution back in – not overpopulation;
rivers over-appropriated caused by inadequate stewardship and regulation – not by overpopulation;
toxification of our freshwater is caused by mismanagement and pollution both of nitrogen that causes harmful algal blooms and by toxic chemicals – not by overpopulation;
ocean dead zones are caused by too much nitrogen coming off the land (where it could be reused) feeding toxic algae blooms not by overpopulation;
fisheries decline is caused by overfishing and degradation of ocean habitats by pollution – not by overpopulation;
fertile soil depletion caused by poor practices and mismanagement – not by overpopulation;
doubling of resource prices in the last decade is happening in America despite there not being a big population increase and a 10% increase in consumerism every year – not by overpopulation;
continued large-scale hunger is a political problem of “the haves” exerting power over the hungry – not an overpopulation problem.
Bangladesh has been called overpopulated. Without a hunger problem, it is self-sufficient for agriculture, food and water.”

Gee, Mr or is it Doctor or is it scientist Moir, you have done some terrific things at the Ocean Institute, but out of your own retort you have made Dave’s case. Why have we built more and more coal fired plants, poured toxic materials into waterways, over fished our seas and depleted our soils or developed a hunger problem? Could it be that reaching 10 billion humans by 2100 will diminish these situations or can they be solved by more regulations.

The speed of our government to solve the problems you note Mr. Moir has not been too encouraging, but I take pleasure in hearing of your successful environmental efforts in your local area.

Moir is not done with Dave Gardner, however, as he writes on 12/11/12:

“Dave, I applaud your film Growth Busters. For a sustainable society we must stop America’s burgeoning growth in consumerism and destructive short-term cost-cutting by industries. With America only 4% of the world’s population and 20% of the carbon emissions, we alone are one fifth of the drivers of climate change. To show in your film a scientist saying that population is part of the problem is fake science. It is his belief, his leap of faith not based on facts. You portray the population “bomb” belief of a few scientists as science. Putting up a false scapegoat, over population, does not help us solve the problem of over-consumerism and bad stewardship. Kareiva sheds light for how there is a causal relationship between America being the society most in need of “growth-busting” and at the same time one of the least populated nations in the world. We expect to have much because we can, the media tells us so. Look to the evidence instead citing the dogma.”

I wonder what Paul Erhlich might respond to the charge of offering “Fake Science”? Well, there are plenty of chances for Mr. Moir to read Erhlich’s findings. Wikipedia tells us:

“Paul Ralph Ehrlich (born May 29, 1932) is an American biologist and educator who is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology.[2] By training he is an entomologist specializing in Lepidoptera (butterflies), but he is also a prominent ecologist and demographer. Ehrlich is best known for his dire warnings about population growth[3] and limited resources. Ehrlich became well-known after publication of his controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb.[4][5] In the years since, some of Ehrlich’s predictions have proven incorrect, but he stands by his general thesis that the human population is too large and is a direct threat to human survival and the environment of the planet.”

And also we might remember the Club of Rome people whose 1972 “Limits to Growth” report got tarred and feathered in the media. Their claims about world population and environmental problems were dubbed hysterical then, but have since been largely validated. Those who deny global warming are fewer and fewer.

Oh, and by the way, that famous “demographic transition” which predicted world population would stabilize by 2100 ain’t true either! Read the findings of Malcolm Potts and Martha Campbell in the LA Times on 12/2/12:

http://churchandstate.org.uk/2012/12/beyond 7 billion bending population curve/

Dave Gardner’s 12/11/12 reply to Mr. Moir is quite restrained, but perfect:

“Well, I see. Rob gives us a long list of all these things we are just doing wrong. We just can’t seem to get those right. And having this huge number of people on the planet has nothing to do with it. All we have to do is manage everything we’re doing differently, perfectly, and then it will magically serve 7 billion or more fairly, adequately and sustainably. I’m sorry, but this is just delusional thinking.

“I’m not saying overpopulation is the only problem. Not by a long shot. Over consumption is a huge part of it. But I am quite certain and quite confident that we will not solve this list of problems if we ignore population’s role in the equation. There are quite a few scientists, actually, who understand this”. And they include of course Potts and Campbell.

Sadly, Mr. Moir thinks discussions of population growth by scientists is academic; he opines to Gardner:

December 13, 2012
Fine, but please do not waste practitioners time carping about population when there are so many more pressing problems that Americans must work harder on. It is okay for over population to be an academic problem of scientific understanding. Perhaps an improvement over scientists deliberating on how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. To be sure there will be push back when Americans start doing something about global population. There is a vast amount of social science understanding of what is wrong with solving someone’s perceived over population problems. It is best to make room for others and collaborate.”

Plenty of non scientific need exists to bring, for example, vastly increased family planning options for women to help their empowerment. As Potts has said, “What we need now are big, boring programs” and certainly more programs in environmental areas are urgently needed too.

In short, for the Chief Scientist of TNC to wander editorially in a morass of apparent guilt over our consumption and uncertainty about the fact that sheer numbers may not be undermining the fleeting chance the planet now has to fix its ills makes me far less certain for the future and really wondering who hires staff at TNC.

Finally, I sense from the above that we have a paradigm problem here. Viewing the world in pieces reminds us of the four blind men fondling the legs of an elephant and each opining on what they are encountering. Perhaps a broader view here is useful from the recent article by Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, presented this essay adapted from reflections presented to the United Nations General Assembly on April 18, 2012.

I won’t opine here on his planetary view of where we are, but leave it to the curious which will include I hope Messrs. Kareiva and Moir. Go to http://theamericanscholar.org/our-imperiled-world/

Thanks, Joe, for these lumps of Christmas coal which hopefully via this piece can be used to fire more retorts to the kind of short sighted and scientifically blinkered idiocy you just sent us.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA.

GrowthBusters Hooked on Growth Trailer Fall 2011

Last Call: The Untold Reasons of the Global Crisis

Last Call: The Untold Reasons of the Global Crisis will be a documentary project that shows the urgency of the message of warning launched by the authors of the most controversial book of the past 40 years: The Limits to Growth. The synopsis of the film reads as follows:

“Present system crisis, both environmental and economical, matches with the reference scenario outlined in the 1972 book “The Limits to Growth”, by a group of researchers of the MIT. Climate change, natural disasters, wars, natural resources reduction, economic and financial crisis, democracy and political, systems crisis, poverty, hunger and famines, over population… While these crisis are acknowledged by almost everybody there is a tendency to consider them separately. The Limits to Growth team’s approach, in 1972 and in 2012, shows that all these crisis are different parts of a single big problem… The documentary LAST CALL shows the urgency to listen to this message of warning, in order to pursue a new model of equity and sustainability, before it’s too late.”

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4 Responses to Nature Conservancy’s Chief Scientist Pooh Pooh’s Population Growth

  1. Susan Brinkley Reply

    December 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Is he by any chance a Catholic? Certainly seems to have a blind side when it comes to the rather obvious pressures on resources caused by overpopulation.

  2. Dee Reply

    December 28, 2012 at 1:08 am

    I totally agree with Dave Gardner, that this would be a good place to start, although I am not a scientist, just a human with a brain.
    “Making contraception more accessible, giving women more equality in these decisions, and making accurate information about overpopulation available are all important ingredients. Let me repeat: making accurate information widely available. Being embarrassed and spreading disinformation are really not helpful.”

  3. transrp Reply

    January 5, 2013 at 5:30 am

    The best comment is from Feynmans closing sentence in his minority report on the Challenger Explosion:
    "Nature can not be fooled"

  4. RouX Renard Reply

    March 16, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    1% owning half the world’s resources is the biggest problem we face… and the poorest 50% trying to survive on 1% of the world’s resources. There is a ‘joke’ reference in this article to considering killing people. No need, the 1% already kill millions every year, through debt slavery and resource deprivation. Tax the billionaires back to being millionaires and feed the world.

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