For the environment, peak population will be a nightmare. This page explores alternatives for the future of population, and the possibility that the current peak population will be the last time there are ever this many humans on Earth.
- Introduction and Recap.
- The Fragile Starting Point.
- Endless Climate Summits: And We Need Them.
- Don’t Mention Population.
- Recap: Understanding How We Got To This Many People.
- The Fragile Starting Point.
- The Possible Futures:
- The UN projection: stability.
- Futurist Views:
- The Most Common ‘Sci-Fi’ Future, continued growth, and the elimination of nature.
- Collapse: The Dystopian Alternative.
- Descent To The Plateaux: Leaving The Population Peak
- to be continued….
Introduction and Recap.
The Fragile Starting Point: Should A Climate Summit Mention Population?
Endless Climate Summits: Governments Are Feeling The Need To Respond.
Recent human advances have provided great benefits, but have also come at huge environmental cost.
Huge strides in reducing infant mortality came too quickly for birth rates to compensate, producing a huge population explosion. In parallel, other advances such as plastics, automobiles and refrigeration have compounded the problem by increasing the environmental footprint per person.
There is now worldwide majority consensus, that the environment, under the strains of supporting over 7 billion people living as they do currently, is extremely fragile. Logically, two steps are required:
- Change how we live.
- Manage population going forward.
It has taken a very long time to get the current level of agreement on step 1: that we need to change how we live. Despite the at time of writing upcoming Glasgow Climate conference being the 26th climate summit (hence ‘Cop26’) , there still not universal agreement on a plan.
But Don’t Mention Population.
Step 2, population, described by many as the elephant in the room, is a topic avoided at current conferences, despite the widespread acknowledgement that population itself poses an existential threat to the environment.
The naturalist David Attenborough once said the creature he finds “most extraordinary” is a nine-month-old human baby. But now he believes the planet can’t sustain many more.
In an interview for BBC Newsnight, the 92-year-old British broadcaster said: “In the long run, population growth has to come to an end. There are some reasons for thinking that will happen almost inevitably.
“But it is very alarming at the rate we’re going, and although people will say, ‘In the long run, we are going to stabilize’, they’re going to stabilize – as far as I can see – at a rather higher level than the Earth can really accommodate.”BBC Newsnight, via churchandstate.org.uk.
It is true that action on how we live is more urgent, but what happens with population cannot be ignored.
Recap: Understanding How We Got Here.
I continue to uncover new surprises as I came to grok the pieces of the puzzle. The two most recent, and critical pieces of the puzzle were:
- “Full planet”: The realisation that there has been a similar total amount of life since life on land began, and therefore increases in one species population always means decrease in the population of other species.
- “Normal Population”: That most advanced life controls it rate of reproduction to reproduce at the optimum time and optimum number to ensure survival, and not beyond that number.
These follow from the realisation that, given it only takes a few thousand years of exponential population growth for any creature have enough individuals to occupy every millimetre of the surface of the earth, and even humans have been here for hundreds of thousands of years, there has been enough time to grow the population from just two people and carpet the entire earth with humans, or any other organism, time after time after time.
If it was our nature to reproduce until we overpopulate the planet, then this would have happened long ago. The reality is humans, like other advanced animals have managed to maintain a ‘normal population’ that results in a sustainable existence. While reducing infant mortality was worth almost any cost, doing so triggered the recent and abnormal population explosion.
Ending the explosion is only part of the solution, as we are still overpopulated.
On one hand, normally unusual population booms in nature soon end, population return to normal population, and the environment recovers.
But we have never seen a global population boom like this before, and the trigger for the boom remains in place, even though humans seem to be adapting birth rates to match the new normal of almost all children surviving.
The Possible Futures:
The UN projection: stability.
There are many graphs plot population growth as asymptotically approaching zero, as if stable population is the lowest rate of reproduction possible.
With everyone alive today born during a population explosion, and their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents only ever experiencing a population explosion, it is perhaps understandable that even stable population seems a foreign concept, despite thousands of years of history revealing that stable population is the normal reality.
Perhaps in this context, it makes sense that the UN, with all the politics of member states at play, is reluctant to predict any population reduction. There is a cost to population reduction, for leaders of government, for big business, and for the extremely wealthy. Although these groups are small in number, they make up for it in influence, and do need delicate handling.
The difference between UN projections, and those such as Deutsche Bank who are financially motivated with no real need to watch politics, can be seen in this data.
Note this data, is now 10 years old, and that the journalist felt that, despite the projections for the year now seen as critical, 2050, being almost identical, that the difference between projections was the difference between “out of control” population, and “no problem”. The difference in reality is the size of the problem beyond 2050.
The Most Common ‘Sci-Fi’ Future, continued population growth, and the elimination of nature.
With future fiction, a genre of science fiction, when a positive future is envisaged, the future Earth almost always has a population that has continued to increase, potentially well beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth, where the number of inhabitants makes experiencing nature simply not feasible given the number of humans who would want to experience nature at the same time. Imagine your favourite wilderness area. If you visit with your family it is wonderful, but if 1,000 other families want to visit at the same time, it is no longer wilderness.
Yet this future of a crowded Earth filled with humans who never get to experience nature is the most common science fiction view of a positive future.
Examples: Fifth Element, Total Recall,
Population Collapse: The Dystopian Alternative.
From H.G Wells “Time Machine”, through “Planet of the Apes” and “Logan’s Run”, and to “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent”, stories of a future where an inevitable apocalypse that dramatically reduces population in the future is a very common way to picture the future of humanity.
Descent To The Plateaux: Leaving The Population Peak.
Yet there is another possible future. Back in the section on the UN version of the future, I referenced a BBC article with projections and assessments of future population back in 2013.
In just those almost 10 years, “births per woman” numbers have fallen to 1.1 in several countries, which given the required rate for population stability is around 2.3, suggests that, not only have major organisations predicted a future when population moves naturally towards a sustainable number of humans, the predictions are being supported by reality.
Consider the following:
- Fertility rates and sperm counts are falling worldwide, including in areas not linked to a toxic environment.
- Family sizes continue to fall globally.
- There are an increasing number of couples not desiring children at all.
Understanding my perspective on what is happening requires reading “normal population“, but there is significant supporting data.
Conclusion: To be continued….
I will update this page progressively over the coming week. There is quite a lot more to add, including the economic implications….