One Finite Planet

One Finite Planet

Environmental footprint and maximum population.

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Every living creature has an ‘environmental footprint’, or an impact on the environment in a multitude of different ways. Most of us are aware of concept of a ‘carbon footprint’, and how we can reduce this footprint by changing how energy is produced.  In the end energy is energy no matter how it is produced.  But there are other things we consumer with a more complex footprints.  For example food.  It is important to consider not just ‘how many people can we feed?’, but also ‘what do we desire to eat’.  It is one thing to feed the world grain, but don’t we all want to live at a much higher standard than that?

It turns out that you cannot answer ‘how many people can the Earth support”?, without answering ‘how do you wish them to live?’. 

Some of these ‘footprints’ or impacts are beneficial, but generally there comes a point where the combined impact of the population in an area damages that area.

Consider a paddock with dairy cattle.  The is a number of cattle who can live in the paddock and eat the grass without the grass dying, but if we put in double this number of cattle then before long the grass will start to die.  As area of grass die the pressure on the remaining grass is even greater all the grass will die and the ground will be dirt, after which the cattle will start to die of hunger.

The cattle each have an environmental footprint impacting (amongst other things) the grass in the paddock.  Once the combined impact of the population of cattle in the paddock is to great the environment starts to suffer damage and without intervention the environment will collapse.

Of particular interest of late to us humans has been the ‘carbon’ component of our environmental impact. If I was a cow in that paddock and bare patches started to appear I would be calling for a larger paddock or a feed supplement immediately and trying to go easy on the grass.  I mean better safe than sorry.  It could be just a dry spell and the grass will recover, but with warning signs and cows only having the one paddock taking action even if not certain would seem wise.  Of course we humans are smarter than cows and many of us will take no action until we are 100% certain the warning signs mean we really do have a problem 🙂

However many are taking action.  But even with steps being taken that successfully reduce emissions per person, there are two problems to reducing total ‘carbon’ emissions.  Firstly, the gains from reducing emissions per person are eroded in any country that is still increasing the number of people.  Secondly, over half the global population live in circumstance far less developed than ideal by current standards and currently could only move to developed status by radically increasing their own emissions.

Carbon or CO2 emissions are a special case, and i will cover that in another post.  However it is challenge to reduce environmental footprint without reduction in living standards.  Consuming less energy without increasing efficiency means a lowering of living standard.  Consuming less energy by increasing efficiency at this time typically means paying more for the energy, which leaves less for other things and again lower living standard.

Again, carbon or CO2 environment footprint is a special case because if society was structured correctly, zero CO2 environmental footprint can coexist with any standard of living we desire.  But getting if of CO2 emissions does not mean energy production has no environmental impact.  Humans also do need to eat, to drink, to have waste, to living in houses and engage in all manner of activities that impact the environment and the more each individual can do these things the better their life.

Take food for example.  How many people we can provide with food? Estimates range from not even the current population, since we are not currently managing to product food sustainable,   through estimates that we will be able to feed the current 2050 estimated population all the way through to estimates that we could feed double the projected 2050 population by using hydroponics far more extensively.

The trouble with all these projection is just what do we mean by ‘provide food’?  Do we mean sufficient to keep people alive and in adequate health?  Or do we mean to provide choice and variation and the food people desire to eat?  Lobster if they wish.  Because the two answers are radically different.  Currently we can only sustain a global population under 3 billion if we wish to feed this population in the manner current middle class America can enjoy.

Until very recently, humans were able to hunt and gather.  The first change was farming of some crops.  Then it became almost all plants that we eat are farmed.  It started as a small variety of animals farmed with many still hunted but gradually food from hunting became unsustainable and unthinkable except in rare and exceptional circumstance.  Then came fishing. As recently as 2005 fishing ‘or hunting wild fish’ was n industry twice the size of fish farming.  By 2010, fish farming was almost as large as traditional fishing.  I suggest the days of being able to sustain catching fish on a large scale from the wild without endangering more species are numbered.

But farming still has an environmental impact.  Unlike other animals, the area of environment that supplies our needs is not the area where we live.  It is useful picture that for each person living in a city a ‘nature space’ somewhere is required for the earth to recover from the environmental impact of everything consumed by the person in the city.

It is clear that today the earth is unable to recover from the collective impact of the human population as we are living now.  There are estimates that the planet can sustain around 10 billion people. Together with theses estimates are statements like ‘somewhat less if we do not all become vegetarians’.  Now while many would rejoice at the idea that we will not eat animals, remember that reason we need to vegetarians under such a model is so we are not competing for food.  In other words, we do not eat the animals, but they never get to live at all.   These models consider producing enough food to live, not enough that we all enjoy eating.  Or that other animals are sharing the earth with us!

Now what if everyone has a living standard like the average in the USA today? Or even better?  And we still have pets and farm animals and let even wild animals still exist.  That would multiply the average environmental footprint substantially.   In reality it is very difficult to see how the earth can support over 3 billion people if we all live to the standard of the current USA.

in the end, how many can we feed is a factor of the standard of living desired.  Twice the people or more if we simply provide bread as would be the case if the population enjoys luxury food, shares the planet with other animals and is even allowed to have pets!

This is the big trade off.  More people at a lower footprint per person, or fewer people with the potential of a luxury life for all.  I would suggest the maximum possible at the highest standard of living.  Not the maximum possible at all costs.  If we believed in the maximum possible at all costs then we would insist on every woman having the maximum possible number of children possible.  I suggest that to chase the maximum possible at all costs is crazy, which brings us to a much lower number.

Table of Contents


Flawed Australian voice of Indigenous People referendum: The irony of a voice campaign that failed to listen.

A tragic lost opportunity. Why didn’t those proposing the voice make changes to remove ambiguity and eliminated enough of the negative perception to win over enough support instead of simply declaring” “No, if that is how you see it you are either racist or stupid!” Was it just that there was no willingness to listen?

Australians had an opportunity in a constitutional referendum to righteously shout loudly “I am not a racist” by voting for a proposition that, at its core, could be seen as fundamentally flawed, divisive and even potentially racist, in the hope even a risk of moving in the direction of apartheid is still better than nothing.

The referendum resulted in a huge setback for action on indigenous disadvantage and while it did seem unlikely to do anything to unify Australians and offer more than some possible affirmative action, the division resulted with even sometimes “yes” voters being encouraged to also be racist.

This is a deeper look trying to see each side from the perspective of the other, with the reality that both sides had a point, and a vast majority of people do want equality and unity.

Perhaps it little more work could bring things together and offer a fresh enough perspective to move beyond just another well-intentioned patronising racism failure like the stolen generations?

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Population: Our greatest achievement may cause our demise.

Arguably mankind’s greatest achievement, the near eradication of infant mortality, has resulted in a population explosion resulting in overpopulation that we prefer not to mention, even though it may yet kill us. Technically we would not die from overpopulation itself, just as people don’t really die from “old age”, and the real risk is that an already present threat will be exacerbated and become fatal because through our greed we ignore overpopulation.

Unlike old age, the overpopulation risk factor could be avoided or reversed, we may be influenced by economists dependant on Ponzi schemes, the worlds’ largest corporations and billionaires who thrive off the resultant increases in inequality into believing that living conditions required by ever increasing population levels benefit everyone and not just those living in mansions.

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Crime: A litmus test for inequality?

Around the world, many countries have both a battle with equality for some racial groups and minorities and also a battle with crime-rates within and by those same groups.

Should we consider crime rates the real sentinels of problems and a solution require focusing on factors behind crime rates? Or is the correct response to rising crime rates or crime rates within specific groups an adoption of being “tough on crime”, thus increasing rates of incarceration and even deaths in custody for oppressed minorities and racial groups?

This is an exploration of not adjusting the level of penalties and instead focusing on the core issues and inequalities behind crime-rates. It is clear that it is “damaged people” in general rather than specific racial groups that correlate with elevated crime rates, so why not use crime rates to identify who is facing inequality?

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Ideal population of humans: How many people can, or should, each country, and the whole planet support?

It seems like the human population has forever been growing, but any analysis makes it clear growth must stop eventually at some level. The question becomes at what level should growth stop?

Do we go for the maximum possible people just before everything collapses, even if average living standards could be far better with a smaller population? With caged hens being farmed for eggs people advocate for a lower free-range population instead of denser living caged hens as it provides a better existence, but does anyone advocate against multinationals and politicians pushing for denser and denser housing for humans in order to allow bigger populations of humans for them to farm?

It seems to be accepted that global population growth should stop but claimed that countries who end population growth face economic disaster.

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Influence: There’s no free lunch and they use your data to make you pay.

It can seem all those tech companies are so dumb giving away services for free.

I recently read another comment containing the “I don’t want Google getting more of my data to sell” and it reminded me of the question, ‘why is your data valuable?’ people too rarely ask. The common myth is that Facebook and Google etc want your data so they can sell it, but even with companies that do sell your data, it still requires someone to turn data into money, and enough money to fund the “free” services of the tech companies and allow them enough spare to make profits beyond anything seen in the world previously. So how does the data turn into so much money?

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Google and Facebook etc make their money from advertising, not from selling data, and unless they use can the data to persuade you to buy products at prices inflated by advertisers paying part of the sale price to Facebook/Google etc, they would lose money.

Your data is used to inflate the cost of living and earn votes for politicians with an agenda that gives them a budget to spend. They (Google/Facebook etc) don’t want to sell your data, but the reality, is more sinister: they use it to have to change your thinking, so more of your money will go to make them richer.

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