Post 47: Are We Too Many? (Part 2)

I posted the first half of this piece last week. In that post, along with this one, I’m responding to an article from The Atlantic’s Weekly Planet,People Who Hate People,” by Jerusalem Demsas, May 25, 2022.

It makes sense at this point to go back to Paul Ehrlich’s personal evolution, because it grew in same direction as other population scientists. (He identifies as “mainstream” now.) These days, he considers population and resource issues together, specifically preservation of genetic resources, endangered species, and environmental ethics. He’s concerned that humanity has picked the low-hanging fruit and will have to depend increasingly on resources that might be more damaging to the environment.

It should be clear that no ideal population number for the planet—what our limited world can support—can be calculated without understanding what resources people consume, and the degree to which the resources are sustainable. Right now, of course, rich countries use many times more than poor countries, as the following graphic illustrates.

The World Is Not Enough: graphic showing the number of Earths needed to sustain selected countries.
Number of Earths needed by selected countries. Source: Global Footprint Network.

Clearly, it’s unfair that U.S. residents are living lives that are five times more “abundantly” than Indonesians. So what can be done?

Jerusalem Demsas believes technology can save us. She cites the huge increase in grain production that was achieved over the last few decades through what was called the Green Revolution (overlapping modern agricultural methods). This revolution did, indeed, provide food for many people who would otherwise have starved, and for them it was a true miracle. It did, however, cause some serious problems for others down the line, however. A partial list includes:

“ . . . reduction in soil fertility, soil contamination, soil erosion, water shortages, reduction in genetic diversity, greater vulnerability to pests, reduced availability for the local population of nutritious food crops, rural impoverishment, the displacement of small farmers and increased social conflict.” (From “Five Major Demerits or Problems of Green Revolution in India.” The data refers to the Punjab region of India but is, nevertheless, broadly applicable—even incomplete.)

As an unintended effect, lifesaving technology increased human population. This is a rule of history—when a food supply can support more people, more babies are born.

A general characteristic of technology is that people rarely anticipate the possible long-term effects of its use. This more than an unwillingness to look, however. It’s all but impossible to figure out. Consider our happy, hopeful, green solar energy: Does anyone talk about what metals are required, where they’re mined, how the mining affects the ecosystem and people there? What’s needed for infrastructure and, especially, energy storage? What land must be destroyed for facilities?  How long is the life of the components—panels, batteries? Where will the spent parts end up—usefully recycled (which takes energy), or sent to landfills? What will happen to any toxic components? Can we scale all this up for everyone on Earth?

We want to jump on the immediate, sometimes miraculous benefits of a new technology, and that’s what we usually do. It’s only after we’ve adopted it that the ramifications start to become clear.

Whatever immediate “life improvements” might come to individuals, developments in technology mostly benefit the wealthy. Shiny gadgets and futuristic-looking devices are promoted as cool, but they’re not really for us, they’re for Big Tech’s profits. That rocket taking passengers into space? We funded it, but we’ll never be invited along.

Fake graph illustrating the increase in technology and the decrease in important global problems that can be solved with technology.
This fake graph is meant to be humorous, but it seriously illustrates what’s historically true about the general relationship of growing technology to the solution of important global problems over time. (Credit: Kay Sather)

Technology causes more problems than it solves. But this is a huge and complex subject that can’t be argued any further here. Read Techno-Fix: Why Technology won’t Save Us or the Environment, by Michael Huesemann, or watch him talk in this video.

Sure, a growing population means more people generating more ideas. But they’d better be good ideas. They must solve the serious problems of humanity, without causing worse, and they can’t exist mostly for the purpose of lining someone’s pockets. They need to offset the greater resource hunger of those additional people. That’s a tall order.

It should be hugely positive that birth rates—overall fertility rates—are declining. You know who’s not happy about this? You know who believes it’s “the real population-related concern of the century”? It’s the people who depend on consumers for their wealth. Fewer people means fewer purchases and fewer profits.

And density isn’t a problem. It’s only a liability for those who need lots of personal space (and may justify their exclusion of others by weirdly linking it to population concerns). Densely populated cities do use less fossil fuel. It should be noted, though, that cities aren’t sustainable in themselves—almost everything needs to be trucked or shipped or flown in from other places.        

So far, the decline in fertility rates is not enough to balance population increases. This beautifully constructed video illustration of world population over time is a must-see.

This version from the Population Connection comes with brief (though important) notes about resources at the end.

Obviously, some things that reduce population are horrific. Demsas mentions killing people, or limiting the aid given to the sick, and birth control at the end of the list. I presume the author isn’t really advocating the first two; “preventing people from being born” is the only acceptable method, even though it takes time. But for some reason we’re linked to certain survey data as evidence that promoting contraception won’t work. The surveys show that women are already “having fewer children than they would like,” so “more family planning services [are] not going to cut the population by four-fifths.” But the logic is flawed; the survey data are from American women. The conclusion here is essentially saying more family planning services for women who already have them aren’t going to cut world population by much. No, they’re not, although the Endangered Species Condoms offered by the Center for Biological Diversity are still finding takers.

The point is to empower all women with the means to choose their family size, providing information, contraceptives, and access to abortion as a possible fallback, wherever the women happen to live. No legitimate climate change opponent or population activist should use coercion, or single out particular populations. If that sort of thing happens? We rail against it, as always.

Endangered Species Condoms with slogans like “When you’re feeling tender, think about the hellbender” and “Can’t refrain? Remember the whooping crane.”

Finally, if we refer back to the graph with the little Earths, we might be moved to ask a question: Since there’s only one Earth in the Universe, where do the rich countries get their extra Earths from? The answer, of course, is that the extra resources they—we—need come from the resources that the poor countries don’t use. If we think it’s only fair that these other planetary citizens get to start improving their lives, the goods they need to do so must come from 1), the rich countries; 2), what’s left of the Earth (i.e., stripping it bare); or 3), a reduction of overall need, due to a reduction of global population. If we don’t like options 1 or 2, perhaps we might consider option 3—to have a look at it, to start on that path and see if it’s doable. If we’re people who truly love people—all people, regardless of skin color, language, culture, gender. or financial status—we’ll look at ways to reduce our general numbers, providing benefits rather than harms in the process, until we can joyously welcome and provide for every little baby that comes into the world.

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