To Reduce Over-Consumption, Limit Population Growth

Over-consumption and a mounting population will have detrimental environmental impacts unless something is done to halt their current trends.
March 11, 2014
With luck and contraception, world population might stabilize, but consumption is growing, almost exponentially.

Photo by Fotolia/Ints Vikmanis

Countdown (Little, Brown and Company, 2013), by Alan Weisman, details the burgeoning effects that human population growth has on our environment. Weisman reveals what may be the fastest, most acceptable way of balancing this impact. This excerpt explores the reality that although population control is a possible solution, consumption growth is projected to continue.

Mass starvation was what Paul Ehrlich began to fear back in 1966, after he, Anne, and their daughter, Lisa, found themselves on a mobbed Delhi street, their taxi marooned in an ocean of humanity. This was before the Green Revolution; as a population biologist, Ehrlich knew the mathematics of doubling times, and when he and Anne compared the human race’s spiraling numbers with crop data, they concluded that by the 1970s, famines would kill hundreds of millions of people — unless, as they wrote in the prologue to The Population Bomb, dramatic programs to increase food production stretched the Earth’s carrying capacity.

“But these programs,” they said, “will only provide a stay of execution, unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.”

Even as their book was published, Norman Borlaug’s miracle hybrids were coming to first harvest in India and Pakistan, and the famines the Ehrlichs predicted for the 1970s were averted. In subsequent decades, pro-growth economists made Paul Ehrlich and his forebear Thomas Robert Malthus their favorite punching bags, never missing a chance to ridicule them. Except, among scientists, no one was laughing. Ehrlich is today one of the world’s most esteemed ecologists, winner of the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, given in disciplines where there is no Nobel Prize, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship, a Heinz Prize (with Anne), and the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the British Royal Society, among many others.

Neither was Norman Borlaug among his detractors, issuing the identical warning in his Nobel acceptance speech that Green Revolution crops were only buying the world time, unless population controls were implemented. Yet Ehrlich’s name has continually incited derision outside of scientific circles, especially after a famous wager with economist Julian Simon of the Cato Institute, a free market think tank.

Simon, the cornucopian author of The Ultimate Resource 2 who argued that human ingenuity ensured that resources would never run out, frequently challenged environmental scientists to prove otherwise. In 1980, he bet Ehrlich and Berkeley physicists John Holdren and John Harte $1,000 that the price of five commodity metals of their choosing wouldn’t rise due to scarcity over the coming decade. They selected chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten — and ten years later lost the bet, having failed to anticipate a global recession during the 1980s that suppressed demand for industrial metals.

The outcome became a publicity windfall for free marketeers, and is still widely cited as proof that Ehrlich, Malthus, and the authors of The Limits to Growth, the 1972 report to the Club of Rome, were and always will be wrong.

Yet in the new millennium, several economists — and The Economist of London — have noted that Ehrlich’s mistake was only one of timing: the following decade, he and his friends would have won. Ehrlich also would have won a second bet he proposed to Simon: that fifteen environmental indicators — including global temperature, CO2 concentration, croplands, forests, and human sperm count — would worsen over a decade. Simon declined to wager.

A few years later, in 1994, Simon would write: “We now have in our hands — in our libraries, really — the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.” With world population then growing by 1.4 percent annually, the Ehrlichs checked his math and responded that this was unlikely, because at current growth rates, within six thousand years the mass of human population would equal the mass of the universe.

Ehrlich’s vindication is no surprise to him, although there is no joy in being right about matters so disturbing. The unlikely agriculture miracle that he and Anne hoped for in The Population Bomb, which unexpectedly arrived with the Green Revolution, also postponed the timing of what increasingly now looks inevitable. With crop ecologists expecting grain harvests to drop 10 percent for each 1 degree Centigrade rise in average temperatures, and with the world now headed beyond 2 degrees C at present rates of emissions, population will be up, food production down, and dikes may have to protect much of the world’s rice production. Even at a 0.8 degree C increase, China barely missed losing its winter wheat crop in 2011. Thanks to last-minute March rains, the harvest was saved; few dared imagine the chaos had shaky Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, been forced to bid against China for grain.

And no one can predict what North America’s massive 2012 drought portends for future crop disasters. With most of the world’s meals dependent on a few critical monocultures of rice, wheat, and corn — once three rare weeds, until we made them the most abundant plants on Earth — humanity may be just one disease away from a catastrophe that could shake civilization’s foundations. In the past century in North America alone, it happened to elms and chestnut trees. The chance of an epidemic like Ebola wiping us out is far less likely than pathogens blown around the world collapsing our food supply.

The week before Rio+20 — the June 2012 UN conference held twenty years after the original Earth Summit — the world’s 105 science academies, led by the Royal Society of Britain, warned that failure to act on population growth and over-consumption would have “catastrophic implications for human wellbeing.” It was no shock to Paul Ehrlich that Rio+20, billed as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, ignored the question of population, for much the same reasons that the Earth Summit did. As in 1992, the Vatican courted support from human rights and feminist groups, contending that population programs unfairly blame poor women for the world’s environmental ills. But as he drives his pickup back into Palo Alto, down six-lane El Camino Real, which formerly passed through orchards, not miles of commerce, Paul Ehrlich has no doubt that the most overpopulated country on Earth is his own.

“There is no condom for over-consumption,” he says, sorrowing at the unabashed displays of Silicon Valley purchasing power. How to curb human acquisitiveness is more vexing a mystery than finding a unified theory of physics. In the last fifty years, world population more than doubled, but world economic growth increased sevenfold. With luck and contraception, world population might stabilize, but consumption grows on, almost exponentially, as the more people have, the more they want.

“Yet to separate consumption from population,” says Ehrlich, “is like saying the length of a rectangle contributes more to its area than its width.” The United States is the world’s highest per-capita consumer, and its 315 million people are headed to an estimated 439 million or more by 2050. And a new factor has intensified the Impact in the I=PAT formula that he and John Holdren wrote in the 1970s: Population, Affluence, and Technology are further exacerbated by Time.

“The next 2 billion people we add will do a lot more damage than the last 2 billion,” says Ehrlich. Those of us already alive have already plucked the lowest-hanging resources. Like wringing oil from rocks, from now on acquiring things we use will be much harder, involving much more energy and leaving much bigger messes in our wake.

Excerpted from the book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman. Copyright © 2013 by Alan Weisman. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.