Clearly, we are not existing sustainably at this time. The environmental footprint per person, multiplied by the number of people, equals a total footprint that is too large for nature to absorb. However, as is repeated over and over, we can reduce ‘footprint per person’, by a variety of means: Sustainable living…. stop with fossil fuels etc… The elephant in the room for most people focusing on environmental footprint (David Attenborough aside), is that all these steps to increase carrying capacity, by lowering impact per person, will achieve nothing if the population keeps growing.
On the other hand, reducing the population is not quick fix either, as all measures to reduce population rapidly, reduce the Earths’ carrying capacity, which make the planet more overpopulated, even with a lower number of people.
Things are not as bad as it may seem.
Fortunately, birth rates are already at a level that would produce population stability, and just a slight nudge courtesy of the correct messages, will reach peak population. (edit: see peak child)
Here is why population control is within humanities grasp:
- Current population growth is almost entirely due to population lag.
- Birth rates have already reached a point of stability and are on a downward trend.
A “Purge” is not needed and would not help!
From time-to-time people float the idea that as there are too many people, some form of ‘cull’ is required. This very approach fails to recognise that overpopulation is about a ratio: the ratio of people to carrying capacity. Almost any form of cull creates a catastrophe that reduces the carrying capacity of the Earth even more than it reduces the population.
Overpopulation occurs when the environment cannot sustainably support the population. The environment supports the population, just not sustainably. If the environment did not support the population in the short term, then population drops immediately, rather than remaining too high until the environment eventually collapses.
It is important to remember that mankind already does many things to increase carrying capacity of the planet. If society collapses, all those steps to increase carrying capacity break down. A catastrophic event that reduces the population, would also see society break down. We could have a planet with 1/10 the population that is still overpopulated because, for example, farming fails, and the remaining people have to hunt and destroy natural fauna to survive.
The Battle: Combating Population Growth Provocateurs.
There is however a battle to control population, with “provocateurs” advocating for maximum population growth. The path to wealth is accumulate some wealth from as many individuals as possible. The wealthiest individuals do not need to concern themselves with overpopulation, as they will always have all the land and resources they need, which means they have no reason for population control to matter to them. On the contrary, it is in the financial interest of the most for population to keep increasing, as their wealth accumulates from as many individuals as possible. Even if population growth is lowering the living standard of the average individual, having more individuals to ‘tax’ or earn profits from still appeals to the most wealthy and powerful. The wealthiest would continue create propaganda claiming ‘perpetual growth is the only path to prosperity’ even if there were 100 billion people on the planet.
Whilst scaling back population can benefit individuals on average, it does not necessarily benefit the largest global businesses and their managers or owners. Nor does it benefit from politicians who see their importance increasing with population and their donations increasing with donations from the most wealth who benefit from population growth.
Another force for ever increasing population is the ‘othering’. The claim that “we” must increase our population, or we will be outnumbered by “others’.
Overpopulation is about a ratio of two numbers, not a single number. The equation is the quotient of population/carrying-capacity, and if that ration is greater than 1 there is overpopulation.
The fact that the environment is under threat is extremely well recognised. Aside from David Attenborough, surprisingly few people join the dots between the deteriorating environment and overpopulation. However, it is very important those dots are joined, as efforts to lower the ‘footprint’ per person will mean nothing if population is not also controlled.
So, the solution is in two parts:
- Increase the planets ‘carrying capacity’ of humans by lowering the per ‘footprint’ per person.
- Stop population growth.
Step 1 is urgent and getting a lot of attention.
Step 2 is important and getting very little attention. Despite that low level of attention, only the mildest push lower in birth-rates is required to produce an optimal solution. It just needs pushing the message that the ideal is not aim for 2, not more. If the people feeling it is their duty to have more kids realised this was not true, it could be enough.
Original 2014 viewpoint:
I have long been of the belief that we have more humans living on earth than is ideal. But what should we do about this? Well, from my perspective, the main step is to have an awareness out there such that governments seeking to use policy to increase national populations use policy of immigration, not policies to artificially increase birth rates. This is the big and positive step! Beyond the change of attitude and increased awareness, there is little that we can do. I will post the logic on my statement that we have moved beyond the ideal population at a future time, but to put that aside for the moment, if that statement is true what can be done? I recently say a paper entitled 'Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems'. My immediate reaction is 'oh my! did they seriously even contemplate it could be a quick fix?' The only possible fix we can do is to prevent active steps to make problems caused by population get worse by policies to INCREASE population, there is nothing we can seriously contemplate doing to REDUCE population. Perhaps very gradually over time, but the idea of a quick fix seems to me absurd. I already regard planning the level of human population as the greatest moral challenge of our time. Any suggestion to decrease population quickly sounds like the greatest immoral proposal! Surely the quickest fix is to reduce the environmental impact per person. The long-range issue is to ensure we do not counteract such steps by then increasing population to undo any positive outcomes.
- *2022 Nov 17: Minor cleanup, added image.
- 2021 Aug 22: Restored text from original versions.