Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Population Problem: is it all down to consumption patterns?


Yesterday I showed that mathematics, the most certain modality of knowledge that we have, shows that it is impossible for any physical system to sustain a doubling increase, an exponential function, indefinitely. The numbers simply become unfeasibly large.
This is absolutely certain, and there are not many absolutely certain things in existence in our human world.

Now. World population numbers are doubling, with a doubling time between 1960 and 1999 of 39 years.

The natural world that we depend on for life cannot sustain this kind of growth. When doubling growth it does happen in nature, what happens is that the growing population numbers crash, and then become chaotic. This is what we have to look forward to as a human race, unless we use our consciousness and our rationality to modify our behaviour. Which is a big challenge, because the urge to reproduce is a basic instinct, and any suggestion that we should modify this urge will cause a hysterical outcry that will make the recent outpourings of the US Republican Party over universal health care look like a cool, calm and reasoned debate by comparison.

The first hurdle that we have to get over is this one, from our own side:

"It's not population numbers, it is consumption patterns that we have to worry about".

(Note the use of the either/or device, as in "Never Mind the Dog Poo, what about the Litter?").

Sadly, the otherwise excellent George Monbiot goes for this approach in his recent treatment of population. He quotes the otherwise wobbly James Lovelock who says: “...those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth". In reply George says "it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational ".

How wonderful it is to see the interaction of great minds.

George's the formula is: I=C x A x T:
Total environmental Impact should be measured as the number of Consumers times Affluence times Technology.
So far, so good. Numbers are numbers. Affluence is a measure of the amount of goods each person consumes. And technology means the type of technology used to produce the goods, fossil fuels being the worst, and solar being the best. (Relatively: nothing is perfect, and even solar technology has some negative environmental impact).

So George piles in to attack the manifest evils of consumerism, and concludes
"It’s time we had the guts to name the problem.
It’s not sex; it’s money.
It’s not the poor; it’s the rich".

There is no doubt that consumerism is a huge problem that must be addressed, no doubt at all. But the fact is that Affluence and the Technology do not negate the number of Consumers.

He's doing the DogPoo/Litter fallacy again - a variant of the Red Herring fallacy.

It really is time that we begin to accept that we live in, and are part of, a system, and must therefore think in terms of systems. Everything is interconnected. We cannot abstract the things we happen to like or dislike, and discount the rest.

This is a highly emotionally charged debate, and we see above that even the best minds can misfire in the heat.

The following thought experiment does deal with this I = C x A x T question, though in practice nothing will end this debate, which is only just beginnng.

Imagine a world where every last individual has the best possible ecological footprint. They are fully solarised, energy waste is a thing of the past, recycling is 100%, all is perfect.

Can this population continue to grow? No it cannot, because growth, even at a tiny rate, will eventually produce doubling, and exponential growth, and that is mathematically impossible in a finite space, which is what this planet is; a finite space.

Even if the population were magically able to live on air alone (as some seriously believe is possible), there would still be a limiting factor, the point at which the human population stood shoulder to shoulder on every piece of land (and water - I have heard a Green Party member
arguing that we can simply take to houseboats to solve the population problem) on the planet.

QED. Quod Erat Demonstrandum. Which is what we set out to prove.
And it is a proof. Here are the steps. There are two steps, one step and another step. Sorry it is so complex.

1 Sustained exponential growth into a limited physical system is an impossibility.
2 Even with minimum or even zero ecological footprint, it remains the case that sustained exponential growth into a limited physical system is an impossibility.

There we have it. A cast iron case, logically impeccable. An argument, as it were, with no moving parts.

And yet there will still be those who will come forward to argue that it is wrong even to think these thoughts.

Tomorrow: Carrying Capacity.


Phil said...

In the mid 1970s Prof David Pimentel was estimating a sustainable population of 1 billion; more recent writings of his suggest that 2 billion might be sustainable in favourable conditions.

I think his former figure is the more likely. We're already doing massive ecological damage with our current population levels.

Overfishing is one area which should put the lie to the "its our material consumption, not population" myth. Fish aren't used to produce consumer toys, they're used for food. And we're overfishing. Draw your own conclusions.

DocRichard said...

Too true. It is one thing to deplete a non-renewable resource, but to deplete a renewable resource requires a PhD in mindless stupidity.

Population numbers will inevitably come down; the question is will we do it by choice or will Nature do the job for us?

Pete Murphy said...

The biggest obstacle we face in changing attitudes toward overpopulation is economists. Since the field of economics was branded "the dismal science" after Malthus' theory, economists have been adamant that they would never again consider the subject of overpopulation and continue to insist that man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacle to further growth. Even worse, economists insist that population growth is vital to economic growth. This is why world leaders continue to ignore population growth in the face of mounting challenges like peak oil, global warming and a whole host of other environmental and resource issues.

But because they are blind to population growth, there's one obstacle they haven't considered: the finiteness of space available on earth. The very act of using space more efficiently creates a problem for which there is no solution: it inevitably begins to drive down per capita consumption and, consequently, per capita employment, leading to rising unemployment and poverty.

If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

DocRichard said...

Hi Pete
Many thanks for commenting. I had a look at your excellent website, and it deserves more study.

weggis said...

Doc said:
"Population numbers will inevitably come down; the question is will we do it by choice or will Nature do the job for us?"

My money is on Nature, which means I won't collect my winnings.