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Every issue of N&C will include this "digest section" which will offer reprints of articles written by scholars or journalists that the editors believe deserve to be reissued and discovered by our large readership. As in this first issue, we will sometimes reissue articles published on the same theme.
Are there too many inhabitants on the planet?
The world's population rose from 3 billion in 1959 to nearly 7 billion in the summer of 2010 and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2042. How is it possible not to fear consequences for the safety of the planet if this trend continues? With permission from the United Nations University and the authors to reprint these interesting items under the Creative Commons License, Nature & Cultures presents two unusually original essays on population, consumption and resource scarcity. They are unusual because, while strongly environmentalist and aware of the catastrophic consequences of overpopulation, they propose an alternative opinion to the views of Malthus made popular in our times by authors such as Paul R. Ehrlich, author of the 1968 classic The Population Bomb, or Robert Kaplan, author of the more recent but no less famous article, to become a turn of the century classic in its augmented book form, "The Coming Anarchy". Doll and Gondor advocate the need to reduce or stop population growth in order to prevent ecological degradation, economic decline and political instability. The common denominator between authors Christopher Doll and Darek Gondor is how they force us to rethink the equation "curbing overpopulation is the solution to ecological degradation, economic decline and political instability". What if it were the other way around? What if attacking the political causes of ecological degradation, economic decline and political instability, were the solution to the problem of overpopulation? Also, both articles reevaluate the relation between quantity and quality. Nature & Cultures neither approves nor disapproves the arguments in the following articles but wishes to advance and enrich the debate on overpopulation by presenting them as material for classroom discussion or private reflection. For the sake of objectivity, they will be followed by references to publications selected for their high quality and supporting or contradicting Mr. Doll's and Mr. Gondor's arguments.
Christopher Doll joined the United Nations University in October 2009 as a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow with joint affiliation to the University of Tokyo. His primary research interest is using spatially explicit datasets to investigate the socio-economic and environmental characterisation of global urbanization to help design sustainable development policies. He has previously held positions at Columbia University in New York and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. Born and educated in the UK, Christopher holds a PhD in Remote Sensing from University College London.
Since the time of Robert Malthus, we have been keenly aware that humans, like all creatures, live within environmental limits. The English economist and demographer theorized two centuries ago that population  growth will always tend to outrun food supply and that betterment of humankind is impossible without stern curbs on reproduction. Certainly, exceeding these limits leads to particular consequences for the population concerned. Humans however, have been rather smarter in their ability to adapt the environment to produce ever-increasing amounts of food through various managed agricultural systems. Yet in these days of climate, natural resource and biodiversity concerns — or, as many believe, crises — a pertinent question would be: How many people can the Earth sustain? On the face of it, that is a simple question with no simple answer. But there is no denying that it would be very helpful to have a single number for the carrying capacity of the Earth. Perhaps the only sensible response is: “It depends what you eat”. And some would argue that what we eat mainly, at present, is fossil fuels (see How much oil do Americans eat ). Given the heavy reliance on fossil fuels in modern agriculture, a dramatic claim  was made by geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer back in 2004 that the advent of peak oil may necessitate a population decline of two thirds to around 2 billion people.
Eating at different tables
Of course “eat” here is used interchangeably with consume/drive/use to generate energy, etc. The problem is there is not just one world; there are many and we all eat differently. The gains of technology and modern agricultural practice and by association, our relative ability to consume, have not been equally distributed. Darek Gondor’s essay  last month included a stunning statistic illustrating this: just 10% of the world’s population accounts for 60% of the world’s consumption. So, ironically, for a global problem like climate change, the term global population is meaningless. One cannot talk meaningfully about population without talking about the associated consumption. And if populations all consumed equally, the argument would be a whole lot simpler. As usual, the devil is in the detail. Western Europeans get 10 times the calorific intake from meat than do those in the least developed countries of the world. The US has 25 times as many cars per 1,000 people as China. Norway consumes around 50 times the amount of household electricity than does Indonesia.
Recent figures from David Satterthwaite  of the International Institute for Environment and Development further illustrate this complexity with respect to population. Between 1980 and 2005, sub-Saharan Africa increased its global share of population by 18.5% but its CO2 emissions by only 2.4%. China’s share, on the other hand, increased by 15.3 % for population and 44.5% for CO2 emissions. This is one example of why, in the truest sense, there is no population but populations. Populations, economies, consumption
But people are a very visible entity. A large collection of people, especially in densely populated (but low emission) slums is more visible than the embodied emissions in a kilo of meat or a designer handbag. There are of course sound reasons for family planning, particularly local environmental ones. However, when talking about climate change, which is an issue of consumption, it is lazy thinking to imagine that limiting the population of the most populous or fastest growing nations will be a magic solution to the problem. CC photo by Sthitaprajna Jena 
Condoms are great, but actually the world’s most effective contraceptive to date is economic development. Increasing affluence in time brings with it lower fertility as a co-benefit. But it also means increasing consumption levels and these have proportionally more impact than the consumption of a poorer child or two. A little affluence goes a long way to increasing consumption. This is the confusing paradox: lifting people out of poverty not only slows population growth, it also enables consumption.
A 2009 study by United Nations University Institute for Advanced Studies  researchers Tatiana Gadda and Alexandros Gasparatos, analyzing the Japanese post-war experience, illustrates massive increases in consumption for a relatively small population increase. Between 1950-1975 the per-capita economy rose by 580% and per-capita meat consumption by 1,500%. By contrast, the Japanese population increased by 33% over the same period.
Given this sensitivity of consumption patterns to wealth, it is clear that population cannot be considered independently of other factors.
Developed countries have to lead
In order to circumvent this cognitive bias, it may be useful to think of consumption in terms of the current, near future (to 2020) and far future (beyond 2025).
By far the biggest culprit of current consumption is the developed world. However, people in emerging economies are rapidly becoming part of this pattern, but the number of people who will become consumers in the next 10-15 years are largely already here. China’s middle class grew to 80 million  in 2007, up 22% from 2005. It is projected to be 700 million in 2020. The far future consumption of the low-consuming billions could be enabled either through local economic development or migration to a higher consuming region.
Set against such highly dynamic development patterns, over-emphasis on population risks is ignoring the real problem. Consumption is not just the bigger issue, but the fairer one. We will all have to learn to better share because more people want a slice of the pie.
And if the “peak oilers” are right, we are effectively talking about a future global population of nearer two billion (close to the levels found in 1920). The operative word here, however, is “future” — and outside of some sort of collapse, that future has to be over a century or more from now. However, the lowest UN population projections  (PDF) indicate only the possibility of a fall to 5.5 billion by 2100, the highest is 14 billion and medium 9 billion.
The UN statisticians predict the possibility, under the low scenario, of a drop to a 2.3 billion global population 200 years from now (mainly based on changes in fertility levels). But it is important also to recognize that this population should not constitute 2.3 billion avid consumers (unless we have found technological solutions to reduce their energy and carbon footprints).
The question to ask here is: will we have the luxury of 200 years, or will the confluence of energy, food and water  shortages — driven in part by climate change — hit in 20 years time and overcome our collective capacity to adapt?
In all this, there is one optimistic view. A forecast has been made  that the world population in 2060 will be less than in 2003 (the date of the prediction), which does not have starvation or disease as its driver but globalization. The premise of this prediction is that communication, technology, and education will combine to drive down population far quicker than anyone currently realizes possible.
Detractors suggest that another unappreciated effect of globalization is the rapid transmission of infectious disease, which could realize this prediction in a catastrophic way. Despite drawing fire for its naiveté, the prediction has thus far gone unchallenged.
A world with fewer people has all sorts of benefits, but without understanding the nuances of our situation, we risk making bad and ineffective policies. At the end of the day, it is all about choices. Some have argued that the Earth can sustain many more people if we all eat grain than if we all eat beef (see our Debate 2.0 on the topic ). Recognizing that we don’t all ‘eat’ the same thing in the same way and that these patterns can change very quickly is the first step to understanding the complexity of the population paradox.
Limiting population is only one part of the equation. The bigger issue remains the increased consumptive capacity of a richer population and the economic, technological and energy systems that demand, stimulate and deliver ever increasing consumption.
Without understanding these systemic levers, to consider limiting population in less affluent places so that we may proceed as usual here in the rich nations is both conceptually unjust and practically irrelevant. ________________________________________ Article printed from OurWorld 2.0: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en URL to article: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/the-population-paradox/ URLs in this post:  population: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/470303/population  How much oil do Americans eat: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/how-much-oil-do-americans-eat/  dramatic claim: http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/100303_eating_oil.html  Darek Gondor’s essay: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/why-do-we-over-consume/  David Satterthwaite: http://www.iied.org/human-settlements/staff/david-satterthwaite  Image: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/paradox-quote-text-block.jpg  Sthitaprajna Jena: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zeeble/53703600/  United Nations University Institute for Advanced Studies: http://www.ias.unu.edu/  grew to 80 million: http://www.euromonitor.com/Chinas_middle_class_reaches_80_million  Image: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/paradox-quote-text-block2.jpg UN population projections: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf  confluence of energy, food and water: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/mar/18/perfect-storm-john-beddington-energy-food-climate  forecast has been made: http://www.longbets.org/118  Debate 2.0 on the topic: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/debate-2-0-meat-or-the-climate-pick-one/
Darek Gondor is an associate at the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace. He holds a Bachelor in Science in Ecology from the University of Guelph and a Master of Arts in Public Policy from Carleton University focusing on understanding human behaviour towards the environment. Darek has worked as an editor and freelance writer, including as a contributor to the Daily Yomiuri and Maclean’s magazine, a science writer at the University of Guelph, and a community editorial member at the Guelph Mercury.
Jared Diamond famously stated that “the biggest problems facing the world today are not at all beyond our control, rather they are all of our own making, and entirely in our power to deal with” when talking about his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
But why have human ingenuity, technology, knowledge, and wealth grown step in step with unsustainability? If you compare the Human Development Index with resource use, we can see that as soon as countries meet the development standard of “high human development” they inevitably cross the line of unsustainability.
Opponents of this view will say that human well-being has on average increased in the world. However, while this is true, the indicators for species extinctions, habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion have all been negative for a prolonged period of time.
Personal consumption data is even more telling. When the richest 10% account for 60% of all private consumption, we have to ask ourselves if these top-tier consumers could possibly improve their well-being any further through material gains?
Back to our pre-modern roots
Researchers like E.O. Wilson explain this paradox with a theory rarely incorporated into decisions – evolution.
The characteristics of human behaviour that became fixed in our population through natural selection occurred over the 95% of our pre-modern existence where we lived in sparsely populated hunter-gatherer bands with local community connections. Then the resource problem was one of local access.
Early human societies had primitive and inefficient ways of collecting resources, so those that thrived were ones that developed high rates of consumption and new innovations for resource gathering. They also had built up strong identity with their own community and competitiveness with others, and short-term thinking (discounting the future).
Why do we always need more stuff?
Those characteristics endure today, in concrete but perhaps increasingly extraneous ways.
One of the basic human needs is food: the accumulation of which, along with other resources, is directly linked to the ability to reproduce and provide for a family. In pre-agricultural times, it was unlikely that a single family or tribe could gather enough food to make any further consumption undesirable, so there was little need for the evolution of a trait to limit consumption.
The second greatest human need was to secure a partner for reproduction. Unsurprisingly, it seems that those that could secure more resources through their hunting skills or status also had the best choice of mates. Research shows that women in all cultures, more than men, prefer partners with higher social status and that flaunting what you’ve got helps to seal the deal, so to speak.
Acquiring enough resources is not the end of it. Status is a comparative mark (dependent on one’s immediate peers), and relates to competition. Often cited research by the likes of J.F. Helliwell shows that happiness levels peak at an income level of $10,000 per year in the US, after which happiness is determined by one’s relative affluence.
That most of us want to earn more is therefore very well explained by sexual selection: the process of choosing a sexual partner. Some individual male birds — a species whose mating relationships most resemble humans — will spend a great deal of energy building elaborate, colourful and useless displays on the forest floor to attract females. But in doing so they signal to the female counterpart that they get along just fine nonetheless: a sign of a healthy, capable individual.
Researchers think that people buy yachts, numerous cars and expensive jewelry in the same way. This over-consumption pattern just gets more intense as we move up the social ladder, and seems to have little to do with satisfying living needs. That is, when we become successful enough to own yachts and expensive cars, the absolute amount of possessions does not dull the drive to consume — because we tend to hang out with other people who own yachts and expensive cars and they put a damper on our relative status.
Today, advertising and marketing professionals exploit this drive, as they do many traits of human nature, to keep the consumption train going. This may in part explain the continued wealth disparities between individuals.
Why can’t we all just get along?
Competition is closely linked with consumption, as it produces social hierarchies among members of a group depending on their ability to secure resources. The idea of “us” and “them” was a very important one when humans lived in territorial bands and formed allegiances against common enemies.
Membership in a group provided security against aggression from other groups and means to cooperate. Internally, there was still a hierarchy that enabled the strong to control relationships and resources.
From the perspective of evolutionary fitness, the strongest individual had the opportunity to pass along the most genes, while receiving the protection of the group. Since evolutionary pressures act on individuals, competition and consumption do not have a shut-off point when the survival of the species is at stake, and there are many examples of human societies (think Easter Island) that likely competed themselves to extinction.
Today, we can look at political divisions to see how competing loyalties and different identities stall our efforts at cooperation. One reason why the United Nations organization could not unanimously interfere in acts deplored by members (like genocide in Sudan or Rwanda) is that it is a collection of leaders whose allegiances lie elsewhere, such as with their in-group that provides security and shares commonalities like language, religion or culture.
In federal states like Canada, the national government has little power to enforce national policies in Alberta, where oil sand development is provincial jurisdiction, even though it may impact aboriginal communities falling under national protection. There inter-provincial and intergovernmental competition is a defining feature of that country’s politics.
Is it any wonder we are just now beginning to attempt to halt carbon dioxide emissions, nearly 20 years after the need was demonstrated? How will any deal reached at COP15 in Copenhagen be implemented in countries with competing sub-national identities?
With new global problems like poverty, climate change and biodiversity loss, we are now being asked to be global citizens, and care about those we have never met, and areas we will never visit. This runs counter to our evolutionary past.
Evolution of culture and ideas
But are we slaves to our genes? No serious biologist believes that is the case regarding behaviour, we simply have genetic predispositions to do some things and not others. So the question is: how can we put our ingrained traits to benefit, or even overcome them?
There are certainly ways that human characteristics can be considered and utilised in working towards sustainable future paths.
The melting Antarctic ice sheet — no matter how bleak the images on TV — does not seem able to provoke wide enough behaviour change, because most of us can all go back to our daily lives, unaffected. Our individual interests have to be tapped to create the political support for implementing progressive ideas, and one way to do this is with money. The recent call for rich nations to put up at least $10 billion a year to entice developing countries into an agreement at COP15 is a starter because dollars can easily be mentally translated into benefits.
Regulation can also be swallowed more easily with the aid of self-interest — like the very recent EPA announcement that GHGs are health dangers, clearing the way for laws restricting their release.
Other ways of playing to individual interests is through reputation — rewarding and shaming. Or by setting an extreme baseline for policy and then intermittently moving it back. For example, like closing the tuna fishery and then opening it back up slowly. Expectations for improvement from an undesirable baseline can be more acceptable than an unsustainable benefit with dire future predictions.
Another manner of influencing behaviour is perhaps the most obvious. Environmental education for the world’s children, that builds on human-nature relationships, is indispensible to nurturing an identity that recognises the intrinsic value of nature and equality of cultures.
Such education is bound to pay off. We often point to that which makes humans unique — our language, intelligence, art and culture — as the root of cultural evolution. In other words, the development and passing down of ideas and values by societies that have lots of spare time after they have met their livelihood needs.
There is evidence that shows we increasingly live for ourselves, forego reproduction, enjoy life past reproductive age (thanks to the evolution of menopause), turn to cooperation over conflict, and choose partners based on humour and personality — traits that may not be indicators of reproductive success and survival.
Cultural evolution is quicker and can be more powerful than our ingrained instincts. Our modern environment has changed from locally centered to global, and biologically we have not caught up. Our ideas have to make up the difference.
___________________________________________________ Additional materials for further reading and debating suggested by N&C:
First of all, we recommend visiting the website of Thomas Homer-Dixon, one of academia's pioneers on environmental security and browse on any of his articles on environment and conflict
The UN's Population Division web site World Population Trends is an essential tool for informing any discussion on demographics
Once famous as "Zero Population Growth", "Population Connection" has been (in the words of this NGOs website) "America's voice for population stabilization".
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