Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems

Well duh...

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 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 consumption.

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 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 solution.

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 story.

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 solutions.

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 approach.

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 begins."

Let's cut the bullshit. Let action begin.

Population Elephant
Featured book:

The Eden Proposition
An autopsy of the inevitable
Kurt Dahl