Paul Ehrlich: The Population Bomb

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich released his ground-breaking book The Population Bomb, which awoke the national consciousness to the collision-course world population growth is on with our planet's finite resources. His work was reinforced several years later by the Limits To Growth report issued by the Club of Rome.

Fast-forward almost 50 years later, and Ehrlich's book reads more like a 'how to' manual. Nearly all the predictions it made are coming to pass, if they haven't already. Ehrlich admits that things are even more dire than he originally forecasted; not just from the size of the predicament, but because of the lack of social willingness and political courage to address or even acknowledge the situation:

The situation is much more grim because, of course, when the population bomb was written, there were 3.5 billion people on the planet. Now there are 7.3 billion people on the planet. And we are projected to have something on the order of 9.6 billion people 35 years from now. That means that we are scheduled to add to the population many more people than were alive when I was born in 1932. When I was born there were 2 billion people. The idea that, in 35 years when we already have billions of people hungry or micronutrient-malnourished, we are somehow going to have to take care of 2.5 billion more people is a daunting idea. 

I think it's going to get a lot worse for a lot more people. You've got to remember that each person we add disproportionately causes ecological damage. For example, human beings are smart. So human beings use the easiest to get to, the purest, the finest resources first.

When thousands of years ago we started to fool around with copper, copper was lying on the surface of the earth. Now we have at least one mine that goes down at least two miles and is mining copper that is about 0.3% ore. And yet we go that deep and we refine that much. Same thing the first commercial oil well in the United States. We went down 69.5 feet in 1859 to hit oil. The one off in the Gulf of Mexico started a mile under water and went down a couple of more miles before it had the blow-out that ruined the Gulf of Mexico.

Each person you add has to be fed from poorer land, drink water that has to be pumped from deeper wells or transported further or purified more, and have their materials sourced from other depleting resources. And so there is a disproportion there. When you figure that we are going to have to try and feed several billion more people and that the agricultural system itself, the food system supplies something like 30% of the greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere. Those greenhouse gases are changing the climate rapidly, yet rapid climate change is the big enemy of agriculture -- you can see that we are heading down a road that leads to a bridge that’s out. And we are not paying any attention to trying to apply the brakes

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Paul Ehrlich (47m:06s)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/paul-ehrlich-the-population-bomb/

For those who, like me, believe a limited population will be best in the future, I have two questions:
  1. What would the ideal world population be 50 years from now?

  2. How would we go about reaching that population level?

The 50 year mark is a critical period. By then most fossil fuels will be gone, and we will probably be relying on resources close to what the world can sustainably provide. That date (2065) is relevant. Many reading this could still be alive.

Should we reduce from the current 7 billion? Should we reduce to 2 billion as some suggest? Or are we Ok as long as we keep below something like 10 billion? What should the target population be?

If we must reduce to 2 billion in 50 years, then we have a big problem. It is safe to say that 2/7 of the current 7 billion are under 20 years old. And if the average lifespan is 70, then most of those under 20 today would expect to be alive in 2065. So even if we went to extremes and somehow prevented all births–all births!–for the next 50 years, we might still have more than 2 billion people on the planet! And having 2 billion people alive, with all of them over 50, is not a good long-term strategy for the planet.

So do we have time to waste? Should we begin now to try to humanely reach the population we want in 2065?

 

 

 

 

Thank you, Paul and Chris, for putting this together.
Paul says that with increased opportunity, the birth rate comes down. What if in the future there is less opportunity? What if, in the future, women struggle 16 hours a day to keep their family alive with limited resources? With less opportunity, will the population rate go up?

What if, in the future, electronic entertainment is less widely available? Will recreational sex make a comeback?

What if, in a future with limited petroleum, contraceptives are less readily available. Will the birth rate go up?

What if, in the future, the availability of a quality education goes down? Will the effects of modern education gains be erased, and population start rising rapidly?

What if Social Security and Medicare can no longer be relied on? Will people instead start having more children as a retirement strategy? That is a serious question. I had a woman tell me she was having a large family so that, in the future, when there is no Social Security, her many kids will take care of her, but those with no children will  be left to starve. If many adopt her retirement plan, where will we be?

I would like to share the hope that, as long as people are educated and have good opportunity in the future, that population will limit itself, and that will be just fine. But human psychology is hard to judge. What will people do when faced with a resource-poor world in the future?

 

 

 

Thank you, Paul and Chris, for putting this together.
Paul says that with increased opportunity, the birth rate comes down. What if in the future there is less opportunity? What if, in the future, women struggle 16 hours a day to keep their family alive with limited resources? With less opportunity, will the population rate go up?

What if, in the future, electronic entertainment is less widely available? Will recreational sex make a comeback?

What if, in a future with limited petroleum, contraceptives are less readily available. Will the birth rate go up?

What if, in the future, the availability of a quality education goes down? Will the effects of modern education gains be erased, and population start rising rapidly?

What if Social Security and Medicare can no longer be relied on? Will people instead start having more children as a retirement strategy? That is a serious question. I had a woman tell me she was having a large family so that, in the future, when there is no Social Security, her many kids will take care of her, but those with no children will  be left to starve. If many adopt her retirement plan, where will we be?

I would like to share the hope that, as long as people are educated and have good opportunity in the future, that population will limit itself, and that will be just fine. But human psychology is hard to judge. What will people do when faced with a resource-poor world in the future?

 

 

 

 
http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/may/30/iran-baby-boom-population-drive-womens-rights

Iran's supreme leader has called for a population increase in an edict likely to restrict access to contraception that critics fear could damage women's rights and public health.

In his 14-point decree, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said increasing Iran's 76 million-strong population would strengthen national identity and counter undesirable aspects of western lifestyles. "Given the importance of population size in sovereign might and economic progress … firm, quick and efficient steps must be taken to offset the steep fall in birth rate of recent years," he wrote on his website.

Khamenei's order, which must be applied by all three branches of government, replaces the "fewer kids, better life" motto adopted in the late 1980s when contraception was made widely available.
http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2014/aug/13/baby-boom-baby-shortage
Khamenei urged the government to introduce measures to boost the population—now almost 80 million — to 150 million or more. The Ministry of Health then pulled funding from the family planning program and ended free vasectomies to encourage larger families. It eventually replaced birth control classes with ones that urged having more children.
 
            In late 2013, billboards depicting happy-looking families with four children were plastered across Tehran. Single fathers with one son were shown lagging behind larger families propelling canoes or bicycles. In 2013 and 2014, Khamenei’s office turned to social media to promoted idyllic visions of marriage and life in large families.
 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/9446882/Iran-scraps-birth-control-programme-in-baby-boom-bid.html  
The health ministry confirmed the shift days after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, said that the two-decade-old policy of controlled growth must end and that Iran should aim for a population of 150 to 200 million.
A recent census revealed the country currently has just over 75 million inhabitants. According to data published by the UN in 2009, Iran topped the global list of countries experiencing the greatest drop in fertility rates since 1980.
Not picking on this particular country, the articles just seemed timely and pertinent given the discussion at hand.

Bravo for having Paul Ehrlich for an interview!  Our environmental/climate/population problems dwarf every other problem facing us and it is stimulating to hear such clear thinking about these issues.

As of the discussion a few weeks ago, I still maintain that population growth is not the problem anymore. An increase from 7 to 9 billion or wherever it levels off is only about 25%. That's not going to kill the planet. What's already killed the planet was the first 6.5 billion. Of much greater concern today is the drive to modernize the 5 billion poor people, which will demand a 10 fold (that's a 1000% increase versus 25%) increase in resource consumption, or equivalently, of a virtual population. This is due to order of magnitude multiplication up the trophic pyramid.
 
I've been through my blind technological savior phase like most people and can now see the writing on the wall. Sadly, I have lost hope and I think I need a new focus to drive my ambitions. As pointed out in the interview, it's not about science anymore, it is about politics which is going the wrong direction and getting worse.
 
The facts as I bluntly pointed out the other month to the resident denying economist in the Do the Math comments who refuses to acknowledge them: 97% of economic activity is powered by burning dead things that used to be alive (fossil fuels, biofuels, food, roughly a third each), all of which are produced by ecosystems. We appropriate roughly a quarter of the planet's production for biofuels and food. The planet's production has actually gone down by 10% since humanity rose to power. To provide 1 calorie of food ready to eat requires 10 calories of fossil fuels. Modern food production is utterly dependent on fossil fuels. But we will run out of them... the other energy sources that are supposed to take up the slack amount to 3% of our current energy supply and could never take over from fossil fuels, totally impractical.
 
To bring everyone up to a western standard of living would require about 4 times more biofuels, food and ff's. But we are going to run out of all three. Fossil fuels have allowed us to overshoot the planet's capacity 5 fold. There is nothing that can be done to avert disaster because I see zero significant political will to solve the energy crisis due to the reasons discussed in the interview; I see the politics of it getting worse, not better.
 
I now accept as a fact that the planet is going to die in the next century or so, and human population will be reduced to around 50 million which is probably the max sustainable carrying capacity for a human civilization of any significance above savages running wild.
 
Given that fact, what do you want to do with your life?
- Save the world? It isn't going to happen, far too late. Too frustrating and you will get nowhere. 
- Maybe work on preserving the amazing library of human knowledge to survive nuclear attacks and/or a Malthusian collapse with social breakdown? A very worthy goal. Something good may have come out of modern humanity.
- Try to preserve some pocket of biodiversity that may survive the coming collapse? Another worthy goal.
- Focus on your family and your own survival so you can be one of the surviving gene contributors to future generations? Sure, an interesting pursuit.
- Help other people to avoid suffering today, simply to lessen suffering?
- Ignore it and live your life to the fullest since it isn't going to matter anyways?
- Worship your spirituality?

Doesn't it make you proud that the Europeans are doing the right thing by having less children and ceding their place on the planet to others? We may rest assured that our extinction was to a worthy cause.
However, we shall see who manages to survive Really tough conditions. Humans have two modes of reproduction.  One for easy times, (oil/food, deglaciaton) and one for hard times, Glaciation. 

The glaciers aren't coming back, but the oil is going away.

In times of abundance the survival tactic is to breed often and young. Some of us have succeeded admirably in the industrial transition brought about by oil.

In times of scarcity the tactic is to pair bond for life in order to raise one or possibly two viable offspring to full adulthood. Excess babies are ruthlessly killed

The latter tactic is only used by the Bushmen (San) in Africa to the best of my knowledge, although I have never heard of them committing infanticide. I speculate that they manage to keep in balance with their environment by not getting old. The old are left with an ostrich egg full of water under the shade of a tree to await their fate. I have read that the first born son of the Inuit has an obligation to strangle his father.

The book "The Great Encephalization" has formed my views. I am sorry but the name of the author eludes me.

That process of becoming human may not be correct as I find the Ape/pig hypothesis appealing as I do the Aquatic Ape idea. One process does not preclude the others, of cause. 

It's good to know I wasn't the only one lured into the billowing white clouds as the DDT was periodically dispensed throughout the neighborhoods in the 60's.frowncrying
SS

I have not listened to the Podcast yet, but it is hard to get into the prepper state of mind, and all things considered, to not consider that the planet is seriously over populated.  I look forward to listening to the material, when I get the chance later this week.
That said, I sincerely hope that you are wrong Mark_BC and I hope the tone of the podcast is not as dark as you have described in your post.  I think your thought process here has merit, and you have obviously given some of the numbers some thought.

Specifically with respect to over population and collapse, I do see them woven together, but I don't  see the collapse as one single event, nor do I hope humans are stupid enough to use nuclear weapons to hasten the process.  Just thinking about it can make you pessimistic.

All of us are going to suffer a major decline in living standards, but where I think the real negative outcomes are going to happen in those places where there are already lots of people.  The landing for China and India will not be…enjoyable.

On the other hand, specific to the over population issue…perhaps it is the hope in me which says that humanity will collectively realize the threat (perhaps even as everything unfolds) and we as a people simply make the choice to stop expanding the population.  If we stopped having children today, the human race would be extinct in about a hundred years.  I am not suggesting anything that drastic, just trying to articulate how quickly the population would/could decline with the appropriate preasures.

Again, I have not listened to the Podcast just yet, but I think a larger factor in all of this is going to be Climate Change and how quickly the food supply becomes threatened.  If the climate sickens to the point where the food crisis truly becomes global…I could see the scenarios you describe.  For me, despite the population issues…that becomes the main threat.  If the climate can't support food production humanity has a major problem.

Peace,
Jason

I seem to recall a certain Left-Brain model that addressed this predicament quite thoroughly…now, let's see…where did I leave that model?..Ahh, here it is, the black line I believe.

There was a lot I agreed with punctuated with a fair number of statements or points that I completely disagreed with. 
One idea that was completely missed was that welfare results in greater population growth.

Thomas Malthus, in "As Essay on the Principle of Population" made a detailed and very logical argument that feeding the hungry does not ultimately reduce the number of hungry people.  It merely increases the population until a new balance is reached where there are just as many hungry people.

On the same note, Al Bartlet made a list of "good things" and "bad things."  Everything on the "good things" list supported higher population growth, while everything on the "bad things" list reduced the population.

One of the reasons that people may not want to talk about population control is that there is no easy, feel good answer.  Either we make tough decisions, or our population will be brought under control by external pressures.

On a complete side note, the recent news articles about Cecil sent me to the internet.  For every lion living in the wild on Earth, there are between 500,000 and 600,000 humans.  Can anyone really argue that human population is in overshoot?

 

there's no such thing, not objectively. more population = more stress, less population = less stress. it's a sliding scale and there's no right answer.

there is no "we". humans are not a homogenous group, and achieving any sort of consensus is impossible. different people have different goals and opinions.

tragically, if someone tries to be responsible and not have many (any) children, they will be out-bred, out-voted, and drowned out by those who pop out babies as quick as they can. it's self-defeating, a losing battle.

another option is to try to limit how many children someone else has - but does any person or group of people really have that right?

people are not cattle, no one owns other people, no one has the right to control others - including how many children they have - nor to enforce their will over others.

i trust in nature and its ability to self-regulate. whether that means birth rate declines and/or technology improves, or whether there is a catastrophic die-off due to war or famine, i don't know.

that's just life, and it's best to accept the facts. maybe over time humans will evolve and develop some sort of genetic wisdom in this regard.

We thought it was big fun.  What could possibly go wrong?

When I was born some 50 years ago, the Earth had some 4 billion people. With over 7.3 billion people today  (estimated to reach 10 billion in the 2040s), we humans and our domesticated livestock already make up over 98% of all terrestrial vertebrates on this planet. By 9 to 10 billion (Africa alone is expected to grow from 1.2 billion today 2 billion by 2050) we and our meat will will easily make up over 99.9%. Many, many species will be made extinct in our push for lebensraum.
 
The world's major fisheries are facing collapse or have already collapsed. Many major aquifers in breadbasket areas of the Middle East, grain-growing India, the northern parts of China, The south half of California, Colorado River-irrigated Arizona, the Ogallala-irrigated southern part of the American Midwest, etc. are seeing remaining draws measured in a few decades, with parts already switched to lower-yield dry land farming.
 
As mentioned in the podcast, mining of several crucial minerals increasingly means poorer grades, more remote locations, more costly and environmentally damaging extraction.
 
If a 22-year-old today has lived through the extraction of more than half of all the petroleum ever pumped out of the ground in all of human history, but the last major oil field discoveries were in the 1960s... There is going to be a problem with scarce cheap-to-extract-and-refine fuel in the next couple of decades.
 
So what if we switch to coal when oil becomes scarcer and more expensive - which is what the 90% of the world's current plants under construction or in planning are planning to burn? Already, every year, we put more carbon into the atmosphere and oceans - equivalent to an entire Amazon rainforest in carbon mass every ten years.
 
Never mind the real and unstoppable juggernaut of climate change, which has already started chugging out of the station. Ocean acidification is already causing problems for shelled creatures at the bottom of marine food chains, reverberating upwards. This will collapse ocean life as we know it.
 
This "slowing" of population growth that many delusionally extol as a consequence of increased education and prosperity... It is a long-term strategy that takes generations to accomplish - assuming there us enough education and prosperity does make it out to all the billions of humans on Earth. As if it doesn't take many decades for backwards cultures and economies to change. We don't have the luxury of time, nor more resources, nor more money when we are in an economy built on debt and technology that requires fewer and fewer workers.
 
Honestly, the idea that people will have fewer children if given more education and prosperity is in reality a stupidly frantic and losing race against the exponentially growing consequences of resource depletion and climate change. Even at over 7 billion people today, we are not just eating into the new growth of our renewable resources (the interest), we are eating into the the base resources (the capital).
 
Slowly growing in population still means massive daily extraction and consumption and waste disposal for the 7 billion plus alive today. Even if we were to sterilize everyone at once, it wouldn't change the fact that climate change is already baked in, seal level rise will affect hundreds of millions globally, ocean acidification is having an effect now, the methane clathrate crystal-to-gas process had already been initiated, and everyone still needs to eat - and they all want things, things, and more things.
 
This is not sustainable. By the time we reach 9 to 10 billion people the extraction, consumption, and waste will be at a greater pace. Even if we plateau or slope gently downwards in population, the devastation will be in all likelihood too great to recover from in mankind's timeline.
 
The Earth will be fine. There may yet be a undiscovered deposits of metals and minerals (such as under Antarctica or Siberia - perhaps enough for another, wiser sentient species to make a go of it come 50 million years com now. Hopefully they won't mess up like we did.

I think you have mis-phrased your intent here (I believe you meant to imply that some folks would retreat into the spiritual to escape the terror/uncertainty of the temporal).  All I would say right now about this is that without my spiritual practice/belief I bet I would have lost heart to fight the fight a long time ago.  

 

VIVA – Sager

http://wildtruth.net/an-open-letter-to-humans-of-the-year-2100/
I found the above while jumping from links to links on some interesting articles.  A very sobering letter from the future that ties in with the mindset you have depicted in your post.

Jan

Never Nine Billion
He's usually pretty accurate about data, I think. 

    This is more than an interesting pursuit.  It is the only thing that counts.  1000 years hence our individual existence, our deeds, our fortunes, our names, and our civilization will be lost to time.  Those who do not reproduce will belong to the dustbin of history along with the other 97% of species that have gone extinct.  I don't know if there is a higher power or purpose for our existence or not.  What I do know is that anything that walks, flies, or crawls today is descended from whatever caused that first spark of life 3 or 4 billion years ago.  Our collective ancestors survived climate change, extinction events, plate tectonic movements, everything the Earth and history could throw at them, and yet here we are today. Our genes fought for survival before we were even human.  Think about that, 3 billion years of struggle for survival is contained in each of our genomes.  It's not going to end on my watch, peak oil and climate change be damned.  I'm going to do what 3 billion years of life and evolution have prepared me for, I'm going to fight for survival, for myself and my family.

In his book, The State of Humanity, it seems Julian Simon did an effective job of debunking the hippie dippie 60's era theory of the population bomb (i.e. the excuse for many current and desired Socialist/fascist policies). It's worth a read, even if you don't agree with all of it.  Does a good job of demonstrating that life is better today for the entire globe than in the history of man (income, state of poverty, life span/generalhealth, productivity, wealth, food production, etc.). I agree with it even though I feel that as a global society we stand with a glass chin, ready to be toppled back to the stone ages at any time.