The Critics - Deconstructed

There are monsters on the loose today - vile ogres who propose that we should "dispense with seatbelts" and who believe "children should be encouraged to smoke at an early age" (From the Wall Street Journal). These villainous creatures are identified as post-reproductive rich white men who are trying to protect their right to own super-yachts (Monbiot, in the Guardian), and who talk of mass sterilizations and abortions (Harsanyi, in the Denver Post).

And who exactly are these monsters? They are people like John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor - a man who "peddles calamity as science" (Denver Post), and Paul Ehrlich, the "bumbling soothsayer" (also Denver Post).

And what exactly are the sins of these monstrous post-reproductive super-yacht-owning white men? Just this - they have the audacity to point out that there are too many people on this planet and if we don't do something about it there will be big problems in our future.

As the global conversation about overpopulation once again begins to emerge from the shadows, we now see a spate of pre-emptive, highly critical articles being published in the mainstream media that attack the concept of population reduction. The arguments made in these articles are passionate and emotionally charged, but unfortunately often logically flawed.

Recently I've taken the time to read and study all of the anti-population-reduction articles that I could find, and I've attempted to deconstruct the arguments used in order to expose these fallacies.

First, let's be clear about what these articles are arguing against.

The fundamental assertion of the population activist community goes something like this:

Premise # 1 - Left unchecked, the cumulative harmful effects of the current and increasing human activity on this planet will, at some point in the not too distant future, cause sufficient resource depletion and sufficient damage to the global ecosystem to cause a dramatic and chaotic die-off of humans and many other species.

Premise # 2 - Over the next fifty years, the harmful effects generated by the consumption behaviors of each individual person cannot reasonably be expected to be reduced by an amount significant enough to first overcome the overall consumption increases due to the projected 50% increase in human population, and then reduce our cumulative harmful impacts down to sustainable levels.

Conclusion - Therefore, the only solution to bringing the cumulative harmful effects of human activity on this planet into balance with our global ecosystem (and thereby avoiding the die-off) is to reduce the number of human beings on the planet.

This is a standard-form deductive argument. In other words, if premise one is true, and premise two is true, then the conclusion is true and cannot be disputed.

But virtually every person recoils, often in a strongly emotional way, to the conclusion above (the idea of reducing population). The concept of reducing the number of human beings on this planet through population control (let's call it what it is for a change) is repugnant to almost everyone.

So now we see these emotional attacks, and the arguments proposed are often scattered and unorganized. I'll try to address these arguments in some semblance of order by breaking them down into four categories:

1) Arguments against premise # 1
2) Arguments against premise # 2
3) Arguments against the conclusion (population reduction)
4) Ad Hominem attacks (attacking the messenger)


Arguments against premise # 1

Premise # 1 - Left unchecked, the cumulative harmful effects of the current and increasing human activity on this planet will, at some point in the not to distant future, cause sufficient resource depletion and sufficient damage to the global ecosystem to cause a dramatic and chaotic die-off of humans and many other species.

Premise one essentially states that we are living beyond our means, and if we do nothing about it, we will destroy our environment and use up our resources.

The key phrase in premise one is "Left unchecked". For example: we all know that oil is a finite resource. At our current rate of consumption, we will no doubt run out at some point in the future. We can debate the point in time when we finally run out, but it doesn't really matter if it's in 2045 or 2145. In either case it will be gone, and if we do nothing at all to replace it, we will be in serious trouble when it finally happens.

And except for a handful of "Cornucopians" (those who believe we will always have an abundance of resources) and "Dominionists" (Christian fundamentalists that believe God will provide for us until the second coming), reasonable and thoughtful people know that we must soon do something about our excessive consumption of this planet's finite resources.

So, for the sake of this article, I'm going to simply dismiss the arguments disputing premise one. Sound science leaves little doubt that we are living beyond our means. It is pointless to engage in debate with those who dispute scientific methods and the overwhelming consensus of experts.

There is, however, one strange argument that often surfaces disputing the whole idea of overpopulation. This is the oft repeated assertion that because all of the people of the world can fit nicely (each gets a square space roughly 30 feet on a side) into the state of Texas, then the world must not be overpopulated.

The logical fallacy here is the classic "straw man" argument. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the "straw man"), and then refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.

No scientist, population activist, or environmentalist to my knowledge has ever made the claim that we are running out of room to put people. And yet this argument is seriously proposed by many as a proof that we are not overpopulated.

As stated by the Population Institute's Robert Walker - It's not how many people the Earth can contain; it's how many people the Earth can sustain.




Arguments against premise #2

Premise # 2 - Over the next fifty years, the harmful effects generated by the consumption behaviors of each individual person cannot reasonably be expected to be reduced by an amount significant enough to first overcome the overall consumption increases due to the projected 50% increase in human population, and then reduce our cumulative harmful impacts down to sustainable levels.

Premise #2 simply states that we cannot expect that the world's people will be able to modify their individual consumption behaviors by an amount sufficient enough to reduce the cumulative harmful human impacts on resources and on the ecosystem down to an acceptable level.

There are huge forces working against this change-our-consumption-habits solution. The primary force is the 50% increase in population that we will experience in the next fifty years. Understand what this means - understand this clearly - we will need fifty percent more food, fifty percent more fuel, water, clothing, shoes, and on and on. We will produce fifty percent more pollutants, sewage, greenhouse gasses and on and on and on.

In order to overcome this tsunami of demand generated by population growth and just break even (i.e. stay where we are today) everyone on earth (both those here now, and those who will be added) will have to reduce their individual harmful impacts by an average of 33%. That alone is a completely unrealistic expectation. But even if that happens, it will not come close to solving our problems. It will be the worst of both worlds - we will be sacrificing our standard of living, and still creating harmful impacts at exactly the same level as today.

The reality is even scarier. Many people on this planet will increase their average consumption during this timeframe. Those in India and China certainly will, along with the other so-called developing countries - Brazil, Korea, South Africa, etc. This fact was made abundantly clear by these nations themselves at the failed climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

Just do the math - this is not complicated - there is no formula that can work with population increasing by 50% and more than half the world increasing their individual consumption profiles.

The United States is frequently blamed (and rightly so) for its consumption excesses. The figure usually stated is that the U. S. consumes 25% of the planets resources and creates 25% of its pollutants.

So - let's just say that the good people of the United States unilaterally decide to reduce their consumption profile to be equal to the people of Bangladesh - in other words, essentially zero. Would that bring the world into balance? Sorry, but it's not even close. With a 50% increase in world population, and even assuming that the rest of the world simply stayed at the same consumption level (and we know that they won't), overall harmful impacts would still go up by 12.5%!

Still, premise #2 is attacked on two fronts. First, many critics challenge, distort, or dispute the population projections that show we will increase by 50%. Second, many claim that we can in fact reduce our consumption habits by an amount significant enough to solve the problem.


Arguments against premise # 2 - Population projections:

The "Birth Dearth", a term coined by Ben Wattenberg in 1987, now frequently shows up in editorials and articles to dispute the assertion that we even have a population-growth problem. Michael Meyer, in an article in Newsweek magazine in 2004 even went so far as to state "The threat to the planet is not too many, but too few."

This birth-dearth argument points out the "'dramatically" falling birth rates in Europe and then claims that these falling birth rates will soon move to other (non-European) countries and that population will fall - in some claims it will "dramatically" fall - worldwide.

And in fact, it is true that some European countries now have below replacement fertility rates and consequently have projected population decreases. But - so what! Europe's population of 726 million in 2000 represents about only 12% of the world's total population. Up or down, Europe's population will have a minimal impact worldwide.

Then, there are the facts. The actual projections (from the 2008 revision of the United Nations population projections) for Europe show nothing close to a "dramatic" decline. According to the U.N. - Europe's total population in 2000 was 726 million. Population projections for 2050 are 691 million - yielding a total drop of only 35 million. To put this in perspective, Brazil alone will grow by 44 million during the same time frame - more than compensating for the entire European decline.

Also according to the U. N. - and even more telling - is that Europe will actually continue to grow until 2030! And yet, this myth of the birth dearth in developed countries caused Robert Samuelson in a recent Washington Post editorial titled "Beyond the Birth Dearth" to claim "There is no more population explosion".

From the year 2000 to 2050, the world will go from 6 billion to over 9 billion - the U.S. will go from 300 million to perhaps over 450 million. Samuelson and the birth-dearthers simply choose to ignore the easily available facts. The reality is that there is no birth dearth. The reality is that there continues to be a population explosion.

The other part of this birth-dearth argument is the implied claim that all developed countries are suffering from declining fertility and population. Again, the facts show a significantly different picture. Presumably, we all consider the United States to be a developed country on a par (or well past) the level of Europe, and therefore the United States must also have a declining birth rate and declining population.

So, let's look at the projections for the population of the United States in 2050 compiled by the United States Census Bureau:

Population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau: 1996 - 2008:

In 1996, Census projected U.S. population in 2050 would be 392 million
In 2000, Census projected (revised) U.S. population in 2050 to 402 million
In 2004, Census projected (revised) U.S. population in 2050 to 420 million
In 2008, Census projected (revised) U.S. population in 2050 to 439 million

Do we see a trend here? Every four years the Census Bureau has upped their projection by an average of almost 16 million! If continued, that trend would produce a population projection for the year 2050 of about 600 million. So - it would not be unreasonable to assume (and probably quite conservative) that the United States population will actually end up somewhere north of 450 million by the year 2050.

This 150 million net additions to the U.S. population not only represents a staggering 50% increase by 2050, but it is also the second largest addition of people to our planet of any country on Earth - second only to the projected 600 million new Indians projected for 2050. (Note: - China will add roughly the same amount as the U.S. during that timeframe, but by 2050 China's population will be on a substantially decreasing trend).

Is this huge population growth in the U.S. simply an anomaly for developed countries?
Judge for yourself:

Population growth projected by the U.N. for the period 2000 to 2050:

Australia New Zealand will go from 23M to 34M, a 48% increase
Canada will go from 30M to 44, a 47% increase
Argentina will go from37M to 51M, a 38% increase
Egypt will go from 70M to 130, a 86% increase
Iceland will go from .28M to .41 M, a 46% increase
Saudi Arabia will go from 20M to 43M, a 115% increase

Many will suggest at this point that the growth in U.S. population (and perhaps Canada and Australia as well) is not really population growth, but simply a matter of immigration. And while it is a fact that much of the U.S. population growth is a result of Latino immigration - does that really matter?

Overpopulation creates global problems. Clearly, carbon emissions are not able to distinguish the arbitrary lines in the sand that we call borders. Every person eats, produces waste, uses energy to some degree, regardless of which side of the border they live on.

But the immigration argument could be meaningful if, for every person added to the U.S. population, a Latin American nation reduced its population correspondingly. In other words, if the U.S. gained 50 million people and Mexico lost 50 million people, then net population growth is zero. Obviously, and unfortunately, this is not the case.

Population projections for Central America including Mexico (using U.N. data):

2000 population - 135 million
2050 population - 197 million roughly a 46% increase

Clearly, Central America and Mexico are growing at a comparable rate to that of the United States - even after the net effect of immigration. So from a global population growth perspective, immigration is a zero-sum event. It simply doesn't matter.

The reality is that world-wide population growth continues at an excessive rate. There will be at least 50% more people in the United States and 50% more people in the world by the year 2050. The facts are clear - globally, there is no birth dearth.


Arguments against premise # 2 - Declining fertility rates:

The birth-dearth advocates also imply that fertility rates in developed countries are all below replacement rates, or soon will be. And in fact, the United Nations goes well beyond that claim. In their medium variant projections (the projection that yields the oft quoted 2050 population total of 9.2 billion) they claim that all countries will either be at a fertility rate of 1.85 (well below replacement) or fast approaching that number by 2050.

This U.N. claim of a 1.85 fertility rate target is more than a little suspect for many reasons (please see my article at www.populationelephant.com that takes an in-depth and critical look at the U.N. projections). For example, The U.N. claims that India's fertility rate of 3.11 in the year 2000 will drop to 1.85 in 2035. No reason is given for this dramatic drop other than the (assumed) general trend that fertility rates are dropping everywhere. It assumes an increase in living standards, education, and a cultural shift that is unlikely to occur on a scale necessary to achieve a fertility rate (1.85) that is substantially below what even the U. S. currently experiences.

And once again, the actual fertility trend in the United States does not jibe with those U.N. claims. For the last 32 years, from 1976 thru 2008, U.S. fertility rates have been steadily rising - from a low of 1.74 in 1976 to the 2008 rate of 2.1. (Note that the 2008 U.N. projections For the U.S.A. ignore this 32 year trend and actually project that U.S. fertility rates will begin to drop immediately and reach 1.85 in just 15 years.)

So - is there a scientific consensus that supports the U.N. claim of dramatically dropping fertility rates everywhere in the world? A new study published in Nature - the international weekly journal of science documents that in the many other developed countries besides the U.S., fertility rates are actually rising.
Here is Nature's summary of the paper, "
Advances in development reverse fertility declines,"

"The increasing wealth of nations is accompanied by a fall in fertility, so that in many developed (and developing) nations, fertility rates have dropped below the replacement value of about 2.1 births per woman. This 'birth dearth', together with the aging of populations, presents many difficult social and political problems. But, based on new cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of the relationship between the total fertility rate and the human development index, Myrskylä et al. show that above a certain degree of economic development, fertility once again begins to rise, slowing the rate at which populations age. As a consequence, in contrast to the current popular and scientific debates, it seems likely that countries at the most advanced development stages will face a relatively stable population size, if not an increase in total population…"

Understand - that even with the U.N.'s (optimistic) total fertility rate target of 1.85 being imposed on every country - their projection of world population still predicts 9.2 billion people by 2050. Even if their optimistic projections come true, this remains a serious problem.

But what if the U.N. is in fact overly optimistic regarding future fertility declines? Let me give you another example: in Sierra Leone the fertility rate has remained stubbornly high at around 5.5 for the last 50 years, showing no declines at all during that period, yet the 2008 U.N. projections impose a downward trend starting immediately and leading to a fertility rate of 2.72 in 2050. How (or why) this will happen is also left unexplained.

But the problem here really isn't with the U. N. The problem is with the media, and even with the many environmental, and even population activists, who simply accept the 9.2 billion estimate without any critical analysis of how it is derived.

This oft quoted, and widely accepted 9.2 billion population projection is called the "medium variant" by the U. N. And it seems to be the favored number simply because it is titled "medium". The U. N. actually does three other basic population projections besides the medium variant. The other projections are a low variant (which uses a completely unrealistic worldwide target of a 1.35 fertility rate), a high variant using a target of 2.35, and a constant fertility variant. And it is important to note that the U. N. makes no claim as to which projection is the most likely to occur.

The high variant results in a population over 10 billion in 2050, and the constant fertility variant yields a total of over 11 billion. Consequently, many people who have looked at this carefully feel that the actual world population in 2050 will most likely be over 10 billion, and more importantly, that worldwide total fertility rates will remain above replacement levels resulting in an ever increasing population for the remainder of the century.

Another result of blindly accepting the medium variant is the expectation that world population will "level off" in 2050 and begin declining thereafter. While this is roughly true in the medium variant, this is only because the U.N. has arbitrarily chosen a fertility target of 1.85 (that is below replacement level). With either the high variant or the constant fertility variant, population growth is actually increasing after 2050, with no end in sight.

The bottom line - there is no birth dearth (except in small countries like Italy and Spain). And it is very likely that worldwide total fertility rates will not drop below replacement levels anytime in the foreseeable future. Population will likely reach 10 billion or more by mid-century, and it will continue to increase for decades after.


Arguments against premise # 2 - Yes we can reduce our consumption significantly. Technology will save us - the cargo-cult mentality

Well, why not, it always has. At the extreme end of this position, Julian Simon once famously claimed that we have every thing we need, including the knowledge, to support an ever growing human population for the next seven billion years!

Of course, the logical fallacy here is the classic gamblers fallacy - in this case, it is more accurately called the reverse gamblers fallacy. Just because it has happened in the past does not mean it will continue to happen in the future.

I'm not an energy expert by any means, but from what I've read, demand for electricity will increase somewhere between three to five times current levels by 2050 due to increasing demand from developing countries, the dramatically growing global population, and substitution of electric power (think automobiles) for dwindling fossil fuels.

It is hard to imagine any equation where renewable energy will provide such a great percentage of this massive increase in demand so as to reduce the harmful impacts of current energy production. Today, over three decades removed from the first oil scares of the seventies, and after many decades of investments, subsidies, and jaw-flapping about the wonders of alternative energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal), we now have only 7% of our electricity demands met by the combination of wind, solar and geothermal energy.
Simply put, we will have to add massive amounts of coal fired plants as well as all of the alternative energy we can produce, just to meet the increased demand.

But what about breakthroughs in efficiency, like the "smart grid"? Understand that technology is a two-edged sword. Innovations in other new technologies may in fact create more demand for energy than technology innovations in energy production can save. This phenomenon even has a name - it is called the Jevons paradox.

William Jevons postulated in 1865 (with regard to coal consumption and the recently introduced, and far more efficient, Watts coal fired steam engine) that technical progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is consumed, will actually increase the overall rate of consumption of that resource.

Jevons paradox has a particularly insidious implication when it comes to food production. According to a recent National Geographic article ("The End of Plenty" June 2009) world food production will need to double by 2030. If you consider the negatively trending vectors of water availability, top-soil depletion, fertilizer/fuel depletion, and climate change, it is very hard to see how this can be done.

But let's say that somehow, magically, food technology innovation spawns another Borlaug like food production revolution and we are, in fact, able to feed the 10 billion that will be living here at that time. What then??

According to Jevons, this new food production efficiency will create even more demand. And according to Malthus, this new demand will come in the form of even more people. And then what do we do?
The great irony here is that increasing food production leads to an increasing population. And this is a cycle that cannot go on forever. It can't even go on for the next fifty to one hundred years. When we do finally hit the wall, the danger is even greater as then we will have 10 billion (or more) using up the remaining food and other resources.

Technology will not, in fact cannot, solve this problem. It is far more likely exacerbate it.


Arguments against premise # 2 - Yes we can reduce our consumption. The smart people will fix this - scientists and governments will collaborate to create laws and treaties that will solve the problem.

It's been a while - so here is premise # 2 again:

Premise # 2 - Over the next fifty years, the harmful effects generated by the consumption behaviors of each individual person cannot reasonably be expected to be reduced by an amount significant enough to first overcome the overall consumption increases due to the projected 50% increase in human population, and then reduce our cumulative harmful impacts down to sustainable levels.

I'm quite sure that the vast majority of even well educated people are not experts on this critical topic of overpopulation and sustainability, though many are at least people who try to think globally and occasionally think with a view to the long term. And if you have read this far, you probably qualify on both fronts.

I would offer that on a personal note, many of my friends and acquaintances are in this camp. And in the many conversations that I've initiated on this topic, they have all reacted in essentially the same manner. They have a general belief that when it finally becomes necessary, mankind will come together and rally to address the problem successfully. After all (and once again) we always have.

So, will the smart people and our governments save us again?

Global warming is (just) one of the many problems being created by the extreme level of human activity on this planet. The danger of global warning has been well understood for at least the past two decades. Many prominent voices have been raising the alarm. The scientific community has done everything it can to raise awareness and demand action. But, what exactly has been accomplished so far by this outcry?

Over the last twenty years, scientists and governments have come together most visibly to forge three agreements that deal with climate change - the Kyoto protocol of 1997, the recent Copenhagen accords, and the 2009 Waxman-Harkey American clean energy and security act.

And what have these agreements actually accomplished? The answer is nothing at all.

The Kyoto protocols have been in place the longest. According to an October 2007 article in Nature that assessed the effectiveness of Kyoto protocol:

"…as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth."

During the years since the Kyoto protocols, carbon emissions have not only continued to grow, but have accelerated in growth well beyond even the direst projections from the nineties. The Kyoto protocols will expire in 2012.

The 2009 Copenhagen gathering was a dismal failure by any measure. Nothing was adopted there at all. At the conclusion of the meetings, the environmental organization "Friends of the Earth" issued the following press release:

"COPENHAGEN, DENMARK -- On the day that the UN Climate talks officially closed, Friends of the Earth International warned against the false conclusion that the UN Climate Conference has adopted the 'Copenhagen Accord.'

The Copenhagen Accord announced on December 18 by U.S. President Barack Obama was not adopted by delegates to the United Nations climate conference here. Instead, delegates merely 'noted' the agreement's existence, giving it no force whatsoever."

This much ballyhooed conference, held on the worldwide stage, ended with the delegates simply noting the existence of a watered down and toothless agreement!

In 2009, while the Waxman-Harkey climate and energy bill barely passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate failed to pass their version of the bill. And now, in the current political climate, and in an election year, the prospects for the Senate passing any bill that significantly limits carbon emissions are virtually non-existent.

Looking forward, international consensus on climate and energy issues will be impossible to achieve due to the completely different agendas of the developing countries, and the developed world.

And if the Democratic administration of President Obama, with the large majority of Democrats in congress that they now enjoy, cannot now pass even the current watered down climate and energy legislation, certainly nothing meaningful will happen in the foreseeable future with Republicans likely to cut well into the Democrats majority in the coming elections.

American politics, with its two year election cycle, is totally focused on immediate problems - a food crisis that will occur in the 2030's is too far down the road to pay any attention to now. Unfortunately, by the time this problem becomes so obvious that even government starts acting - it will be way, way too late.

The evidence is clear - the brutal reality is this - politicians simply do not have the will to come to our rescue.


Arguments against premise # 2 - Yes we can! Individually we can reduce our consumption by enough to create a sustainable planet:

So - as many going green advocates claim, is it reasonable to expect that we, individually and voluntarily, can change our consumption behaviors by an amount sufficient enough to bring the planet back to a sustainable level?

Which begs the big question - what is the sustainable level? And the answer is - it depends. It depends on the specific category of consumption. Are we talking carbon emissions, water consumption, food production, oil depletion, etc., or all of the above?

To make this into a simple math problem, let's combine all of the bad results of human activity (consumption) into one general category called "harmful impacts per person". We know that we have to reduce the cumulative total of these harmful impacts by a substantial amount in order to bring us back to a sustainable level. We can argue exactly how much, some say 40%, some say 80%, some more. But for this exercise, it doesn't matter.

We will do this equation for the U.S. only. It will be easier to understand.

Let's say that in the year 2000, for each individual in the U.S., the average harmful impacts index was 10. So then, total harmful impacts for the U.S. would have been 3 billion units (population of 300 million times 10 (the per person index)).

And let's say we pick a goal of reducing overall harmful impacts by 40% for the year 2050 (yielding a total of 1.8 billion units (a modest goal that probably won't even solve the problem)). Then, on average, how much will each individual need to sacrifice to achieve that goal?

1.8 billion units/450 million people = 4 per person. Therefore, the index per person in 2000 was10, and it needs to go to 4. So in other words, average consumption per person would have to be reduced by 60% (from 10 to 4).

And remember that the 60% reduction is an average per person, and it assumes that everyone will participate. But what if not everyone does participate, what if not everyone "goes green"?

In a recent survey (noted in Al Gore's latest book Our Choice), only 19% of college educated Republicans believe that human activity is causing global warming. Certainly, they won't be volunteering to reduce their "harmful impacts" by 60%. Nor will those people in the midstream of the American dream - those people who are movin-on-up.

It's hard for me to believe that even 50% of the American population will be so inclined as to sacrifice anything at all, much less a reduction of 60%. If true, then what will the real volunteers have to contribute if only 50% of the populace participate?

If 50% just stay at the same level of consumption, that's 2.25 billion units (half the population (450 million/2) times the index of 10. Remember that the goal was a 40% drop to 1.8 billion total units. But if we are already at 2.25 units - then it's simply not possible, even if all of the real volunteers reduced their consumption levels by 90%.

Just do the math - once again, this is not complicated - there is no equation that can work. Voluntary life-style sacrifices cannot make a significant enough difference in the outcome if population, and therefore demand, increases by 50% in the coming decades.

But make no mistake, voluntary reductions in our consumption behaviors is an essential component of any solution to this crisis. I personally try to live a very low consumption lifestyle. It's the right thing to do. Everyone should make the greatest effort possible to reduce there own harmful impacts.

But please - do not be seduced into thinking that it will solve the problem by itself.

To sum up - premise 2 states that in the wake of the tsunami of increased demand created by the projected 50% increase in worldwide population, we cannot change our behaviors by an amount significant enough to forestall the looming catastrophe that is caused by our overconsumption - not by claiming population growth doesn't exist, not by hoping for some magic new technology, not by international agreements like the Kyoto or Copenhagen, and not by going green. It can't be done. Just do the math.



Arguments against the conclusion:

Conclusion - Therefore, the only solution to bringing the cumulative harmful effects of human activity on this planet into balance with our global ecosystem (and thereby avoiding the die-off) is to reduce the number of human beings on the planet.

Perhaps the most interesting thing discovered during my investigation of the articles attacking population reduction is that the large majority of attacks are focused on the conclusion, and not on the two premises. This is to be expected. As mentioned in the introduction, the concept of some kind of coerced population reduction is repugnant to almost everyone. Emotions run high, and logic is ignored.

But it is important to remember that if premise one and premise two are true - the conclusion is true - whether we like it or not.


Arguments against the conclusion: Extreme straw men

Below is the concluding paragraph from a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal. The editorial was in response to report from the U.N. Population Fund that had the audacity to point out that humans were responsible for many of the environmental problems that we are facing, and that if we had even more people on this planet, the problems would be even worse.

"The Omar Bashirs of the world, for instance, could deflect charges of genocide by claiming that they were merely looking out for the environment. One could equally make the argument that car makers should dispense with seat-belts-the better to rid the world of drivers of carbon-emitting automobiles-or that children should be encouraged to smoke from a young age, the better to shorten the years in which they too might emit untold quantities of greenhouse gas. Smoke, Die and Save the Planet-now there's a credo for the folks in the anti-population lobby."

This editorial made no attempt to dispute the assertions of the U.N. report - instead it spewed an emotional outburst implying that the U.N. Population Fund proposed wanton and random killing of innocent people - as extreme an example of the straw man fallacy as one could imagine.

The population activist community divides roughly into two groups - those who advocate the education of women, women's rights, and easy access to birth control options as the best methods for reducing population, and those who advocate some form of mandated one-child policies. Neither of these camps advocates anything close to eliminating existing people. Instead, they are only proposing methods to reduce future births.

Unfortunately, this fallacy shows up often. Population-reduction activists are equated to murderers. But no serious scientist, population activist, or environmentalist proposes killing people. The lack of intelligent commentary on the part of The Wall Street Journal in this specific editorial is shameful.


Arguments against the conclusion: The more the merrier - people are the solution, not the problem

This is also a common assertion of the anti-population-reduction people. This example is from a 2009 article in the New York Times titled "The More the Merrier":

"The more people on earth, the greater the chance that one of them has an idea of how to improve alternative energies, or to mitigate the climate effects of carbon emissions. It takes only one person to have an idea that can benefit many."

At first reading, this assertion seems to make a reasonable point. But I have several problems with it.

First of all, if more people increase the chances of someone finding a solution, then even more people will increase the chances
even more. Therefore, by logical extension, the people who make this assertion should also advocate for every woman to have as many children as possible, after all - the more the merrier! Unless they also believe that, right now, we have exactly the right number of people being produced to maximize our chances - and wouldn't that be an amazing coincidence!

I would also make the claim that if we had far fewer people we will then have a far better educated populace. It is education that leads to innovation, not shear numbers of people. Under the current circumstances, the millions that will be added to Sierra Leone in the next several decades are unlikely to create the next breakthrough in alternative energy. But if Sierra Leone's population could be stabilized, then they would be likely to experience higher levels of education, and then they would be more likely to contribute innovations.

And a final point - this strategy is no better than a family in serious financial trouble betting on a lottery ticket to solve their problem. The idea that as we head to the abyss, one of the recently added masses is going to come up with a magic wand that will suddenly stop our headlong dash to oblivion is probably even less likely to happen than winning the lottery. Perhaps this is not the best place for mankind to place its final bet.


Arguments against the conclusion: The "Draconian" alternative - the misrepresentation of China's one-child policy.

If you do a Google search on the phrase "draconian one-child" it comes up with 82,000 occurrences. If there is such a thing as a knee-jerk adjective - then applying "draconian" to China's one-child policy is it.

I would guess that everywhere in the world (except China) the one-child policy is viewed as a horrifying example of the excesses of a totalitarian regime. But, once again, the facts paint a very different picture.

China's policy is based substantially on financial rewards and penalties. Fines can be up to twice the annual income of the violators in order to be equally fair to rich and poor. Exceptions have been put in place for many circumstances. For example: in several provinces, parents who are both themselves only-children can now have two children - effectively eliminating the oft mentioned 4-2-1 problem.

There is little debate that population stabilization in China is a primary driver of their current economic boom. Single children are healthier, better educated, and less expensive to raise. And the 4-2-1 (so-called) problem has a beneficial flip side, as wealth is created by the funneled (rather than the usually spread) inheritance.

But the fundamental success (and the fundamental intent) of China's policy is simply the stabilization of a runaway population explosion. And here, the policy is a significant success. The one-child policy has now lowered fertility in China to below 1.8.

The Chinese people themselves have passed judgment on this program - in 2008, an independent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 76% of the Chinese people approve of the policy.

Of course, nothing is perfect. There are some undesirable consequences, both intended and unintended. And stories of forced sterilizations emerge on occassion. But it must be put into perspective - a major disaster was averted, a major problem was solved. If minor problems were created, it is still a very positive trade-off.


To our great benefit, the Chinese have created a model for a policy that could solve all of the looming worldwide catastrophes. And if their policy is imperfect, we can work to perfect it. We could certainly use their experiences to create significant improvements that would eliminate most of the consequences that disturb us.

The Chinese one-child policy is, in fact, a draconian success story.


Arguments against the conclusion: Summed up

The most important thing to remember about the issues raised against the conclusion - i.e. objections to the concept of population reduction - is that they don't really matter. If population reduction is our only choice, then we must do it - like it or not.

The only thing worse than mandated populated reduction, is what will happen if we don't. (Continued below)
Ad Hominem attacks: Back to kindergarten - childish name calling

Several examples of this have already been cited - The Wall Street Journal equating the U.N. Population Fund with "The Omar Brashirs of the world" (as President of the Sudan, Omar Bashir is often blamed for the genocide in Darfur), and Monbiot in the Guardian referring to population activists as post-reproductive white men. These are simply attacks on the messenger, not on the message.

My favorite is the over-the-top accusation by Harsanyi in the Denver Post that John Holdren "peddles calamity as science". For those who are not familiar with Mr. Holdren, here are some excerpts from his Wikipedia biography:

"John P. Holdren is the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology and Co-Chair of the President's council on science and technology. Holdren was previously the Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center. He trained in aeronautics astronautics and plasma physics and earned a bachelor's degree from MIT in 1965 and a PhD from Stanford University in 1970. He taught at Harvard for 13 years and at the University of California, Berkeley for more than two decades."

Clearly, Mr. Holdren is as accomplished a scientist as we have in this country. And yet Harsanyi in the Denver Post claims Holdren "peddles calamity as science"! I'm quite certain that the reality is that Mr. Holdren peddles science as science. I'm also quite certain that in this case, Mr. Harsanyi is peddling name-calling nonsense as journalism.


Ad Hominem attacks: Crying wolf - the Paul Ehrlich problem

When broaching the topic of overpopulation with my friends and acquaintances, often they ask "Why go there? Malthus and Ehrlich have been proven wrong. Hasn't that battle been fought and lost?"

This assertion that the "doomsayers have always been wrong so why pay attention to them now" is also commonly raised in many of the critical articles. And, of course, it is true that the doomsayers have always been wrong - after all, we are still here.

This again, is the reverse gamblers fallacy. As the current TV ads for financial products exclaim "Past performance does not guarantee future results" - so too with these assertions. Because we are still here, does not mean we always will be. It is like declaring that "I'm never going to die" because I haven't so far.
But Malthus and Ehrlich should not be lumped together. Malthus' basic theory on population goes like this:

"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second."

Malthus' essential claim is that we will eventually run short of food. And as this article has attempted to point out - this is now more likely to happen then ever before. Malthus never predicted when this will happen, so you can say that he's yet to be proven wrong. And, unfortunately, there is a good possibility that it won't be long now until he's proven right.

Ehrlich, on the other hand, has been considered wrong on several occasions, though a careful reading of his projections would likely temper that opinion. Ehrlich predicted that in 1970's and 1980's hundreds of millions of people would starve to death as a result of famines. Norman Borlaug's food production revolution prevented that from happening, so Ehrlich has been dismissed as a "bumbling soothsayer" (Denver Post) among other innacurate epithets.

So, unfortunately, attacking the validity of Paul Ehrlich's positions on population could be considered an acceptable ad hominem argument.

But there is an important distinction that must be understood with regard to the Ehrlich problem. The allowable skepticism of Ehrlich's statements on overpopulation
only applies to Ehrlich! In other words, the fact that Ehrlich was wrong about his predictions has no bearing on anyone else's statements about overpopulation. And yet the critics continually bring up Ehrlich's earlier statements as an argument that the current Malthusians are wrong again.


Ad Hominem attacks: They don't like people - questioning the agenda of the population activist

It is, of course, a valid argument to use the messenger's agenda to cast doubts upon their message. In several of the critic's articles, the most common pejorative agenda attributed to population activists is that they "Like wilderness, but don't like people".

I'd argue this exactly the opposite. Population activists are fundamentally altruistic. After all, there is no money, fame, or power to be made by arguing that we need to reduce population (as opposed to promoting the "going green" agenda - think Al Gore). Population activists mostly accrue scorn and ridicule.

But the population activist's sole agenda is to save human civilization - to keep people around. It is the critics who are willing to gamble the fate of humankind in order to claim their short term benefits. They are the ones who put the people at risk.

Though, when it comes to agendas, it is hard to argue with Monbiot in the Guardian. What post-reproductive white population activist worth his salt doesn't want to keep his super-yacht? Monbiot's assertion would be absurdly comical, if it wasn't taken seriously by a serious mainstream publication. But at least, refuting it is unnecessary.


The final word

The population problem overwhelms all other problems. We can muddle through recessions, hurricanes, political fights about health care, gas price increases, etc. But we cannot muddle through a severe food shortage. So - do your part, begin the conversation, don't be afraid to speak the hard truth, pay attention to real facts, question and learn. The fate of your children and their children depends on it. Become a monster.

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