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.

  • Crowded City
    With luck and contraception, world population might stabilize, but consumption is growing, almost exponentially.
    Photo by Fotolia/Ints Vikmanis
  • Countdown Book Cover
    “Countdown,” by Alan Weisman, looks at the global impacts of immense population growth and how to prevent it from becoming unmanageable.
    Cover courtesy Little, Brown and Company

  • Crowded City
  • Countdown Book Cover

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.

4/4/2014 12:13:57 PM

Thank you for this. There is simple logic in the thought that our longer lives and increased child bearing years, as a group, lead to ever increasing needs for our sustenance. Acquisitiveness and problem solving abilities that make us successful in fighting limits make us greedy and thirsty for new challenges. We never stop. I've heard it said that there is so much land we have yet to settle, you know, like permafrost, desert, bare rock. And we could all become vegans, leave a few cattle for the richest (let them build moats), live with the aid of nutritional yeast, or insects, yum; this would allow us to settle most of the remaining pasture land. The coyotes and deer in your back yard have nowhere else to hide.

3/24/2014 6:31:27 PM

The world is not over populated. This myth has been debunked over and over. Stop spreading fear and lies. I expect more from Mother Earth News.

3/24/2014 7:56:14 AM

Also--the global climate change will be easier to withstand with lower population levels. It will be easier to follow good places to live across the globe as local conditions will keep on changing ... I offer some thoughts on establishing what the optimal human population level ought to be in "Universal Platform for Developing Sustainable Earth Vision/Model Cooperatively: Global Citizens Envisioning the Future Together." - www.ModelEarth.Org/seed.html Thank you, Hearthstone.

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