By Sara Burrows | 28 August 2016
Return to Now
“But every person on the planet could fit inside the State of Texas,” people keep telling me when I argue the earth is overpopulated.
I’m so confused by this response.
Of course every person on the planet could fit into the State of Texas. So what? A dozen sardines can fit into a can. But guess what… a dozen sardines can’t live in a can, just like 7 billion people can’t live in the State of Texas.
According to a website called OverpopulationIsAMyth.com, if you divide the nearly 7.5 trillion square feet in the State of Texas by the global population of 7.4 billion, each person would get 1012 square feet – “enough space for a townhouse.”
If we divide Texas’ square footage among our predicted 9.7 billion-person population in 2050,í we’d each get 772 square feet, reducing us each to a studio apartment, by their logic.
But these calculations are silly and pointless. Even if it were possible to cram 7 billion townhouses or 10 billion studio apartments side by side or stacked on top of each other, where would you put the streets, the sidewalks, the yards, the parks, the grocery stores, the gas stations, the restaurants, the countless other businesses, the farms to feed us all, the water supplies?
According to the Global Footprint Network, the average human requires a hell of a lot more space than 1000 square feet. In fact, I personally require nearly 18 acres (or 780,000 square feet) of land to support my lifestyle (which isn’t that glamorous by American standards). How do I know? I took this quiz to find out what my personal ecological footprint is.
If everyone in the world lived like me, we would need four Planet Earths to sustain our lifestyle. That’s slightly better than the five Planet Earths it would take to sustain 7.4 billion people living the average American lifestyle.
Because lots of people in Asia, Africa and South America do not live like Americans (the average American consumes as much as 32 Kenyans), it would take a “mere” 1.5 planets to sustain the current average human lifestyle. In other words, we are using 1.5 times more resources than the earth can produce, and creating 1.5 times more waste than the earth can absorb, each year.
That means it takes one year and six months for the earth to regenerate what we use in a year.
Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us.
You might wonder how this is possible – how are we consuming more than we have? As Annie Leonard explains in her book The Story of Stuff – “it’s only possible because the planet’s been around much longer than we have and has had time to accumulate extra.” But the “extra” – aka fossil fuel – is running out.
“It’s as though a household saved up income for years before ramping up it’s spending. It could spend more than it earned for some time, eating away at the savings, but eventually there’s nothing left,” Leonard writes.
Turning resources into waste faster than the Earth can turn it back into resources puts us in global ecological overshoot. Overshoot occurs when a species temporarily exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is a collapse, crash or die-off in which there is a sharp decline in that species.
“If our problem was to get the human economy down from 150 percent to 100 percent of the earth’s carrying capacity, we could do that,” former Greenpeace CEO and Cambridge professor Paul Gilding said in a Ted Talks presentation a few years ago. “The problem is, we’re just warming up this growth engine. We plan to take this highly stressed economy and then make it twice as big, and then four times as big … in less than 40 years. China plans to be there in 20 years.”
“The only problem with this plan is that it’s not possible.”
“People argue – ‘But, we need growth! We need it to solve poverty, to develop technology, to keep social stability.’ I find this argument fascinating, as though we could bend the rules of physics to suit our needs.”
“The earth doesn’t care what we need,” Gilding continued. “Mother nature doesn’t negotiate. She just sets rules and ascribes consequences. And these are not esoteric limits. This is about food and water, soil and climate.”
While overpopulation “deniers” argue advancements in technology will save us from economic and environmental doom, Guilding says “the idea that we can smoothly transition to a highly efficient, solar-powered, knowledge-based economy, transformed by science and technology, so that 9 billion people can live in 2050 a life of abundance and digital downloads is a delusion.”
In a counter “Ted Talk” entitled “Abundance is Our Future,” billionaire engineer and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis argued the potential for population and economic growth is limitless. We might live on a finite planet, but we live in an infinite universe, he reasons.
“I’m not saying we don’t have our set of problems – species extinction, water and energy shortage – we surely do,” Diamandis said. “But, as humans we are far better at seeing the problems way in advance, and ultimately we knock them down.”
Diamandis calls technology “a resource-liberating force.” Using robotics, synthetic biology, digital medicine, nano technology and artificial intelligence, he believes we can discover an abundance of resources we previously perceived to be scarce.
Solar energy, for example – “We are on a planet that is bathed with 5000 times more energy than we use in a year every 88 minutes. It’s not about scarcity… it’s about accessibility.”
“For the first time this year the cost of solar electricity is 50 percent that of diesel electricity in India. An MIT study shows that by the end of this decade, in sunny parts of the U.S., solar electricity will be 6 cents a kilowatt hour compared to 15 cents as a national average.”
Another example he gave was clean water. “We live on a planet 70 percent covered by water. Yes, 97.5 percent is salt water, 2 percent is ice, and we fight over half a percent.”
Not to worry, Diamandis says. Thanks to nano technology, there’s a water distillation system in the works, the size of a small refrigerator, capable of generating a thousand liters of clean drinking water a day from any source – salt water, polluted water, sewage – at less than 2 cents a liter. The trouble is the few machines in existence today still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
“Rather than an economic shutdown we’re about to have the biggest economic injection ever,” Diamandis concluded.
And, when humans finally do run out of resources on Earth? No problem. We can just move to another planet, he boasted in another speech.
Gilding says even it it were realistic that these technologies could be perfected and put to use in the next few decades, it’s already too late for them to save us. From deforestation to depleting arable land to acidifying oceans, disappearing coral reefs and collapsing fisheries, our ecosystem is already falling apart. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
The collapse is “well underway,” he says. “Planet earth is eating itself alive.”
“We’ve had 50 years of warnings. We’re not even slowing down. It’s time we ended our denial.”
Gilding says humans won’t act until the crisis hits the economy.
“Imagine our economy when the carbon bubble bursts, when the financial markets recognize that to have any hope of preventing the climate from spiraling out of control, the oil and coal industries are finished. Imagine China and India and Pakistan going to war as climate impacts generate conflict over food and water. Imagine the Middle East without oil income but with collapsing governments. Imagine our highly stressed agricultural system failing and super market shelves emptying. Imagine 30 percent unemployment in America …”
Gilding says global economic crisis is inevitable at this point. The only issue in our control is how we react.
“We need to plan our response now, while the lights are still on, because if we wait until it takes hold, we may panic and hide. If we feel it now and think it through we will realize we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Yes, things will get ugly, and it will happen soon, certainly within our lifetime, but we are more than capable of getting through everything that’s coming.”
“Those people who have faith that humans can solve any problem – that technology is limitless, that markets can be a force for good – are in fact right. The only thing they are missing is that it takes a good crisis to get us going. When we feel fear and loss we are capable of extraordinary things.”
Gilding says if we get this wrong we could face the end of civilization, but if we get it right, it could be the beginning of a better civilization.
Scientists like James Hansen tell us we may need to eliminate net CO2 emissions from the economy in just a few decades to turn this ship around, which Gilding says is pretty easy and relatively cheap – “not very cheap, but certainly less than the cost of a collapsing civilization.”
“We can transform our economy with proven technology, at an affordable cost, with existing political structures. The only thing we need to change is how we think and how we feel.”
Changing how we think and feel about overpopulation is exactly the topic of this Psychology Today article. All species suffer population collapse or species extinction if they overshoot and degrade the carrying capacity of their ecology, the articles says. Humans are no exception.
Our human and human-like ancestors lived in balance with their environment for millions of years prior to agriculture. But once agriculture created temporary food surpluses, it gave humans a false sense of food security and encouraged them to have more babies than the land could support long-term.
Now, like a colony of yeast injected with sugar, we have multiplied exponentially, consumed most of the bio-available nutrients in the world and are heading for colony collapse.
The question is – are we smarter than yeast?
Probably, but most of us will be blindsided by how quickly our population doubles from nearly 7.5 billion to 15 billion – about 60 years at current growth rates. This is because most of us don’t understand the concept of exponential growth.
From the article:
“Imagine a Petri dish with enough nutrients to support a growing bacteria culture until the dish is completely full of them. One bacterium is placed inside the dish at 11:00am, and the population of bacteria doubles every minute — such that the Petri dish will be full by noon.
At what time will the Petri dish be half full of bacteria?
Most people reply incorrectly that the Petri dish will be half full at 11:30am, because we are more familiar with linear, rather than with exponential, rates of growth. The correct answer is 11:59am — which seems rather unintuitive. However, because the rate of growth is exponential (doubling every minute) the time at which the Petri dish is half full is 11:59am. With just one more doubling, in the next minute, the Petri dish is completely full, at noon.”
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function,” said Professor Albert Bartlett in his paramount video lecture titled Arithmetic, Population and Energy.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Sara Burrows is a writer and editor at Return To Now. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Return to Now is dedicated to helping humans live fully in the present, while gleaning tips on how to do so from our distant past. It’s a new kind of “news” website, whose contributors are not as concerned with instant coverage of current events as they are with the whole of the human experience. Topics include rewilding, primitive tribal living, modern communal living options, tips for living off the grid, earth skills, sustainability, natural health, sexual and spiritual awakening, and peaceful parenting.
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