runaway population growth

Runaway Population Growth: The Crisis Behind the Climate Crisis

Editor’s note: this essay was written by Mark Behrend, a Routledge author and veteran of the Vietnam War who became an activist after refusing to facilitate shipments of munitions. DGR does not agree with all of the points in this essay, but it has value and deserves publication.

Image: mwewering, Pixabay

By Mark Behrend

While environmental discussions typically center on climate change, pollution, and biodiversity, both activists and educators tend to avoid the question of human numbers. We might argue whether overpopulation gave rise to industrial capitalism, or vice versa. But we avoid discussing it further, due to fears of being politically incorrect on race, religion, or family rights.

The simple fact is that, all other things being equal, our environmental problems today would only be one fourth of what they are, if we had merely avoided quadrupling the global population, between 1900 and 2004. Either way, however, if your country’s population is growing, you are ultimately at risk of starvation and ecological collapse. And the faster your population is growing, the sooner and harder that collapse will be.

The problem with human population isn’t just that it’s growing, but that it has been growing exponentially, since the dawn of civilization — and especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Paul Ehrlich cites the mythical example of a weed that’s introduced to a pond. The weed doubles in size every day, and completely overruns the pond in a month. And yet, if we were to visit the pond on the 29th day, we might think the problem is under control, since half of the pond would still be intact. Wryly summing up the story, Ehrlich points out that, ‘A long history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of exponential growth.’

Human growth isn’t quite that fast. But it has added dimensions, which in some ways are even worse. Here’s a real life example, put into its proper context.

Early in the first century of the Common Era, there were approximately 175 million people on Earth. In the almost 2000 years that have followed, population has doubled more than five times. But look at how both the numbers and the time lines have accelerated:

50 C.E., 175 million
1150, 350 million
1750, 700 million
1875, 1.4 billion
1955, 2.8 billion
1995, 5.6 billion

Note that it took 1100 years for the population to double once, 600 years for it to double again, only 125 years the third time, then 80 years, and finally a mere 40. It would be bad enough if we had simply added another 175 million lives, at a faster and faster pace. But we’re talking about doubling, quadrupling, and ‘octupling’ the population, followed by geometric progressions for which there aren’t even words — going to 16 and 32 times the original number.

Meanwhile, consider our use of resources, just since 1900. In that year, 1.6 billion people used seven billion tons of materials. By 2008, 6.7 billion used 62 billion tons. And by 2030, economists say that 8.5 billion of us will use 100 billion tons of resources (food, concrete, steel, fossil fuels, lumber, etc.), while leaving behind 70 billion tons of waste. And both population and per capita use are growing exponentially, with the material ‘demand’ per person exploding, from 4.375 tons per year in 1900, to almost 12 tons in 2030.
Advertising salesmen, marketing executives, and CEOs call this kind of growth ‘progress,’ and ‘the miracle of capitalism,’ while a more neutral observer (an alien from another star system, perhaps, or an indigenous person from an uncontacted tribe) would more likely describe it as ‘insanity,’ ‘collective suicide,’ or ‘a mad rush to destroy the Earth.’

Though no one with a big personal stake in capitalism dares admit it, this little party we call industrial civilization will soon be over. Never mind the shortages of precious metals, rare earth minerals, etc. If nothing else, we’ll run out of arable land, food, and fresh water. Industrial agricultural practices (mono-crops, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc.) destroyed a third of the world’s topsoil in just the last 50 years, while climate change is systematically reducing the snow pack and the flow of rivers.

As for what to do about it, population theorists offer us a clue. They predict that world population will ‘level off’ at nine or ten billion, sometime around the middle of the century. They’re a bit vague as to whether this will happen by means of a collective attack of common sense, or as the result of famine, starvation, and war. But either way, zero population growth means zero economic growth, which means the end of capitalism. We’re going to have to develop a no-growth economic system in 30 years or so. So why not do it now, with two billion fewer mouths to feed, and considerably more resources to sustain them?

Meanwhile, future leaders (and by ‘future’ I mean the immediate future — not decades or generations hence) must show real leadership for a change, and enlighten their constituents to the simple facts of infinite growth on a finite planet. Among the more politically incorrect data they might include is the uncomfortable truth that, just as we have no right to murder our next door neighbors, there is also no ‘right’ to have as many children as we want, when the current number is already destroying the planet.

On a personal level, we might start by simply giving up the polite custom of congratulating each other for getting pregnant and having babies. Instead, encourage friends and neighbors to adopt, and point out the many constructive ways there are to satisfy our nurturing instincts. Adopt homeless animals. Plant trees. ‘Adopt’ a beach or a creek bed, and keep it clear of trash. Help an indigenous community cope with the onslaughts of civilization, and assist them in spreading their knowledge of living in harmony with Nature. And, if it is permissible to protest outside abortion clinics, why not at fertility clinics?

At the national level, democratic leaders must also push other nations to overcome the traditions, superstitions, and prejudices that make overpopulation such a crippling problem in much of the world. The simplest remedy is to guarantee equal rights to women and girls — particularly in education, family planning, and employment. Where this is attained, the birth rate typically falls to below the replacement rate, and populations naturally decline. Thus, without a single forced abortion or sterilization, merely adopting a global, one-child policy for 200 years could return us to a pre-industrial population of around 700 million, which just might be sustainable.

To facilitate this radical transition toward planetary survival, we would also need to immediately scrap the airline, auto, beef, and fossil fuel industries, while radically and progressively reversing globalization, abandoning cities, and reorganizing society at the village level.

Though this might sound like giving up everything that makes modern life livable, I ask you to imagine Hawaii before the British, Santa Clara Valley before the Spaniards, or the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, a mere generation ago. None of these cultures had TV, Starbucks, jet travel, or out-of-season produce. And yet, somehow they were happy.

On her deathbed in the late 1920s, the last of Santa Clara Valley’s full-blooded Ohlone Indians described her childhood and early life to a National Geographic reporter, in an article later entitled, ‘The Woman Who Remembered Paradise.’ I’ve read it countless times, but have never been able to read it aloud, because of repeated stops to choke back the tears.

Obviously, even the most progressive candidates for high office speak of nothing remotely resembling a return to our tribal roots. The would-be leader who demands sacrifice, a contracting economy, and a reduced standard of living will lose in a landslide to some Trumpian demagogue, promising a strong stock market and lower taxes. And until we demand otherwise, fantasies of continued growth or a ‘Green New Deal’ are all we will get.

Revolutionary action today is a world survival imperative. Green Revolutionaries might consider a crash course in radically educating the public, along with carefully targeted attacks on the most obvious industrial offenders.

Imagine waking up one morning to a profusion of banners along freeway overpasses, proclaiming ‘PERPETUAL GROWTH ON A FINITE PLANET IS SUICIDE,’ ‘FOSSIL FUEL ECONOMIES USE A MILLION YEARS OF RESOURCES PER YEAR,’ and ‘BEFORE YOU HAVE CHILDREN, THINK ABOUT THE WORLD YOU’RE LEAVING THEM.’ These messages might appear in tandem with simultaneous, non-lethal attacks on such blatantly destructive industries as fossil fuels, the airlines, cattle, chemicals, and international shipping. In acting, we must also remember to be imaginative, invisible, and low tech, recalling the way the Vietnamese defeated the U.S. military.

As the public becomes more aware of the issues and the necessity of direct action, measures could quickly be carried to the next level. Meanwhile, we must also reach out to mainstream environmentalists, such as the Green New Deal movement. While they may be naive and subject to cop-outs, many of them are also prime candidates for radicalization. To cite one example, the first time I heard Derrick Jensen speak, 12 or 13 years ago, I thought he was crazy. But a few of his points kept nagging at me, and I soon connected the dots. As the news of industrial failures and unintended consequences worsens, such people will be coming our way in droves.

For those who are already on the edge, let me close by noting that the recent U.N. report on biodiversity made the daring admission that we are the most destructive species that ever lived — literally driving dozens of other species to extinction, each and every day. And since we cannot simultaneously be both the most intelligent species on Earth and the most destructive, it’s time for us to decide who we really are, and act accordingly.

Are we responsible agents of change, redemption, and planetary survival? Or will cosmic historians remember us as little more than lemmings in SUVs?

8 thoughts on “Runaway Population Growth: The Crisis Behind the Climate Crisis”

  1. I would say that Mark’s story is very inciteful , thank you for your wisdom.
    I would like to add a point about consumption, just like wealth – it is exactly the same % , the top 10% of wealthy persons are responsible for over 50% of pollution and consumption. If we get rid of the top 10% we will reduce the load on our planet by instant 50%, from there i love Mark’s plan for the next 200 years….just maybe then will we actually have a small chance.

  2. Great essay, I totally agree. The proven methods of reducing human population are 1) empowering women and girls and education them with at least a 4-year college degree, even better with a PhD; and 2) a one-child-family policy. We need both GLOBALLY, as we’re in a dire situation and No. 1 usually just gets birthrates down to replacement level, and as every place on Earth is overpopulated with humans.

    Humans circumvented the natural population control of food availability by changing to agriculture, and human population has exploded from the mere 10 million globally since then. Ultimately, that’s what needs to be reversed.

  3. “2) a one-child-family policy.”
    Who will implement and enforce such a draconian rule? There is little or no support amongst the whole of human society for this and there would be vast hatred and opposition towards anyone who seriously tried to put it into practice. Please tell us your ideas for doing so without turning the world into a fascistic nightmare.

  4. “If we get rid of the top 10% ”
    You seem to be advocating mass murder on a scale the Nazis only dreamed of. Would it be income or assets which would be the test for living or dying? What method of execution do you favour? How would you dispose of the remains? What about their families?

    If you merely meant we should somehow destroy the income/assets of this arbitrary top 10%, where would those assets go? And then what about the next top 10%?

  5. @Simeon Hope
    I see by your comments that you do not prioritize the natural environment and everything that lives there, so I’ll make this brief because you’re just acting as a troll here.

    The plants and animals that have been and are still being killed to the point of extinction, and the massive amount of land that has been and is being destroyed because of gross human population would not call a one-child-family a “draconian rule.” They would call it welcome- and long overdue relief. Humans are only a tiny minority of the species that live here, yet you act and think like you’re the only ones and/or that you’re better and more important than everything else. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    As to how a one-child-family policy would be implemented, the answer is the same way it was in China. Do you even know what the policy is, or are you just reflexively reacting to not being allowed to further destroy the natural world by having as many kids as you want? There is nothing “fascist” about the policy, and I highly doubt that you know what that term means either.

  6. I’d love to read the article “The Woman Who Remembered Paradise” but haven’t been able to find it. I live near the place now called Santa Clara and would like to be a force for change here, by first educating myself. Thank you.

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