04 Aug 2008: Opinion

Too Many People,
Too Much Consumption

Four decades after his controversial book, The Population Bomb, scientist Paul Ehrlich still believes that overpopulation — now along with overconsumption — is the central environmental crisis facing the world. And, he insists, technological fixes will not save the day.

by paul r. ehrlich and anne h. ehrlich

Over some 60 million years, Homo sapiens has evolved into the dominant animal on the planet, acquiring binocular vision, upright posture, large brains, and — most importantly — language with syntax and that complex store of non-genetic information we call culture. However, in the last several centuries we’ve increasingly been using our relatively newly acquired power, especially our culturally evolved technologies, to deplete the natural capital of Earth — in particular its deep, rich agricultural soils, its groundwater stored during ice ages, and its biodiversity — as if there were no tomorrow.

The point, all too often ignored, is that this trend is being driven in large part by a combination of population growth and increasing per capita consumption, and it cannot be long continued without risking a collapse of our now-global civilization. Too many people — and especially too many politicians and business executives — are under the delusion that such a disastrous end to the modern human enterprise can be avoided by technological fixes that will allow the population and the economy to grow forever. But if we fail to bring population growth and over-consumption under control — the number of people on Earth is expected to grow from 6.5 billion today to 9 billion by the second half of the 21st century — then we will inhabit a planet where life becomes increasingly untenable because of two looming crises: global heating, and the degradation of the natural systems on which we all depend.

If we fail to bring population growth and overconsumption under control, then we will inhabit a planet where life becomes increasingly untenable.”
Our species’ negative impact on our own life-support systems can be approximated by the equation I=PAT. In that equation, the size of the population (P) is multiplied by the average affluence or consumption per individual (A), and that in turn is multiplied by some measure of the technology (T) that services and drives the consumption. Thus commuting in automobiles powered by subsidized fossil fuels on proliferating freeways creates a much greater T factor than commuting on bikes using simple paths or working at home on a computer network. The product of P, A, and T is Impact (I), a rough estimate of how much humanity is degrading the ecosystem services it depends upon.

The equation is not rocket science. Two billion people, all else being equal, put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than one billion people. Two billion rich people disrupt the climate more than two billion poor people. Three hundred million Americans consume more petroleum than 1.3 billion Chinese. And driving an SUV is using a far more environmentally malign transportation technology than riding mass transit.

The technological dimensions of our predicament — such as the need for alternatives to fossil fuel energy — are frequently discussed if too little acted upon. Judging from media reports and the statements of politicians, environmental problems, to the degree they are recognized, can be solved by minor changes in technologies and recycling (T). Switching to ultra-light, fuel-efficient cars will obviously give some short-term advantage, but as population and consumption grow, they will pour still more carbon dioxide (and vaporized rubber) into the atmosphere and require more natural areas to be buried under concrete. More recycling will help, but many of our society’s potentially most dangerous effluents (such as hormone-mimicking chemicals) cannot practically be recycled. There is no technological change we can make that will permit growth in either human numbers or material affluence to continue to expand. In the face of this, the neglect of the intertwined issues of population and consumption is stunning.

Many past human societies have collapsed under the weight of overpopulation and environmental neglect, but today the civilization in peril is global. The population factor in what appears to be a looming catastrophe is even greater than most people suppose. Each person added today to the population on average causes more damage to humanity’s critical life-support systems than did the previous addition — everything else being equal. The reason is simple: Homo sapiens became the dominant animal by being smart. Farmers didn’t settle first on poor soils where water was scarce, but rather in rich river valleys. That’s where most cities developed, where rich soils are now being paved over for roads and suburbs, and where water supplies are being polluted or overexploited.

As a result, to support additional people it is necessary to move to ever poorer lands, drill wells deeper, or tap increasingly remote sources to obtain water — and then spend more energy to transport that water ever greater distances to farm fields, homes, and factories. Our distant ancestors could pick up nearly pure copper on Earth’s surface when they started to use metals; now people must use vast amounts of energy to mine and smelt gigantic amounts of copper ore of ever poorer quality, some in concentrations of less than one percent. The same can be said for other important metals. And petroleum can no longer be found easily on or near the surface, but must be gleaned from wells drilled a mile or more deep, often in inaccessible localities, such as under continental shelves beneath the sea. All of the paving, drilling, fertilizer manufacturing, pumping, smelting, and transporting needed to provide for the consumption of burgeoning numbers of people produces greenhouse gases and thus tightens the connection between population and climate disruption.

So why is the topic of overpopulation so generally ignored? There are some obvious reasons. Attempts by governments to limit their nation’s population growth are anathema to those on the right who believe the only role for governments in the bedroom is to force women to take unwanted babies to term. Those on the left fear, with some legitimacy, that population control could turn racist or discriminatory in other ways — for example, attempting to reduce the numbers of minorities or the poor. Many fear the specter of more of “them” compared to “us,” and all of us fear loss of liberty and economic decline (since population growth is often claimed necessary for economic health). And there are religious leaders who still try to promote over-reproduction by their flocks, though in much of the world their efforts are largely futile (Catholic countries in Europe tend to be low-birthrate leaders, for example).

But much of the responsibility must go to ignorance, which leads mainstream media, even newspapers like The New York Times, to maintain a pro-natalist stance. For example, the Times had an article on June 29 about a “baby bust” in industrialized countries in which the United States (still growing) was noted as a “sparkling exception.” Beyond the media, great foundations have turned their “population programs” away from encouraging low fertility rates and toward topics like “changing sexual mores” — avoiding discussion of the contribution demographics is making to a possible collapse of civilization.

Some leading economists are starting to tackle
the issue of overconsumption, but the problems and its cures are tough to analyze.”
Silence on the overconsumption (Affluence) factor in the I=PAT equation is more readily explained. Consumption is still viewed as an unalloyed good by many economists, along with business leaders and politicians, who tend to see jacking up consumption as a cure-all for economic ills. Too much unemployment? Encourage people to buy an SUV or a new refrigerator. Perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell, but third-rate economists can’t think of anything else. Some leading economists are starting to tackle the issue of overconsumption, but the problem and its cures are tough to analyze. Scientists have yet to develop consumption condoms or morning-after-shopping-spree pills.

And, of course, there are the vexing problems of consumption of people in poor countries. On one hand, a billion or more people have problems of underconsumption. Unless their basic needs are met, they are unlikely to be able to make important contributions to attaining sustainability. On the other hand, there is also the issue of the “new consumers” in developing economies such as China and India, where the wealth of a sizable minority is permitting them to acquire the consumption habits (e.g., eating a lot of meat and driving automobiles) of the rich nations. Consumption regulation is a lot more complex than population regulation, and it is much more difficult to find humane and equitable solutions to the problem.

The dominant animal is wasting its brilliance and its wonderful achievements; civilization’s fate is being determined by decision makers who determinedly look the other way in favor of immediate comfort and profit. Thousands of scientists recently participated in a Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that outlined our current environmental dilemma, but the report’s dire message made very little impact. Absent attention to that message, the fates of Easter Island, the Classic Maya civilization, and Nineveh — all of which collapsed following environmental degradation — await us all.

We believe it is possible to avoid that global denouement. Such mobilization means developing some consensus on goals — perhaps through a global dialogue in which people discuss the human predicament and decide whether they would like to see a maximum number of people living at a minimum standard of living, or perhaps a much lower population size that gives individuals a broad choice of lifestyles. We have suggested a forum for such a dialogue, modeled partly on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but with more “bottom up” participation. It is clear that only widespread changes in norms can give humanity a chance of attaining a sustainable and reasonably conflict-free society.

How to achieve such change — involving everything from demographic policies and transformation of planet-wide energy, industrial, and agricultural systems, to North-South and interfaith relationships and military postures — is a gigantic challenge to everyone. Politicians, industrialists, ecologists, social scientists, everyday citizens, and the media must join this debate. Whether it is possible remains to be seen; societies have managed to make major transitions in the recent past, as the civil rights revolution in the United States and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union clearly demonstrate.

We’ll continue to hope and work for a cultural transformation in how we treat each other and the natural systems we depend upon. We can create a peaceful and sustainable global civilization, but it will require realistic thinking about the problems we face and a new mobilization of political will.

POSTED ON 04 Aug 2008 IN Business & Innovation Climate Climate Energy Energy Sustainability North America 


I want to thank the Ehrlichs for their latest book and their work over the past forty years. As an open Jewish lesbian feminist historian of queer cultures and the Holocaust, I have come to see that over-population is a cultural ideology, based on privatization, consumer capitalism, and misogynistic homophobia. All the so-called traditional societies that self-controlled their populations had roles for their gay people, and a spiritual practice based on balance, self-limit, social harmony, and preserving the culture for the future.
Posted by Corinne E. Blackmer on 04 Aug 2008

Is this the same Dr. Paul Ehrlich who in 1968 declared hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation during the 1970s, billions during the 80's? When in fact during the 70's, and since, the world has seen an unprecedented growth of food production?

Posted by Ray on 04 Aug 2008

I like what the Ehrlichs have to say, as well as both comments (although Corinne E. Blackmer's comments are closer to my thoughtrs.)

Whatever caused the population explosion -- and I think Ms. Blackmer is largely on the mark -- is part of the systemic web that is responsible for overconsumption. There are many aspects to the problem, and as many possible paths to solutions.

As a visual artist who has learned to be guided by aesthetic revelation, I see a primary need for a cultural revolution that stubbornly refuses to accept "ugliness." Cancer-like growth is ugly (and horrifying). To recognize how much this malign growth syndrome has advance in modern society is the first step. Next, we need to get excited about a "growth reversal" paradigm for living. Imagine what it looks and feels like for the human species to pull back and create an ever decreasing "footprint." Less is more.

Above all, we need new cultural ideas that put land first, with human issues as aspects of the land, and not the other way around. Land use planning on a global scale.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 04 Aug 2008

The predictions of the Ehrlichs about the 1980's were not wrong, only delayed by the Green Revolution. Its leader (Borlag) did the work in order to buy the world time to contol population. This has not been done and now the prospects are far worse. THe only way to deal with dire predictions is to focus on the underlying cause and avert the disaster. Humans have so far studiously avoided that and this generations face the consequences. If we do manage to overcome the major obstacles to an ecologically sustainable way of life it will be due in no small measure to the shrill warnings by the Erhlichs over the years.
Posted by D John Hunwick on 05 Aug 2008

With regards to what Ray said about the unprecedented growth of food production, I would like to ask to what end we have produced that food? The truth is that the traditional manner of farming would not support the needs of our growing population. I believe what was predicted by Ehrlich is accurate when you consider that at the time, we had no sense of what was to become in terms of industrialized agriculture. We now have an agricultural economy that is based, primarily, on production of corn and soy, which has lead to the creation of processed food. Why eat the real stuff when you can eat tertiary butylhydroquinone!? Processing of food has been a great strategy to get people to eat more, an economic advantage for the manufacturers. But it has lead to an ecosystem of genetically modified seeds, the over use of pesticides and fertilizers, and a farming industry that is so heavily strained that most farmers have to have a second job despite the government subsidies. In addition to all of this, because of our heavy agriculture, we are creating dead zones where acres upon acres cannot sustain life, limiting the amount of accessible land that can be cultivated. Most ecologists agree that in a matter of years our arable land will decrease by 50%. On top of which, this hasn’t even addressed the issue that we need to have new food items every year so that the industry continues to have economic growth. So for each new cereal, or what-have-you, that we create, we have to have new packaging for the product, bigger markets to house the product, and larger homes to store the products, as well as, ourselves because we are getting bigger and bigger with each passing year. And, with each pound we gain, it takes even more calories to sustain us, which restarts the vicious cycle of industrial agriculture.

I agree with the Ehrlich’s that our over population, along with our overconsumption, is a huge strain on this planet. Unfortunately, it cannot be addressed by fixing one thing. Each infrastructure (economic, agricultural, and governmental) upon our globe needs a huge revamping, in order for us to be sustained by our ever depleting natural resources.

I humbly request that you take the time to read the available literature about the agricultural industry and our economy, and its subsequent effect on our environment. To accuse Ehrlich of making false claims, without having the knowledge of our current system, not only demonstrates the growing societal norm of lack of interest and education in our global destabilization, but also does harm by misleading.

Here are some reference materials: Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, video: “The Future of Food”, grist article: http://www.grist.org/feature/2008/08/01/index.html

Posted by Shelley on 05 Aug 2008

One good book to review the related problems is "Plan B" by Lester Brown

and Pat Murphys:
"Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change"

Posted by Henri Laupmaa on 05 Aug 2008

Shelly, Yes, Paul Ehrlich failed to take into account a number of advances which allowed the worlds farmers to produce an abundance of food. That exhibits a very narrow vision for a man of his (previous) stature. Forgive me for not paying much attention to his current dire forcast.

Soy and corn? Have you not lately been down the fresh produce isle of your local grocery store? Never in history have we had such a varied and large selection of good wholesome foods. World wide, the percentage of people going to bed hungry has steadily decreased over the past 150 years and of those, poor government is usually the reason....Africa.

May I suggest a book for you to read? The Skeptical Environmentalist.


Posted by Ray Reynolds on 05 Aug 2008

"Each person added today to the population on average causes more damage to humanity’s critical life-support systems than did the previous addition", and yet we have a "'baby bust' in industrialized countries" and "Catholic countries in Europe tend to be low-birthrate leaders". Hmm...

"More recycling will help, but many of our society’s potentially most dangerous effluents (such as hormone-mimicking chemicals) cannot practically be recycled." So why would we want to be recycling pollutants? We would be better off reducing the harmful pollutants that we use. Look at RoHS.

It seems to me that in regards to mining, the Ehrlichs simply do not know what they are talking about. "now people must use vast amounts of energy to mine and smelt gigantic amounts of copper ore of ever poorer quality, some in concentrations of less than one percent. The same can be said for other important metals". This assertion is made, despite the fact that production costs (and environmental impact) are actually decreasing in some cases. Aluminium is the best example of this, as over 70% of all aluminium EVER produced is still in use today, and recycling cuts energy and GHG emissions by 95% versus primary production. Primary production consumes less electricity than it used to as well. As another example, lead has been phased out to a great degree, with recycling of lead-acid batteries (a major use) giving you an almost closed loop of lead use.

Ms. Blackmer's comment sounds to me like "To the man with a hammer..."

And to D John Hunwick, I don't think many people are willing to listen to "shrill warnings", they tend to be hard on the ears.

All of that having been said, I welcome the coming apocalypse. It's a shame that the older generations won't be around to enjoy it.
Posted by DugglesG on 05 Aug 2008

It is likely that there is a critical ratio of humans per square kilometer that would be unsustainable on this planet.

Will we ever see it?

I don't know, and I doubt the author does either.

So far it has been science and technology which has kept us going. I suspect that if we maintain our focus on the future, that we will see our way through more difficult problems that what we can fathom today. Only time will tell of course.

You either believe in the ingenuity and enduring spirit of humanity or you don't.
Posted by J Kenneth King on 06 Aug 2008

Apparently, Dr. Ehrlich has yet to fully absorb the insights in Julian Simon's work, especially his book, The Ultimate Resource. It's shocking that Ehrlich has maintained his position--that overpopulation is a dire problem--in the face of such incredible progress and evidence to the contrary that has emerged in the past 30 years. Let me guess, Ehrlich favors using government to correct his percieved societal ills, too. Thankfully this view has become marginalized and is no longer respectable in the wider discussion concerning social issues. I'm bet most, if not all, of those exceeding the arbitrary limit on human population that Dr. Ehrlich would have loved to implement back in the '70s are grateful to have been born. I know I am.
Posted by Ryan S. on 06 Aug 2008

I too am hugely optimistic for the human race.

Those who forcast doom do so blindly.

Posted by Ray Reynolds on 06 Aug 2008

Oh ye of little faith. Stop thinking globally. Stop acting locally.

Please. Just. Stop.

Please. Follow the money.

Please. Reject fear-mongering.

There is no Peak Oil. Supplies are managed.

There is no global warming. It's just hubris. Humanity is not more powerful than the Sun.

These fake crises are corporate-contrived. Rumors of scarcity mask predatory pricing.

Your laudable ideals are going to be used to justify deprivation, then genocide --- under the pretext of "saving the planet."

OH, and have a nice day!

Posted by JerryCojones on 07 Aug 2008

I have unending faith in the ingenuity of the human primate.

I am optimistic that this too-oft-vaunted ingenuity -- married to god-complex-sized hubris -- will maintain the status quo thereby continuing to assault, degrade, diminish and destroy the biosphere.

We will continue to do this without considering whether or not not we should.

It's not a matter of absurd, easily debunked conspiracy theories and urban legends a la New World Order, Illuminati, Nine-Eleven-Was-An-Inside-Job, Alien-SnakeHeads; it is, however, an emergent property of nature and nurture working in concert.

Natura non facit saltus.

We're simply not capable of finding a global mind-space in which we realize that -- with regard to the long term health of the species and the biosphere -- a) sharing is better than hoarding, and b) small is beautiful.

Couple this with the prevailing economic "wisdom" of free market capitalism and you have the cultural subtext of the American Dream: F You I Got Mine!

It is an inescapable reality -- StoryOfStuff.com -- that if the rest of the world's population of human primates were to "enjoy" the "standard of living" of the average American we would need anywhere from 3 to 5 additional planets worth of resources.

Good luck!


"We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths."
- George Monbiot, The Self-Justifying Myth
Posted by MonkeyMuffins on 07 Aug 2008

Bottom Lines:

It's not misogynistic homophobia, rather miseveryone-elsephobia (think us and them).

Appointing reasons for Ehrlich's fulfilled predictions (or lack thereof), for something with this level of complexity accomplishes nothing: theories can be offered, but none can be verified (decades) after the fact. (Not to mention the fact that if enough people make enough predictions, regardless of how bold they are, probability is bound to allow some to be correct...but this doesn't mean the soothsayers knew what they were talking about).

No one knows one way or the other (although it's humorous to hear "definitive" speculation), but either the world is going to end in devastation (via anthropogenic meddling, ignorance, indifference, etc), or it's not. If you belong to the former camp you're doing nothing more productive that those from the latter by attempting to convert them.

Just because the percentage of people going to bed hungry might (might, because some would argue otherwise) be decreasing, such doesn't equate to the number of people going to bed hungry decreasing...(just means those going to bed full are living longer and having more offspring...which isn't a surprise, and isn't quite something to be excited about just yet).

While it's eye-opening in its survey of how rapidly the crap is hitting the fan, Brown's Plan B 3.0 will only lead to disappointment if you're expecting a great revelation on how we should go about cleaning up the room.

Thanks for reading.

Posted by Theo Therside` on 07 Aug 2008

The Indians said over one hundred years ago of the *white man* "You will have plenty of food but nothing to eat" It is true: beautiful tasteless produce , meat and dairy filled with chemicals and the healthful benefits boiled out. Toxic flowers, and children who have no idea what a hen sounds like when she is about to lay an egg.
Posted by Dorian Allworthy on 07 Aug 2008

Although I respect the authors, I could not possibly agree on such a pessimistic outlook for this planet and the human race. It would mean denying one of humanity's top asset: ingenuity.

I invite you to check out an article recently published in Seed (www.seedmagazine.com) on the second green revolution.

I am sure that, once again, we will find a way to harmonize population growth and better livelihoods for all. It is just a matter of hard work and innovation, instead of just standing still and waiting for the worse to happen. "Ora et labora".

Have a nice day!

Posted by Monica Gabay on 07 Aug 2008

Monica Gabay wrote:

"I am sure that, once again, we will find a way to harmonize population growth and better livelihoods for all."


Once again?

There was a first time?

Two thirds of today's 6.5 billion-plus -- and growing -- human primates "live" on $2 a day or less.

This is not harmony between "population growth and better livelihoods for all".

It's the definition of disharmony.
Posted by MonkeyMuffins on 07 Aug 2008

In discussions about climate change, I have always up held this view point on excess of population growth coupled with over-consumption. It just make sense when looking at the larger picture.

Im an optimist when it comes to humanity, unfortunately I have a feeling its going to come down to a disaster of over-whelming destruction to change peoples mind. It's sad it has to reach that point, but humans must enjoy "I told you so".

The way I look at it is if the environment does collapse and we cannot sustain ourselves any longer, I will be ready for it. If nothing ever happens than good, but its better to be prepared.
Posted by Derek Burgess on 07 Aug 2008

I like the Ehrlichs. I have known them since my first
meeting with them at Stanford in 1976, where I said,
"ZPG is an oxymoron because if we had it today it would
not create the future conditions hoped for in the mission
statement if the organization. Yes, Anne threw me out of
the office. (It took me until 1998 to get ZPG to change its

I study why people don't understand that the good future,
almost everyone wants for their kids, requires rapid
population decline. Maybe down to less than 100 million
people globally.

How do we create that level of RPD? Paul and Anne may
have the first part right. "People will starve." The next
parts might be caused by disease, social conflict and
even genocide.

However, my preference to achieve RPD is universal
"None or one child per family" behaviors. That could half
the population every 25 years. Sure it is hard to
implement. But do you like the alternatives better.

Jack Alpert
Posted by Jack Alpert on 08 Aug 2008

People in the United States and Canada account for approximately 5.3% of the global population, yet they produce about 26% of global CO2 emissions one indicator of the amount of energy consumed.

We don't really have to eliminate that many people we just have to get the right ones.

Where does the population debate stand when we account for this waste?

Environmentalists point out that the earth's capacity to sustain current models of consumption is very limited due to numerous problems that ecosystems around the world are already facing. That even though we will continue to find new sources and new ways of using them more efficiently etc, they are still finite, and we use them up at a rate faster than which nature can replenish. While these problems are generally agreed upon, the causes are not. Some believe in the simple Malthusian theories of population growth outstripping resources.

* We see from the U.N. statistics on consumption distribution (on the first consumption page; that the world's wealthiest 20% consume 86% of the world's resources while the poorest 20% consume just a miniscule 1.3%), that it is not most of the world consuming the resources.
* While growing populations naturally place more demands on resources, it is not as simple a reasoning to say that we are overpopulated, or that the poor and heavily populated poor nations are the causes of the environmental degradation, as some automatically conclude.
* Much degradation may be occurring in the poor countries, but global trade and economic models include a lot of enforced export out of poor nations to the centers of capital, where, as per the above U.N. statistics, most of the consumption is done.
* (Of course, the wealthy in the poor countries consume more than the poor in the poorer nations do as well, but often, finished products that poor nations might require, such as industrial tools, even food and health technologies, are made in wealthier countries, as raw materials, commodities etc are first exported there. A double blow for the poor nation then is that they buy back products which are more costly, that have been made often from their own cheap resources.)

Hence, even other issues, such as population-related issues should consider the impact of consumption on the planet more importantly and analyze where that consumption is taking place. Of course, if the entire world's population were to consume in similar ways to the wealthiest, then we would no doubt have even more environmental problems than we are already facing and in relation to how we consume we would have a serious over population issue.

Yet, the roots of this would be in how resources are consumed etc, rather than just population growths and declines. Consumption modes, the political and economic models that support certain ways of consumption therefore have a far greater impact on the environment than “over” population, alone.

The basic theses involved in the discussions about population control are false.
Posted by on 08 Aug 2008

I think most developed countries should follow the lead of Norway in donating cash to saving pristine forests located in the developing world. Via this method the developed world can continue developing in their ‘concrete’ direction while we in the developing world develop in our biodiversity direction. These two situations will compliment each other so we have technology in the developed world supporting human comfort and polluting us at the same time and we would also have our very own developing nations with their rich biodiversity, compensating and cleaning up the ‘mess’ produced by our developed partners.

But I must say that a comprehensive agreement should be made in this direction so that no one feels ‘cheated’ in the long run. We live in a global environment and all governments should liaison to make policies that move the world in a positive direction. No nation is immune to the malpractices of another nation. In one way or the other the perils of the USA not signing the Kyoto protocol will eventually affect a poor inhabitant of Bangladesh when he loses his home (and maybe life) due to increase in sea level caused by global warming.

And hey, on a more humorous note, are people who have insatiable appetites (and after having large meals still feel hungry) included in the count of people who go to bed hungry?

Posted by Ankrah Nana Yaw Darko on 09 Aug 2008

Technology CAN solve the biggest problem- it's called tubal ligation or vasectomy.

Snip snip. Snip snip, I say
Snip snip- overpopulation go away
Snip snip- that's all you have to do
Snip snip- a better world for me and you
Posted by Robert du Rivage on 09 Aug 2008

Please imagine a spaceship coming to earth and
taking the 20% of the population that is consuming
86% of the world's resources to some other planet.
Just the people not their stuff.

In one year, how many of the 5 billion people left
on earth would have better wellbeing than they
have today? In 2O years would anything be
different than today's projections? What would be
the global population? How much oil would be left
to use. How much CO2 would be in the

Answer these questions and you will see that no
amount of one time downsizing of consumption
(even a 86% instantaneous reduction) has much
lasting effect. It certainly does not have the effect
of implementating "rapid population decline" RPD.
RPD, once in place, continues to allow people to
strive for better lives and still keeps a separation
between total human footprint and carrying

Now if you have changed your view and believe in
RPD as a necessary part of the path forward, you
still have to choose how your are going to
implement it. "None or one child per family" or
one of the less pleasant alternatives.

Jack Alpert

Posted by Jack Alpert on 09 Aug 2008

I think that just saying "none or one child per family" is too simplistic. How do you deal with births that occur outside of families, or due to rape or incest or adultery. Imagine the media circus that would result. Then you've got divorce, death, and teen pregnancy to deal with. And just how do you define "family", anyway?

And don't say that you're going to just sterilize people after they have a kid. Why not? Ask the victims of natural disasters such as the tsunami a few years back, or the recent earthquake in China. How do you tell someone that "Sorry all of your kids are dead, but there's not much we can do to restore your fertility"?

P.S. Yes, as a matter of fact I DO prefer the alternative, which is to just let market forces (also known as evolution or selection pressure) do their thing, human misery and environmental collapse be d*mned. At least that way you can blame your problems on forces that are nominally outside of your control.
Posted by DugglesG on 09 Aug 2008

I am so glad I have found an opportunity to finally thank Paul Ehrlich for his book The Population Bomb. I am one of four children and our neighbours and relatives averaged four children. I was brought up a Roman Catholic and taught it was good to have children as it helped keep the Church powerful.

As a young man of 20 in 1968 I began to question all this, particularly as I was at risk of being balloted by our New Zealand Government to murder the Vietnamese so we could control the potential mineral oil reserves of the South Asia seas. The Population Bomb resonated deeply and I came to believe that blessed are the caring barren. They should be respected as heroes.

In the event I did have one child who I love dearly. I have been regularly insulted and abused as “selfish” and “mean-minded” by acquaintances for not having more children and my decision has been very difficult to uphold. Forty years on I am glad of my decision to limit the number of children I had and even though I would dearly love grandchildren I am glad my daughter has decided not to have children.
So thank you, Paul. You helped me make decisions that will enable me to die knowing that I left future generations with more options than I might have.

This said I remain very aware that I live in a rich nation and even though I experience estrangement because I now refuse to fly, own a car, eat little meat etc I am aware my life is still unsustainable. However I am under no illusions about the reality of the so-called Green Revolution. Take cheaply accessed and vastly undervalued mineral oil/gas out of the picture and our access to food and minerals plummets. Then the so-called Green Revolution is shown to be a fallacy, even a lie. Why? Assuming a 42 gallon barrel of mineral oil contains the equivalent of 25000 man-hours of labour and the market price is $US100 a barrel our agriculture, mineral extraction and processing, etc is based on a value of about 4 cents a man-hour of labour.

Who among your wealthy detractors would be prepared to work in the fields and down mines endlessly for 4 cents an hour?

I am now observing global credit systems based on a value of mineral oil of 0,04 cents a man-hour of labour imploding. I am also observing the resultant massive inflation in mineral prices and general wealth loss in nations that make addictive and wasteful uses of mineral oil. I am witnessing us Anglo-American countries promoting the real risk of catastrophic world war. This is the reality I see and accept as true.

It is not however the reality I live with in my daily life. I lead a life filled with much awe, joy and hope, as anyone who has visited my website www.bonusjoules.co.nz and has understood the vision underpinning my proposals for a sustainable vision of science and education knows. And, though if may be difficult for some to comprehend, I owe much of that hope to Paul and The Population Bomb, hope that has sustained me for 40 years now.

Posted by Dave McArthur on 11 Aug 2008

An appeal to conserve made to people with limited consciousness and lifespan and unlimited desire is useless.
We are all going to die. What we do while we are alive, what we consume and where we go the children we produce, is what matters to the ego. Life is laid out as a race to consume.
How do we measure our sucess as people? With consumption: family, monetary wealth, sucess in career, travel, people met, people influenced. The idividual is just that. We are part of a society but in the end we are all alone and out for ourselves.
The only way any progress can be made to safeguard the environment will be to make responsible choices more attactive than irresponsible ones.
Posted by MZacc on 13 Aug 2008

The republicans are not setting a good example! Some responsible, educated adults show restraint and maturity by using birth-control in our sexually active very early and later years because we know that statistically, there is a very large chance of problems with a pregnancy at this time of life. The grown-up responsible, adult and humane thing to do is to abstain, or indulge with appropriate protection. The Palin girls apparently do neither, and can only be counted as callous and careless, if not downright ignorant! A girl of 17 should be in school looking at a future and a career in this day and age – sexually active or otherwise! A woman of 40+ should know enough to not get in trouble! Contraception is the most humane way to avoid abortion and unfortunate little lives of suffering. I wish these "red-neck broads" would grow up and show some personal responsibility instead of prancing their asses in front of the cameras because they have been told that they are 'cute' Lots of girls are winsome, most of them are more discrete and show more self-respect! God help America, we need it at times like these, an old goat and a bawdy broad wanting to run the show in Washington when the world needs birth control and restraint in all matters.

Posted by Uncle B on 04 Sep 2008

Too Many People, Too Much Consumption is an imperfect idea. It rightly points out the current population numbers and no doubt the likelihood, barring geological calamity, of the increase of billions more humans in the future. However, it is the fervent suppression of real energy technology that will cause future suffering of the human, animal, and plant life. Technology has brought about the great increase of humans by supplying: Clean water, clean foods, antibiotics, and pesticides among other things. Not long ago peopled died from the simplest of ailments that are easily remedied by antibiotics of today.

While new technology has allowed a larger population growth than ever before, new technology to address the needs of the swell has been suppressed. The status quo of the operating elite owned multi-nationals is enforced.

Let us look at the current paradigm. People on earth today in the 21st century are predominately cleaning their clothing with the 2,500 year and older technology of water and soap. “The first English patent under the category of Washing and Wringing Machines was issued in 1691.” (Wikipedia) We have had some refinements of the washington machine since then, but it is essentially operating on the same antiquated design using mechnical action, thermal energy, and chemical action. “The first U.S. patient of the clothes dryer was obtained in 1892.” (Wikipedia)

“The first design for an American automobile with a gasoline internal combustion engine was drawn in 1877 by George Selden of Rochester” (Wikipedia)
Although, since that time we have had engineering refinements essentially the combustion engine design has remained the same. Why is ten years considered old for an automobile? Why are we still using the combustion engine in 2008?

Planned obsolescence is purposely engineered into consumable products. Too much consumption is not to be blamed solely on human population numbers, but the criminal corporations who collude in flooding the marketplace with products that expire and must be repurchased. .

Unfortunately, the geo-political doers of this planet are interested in amassing gross wealth and power with no consciousness of the side effects to the planet and its eco-systems. This is driven by human avarice practiced by the ruling elite supported by the egg-headed technocrates. The Godfather/by Mario Puzo should be mandatory reading for everybody as it clearly illustrates that everything in today’s business world is about more control and more profit..

Modern Technology has been used to create a massive population to make a gross profit on a consumer-based economy. Modern technology has been supressed to service the populations to protect archaic industries. Egg-headed technocrates need to lift their eyes from Thomas Malthus predictions and think holestically. Limiting the populations will not limit the problems. The problems facing earth are emotionally driven. Less people will only me more pollution because the consciousness of those in charge is sick.

Posted by katie on 07 Sep 2008

We talk about the numbers, the ratios of supply to demand. We rant and we worry yet wonder why the basics of life spiral beyond our grasp.

When milk stopped coming from the local dairy on the edge of town, lettuce stopped coming from our gardens, houses stopped being built to last and the natural world became a Disney-fied vended attraction, we took our place on the corporate bus. We consented to the programmed corruption of the packaged economy, where prices are arbitrary and fictionalized, where crisis and price spikes are just a press release away.

Still we rant and worry. I prefer to choose.
Posted by Joel McEachern on 13 Sep 2008

The problem with all these great comments is the article is 'preaching to the choir'. The people who should know aren’t reading this article.

What percentage of the population is undereducated and underprivileged?
While many of us are developing obsessive-compulsive behaviors trying to lesson our carbon footprints, there are, I'm guessing, many more who don't give a thought to how much styrofoam is collecting in their unrecycled trash; or the fact that their beater van is leaking oil and washing into our waterways and spewing fumes into the air because they can't afford the tune-up; or worrying about how to pay their heat bill...or their mortgage or rent!

As Masow's Hierarchy of Needs points out, people don't move to the next higher level until the basics have been met.

This is more likely to change when education is equal for everyone and we have politicians with degrees in both science and economics.

But all arguments seem to come back to Dr. Erlich...there's too many people.

Posted by Carol Navarro on 26 Sep 2008

Joining the ROE caucuses

We have started a Running on Empty (ROE) caucus of Washington State Democrats . We have also started a national ROE caucus. The goal of this caucus is to bring more emphasis by our Party to the coming end of cheap oil and natural gas which will result in an extreme disaster.
To become a member of our caucus we require some more information from you. If you agree or basically agree with the following statements and you are a Democrat, then we will accept you into our caucus.

We request you comment on our below listed platform statements.

1. There are no sustainable energy sources that will rescue us at our current population levels.

2. Population reduction must be a part of any plan to rationally deal with peak oil (the end of cheap oil, natural gas, and coal), global climate change, biological/species decline, and natural resource depletion.

3. Global climate change will only be mitigated with extremely stringent emissions policies that reduce consumption rates and this must be done before fossil fuels are depleted.

4. Absent immediate attention to peak oil, our government and/or political system have no chance whatsoever to react soon enough to help us.

Books about Problem(s) James Kunstler The Long EmergencyRichard Heinberg The Party's OverRichard Heinberg Power down


and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RunningOnEmptyCaucusDemocratsUSA

Posted by Dick McManus on 17 Dec 2008

How about space colonization? As proposed by astrophysicists, Stephen Hawking included, something not even mentioned. Maybe China could lead the way.
Posted by Myrtone on 05 Jan 2009

Cannibalism or Birth Control: which is more humane? We need to (globally) put birth control patches on all children, and only remove the patches after the children have graduated from college, and put patches on all adults who have given the world one child. Of course, we will need to train psychiatrists to help people who are unhappy because they want more children and can't have them, and we'll need to build more colleges ... that's all do-able. Organized religions will change their rules (they have before). We cannot make this planet bigger, we cannot stop people from eating whatever we can get when we are hungry, and people cannot stop themselves from having sex. I vote for global birth control (and education so that people understand why it's necessary). P. F. Bacon
Posted by P. F. Bacon on 06 Feb 2009

The author states that "Many past human societies have collapsed under the weight of overpopulation and environmental neglect, but today the civilization in peril is global."

I could not for the life of me think of a single human society that collapsed due to overpopulation.
Am I missing something? History does repeat itself, so the inference is powerful, but do the facts back up the statement? Would you say that the collapse of Rome was due to overpopulation? That seems to be a stretch.
Posted by f1fan on 16 Mar 2009

The authors state, "Absent attention to that message, the fates of Easter Island, the Classic Maya civilization, and Nineveh — all of which collapsed following environmental degradation — await us all."

A quick look says that no one knows what happened to the Mayans. There are at least 88 theories, according to Wikipedia. Equally there seems to be little consensus that environmental degradation caused these other societies to be destroyed. Drought, disease, invasion or perhaps divine intervention all seem plausible depending on the audience.
Posted by f1fan on 17 Mar 2009

It seems some people here have decided to ignore the laws of physics, the law of doubling, or, in fact, basic simple math. Julian Simon, (referred to above as an 'authority'), for instance, had some of the most astoundingly ignorant notions about resources and the notion of finiteness, yet was an advisor, heaven help us, to administrations in this country. I'm sorry to announce this, but growth does end eventually in a finite system. It cannot go on forever, and adding bodies does in fact impact resources. This is not abstruse stuff. It is simple math and physics.
Mathematician Albert Bartlett (and he himself merely says he is talking math in his famous lecture) gives a wonderful take on the nature of growth and our ignorance of same. Bartlett speaks to Simon's notions directly; I won't waste your time quoting here...just google it and see for yourself.

It also appears that systems, in general, are ultimately endogenously endowed with the ultimate mathematical certainty of collapse; see research by UCLA Earth and Science mathematicians. We are a big system and a collection of smaller systems. They will ultimately come apart to make way for future systems. How they come apart is the question.
Ultimately, I doubt that there is anything resembling the political will to avert some major 'adjustments', to put it euphemistically. What concerns me here, among these comments, are people who literally have no idea about the actual impact our species has had on this planet, nor the nature of the finite.

The Greek playwrights were dead on: Hubris always ends in tragedy.
Posted by Stephen Missal on 10 Jun 2009

I completely disagree with this grim outlook. The authers show a real lack of imagination. People are starving now because food and the means to grow it are withheld from them for political reasons. If trillions had not been wasted on wars and energy over the last hundred years, and this money had been put into research, the human race would now be living in space and beyond. Our creator never intended for man to be shackled to oil and war. That was the doing of ages of psychopaths and power hungry elites. Our greatest resource is ourselves. Walter Russell, an American genius, showed us the solutions to today's urgent issues over 70 years ago. He and his work have been disappeared by the same people who profit from war and energy. This has been a tragedy for mankind and it needs to stop. Using our Imaginations is the answer. People with these types of solutions remind me of the people who decried the loss of whale oil and said that progress was ended for humanity. GOOD GRIEF!
Posted by jeanruss on 17 Jun 2009

Jean; I hope you are right. I hate being a pessimist. At the risk of sounding negative, can you tell me how we can stabilize population growth...it seems to me not to be solvable by technology; it is a behavioral/species imperative problem, don't you think? And much of what we face today is a direct result of population pressure on the planet. Yes? Not entirely, but there is no question that it is a huge problem. And one no one really wants to talk about. We sidestep and lurch to some vague solutions....yet the primary problem remains. Unless you know something I don't, until this issue gets addressed, all other issues are only temporarily ameliorated. So...
Posted by Stephen Missal on 18 Jun 2009

'Perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell, but third-rate economists can’t think of anything else. Scientists have yet to develop consumption condoms or morning-after-shopping-spree pills.'

Well put.

Posted by Pete on 20 Aug 2009

Consumption regulation is simple: it's called "sales tax" and it needs to be applied to everything that is purchased at a rate high enough to reverse expansion until relocalization occurs and the waters and air are clean.

The problem of overpopulation is one of action, not existence. It is the actions of consumption instead of usefulness to the planet that defines the problem of humanity at this point. We don't need to reduce population if the population is working to improve the land, water, and resources. Reversing the consumption trend just takes willful action by leadership, and failing that, a change of systems which elect leadership so that leaders can take the proper action to implement feedback to counteract consumption (sales tax). Choices are made based on immediate costs. All the talk about morality is bunk. Humans do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff. In that order. We need fences to keep us from straying away from useful behaviors (useful to the future of ourselves and the natural world).

The FAILURE mode of a sales tax is that people would work, produce and trade locally.

Posted by Dan Conine on 26 Dec 2009

Thanks very much Paul & Anne. Pleased to read you are still at it.

One line you write I want to take issue with: "Some leading economists are starting to tackle the issue of overconsumption, but the problem and its cures are tough to analyze."

In 2010 certainly overconsumption is more of a problem than it was in 1942. But after Pearl Harbor the US government had little trouble tackling personal overconsumption. It stopped auto production overnight in order to produce materiel for war and introduced rationing. This was a clear indication that market mechanisms are no way to solve a crisis.

Posted by Ricky Ward, Chiang Mai on 04 Apr 2010

Such predictions have largely come true out side of the developed world. Massive levels of starvation in Africa, Asia, and South Asia, limited access to clean water and greater population is both tangible and related to the third world countries trying to become first world countries. As we approach 2012, the population will reach 7 billion. India and China have the greatest populations at well over a billion each. These countries are also avidly pursuing consumerism and affluence. I do not believe that a sensible solution can be arrived at for the whole world to sign on to. There are too many self interested people out there. I fear that the only solution is going to be population control through one of three methods; famine, disease, or war. Take your pick. In all three of these possibilities, the third world will be where the dying is going to happen. The altruistic visionaries of equality and fairness will be but a part of the powerless mass of humanity that watches this happening, secure in their homes, well fed, and entertained. The good Doctor has it correct, he just fails to be realistic about the method by which the population reduction will happen.

Posted by Steven A on 03 Jun 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
paul r. ehrlich and anne h. ehrlichABOUT THE AUTHORS
Paul and Anne Ehrlich are in the Department of Biology and the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, where he is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences and she is Senior Research Associate. Their latest book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment (Island Press), focuses on the issues cited in this article and includes references.



How Tracking Product Sources
May Help Save World’s Forests

Global businesses are increasingly pledging to obtain key commodities only from sources that do not contribute to deforestation. Now, nonprofit groups are deploying data tools that help hold these companies to their promises by tracing the origins of everything from soy to timber to beef.

Natural Aquaculture: Can We
Save Oceans by Farming Them?

A small but growing number of entrepreneurs are creating sea-farming operations that cultivate shellfish together with kelp and seaweed, a combination they contend can restore ecosystems and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification.

Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities
Go Green to Aid Urban Revival

Gary, Indiana is joining Detroit and other fading U.S. industrial centers in an effort to turn abandoned neighborhoods and factory sites into gardens, parks, and forests. In addition to the environmental benefits, these greening initiatives may help catalyze an economic recovery.

Climate Change Adds Urgency
To Push to Save World’s Seeds

In the face of rising temperatures and worsening drought, the world’s repositories of agricultural seeds may hold the key to growing food under increasingly harsh conditions. But keeping these gene banks safe and viable is a complicated and expensive challenge.

Food Insecurity: Arctic Heat
Is Threatening Indigenous Life

Subsistence hunters in the Arctic have long taken to the sea ice to hunt seals, whales, and polar bears. But now, as the ice disappears and soaring temperatures alter the life cycles and abundance of their prey, a growing number of indigenous communities are facing food shortages.


MORE IN Opinion

Why U.S. Coal Industry and
Its Jobs Are Not Coming Back

by james van nostrand
President-elect Donald J. Trump has vowed to revive U.S. coal production and bring back thousands of jobs. But it’s basic economics and international concern about climate change that have crushed the American coal industry, not environmental regulations.

How the Attack on Science Is
Becoming a Global Contagion

by christian schwägerl
Assaults on the science behind climate change research and conservation policies are spreading from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. If this wave of “post-fact” thinking triumphs, the world will face a future dominated by pure ideology.

Why We Need a Carbon Tax,
And Why It Won’t Be Enough

by bill mckibben
Putting a price on carbon is an idea whose time has come, with even Big Oil signaling it may drop its long-standing opposition to a carbon tax. But the question is, has it come too late?

Floating Solar: A Win-Win for
Drought-Stricken Lakes in U.S.

by philip warburg
Floating solar panel arrays are increasingly being deployed in places as diverse as Brazil and Japan. One prime spot for these “floatovoltaic” projects could be the sunbaked U.S. Southwest, where they could produce clean energy and prevent evaporation in major man-made reservoirs.

Point/Counterpoint: Should
Green Critics Reassess Ethanol?

by timothy e. wirth and c. boyden gray
Former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth and former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray argue that environmental criticisms of corn ethanol are unwarranted and that the amount in gasoline should be increased. In rebuttal, economist C. Ford Runge counters that any revisionist view of ethanol ignores its negative impacts on the environment and the food supply.

The Case Against More Ethanol:
It's Simply Bad for Environment

by c. ford runge
The revisionist effort to increase the percentage of ethanol blended with U.S. gasoline continues to ignore the major environmental impacts of growing corn for fuel and how it inevitably leads to higher prices for this staple food crop. It remains a bad idea whose time has passed.

How Satellites and Big Data
Can Help to Save the Oceans

by douglas mccauley
With new marine protected areas and an emerging U.N. treaty, global ocean conservation efforts are on the verge of a major advance. But to enforce these ambitious initiatives, new satellite-based technologies and newly available online data must be harnessed.

Why Supreme Court’s Action
Creates Opportunity on Climate

by david victor
The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan may have a silver lining: It provides an opportunity for the U.S. to show other nations it has a flexible, multi-faceted approach to cutting emissions.

With Court Action, Obama’s
Climate Policies in Jeopardy

by michael b. gerrard
The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking President Obama’s plan to cut emissions from coal-burning power plants is an unprecedented step and one of the most environmentally harmful decisions ever made by the nation’s highest court.

Beyond the Oregon Protests:
The Search for Common Ground

by nancy langston
Thrust into the spotlight by a group of anti-government militants as a place of confrontation, the Malheur wildlife refuge is actually a highly successful example of a new collaboration in the West between local residents and the federal government.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.