Bill Ryerson: The Challenges Presented by Global Population Growth

As we embark on a new year, it's important to keep the really big elements of our global predicament squarely in mind. To that end, we're surfacing this excellent discussion on population growth that Chris recorded in 2012 with Bill Ryerson of the Population Institute.

At the heart of the resource depletion story that we track here at is the number of people on earth competing for those resources.

The global population is more than 7 billion now and headed to 9 billion by 2050. If world population continues its exponential growth, when we will hit planetary carrying capacity limits with our key resources (or are we already exceeding them)? What are the just, humane, and rights-respecting options that are on the table for balancing the world’s population with the ability of the earth to sustain it?

Population management is an inflammatory issue. It's nearly impossible to discuss without triggering heated emotions, and rare is the leader who's willing to raise it. And by going unaddressed globally, the risk of problems created by overpopluation grow unchecked. War, poverty, starvation, disease, inequality...the list goes on.

Which is why we feel we need to have the courage to address this very important topic directly. And to have an adult-sized conversation about these risks and what can done about them.

In this podcast, Chris talks with Bill Ryerson, founder and president of the Population Media Center as well as the president of the Population Institute. They explore the current forecasts for world population growth, the expected future demand on world resources, and the range of options available for bringing them into balance sustainably.

We are adding about 225,000 people to the dinner table every night who were not there last night. So that is net growth of the world’s population on an annual basis of a new Egypt every year. In other words, 83 million additional people net growth annually. And that, from a climate change perspective alone, is a huge increment. Most of this growth is occurring in poor countries, so on a per-capita level, the people being added to the population have much lower impact than, say, if Europe were growing at that rate. But nevertheless, just from a climate perspective, with most of that 83 million additional people in low per capita greenhouse-gas output countries – this is between now and 2050 – at this rate of growth, it is the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.

Clearly resources like oil, coal, and gas are non-renewable and will eventually run out or become more and more expensive and therefore not reliable as a source of energy. But what is the renewable long-term sustainability or the carrying capacity of the environment in each geographic territory, and globally? What is the current and projected future human demand for those resources, and do we have sufficient natural resources to meet our needs?

Doing this kind of accounting is not difficult. There are very good robust scientific designs for measuring resource capacity and human demand, and projecting out what do we need to do in some time in the next few decades in order to get from what is clearly population overshoot to achieving something that is in balance. Because as long as we are in overshoot – and the global footprint network’s calculation is we are now at 50% overshoot –  that means we are digging into the savings account of our ecological systems, as you mentioned: the fisheries being one, forests being another. We are eating into the capital to sustain the growing population.

They also explore why population management is such a uniquely controversial topic. Not only are moral, civil, and religious beliefs in play, but the debate is also heavily influenced by large corporate and governmental organizations protecting their interests. So it's no wonder that a calm, respectful, and reasonable conversation on population remains so elusive.

But we're going to try to have one here.

Needless to say, our moderators are on high alert and will step in if they are needed. Thanks in advance for your conscientious, levelheaded, and respectful comments. We have the chance to do substantial thinking on some really meaty questions here. Let's make good use of it. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Bill Ryerson (46m:26s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

i'm really not understanding the human mind, or why something as simple as:
"unlimited growth on a finite planet is not possible" is so elusive for most to comprehend.

the only guess i have about why this is taking place is basically people dont want to change. the lifestyle we are addicted to, and depend upon… is killing us . what a dilemma. what a time to be alive.


since we seem to prefer a "race to the bottom", my path is to do whatever i can:
while my money still has purchasing power,
while there are still goods and services to purchase and
while my body is still strong enough to do hard work… to mitigate what is unfolding.
also, being grateful for how easy these days are is wise… because it will not always be like this.


happy 2014!

I haven't yet had a chance to listen to this podcast, but I wanted to share my thoughts on population in the Philippines.
I was just there over the holidays visiting my wife's family, and, as is the case each time I visit, I was impressed with how young and dense the population is.  Here is a graph of population growth in the Philippines, which is currently just around 100 million.  In 1950 the population was just over 20 million and in 1990 it was around 65 million.  

After being in the Philippines and seeing the reproductive politics of the Roman Catholic Church in action, on several levels, including a great deal of misinformation about the birth control pill proffered to my wife by some of her relatives, I assumed that the Philippines had the fastest population growth rate in East Asia, because I thought it was the only predominantly Roman Catholic country there.  

But, this list of countries by population growth rate proved me wrong.  I learned that East Timor has the highest pop. growth rate in East Asia at 3.5%, putting it up there with Afghanistan,  Niger, and Uganda.  I also learned that E. Timor is the other predominantly Roman Catholic country in East Asia.  Of course, there are a lot of factors besides religion at play with population growth rates, since Italy is also predominantly Roman Catholic and it has a pop. growth rate of 0.1%  It seems that the determinants of pop. growth rates are a complex mix of religion, culture, level of economic development, level of education and rights for women, and type of government.  So, while my concern about the reproductive policies of the R.C. church still stand, this is probably less of a factor in Philippines' population growth rate than I originally thought.

The growth rate in the Philippines is 1.7%, relatively tame by comparison with 3.5% of East Timor, but higher than some of its other SE Asian neighbors such as Vietnam (1.3%), Indonesia (1.15%) and Thailand (0.65%).  It's about the same as the pop. growth rate of Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia, however, and the graph above suggests that even a growth rate of 1.7% will be difficult to sustain in a world of higher energy costs.

Philippines is also a rice importer, unlike Thailand and Vietnam, two other high population countries in SE Asia, which are both rice exporters.  This seems to make Philippines even more vulnerable to a rise in energy prices.

Here is a resource that Philippines has plenty of, and which you see just about everywhere you go. smiley



Let me know if you're still having trouble (  You might need to refresh your screen to see the play button, but I believe it's there.  Thanks.

This is the nub of the issue for my old country, Zimbabwe. Population Growth.
Bob Mugabe said that ideally the Land should support perhaps 6 Million. It has 11 million, the last time I looked. The arithmetic is not hard.

This is why Bob denies AIDS, This is why if you are out of the country for more than 3 months you lose your citizenship. This is why people get sewn up into Hessian bags and dropped down abandoned mine shafts. (The Gorokohanzi).

This is why he confiscates food producing farmlands from the commercial farmers. He has to stop the population breeding. More food=more babies. This is why donated food aid languishes in warehouses in Harare. This is why the same donated food is sold to people who cannot afford it. This is why any surplus food that is produced in Zimbabwe is sold for Swiss franks.

He inherited the problem from Us, the white people because under our administration we allowed the population to explode. We tried all sorts of underhand tricks to keep a lid on it. (Feminism, forcing Dad to make bricks for the local school. 1000 bricks for each child etc.) They were ineffectual.

Because We (Africans) know what follows a population breakout, an UmFikani.  A Time of Madness, a time of Roast Pork. It has just happened in Ruwanda. It will happen again because just like Us, Bob Mugabe has failed to reduce the population to ecologically sustainable levels.

This is the African Way.

We are all Africans.

Thanks Arthur!

[quote=shastatodd]i'm really not understanding the human mind, or why something as simple as:
"unlimited growth on a finite planet is not possible" is so elusive for most to comprehend.
I recall somewhere Chris M. said (paraprased) "If you are on an exponential curve for long enough then you think it is flat ground."

[quote=Arthur Robey]Bob Mugabe said that ideally the Land should support perhaps 6 Million. It has 11 million, the last time I looked. The arithmetic is not hard.
Arthur, ndiri wo MuZimbabwe.
To suggest that Bob's desire is to keep the population trimmed is to credit him with enlightened humanitarianism at the very least. He is utterly unconcerned with humanity -: his sole motivator is control. Not of the population size but of its composite affiliations. Affiliation = power. There can be no other reason for the quiet genocide of Gukurahundi, otherwise the population control option could simply have been peaceful birth control & education instead. Zimbabwe has (had?) plenty of gorgeous fertile soil (particularly around the Mazoe & Banket areas) with which to feed 11m population. Types like him would happily use - and have used - population as an excuse for political & tribal genocide.
As for food distribution - Bob's party cardholders are well fed on Zimbabwe's donated food. Non-holders are not. If food languishes in warehouses then it's because it'll be allowed to rot before it can be used to feed non-Mugabe supporters. I have watched food being selectively distributed by the Zimbabwean army while starving MDC supporters are left to their fate. In the West we're preoccupied by how to feed a larger populace. Let's hope that nobody takes their cue from Mugabe for an easier solution.

Good to see you on site Locksmithuk.
I do not suggest anything humanitarian. I say that Bob is acting as a traditional Buntu leader. The people of his land belong to him. They are his possessions, to do with what ever he sees fit. 

He is the Main Man, the Head Honcho especially picked by the Ancestors for the role.

From his point of view he cannot understand the fuss we make. He is just doing his job, which is to ensure the People thrive. If they thrive, he thrives. From his point of view there are just too many of them, and as a farmer would look over his fields at his cattle and see that the herd needs thinning, so Bob has decided to thin his herd.

Has he not designated the shanty town people "Totemless" (People with no ancestors), and therefore of no value?

It is a hard job- but someone has to do it.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (remember that?), us whites go about things slightly differently when we hit the limits. We resort to infanticide.

The Vikings lived at the head of fjords, hemmed in by mountains and sea. This led to inbreeding which as we all know, makes the lethal recessive genes manifest. (They are expressed).

Whenever a child was born the communality made a decision whether the child would be an asset or a liability. If it was a liability or was defective in any way, it was dispatched.

This enabled the expression of lethal recessive genes and their elimination. Benign recessive genes were spread, such as blue eyes.

I am not espousing an Ideal, I am reporting on what I find.


To be Malthusian is to understand that "feeding the hungry" is at best a short term solution that has dire consequences going forward.  Ultimately, there will always be hunger at the margin, regardless of the size of the dole.  Malthus did an excellent job of describing the exponential growth problem in the early 1800s.
The ugliness humanity is capable of is readily obvious on both continents.

The reality is, population will be controlled.  Since we choose not to do it rationally, it's solution will come about by war or natural causes.  Unfortunately, the path we have chosen by inaction, will do damage to the planet that won't be repaired any time soon, perhaps never.


[quote=Amanda Witman]Let me know if you're still having trouble (  You might need to refresh your screen to see the play button, but I believe it's there.  Thanks.
PP team,
I use a podcast player apps on iphone called RSSRadio. In the past, your “Featured Voices” podcast used to be available shortly after they’ve been released on the web site but now they come many days later.  For instance the Brian Pretti is still not available.  Any reason why this is happening?

I think there is a lot of denial by the general population because they believe that Treknology has and will solved population limits. Not at all. There is a big confusion and misunderstanding out there between thermodynamic entropy (involved with energy and food and materials which we need to live), and information entropy (iPads and other glittery things that help with organizing society and information but provide none of the raw materials necessary to actually sustain us). This difference is misunderstood by almost everyone up to the highest levels. 
As mentioned, another of the factors contributing to the denial is the fact that we are living off of the planet's capital, and the average person doesn't make the connection that the energy still comes from the ground. We have no realistic plans of replacing this capital in some way when it's gone.

I've said it before but I'll say it again: when you add up all the energy humanity uses, it comes out to something like 95-98% of it comes from burning complex carbon molecules originally formed through photosynthesis in plants – i.e. we burn dead things that used to be alive (fossil fuels, biofuels, and food). Fossil fuels provide most of the chemicals and materials that we manufacture things out of as well (plastics being the most important example). We are still completely dependent on ecology for our survival, literally. Technology has not in any way lifted us away from our dependence on plants. The only thing technology has done is enable us to burn complex carbon molecules more efficiently, closer to the Carnot Limit, which has enabled us to pack ourselves even tighter and make us even more vulnerable to energy decline because, thanks to our wonderful economic leaders, they took those efficiency gains as an opportunity to grow the economy to fill all available voids.

And here's the scary numbers: We currently appropriate about 20% of the planet's total production of plant material for our own uses, with about 12% dedicated to the actual harvest. Furthermore, that harvest, as stimulated by the Green Revolution, is fully dependent on application of super-concentrated plant material from millions of years ago (fossil fuels). And even with all the advances made in the Green Revolution, global net primary production has actually gone down by 10%, because we degrade so many other ecosystems…

We burn about that much energy over again via fossil fuels. And because biofuels are inherently more inefficient than fossil fuels, in order to replace fossil fuels with biofuels would require more than 100% of the planet's net primary production, which we cant come anywhere close to achieving.

And on the consumption side, there are only so many energy reduction options available to society before things start falling apart. So basically, we are virtually guaranteed to see a planetary die-off after fossil fuels run out, if we do not find a replacement for the energy they provide. Nuclear is highly complex and dangerous and not something a society in decline is going to be able to manage. That leaves solar, and that's it. Basically, we either convert to a solar based infrastructure, and fast, or we are going to die. It really is that simple.

Someone once said to me on The Oil Drum: " There is no solution to overpopulation"

If you accept the premise of human population overshoot and resource limits (I do, but some people do not), then some form of population control is inevitable. Clearly the issue is hugely complex and any potential solution at human hands will require multiple efforts on multiple fronts, including changes to deep-seated religious beliefs, cultural and family values, tax systems, and on and on.
I offer the following idea as one small step towards reducing the human population – support voluntary assisted suicide. I suspect that there is a not insignificant number of people who would find relief in a “quick, painless” death at the time of their choosing - for example, people with terminal illnesses or the elderly with declining health who can no longer care for themselves and do not want to be a burden. Sanctioned voluntary suicide would serve to not only reduce the population, but enable those folks who opted for voluntary suicide to die with dignity while exercising some control over their deaths, and reduce the cost (to the family and the state) of extended life support/health care.
I would take this one step further to suggest that the practice of voluntary suicide be given an elevated cultural status and some monetary reward to make it a positive, desirable option. And that anyone who wishes to voluntarily end their life should be allowed to do so. A possible scenario could work like this: a legal voluntary suicide requires a signed “release” form on file with the state; the state provides the means of death and pays all costs for the termination; the state pays for disposal of the body; perhaps the state provides a small amount of money to the designated beneficiaries of the person voluntarily committing suicide; the community recognizes that the person who commits voluntary suicide is freeing up valuable resources for others to use to live.
This concept may sound silly, but by contrast, keeping people with terminal illnesses alive for months or years while paying exorbitant health care costs, bankrupting the family, and causing huge amounts of emotional pain is, simply, not humane. My mother died of complications from Alzheimer’s after about 5 years of declining capacity – I know for a fact she knew what was coming and would have gladly opted for a reasonable way out of that torture.

I have no comment on your idea Sirocco.  However, I do believe we will reduce our population like we always have (and always will): disease, starvation and war.
"Welcome to the Hunger Games. And may the odds be ever in your favor."

This podcast was one of the first I have heard in many listenings that prompted me to respond.  Go Bill Ryerson!
There is a fine line between coersion and education (re: about not having more babies than we can feed!). How do we communicate effectively the message that we are in control and that contraception can help us to counter the expectation driven by culture and religion that women's fundamental purpose is to serve God by having his children?  To make it more complicated - culture and the media beat us all relentlessly with the message that if we are not sexually attractive and fertile - we have little value.

We must value females, and indeed the meaning of our lives, in a very different way to overcome this dilemma.


I have been following this issue for many years and have received info from the Population Institute as well as many others similar organizations for many years.
If you spend some time reading the literature  going back, say 40-50 years, one thing will jump out at you (but is never discussed) is the almost complete lack of discussion of men related to population. It is so profound an omission that one would think there is a ban on mentioning men when talking about population.

I don't know when this started but it seems that as far back as the 1940's it was decided to divorce men from the process of procreation completely in literature and discussion when it comes to population issues.

This has profound negative (and dangerous) consequences for women, who are by default cast as the main perpetrators of overpopulation. Pay particular attention to the language used in population discussions. The words are carefully chosen: birthrate, birthrate always expressed as a ratio of births to number of women, contraception (for women), abortion (for women), etc. ALL the emphasis is placed on women in every respect and from every direction the conversation might lead.

This a most obvious "don't go there" than religion, culture, etc w/r/t population. Why this is so taboo, I cannot fathom, because if you look at the very simple mechanics of procreation, it always requires participation from  male and female.

There may be some nefarious reason for this near complete omission of men from the discussion. A way to shift responsibility for possible solutions perhaps? Laziness? An immense logic lapse that envelops the entire planet? Historical precedent?

Anyway, until we change the language to include both men and women when we talk about population I don't think we'll make much progress.



Telling points Mark BC - Thanks

It is important for people (especially women) to be empowered with education and access to family planning tools/technology. Most people think that is all you need. But I think it is also important for resources/wealth to be limited.
I think it is this triad of traits that comes together to reduce population growth. A formula that looks like this:

+family planning tools/technology

I think families with education and access to family planning and a lot of resources/wealth, will tend to still have more children: like 1, 2, 3, or 4.

But families with education and access to family planning, and a tightness of resources/wealth (like economic resources for food, housing, raising children, personal leisure activities, time, etc.) are the ones who tend to start limiting the number of children they have to 0, 1, or 2. Which is what we are seeing more of in overcrowded, expensive Japan.

The Great Race

The crux of the matter is, we hear a lot of optimists think that eventually, everyone on Earth will get to that point of "prosperity" with education and family planning and empowerment and wealth, and therefore the population will finally peak at 11 or 12 billion (or something like that) by maybe 2050 to 2100 and then stay stead or decline.

One would think that it is like a race, then: For the world population to get to stabilize at a certain point in time for the Earth to be saved.

But we don't have 50 years' or a century's time.

Already, the environment's ability to support humans is severely stressed. Non-renewable resources (minerals, water, fossil fuels, etc.) are being depleted - some with remaining feasible extraction lives measured in only a few decades. Cheap oil is past peak. Renewable resources (aquifers, global fish stocks, forestry products, arable land) are being extracted from at many orders of magnitude their replenishment rates (which are themselves plummeting). Climate change is accelerating.

We are already at over-capacity or overshoot. Even if a world of 12 billion human beings lived like a world of 4 billion did in terms of resources extraction and use (and that would mean Third World nomadic pastoralists and subsistence farmers having little change in their lives, while the rest of us in the First World collapsed our lifestyles down to one fifth of what we are used to, as if we would voluntarily do that)… I think even that would still be too little, too late.

I think the race is already lost. Humanity picked its method of population control ages ago - the same method used by other, less sentient creatures. Die-off it will be - not family planning.



Thank you Mark-BC for great insights and explanations of this complex issue. Its good to read feedback that is more that 1 or 2 lines. Excess, greed and waste have plagued mankind since the beginning. Todays Global economy, with the perceived power that fiat money has created for many people and corporations, has accelerated the destruction of a lifestyle that is unsustainable by consuming rather than producing and maintaining. I am by no means excluded from the group that is to a greater or lesser extent, a consumer, but I have forseen the impending catastrophe and am trying to prepare for a time when there will be a culling of the herd. Make a man go 1 week without food and what do you think he will be willing to do for his family?
Most of the western civilization has been coerced, or brainwashed, into thinking that going to a 40 hour a week job, buying a house that they cannot afford, having 2 new cars and a boat is "The American Dream". Few give thought to the fact that in 10 years, that boat we be forgotten, every appliance in their home will need to be replaced and both the cars are going to require major repairs and money to keep them going. So they think buying a new everything is the only option. No thanks to modern manufacturing and engineered obsolescence, many things cannot be repaired. I think those who hope to live in a world with diminishing returns on resources need to learn to grow things to feed themselves, have skills they can barter, contribute to a local-sustainable economy and not participate with the "Banksters" and their ponzi scheme.  
Regarding energy, there is an abundant energy source that surrounds our planet that is available that could supply most if not all our energy needs, but the controlling political leaders and the European banking system have made sure that the technology is nowhere near application ready. I do not know by solar if you mean light conversion to electricity or water heating. My understanding is that it is very inefficient. There is a continuous, nearly unlimited supply of electricity in the ionosphere. It is more concentrated in specific areas, but it is what causes our weather systems. The Egyptians may have been trying to use the Great Pyramid as one of these energy collecting points, originally it was capped with a gold top. Nikola Tesla had built a tower that was going to be a conduit to tap into this energy and distribute electricity. However, when his financier, JP Morgan learned Teslas' tower was going to be able to distribute free, or nearly free electricity, he pulled the plug on the money supply and the Wardenclyff tower was dismantled as scrap. There is a lot more to the story than that, but it is just a cliff note version.
Nuclear power, yes it is, in its current configuration a disaster. Just look at Fukishima and the poisoning of the Pacific Ocean. The nuclear program, in its infancy took a fatally wrong turn when the controlling powers looked to the nuclear program with a weapons based frame of mind. There is another fissionable material that can be used in modified light water reactors that has none of the hazardous byproducts nor the potential for an uncontrolled reaction. It is Thorium.
Conflict has been around as long recorded history. When Earth was ready for man, it was not one generation past before the first sibling rivalry resulted in the killing of a brother.

Mark-BC makes many sound comments but they are based on the common fallacious view that people are doing the damage to the environment. It is the technological systems that humans have devised that irreversibly consume tangible natural material resources and produce irrevocable material waste. People do little more than make intangible decisions, good and bad. Over population is a serious issue. But so if the fact that technological systems use natural resources at a high rate for the construction, operation and maintenance of the temporary infrastructure of civilization. It is this infrastructure that is so dependent on the flow of energy.The functioning of the population is very dependent on this infrastructure. Discussion that does not take this linkage into account realistically conveys a misleading impression.