Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems
The article linked to above, written by Professor Corey Bradshaw and Professor Barry Brook from the University
of Adelaide's Environment Institute, originally appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
on 10/27/2014 and has now been circulated and reprinted widely to the great relief of many environmentalists who
are loath to discuss overpopulation as a component of our looming sustainability crisis. (The full original article is
only available if you are a subscriber to www.pnas.org or if you pay 10$ to them, but versions of it have been
posted on hundreds websites across the world.)
The quick summary of the article goes like this: Our current dramatic global population growth has so much
momentum behind it that all plausible population reduction scenarios can be modeled to demonstrate that they
will have very little impact on overall total global population growth over the next 100 years. Therefore, to solve our
looming sustainability crisis, forget trying to manage population, and instead focus on efforts to reduce per/capita
The Professors' plausible scenarios include all the usual suspects: one-child policies, major armed conflicts,
possible epidemics, etc. In all of these scenarios their models still result in worldwide populations being equal or
greater than today's global population.
I've written several articles about global population modeling, and I've extensively played around with the U.N.
spreadsheets to explore various outcomes of these population strategies (my articles can be found at
http://www.populationelephant.com). Bottom line: I understand and completely agree with the Professors' results
from their models.
I'll even add an additional, and extreme, strategy to their list of scenarios. The best selling book worldwide in
2013 was Dan Brown's Inferno. If you didn't read the book - not to worry - it will soon be a blockbuster movie, to
be released in 2015 and again staring Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon. Be prepared, the release of this movie will
ignite an explosion of our current population management conversations to a several-orders of magnitude higher
level of interest. The reason: the protagonist in the book, a wealthy but insane biotech scion, has created and
released a virus that will make 1/3 of the world's women infertile (don't ask the obvious - Dan Brown never
explains how it would work).
In interviews after the release of the book, Dan Brown has said things like: "Well he's a madman for sure, but
who knows, it'll probably save the world." Sorry Dan, but just like the professors scenarios above, making 1/3 of
the world's women infertile will, in fact, only delay the U.N.'s projection of over 9 billion people at mid-century by
just 5 years. Can't be true, you say! Unfortunately, it is. You can read the detailed explanation here: "Has Dan
Brown Saved the World".
This point, of course, supports the Professors' assumption that plausible (and I would suggest, even moderately
implausible) population reduction strategies will have inconsequential effect on overall total consumption over the
next 100 years.
So...I agree, the professors facts are correct. Unfortunately, their conclusion is completely absurd. We all know
the basic equation of worldwide total human consumption: the famous IPAT formula. I prefer a simpler function:
Total consumption equals average consumption per person times the number of people. Pretty simple. The
professors advise that we ignore reducing the number of people, and just concentrate on reducing average
consumption per person. And of course, they don't give any ideas about how to do that.
The truth is that reducing total consumption to sustainable levels, in the face of a 50% rise in global population,
is every bit an intractable problem as reducing population. We could easily write an exact same article as
theirs that would describe the futility of reducing global consumption to sustainable levels by only using plausible
'consumption reduction' solutions! It can't be done without eliminating things like education, research, healthcare
and transportation. That math proving this impossibility is every bit as doable as their population models.
There are two main problems with this simplistic article: the concept of 'plausibility'; and the artificial (and
asinine) conflict it encourages between population management, and consumption management.
Plausibility first. Let me ask you this: Would it be a plausible solution for someone to spend several hours
hacking their own arm off above the elbow with a dull jack knife? Before you answer that, you might want to know
what the problem is that they are trying to solve. I have some carpal tunnel pain from tilting at the sustainability
windmill by typing out essays that few ever read. Probably, for me, the jack knife hack would not be a good
But if you faced the situation that Aron Ralston found himself in while hiking in Blue John Canyon in 2003, then it
was a good solution. It was plausible because it was the only solution that would solve his problem. For those
who don't remember, Ralston was hiking alone, at the bottom of a slot canyon when a boulder fell and pinned his
arm to the canyon wall. After being trapped for five days he realized that if he didn't cut off his arm that day, he
would die. So he did it. It took over an hour of hacking with a dull knife, but he finally did it and then lived to tell
The Professors 'plausible' population scenarios are all intended to solve the carpal tunnel problem. Unfortunately,
our arm is pinned to the canyon wall. Plausible solutions will no longer work. So, first things first, we all need to
make an honest assessment of the problem we are facing. Then we can have a discussion about workable
The second Problem with this article, and especially how it is being used by certain people, is the completely
incomprehensible and never-ending division between those who advocate addressing consumption to solve the
problem, and those who advocate managing population. Grow up children. We clearly have to do both, and we
have to do both aggressively. And to be clear: Educating women and providing birth control is not an aggressive
A final thought: The real danger of this article, and others like it, is that it promotes false hope. The implied
conclusion by the professors, is that we don't need to think about really onerous population solutions, we can
just solve this by managing our consumption.
False hope is always an easy way out for those who have a voice in this matter. "Don't worry son, it'll be all right,
you won't have to sacrifice much, the smart people behind the curtain will take care of this for you."
Unfortunately, false hope is all that most people have these days. The brutal reality is that before any progress
can be made we must give it up. We need to replace this false hope with straight talk about our challenges and
choices. Only then will mankind shake off its apathy and its comfortable belief that eventually everything will be
just fine. Only when this false hope is crushed, will we finally face the difficult choices that we have to make.
As Derrick Jensen, in his beautiful and insightful essay Beyond Hope writes:
"When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we're in will
somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are
finally free - truly free - to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action
Let's cut the bullshit. Let action begin.