All people are not equal…in terms of climate

19 02 2015
Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from Mark Cochrane who this time speaks up on the touchy issue of population.  And economics.  It’s refreshing to see anyone tying all the loose ends together and seeing the big picture, which is why I love Mark…  we need more Mark Cochranes, and his musings need to go far and wide.

The population issue is a contentious predicament. Few people would argue that we don’t have a population problem but there are even fewer willing to do anything about it. Who dies or loses the rights to procreate? Our exponential population growth fits right in with our crazed economic model of infinite exponential growth. Our economy needs exponentially increasing consumption of resources to support the exponential increase in money and that requires exponentially more consumers to drive the process. Look at those places where populations aren’t keeping up their end of the growth curve (Japan, Italy) and you see major economic problems. Nobody talks about this little predicament. For now, developed countries can import needed consumers (immigration) as their populations slow their procreation rates but if this ever becomes a global problem where human beings are a globally limited resource our house of economic cards is going to collapse, assuming any number of other problems don’t bring it down first.

Since we are debating Anthropogenic Climate Change (i.e. human-caused climate change) it goes without saying that the number of us on the planet is one of the root causes of our current dilemma. However people are not all equal or exchangeable in terms of their impacts on the planet.

A few years ago, I provided a book review for “Developing Ecological Consciousness” and the author posed an interesting question. Which country is more overpopulated, the United States or India? At the time, a typical American used 20 times as many resources as a typical Indian. Therefore, our 300 million strong population is equivalent to 6 billion typical Indian people. India has over 1.2 billion people right now. We need less people everywhere but the US is heavily responsible for driving our global environmental problems.

I recently read the 30-yr update for Limits to Growth and had the good fortune to spend time with Dennis Meadows when we were both presenting at last years Age of Limits conference. As Les reports, Dennis doesn’t see intervention as being plausible at this point. We were warned, but instead of preparing we turned up the music and partied harder. We’ve vastly overshot the reasonable carrying capacity of the planet and will have to face a reckoning at some point. Our fears are of a catastrophic collapse of famine, disease and zombies with massive death over a short period but it doesn’t have to be that way.  We could string things out by working it such that our death rate exceeds our birthrate in any number of ways to get there but it doesn’t have to happen suddenly. We can even grow populations more (stupid) or soften the downward slope to coast down to a more sustainable population by simply using less resources per capita (gasp). If Americans all suddenly shifted to Indian consumption rates it would be the equivalent of dropping 285 million people from our resource-use population draw-down rate on the planet. Unfortunately, instead of doing something sensible like this, we are instead trying to lift the consumption rates of the 1.2 billion Indians to American living standards. That will be equivalent to having an additional 22.8 billion previous Indian consumers joining us on the planet! Nothing could go wrong with that…

The incentives of our misguided economic system are what is driving us off the resource cliff in the Limits to Growth graph and we will soon meet the population cliff too if we don’t start planning for a serious transition to reduced energy, resource and food use.




2 responses

19 02 2015

The sustainable number of humans is such a no no issue, it is hard to get any true feel for the number. There are also many variables, such as lifestyle as Mark discusses.

However it is still safe to say we are in a position of considerable population overshoot regardless of lifestyle. Population overshoots always get corrected, H sapiens will not be any different.

Perhaps a little under a billion people will enter the 22nd century, but I suspect it will be very much less. My gut feeling is that it will be in the tens of millions and on a downward trend. It has been said a viable population could be as low as 1,000 individuals (maybe it was 10,000) we may be testing the hypothesis next century.

I am no fan of compulsory sterilization, but we fight even the voluntary sterilization. We argue about making contraceptives freely available. We are only making the problem so much worse, only making it even harder for the survivors.

I do not think mankind will be extinct in a few decades, but in a few decades the extinction of man will not seem as utterly impossible as it does today.

19 02 2015
Dr Bob Rich

rabiddoomsayer, nice to see someone optimistic. I am afraid my calculations indicate a much harsher future.
It’s not only about climate either. While consumption per capita and population are rising, we are also destroying the web of life — and that’s where food comes from.
Then there are diseases. Ebola didn’t come from a vacuum, but is a consequence of local food shortages and the destruction of the forest.
Of course, we need to work for a miracle, but disaster isn’t at the SPLAT, but at the OOPS, and that was many years ago. I was saying exactly the same things in the 1970s.

I’d be interested in your thoughts about and


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