Global Population Speak Out
This blog is to fulfill my pledge to the GPSO effort to speak out in February regarding the overpopulation issue that many of us feel is at the heart of most of our global challenges. To see what many other scientists and citizens are doing for this effort, visit the GPSO Web site.
Damned If We Do and Damned If We Don't
If we don't limit global population there is a non-zero chance that all of humanity will go extinct! At the very least we can expect that human life will become mean and brutish as a consequence of unfettered reproduction leading to population sizes unsupportable by the resources of our finite planet. There is considerable evidence mounting that indicates that we humans have exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the planet for our species, given our resource usage patterns. We have come to rely on fossil fuel inputs to our food supply (see: the Green Revolution) and our industrial agriculture methods of modern farming. This has given the illusion (one that is fondly defended as reality by neoclassical economists) of increasing the carrying capacity of the planet. But, sadly, it is based entirely on the formerly abundant flows of high energy return on energy invested (EROI, also EROEI) fossil fuels, which have now begun to reach their peak of extraction (c.f. Peak Oil as an example).
After the peak of high powered energy production from fossil fuels, we can expect a long decline in net energy flows into the economy with constrictions being felt in the food supply. For example, as natural gas supplies suffer decline we will see the production of fertilizers decline as well. This is significant because many, perhaps most of our agricultural soils have been depleted of nutrients and absolutely require repeated applications of artificially manufactured fertilizers to maintain any semblance of productivity. Additionally, chemical pesticides and herbicides, which are synthesized from petroleum, are needed to maintain food production at these levels. Antibiotics, some of which are also based on petroleum, are needed to keep industrial production of animals sustained.
When oil goes into decline it will impact the production of all other forms of energy. For example, it takes a substantial amount of diesel fuel to extract and transport coal (used to produce electricity). Today all of manufacturing (with some exceptions in the Pacific Northwest where hydroelectric is still the predominant non-transportation energy source) is based on fossil fuel inputs. That means wind turbines and solar panels require fossil fuels to be built and installed (as well as maintained). Thus the carrying capacity, artificially elevated in the oil-rich age, is going to be brought back to what it was before the advent of our oil-based approach to agriculture.
All of this is by way of explaining an incredibly difficult moral dilemma that we, as a species, are soon going to face. The horns of this dilemma we are going to have to choose between are: certain starvation for huge segments of the population, or forced population control via sterilization. There will be no middle ground between these two, equally reprehensible choices. Less food will be produced as energy flows decline. Even if every man, woman, and child were to devote themselves to farming and/or hunter-gatherer lifestyles, there simply won't be enough land and bio-stock production possible to feed everybody. We have already depleted major fisheries (though it won't matter given that the fuel needed to run a fishing fleet will be so expensive no one would be able to afford fish as a source of protein). This means that we will no longer be able to support even the current population, let alone the 9+ billion individuals projected by the UN for the middle of this century if current trends were to continue. And the point is, those trends can't continue without sufficient energy!
This is difficult, actually nearly impossible, to consider. There is already ample denial going around, especially from politicians and neoclassical economists who are simply not capable of processing the factual data, building the models, doing the arithmetic, and interpreting the results. Most people are not able to fathom the predicament in terms of the scales involved. Even among those who do understand the basic nature of the problem there is a tendency to believe that just limiting ourselves to zero population growth (ZPG1), with the usual nod to humane methods, should be enough to solve the problem. The more radical thinkers call for negative population growth (NPG) but still try to maintain that there are humane approaches to accomplishing this. Noting the demographic transition effect in Japan, Italy, and other OECD countries (though not the US!) many advocates of population control are hopeful that if we just supported economic development for the high birth rate countries, education and economic opportunities for women in these countries, that somehow everything would work out. The argument goes that when women have more control over their lives and more opportunity to choose careers other than motherhood, they tend to have fewer children. Who knows? Perhaps it might have worked this way if we had all the energy in the world to expand economic development in the way envisioned by the UN Millennium Development Goals. But we don't. And no amount and combination of technology, alternative energy sources, conservation and elimination of wastage, or efficiency gains will compensate for the loss of fossil fuel inputs2. This too is an extremely hard pill to swallow and there is no dirth of denial on this front either. People want to believe in a future that is better than the present and they are unwilling to do the math to determine what the reality might be. Reality doesn't always match desires and sometimes you just have to give up those desires when they are not feasible.
The sad bottom line is that this planet will not be able to support the population at its current level in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, given the degree to which we have devoured and degraded resources like water, air, and soil, as well as general bio-diversity, it is possible that within a few generations we will find that the number of people actually supportable is even fewer than any of us are ready to believe!
Thus we are damned if we do nothing more proactive in population reduction than just hoping it will happen naturally with the demographic transition effect. And we are damned if we do what it will actually take to mitigate the impending disaster.
Our moral compasses point in an entirely different direction. From Wikipedia's page on Reproductive Rights:
The World Health Organization defines reproductive rights as follows:The operative terms have been highlighted.Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.
The number of people who would question the notion that people have a natural right to reproduce as they see fit is probably very small. In general, the right to procreation is considered, universally, God given, or at least inalienable. Thus it would be morally reprehensible to consider any methods for population control that interfere with those rights.
At the same time, if the above projections of nature-forced population decline due to the effects of overshoot are correct, then the pain and suffering of literally billions of people is a certainty (see: Catton, William R., Jr. (1982). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL. and his latest book, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, Xlibris Corporation. See also my review of this last book).
Between the Proverbial "Rock and A Hard Place"
This, then, is our moral dilemma. If many others like Catton and I, are right, we are faced with making a choice that comes from understanding the true (and I suppose cruel) nature of this world. We can choose to allow billions of people to starve, dehydrate, or succumb to diseases from population density effects. They will live lives of squalor and despair until the end (mercifully) comes. The model for this is already at play in places like Darfur in Africa. Or we can choose to do something quite drastic in terms of proactive population control, such as mass sterilization. These two choices are extreme evils but I suspect they reflect the reality of the corner we've painted ourselves into. We failed to heed the warnings of people like Paul Ehrlich and the Meadows (see footnote 1 below). Most of our economists derided their warnings as the work of pessimists. Had we taken them more seriously back in the latter half of the 20th century, we might have less of a problem today. But it probably wouldn't have been much less.
Of course I suspect that we will choose the former by choosing to do nothing but hope for the demographic transition. We've already essentially made that choice as we watch situations in Darfur play out. In actuality we watched something akin play out in New Orleans. Thousands of people died in that city because we (or one can argue the Bush administration) chose to do nothing. That may have been an economic/political calculation, but I suspect that is exactly what it will look like when we abandon formerly developing country after country just as we abandoned our own in this country and let the consequences play out as they will. You know, survival of the fittest!
Ironically, we actually know a great deal about the brain basis of moral choices today. Marc Hauser's book, Moral Minds, (2006, HarperCollins, New York), presents a clear story of how the brain (mind) deals with moral dilemmas. People do make choices in situations that appear on the surface to be between two equally bad actions. They do it by fooling themselves (subconsciously) into seeing one of the choices as less bad and therefore OK. It works even better when they think they can execute the choice with some intervening instrument so that it doesn't seem like it is them doing the bad thing. For those in the western world we probably thought it was a good thing when China implemented its one-child policy even though it was coercive. The Chinese government, not us, was responsible. We were just indirectly benefited since this would check the rapid growth of the Chinese population. We, in the west, would probably think similarly if India, or Indonesia, or Saudi Arabia were to implement something along these lines. But, of course, in the western world, where freedom is the watchword, this would be inappropriate (and the rationalizations for why will flood forth).
We, too, will likely fool ourselves into believing the do-nothing option is the lesser evil. We will put out of our minds the impending tragedy of mass deaths, possibly rationalizing our choice by thinking that, after all, something miraculous might happen to save us.
It isn't certain that mass sterilization would even help at this late date. We do not, for example, yet have a scientific handle on the rate of energy flow decline that we face. We only know that that decline is certain. So if the decline rate is high enough, even sterilization would not suffice (though it might help lessen the pain a bit). In theory, sterilization of half of the population (along with a one-child policy for the non-sterilized half) could bring the population down rapidly without resorting to death panels. A sterilization approach doesn't involve deciding who will live and who will die (whereas a do-nothing approach does this by default), only who will procreate and who won't. How rapidly the decline would be would need to be modeled. But it is possible that the population would decline by half in 30-50 years or so. With fewer mouths to feed, the likelihood of feeding the remaining population increases, but is not assured. A core problem with this kind of scenario is that the remaining population would tend to be comprised of aging folk. Who would do all the work needed to support them?
A sterilization program brings with it so many imponderable choices that it boggles the mind to even think about it. Who would be sterilized? How many would be needed to have an effect? What would be the consequences of a shrinking population on all sorts of economic, political, and social dimensions? And, of course, who would decide? Any takers???? I thought not. Yet if the decline in energy is anything like we think it might be, either we will choose to do this, or nature will make the choices for us. I just don't see any other options given a) the reality of declining energy flow; and b) no apparent miracles on the horizon.
We are faced with a classic Catch-22. We are damned if we do nothing and we are damned if we do what is necessary to avoid massive suffering (because our moral compasses tell us this is wrong). I usually shy away from black-or-white scenarios. I don't like simplistic arguments. But for the life of me I cannot find a middle ground here that makes any sense. Not being a praying man I still find myself hoping and wishing for some kind of energy miracle that will obviate this whole mess. Believe me I am actively engaged in seeking such a miracle because I want desperately to be wrong. I'm old enough and well enough off, for the time being, that I could live out my life without worrying my head about such things. But I also suffer from a moral dilemma. If I think I see reality, am I not obligated to give voice to my vision? If my thoughts could help save even one human life, should I nevertheless be silent and pretend I don't see this?
Morality is such a bitch sometimes!
1 To be clear about my own situation, I had a vasectomy after my second child was born. I have been an advocate of ZPG since reading Paul R. Ehrlich's, The Population Bomb and Dennis and Donnela Meadow's The Limits to Growth. That was back when I thought ZPG was the solution.
2 Given all of the media hype and cheerleading ra-ras by the green crowd, it is really hard to get this case heard. Even formerly august media organs like Scientific American have fallen prey to unrealistic claims of late (c.f. A Solar Grand Plan - warning pay wall). The main line of evidence for why these alternative forms of energy will not cut the mustard is the generally low EROI that most of them have when all of the necessary energy inputs are taken into account. Most published EROI numbers have come from industry and green advocate groups. These 'studies' suggest EROI's in the teens and twenties (e.g. 20+ for wind). But on close examination most of these studies fail to include some of the more important energy inputs (up front costs) and so overstate EROI, perhaps by several times. A good case study on this problem is that of corn ethanol (CE). In the early years advocates produced studies that gave it a favorable (though not high) EROI and so, with impetus from the midwest agriculture lobby, the Congress saw fit to mandate CE be combined with gasoline (E10) everywhere in the US. The problem is that it is turning out that CE has an exceedingly low EROI (< 2) and some studies have shown less than one, meaning that it takes more total energy to produce than is in the ethanol itself. This produces a net negative energy gain which is totally unsustainable. Since EROI numbers for the alternatives (and nuclear as well when decommisioning and other relevant energy costs are included) are already very low (as compared with oil in its early years), bringing in additional relevant energy costs will only make them much less. Coupled with the sheer ramp-up scale (that will have to be subsidized by fossil fuels!) that would be required to even come close to 50% of todays energy consumption, this claim that we will be able to carry on with something like our current economy is no more than wishful thinking. For a really good summation and analysis of the alternative (renewable) energy problem see: Smil, Vaclav, (2008). Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.