Tag Archives: growth-population

If Overpopulation Isn’t the Problem, What’s the Question?

Overpopulation in the future? (image from Star Trek)

Overpopulation in the future? (Image from Star Trek)

In a commercial for Doritos some years back, the consumption-encouraging slogan was “Eat all you want; we’ll make more.”* That guilt free line, with some minor alteration up front, could also be the subtitle for Erle C. Ellis’s New York Times Op-Ed “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem.” Basically he says we can have as many people on the planet as we want because we’ll always find ways to make more food.

Sounds like music to the ears of an EcoOptimist, or at least an optimist: evidence that centuries of fears of overpopulation have been wrong and the idea of a “carrying capacity” is irrelevant. Problem is it’s neither correct nor an example of EcoOptimism.

In a previous post, I refuted an EcoPessimist. Now I need to refute a false optimist.

Since the end of the 18th century, when Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, there’s been controversy regarding the concept of “carrying capacity,” or the maximum population that an ecosystem (or the planet as a whole) can support indefinitely. Carrying capacity can refer to any species, but what we’re usually talking about is humanity – how many people the planet can support.

Malthus and his followers concluded that, largely because the Earth is a finite system, there are only so many people who can be fed by its resources. The 1972 book The Limits to Growth expanded upon this and predicted, as population and consumption grew, we’d run out of other necessary resources as well as food.

When the estimated dates passed without the shortages and human calamities the authors described, opponents claimed that it proved the concepts of finite resources and carrying capacity were wrong. Economists had an economic explanation – that scarcity would drive up prices which would, in turn, create demand for more expensive or alternative sources. This is, in fact, what is happening with fossil fuels; “unconventional” fuels like tar sands used to be too expensive but now are becoming viable as cheaper sources of oil run out. The problematic assumption here is that there will always be interchangeable alternatives. Some resources are simply not replaceable. Try living without oxygen or water.

Other opponents had a different take. Scientific and technological advances, they said (and still say), will continue to bring us new solutions which will allow us to increase efficiency as well as find alternatives. Natural resources may be finite, but that doesn’t matter because our intelligence will always yield new ways around those limits.

This in short is Ellis’ thesis. “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” he writes.

The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future…. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

This inherently optimistic and appealing view has, though, a couple of fatal flaws. It is based on a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that technology will always come to the rescue. While it’s true that human history has largely been one of advances leading to immense growths of population (as well as living standards), it’s a huge leap to assume that, unlike natural resources, our potential to think our way out of problems is limitless. Yes, technology has in the past changed the planet’s carrying capacity for humans (provided, that is, we ignore the long and continuing history of famines and overcrowding). Banking our future on this, however, is a form of blind faith.

But let’s take that leap and suppose that technology will always come to the rescue and provide ways to ever increase the amount of food we can eke out of the planet. Food is not the only limit on human population growth. The technologies that comprise modern industrial food production, and that have allowed us (or perhaps encouraged us) to increase the human population from 1 billion to 7 billion in little more than 2 ½ centuries, demand vast amounts of not just land, but other finite resources, most notably fossil fuels for energy, fertilizers and pesticides, along with fresh water. (Let’s leave the highly debated question of whether organic agriculture can feed us to another post.) Sure we’ve figured out how to make land more productive, but it’s involved adding a lot of additional energy and resources. Plus there are the crucial issues of pollution from the runoff of those fertilizers and pesticides, and soil degradation from intense monocropping.

And then there’s the not-so-small point that Ellis’ entire outlook concerns only human carrying capacity, not the ability of any of the other billions of species on the planet to survive. This isn’t just an altruistic concern; many of those species are essential to the functioning of ecosystems – the same ecosystems that enable human survival. Even in this newly-crowned Anthropocene Age, it’s not just about us. We may have the unique ability to alter the planet, to “transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves,” but that doesn’t mean we have either the right to do so for our sole benefit or the intelligence to do so with enough foresight.

Ellis’s rationale is both hubristic and dangerous. He’s betting that an historic pattern will continue, without acknowledging that the game has changed so the pattern no longer applies. A strong competing view says that the Industrial Revolution and the agricultural revolution that resulted from it were a once-in-a-species-lifetime event, enabled by a world that had a combination of relatively few people and plentiful, easily accessible resources. Neither of those conditions exists anymore and the latter will not happen again in any conceivable human future.

It’s not that we, the anthros of the Antropocene, are powerless. We have the ability to alter both the planet’s path and our own. On that, we agree. Is he advocating, though, that we should continue increasing the human population because, well, we’ll always have the ability to innovate and “make more” so it’ll all work out?

That’s an incredibly huge gamble and, furthermore, begs the question: why should we take it? Even if he’s correct in his wildly unsubstantiated claim that “There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature,” why would we want to continue to increase the population? What’s the upside? Wouldn’t it be much wiser and more beneficial to not go down that questionable road and, instead, apply our unique innovating abilities to ensuring that future generations can not only exist, but be better off?

Overpopulation may not be the problem, but it certainly is a part of the problem. The famous (in some circles, anyway) equation I=P*A*T states that environmental impact is a function of the population times the amount and types of things people consume. What we have now is a rapidly growing population with a rapidly growing per capita consumption rate. Whether or not the planet’s ecosystems can sustain the exponentially increasing levels of environmental impact we are inflicting on it – and I can’t believe Ellis would say they can – diminishing that impact has to be a good thing. Maybe, maybe we can manage to figure out ways to feed everyone, but what about all the additional demands that accompany a larger and more affluent species.

If we extrapolate from history as Ellis claims we can, it’s obvious that the demand for “stuff,” whether it be basic food and housing or designer jeans and the latest electronic gizmo, is increasing at least as fast as the number of people demanding that stuff. How that can possibly be construed as anything sustainable or “not the problem” is incomprehensible. The two-fold solution involves reducing both consumption and population growth, resulting in a wholly desirable scenario that, as EcoOptimism espouses, leaves us all better off and happier.

As with the Doritos line, Ellis says we’ll just “make more.”  He’s almost certainly wrong — we can’t continue infinitely to make more, no matter how imaginative and innovative we are – but moreover, making more is the wrong response. It’s not the route to “creating a planet that future generations will be proud of.” We need to make better – better things, better food, better education, leading to better people — not more.

* Fact checking this slogan, it appears that it may have been “crunch all you want”, not “eat,” but hordes of people including me remember it as “Go ahead. Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”

Answering the Wrong Question

On the Colbert Report Monday night – if you’re keeping count as I am, that’s two weeks in a row that Colbert’s “forced” me write a post – environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate metaphors because it seems you can always find one to make any position sound right. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power and we simply haven’t been good parents. Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.


I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in “Less is More, More or Less,” it’s been pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource or Technological intensity of those things we consume. So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicting doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But as has been mentioned here in EcoOptimism and elsewhere, more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my classes shouts out “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

Less is More, More or Less

Thanksgiving, the celebration of bounty, seemed a completely appropriate time to contemplate the corollary concept of enough. Hence one of my tasks for the weekend (why do I always think a day or two off, or even a long plane flight, will give me the time to catch up on everything?) was to read the advance copy of Enough Is Enough sent me by co-author Rob Dietz. A bit overoptimistic I was. I’ll blame the lingering L-tryptophan effect. But I’ve only missed the goal by a bit.

Dietz is the executive director of an organization called CASSE or the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, a mouthful as large as the (first) slice of leftover pumpkin pie I had for breakfast on several of the days following the feast. “Enough Is Enough” rolls off the tongue much more easily (than CASSE, not pumpkin pie), and the strong, memorable title makes me almost wish CASSE would change its name to accompany the book.

The basic tenet of the steady state economy (or SSE) is an observation that makes complete sense: you can’t have infinite growth in a finite system. Unfortunately, conventional economics – perhaps in an attempt to defy its characterization as the dismal science – says otherwise. Its faith in unending growth portrays it as both possible and desirable.

EcoOptimism, though based (obviously) in optimism, doesn’t subscribe to this delusional belief in the virtues of growth. In another post, I’ll discuss how that self-serving faith is actually more akin – as faith-based ideas tend to be – to a religion than it is to a science. So much so that, in attempting to escape the “dismal science” moniker by being less dismal, conventional economics may have instead lost its reasoned science aspect.

What’s in a name?

Part of the politically untouchable faith in growth derives from the positive nature of the word growth. How could growth possibly be bad or undesirable? And, even after proving that it is, finding an appealing word or phrase to convey that idea is a difficult task, yielding less than positive terms. Ungrowth? Uh uh. Degrowth? No better. Is the opposite of growth diminishment? Nothing appealing in that. Another suggested term, post-growth, gets warmer, but still doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

And so we get to steady state economics. Though it ain’t exactly catchy ( as noted above) SSE at least doesn’t succumb to easy connotations of negativism and survives the first round of sound bite tests. Steadiness, especially when compared to the booms and busts of recent history, has much to be said for itself.

Going Steady

But the goal of SSE is not so much to steady the rough ride of economic cycles as it is the creation of a path for continuing human growth within the constraints of an amazing yet finite planet. And it’s also more than (merely) achieving sustainability. It is the decoupling of economic growth from human flourishing. It is the enabling not just of a future, but of a positive future.

We already know that happiness (yes, I know that’s a mushy subjective quality, but there actually are ways to define and measure it) does not correlate with economic growth, at least not in the long run. In the richer nations (the “developed” world), where essential needs have largely been met, the acquisition of more material things does not lead to happier or more fulfilled lives. And acquiring things is, after all, an integral part of material growth and its measure, the appropriately named Gross Domestic Product. But even with this knowledge (which is not nearly widely enough known), how is the iconoclastic case against growth made? And accepted?

I have nearly the same image in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, but this is from Enough Is Enough












There’s been a plethora of books on this topic of late. I’ve written about some of them before: Prosperity Without Growth, The End of Growth, Plenitude, eearth, et. al. But in virtually every case, what’s been missing from the iron-clad arguments has been an accompanying roadmap. We have a general idea of where we want to go, but no idea – especially not a convincing one – how to get there.

Indeed, this shortcoming is a major part of the purpose behind EcoOptimism. Along with the lack of concrete steps, I’ve been positing that we need verbal descriptions and perhaps graphic illustrations (I must still be in a Thanksgiving state of mind because that made me think of the “twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one” from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant — but I digress) depicting what our un/re/de/post-growth future will look like.

Happily, Dietz and co-author Dan O’Neill have brought us much closer to answering the how-the-hell-do-we-get-there question. Each chapter in the section “Strategies of Enough” as well as most of the chapters in the third section “Advancing the Economy of Enough” begin by asking “What Are We Doing?” and proceed to “What Could We Do Instead?” Then they move to the part I devoured each time: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Dietz and O’Neill are, of course, thoroughly familiar with the concepts of a Steady State Economy. But, they write, “we had been asking ourselves for some time how a steady-state economy would work in practice.” What are “the policies and transition strategies that would turn [a SSE] vision into a reality?” Those questions, as it happens, are the same ones I’ve been asking since I started focusing on the “New Economy.”

They’ve done a terrific job on the second question. First they demolish the conventional argument that growth is the solution to poverty, poor education and unrepresentative rule as well as pollution (the argument proffered by groups like the WTO and mainstreamed by Bjorn Lomberg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist). Toss out the convenient and misleading metaphor “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Our economic history strongly declares otherwise.

Responding to the Econ 101 tenet “Market prices give no reason to believe that natural resources are a limit to economic growth,” they almost literally scream “This statement may be true, but it reveals more about the failure of markets than the absence of limits!” This is the core of an argument many of us have been making in various forms for years: a “free” market can work only if everything is priced accurately. And our current markets, which consider almost every resource and service provided by nature to be free, are far from that point. “Prices often fail to capture the effect of resource depletion, waste generation, and loss of ecosystem services. As a result, the market sends improper signals—if it sends any signal at all—regarding the sustainability of throughput levels. We need to eliminate this market failure….”

What’s Enough?

Making economic growth the measure and the goal does humanity a huge disservice. Growth, in the gross unqualified version that we currently reflexively strive for, is a false god asking us to sacrifice everything (our lives, our planet) in search of a future nirvana that cannot possibly be the result. The problem, putting aside such relevant constraints as physics and, yes, economics, is that we’ve set our goal on the wrong sight. “More” is not only unachievable; it is undesirable. And the opposite of more is not less; it’s enough – provided that what we achieve enough of is what we in fact need to grow qualitatively. This becomes a two-part question: first, what is “enough,” meaning what sates us and leaves us better off than we started and, second, how do we get to that state?

We can continue the overly obvious Thanksgiving analogy here. For most of us, the quantity of the food leaves us with that content but overstuffed lagginess and perhaps the feeling that we overdid it. We certainly could live without it, though most of us would choose not to. Why? Because we enjoy the ritual, the company … and the food. What, more precisely, is it that makes the holiday so valued to so many? It’s not the amounts of food that we often wish we had exercised a bit more willpower to resist. It’s the circumstance, the associations and the experience (both social and sensorial), not the amount of food. In a crude way, this sums up the difference between the economy of growth and the economy of enough. Economic growth, after a point, does not translate to improved well-being. And after that point – the point at which basic life needs have been met — our economic and social goals should change course.

This does not by any means signify stagnation, which is perhaps the main problem with the term steady state – it’s vulnerable to being misinterpreted as a call to sacrifice. In reality, it’s the opposite of sacrifice; it’s finding the true value and measure of progress. As Dietz and O’Neil more succinctly put it: “the economy can develop qualitatively without growing quantitatively.”

It’s People!

Environmentalists all know that our problems stem from the combination of too much consumption (or rather, unnecessary and inefficient consumption primarily by people in the rich nations) and too many people (who, increasingly, are in the poorer nations). And therefore any real solution has to address both problems.  While the first part is certainly key, the second part – population growth – is the elephant in the room. It’s an incredibly delicate and laden topic. To its credit, Enough Is Enough doesn’t skip over it, as most such discussions do. “We need smaller footprints but,” they emphasize, “we also need fewer feet.”

The authors underscore the point that the number of unintentional pregnancies in the world each year (80 million) is equivalent to the annual growth of the human population. This means we don’t need to dive into heavy-handed intrusive programs like the Chinese one-child-per-family rule. We can achieve steady population through education and voluntary birth control.

The Role of Wall Street

When I discuss ecodesign in my classes, I emphasize that there are two ways to approach changing the environmental impact of a product. One is the “tweak,” which involves one or more relatively small and incremental changes to the design. The other is the “innovation,” which demands rethinking the problem (often by rephrasing the question) to find alternative ways of achieving the result the product provides. Often this leads to what has come to be called disruptive technology, a fancy phrase for a new way to do something that reduces the old to history. Think Internet versus encyclopedias. Or 3D printing replacing mass production.

I found myself categorizing the suggestions within Enough Is Enough the same way. Many of their proposals required minor alterations to our current ways of doing things. Others, though, are more like the “square one” approach. For instance, in the chapter “Enough Debt,” they propose some fundamental changes to how the financial world operates, ranging from the technical (requiring reserves on loans to be 100%) to the structural (decreasing the size and power of financial institution below the “too big to fail” level and – here comes the part that will elicit protests of socialism – democratizing the means of production).

Instead of hailing and idolizing the financial arena as the source of investment and growth as we currently do, the authors say we should be viewing it as a cost. “The fewer resources needed to accomplish this service [helping money to flow where it’s needed in the economy], the better off society is. So we should aim to minimize the cost represented by the financial sector—it should account for as small a percentage of total economic activity as possible.” We’ve come to see the financial world as an end in itself (how’s the market doing today?), forgetting in the process that its purpose is to be a means to the improvement of our lives. “Instead of focusing on using money to make more money, financiers should be focusing on serving a stable economy, an equitable society, and a healthy biosphere.”

Enough is (Almost) Enough

Enough Is Enough does an admirable job of making the off-putting topic of SSE much more approachable and enticing, but (ironically) leaves me still wanting more. The authors fully understand that “for people to embrace the concept of a steady-state economy, they need to understand how it would work and why it would be preferable to what they’ve become accustomed to.” They’ve brought us much closer to this point, but I came away still wanting to know what it will feel like and look like and how we will experience it.

This shortcoming – and I’m nitpicking through an exceptional book – strengthens the underlying need for what I see as a primary mission of the EcoOptimism blog: providing that visceral taste of a positive future. Enough Is Enough lays the policy groundwork. Now we need to make it concrete and present it in a form people can relate to in order to convince an understandably skeptical populace.  This requires the merging of policy wonk-dom with the visioning and communicating designers can provide (with perhaps some added oomph from the PR and advertising worlds).

Dietz and O’Neill write “An enlightened transformation to a steady-state economy is a profoundly hopeful prospect.” Not one of doom and gloom or involving sacrificing the “American way of life.” The overriding need is to develop and successfully present this thoroughly desirable future so that we will pursue it, not because we have to but because we want to. Enough Is Enough is a major step on that path.

Enough Is Enough will be released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers on January 7, 2013