Discussing the end of population growth is as politically incorrect as saying the simplest solution to peak oil and climate change is to use less fossil energy, starting with the most oil and fossil energy intense economies and societies.
By Andrew McKillop
Published September 01, 2009
In the 20th Century, world population nearly quadrupled from around 1.55 billion to about six billion. Nobody in their right mind, today, claims it could quadruple this century, to about 24 billion. Population boomers are, however, still at work, most recently the newly victorious Democratic Party of Japan, insisting that restoring or strengthening population growth is vital for the nation and good for everybody. Above all, population growth is claimed as good for 'classic' economic growth.
Unlike the twin challenges of climate change and high priced oil, which are now accepted by mainstream political and public opinion, any argument that even the 'demographic pump' for economic growth is a fallacy has to fight a wall of rhetoric, denial, conspiracy plot theory and politically correct thinking. Proposing ZPG or zero population growth as a vital goal for adjustment to reality and the way to avoid almost certain economic and geopolitical, as well as environmental catastrophe is still dismissed out of hand.
Favorite accusations are that not being in favor of 'robust' population growth is misanthropic, malthusian, racist, anti-family, antisocial, anti-progress and so on. The danger of continued population growth, even at ever lower, ever decreasing annual rates since the 1960s is still rejected by powerful supporters of population boom.
Probably the most basic argument used by ardent defenders of so-called vital, vigorous and exuberant demographic growth is that it almost guarantees economic growth. For governments strapped with rising, sometimes extreme high national debts, population growth seems to suggest future tax paying workers and rising government receipts - if employment grows.
The clear problem for ZPG is therefore set: it appears to set a cap or ceiling on economic growth, or at least state tax receipts, now that an old favorite among arguments for population growth - that it increases the number of footsoldiers for the nation's army - has been relegated to the trash can of military history. Peak Oil and Climate Change are now both admitted as plausible or probable, and above all are big business, but ZPG is still officially anti-economy and not wanted on board.
Peak Oil and Climate Change have been converted to assets for political and business deciders, and their benefits as rallying calls, profit centres and the base for a thousand hedge funds now exceed the time, effort and costs needed for stonewall denying them.
Out and about in the global economy, the late consumer society is now adopting the Green Revolution. Today it is not only socially acceptable, but also profitable for consumers to want ecoaware toys, green homes and apartments with solar roofs, and family saloon cars only emitting 120 grams of CO2 a kilometre, with an electric car coming soon.
All these consumer goods and services, and the employment, profits and taxes they generate flow directly or indirectly from Climate Change and Peak Oil. ZPG however only seems to imply lower tax receipts and declining sales of the latest eco-friendly baby carriage with disk brakes. The consumer public totally approves the spinoffs from climate change and peak oil activism, but are conversely easy to rouse against demographic doomsters.
Climate change and peak oil activists were treated like this until they became assets in generating a hoped-for new consumer boom - and also because climate change and oil resource depletion are simple facts.
The basic rationale for population growth - that it automatically generates economic growth - can be checked in today's rich world-poor world. One simple fact stands out. In 2007-2008 using FAO and IFPRI data, the number of people facing acute food shortage increased by about nine percent to attain more than 950 million. The same year, the last year of what is called 'vigorous' global economic growth before the present crisis, the world economy grew by about four percent using IMF data.
To be sure, this reality can be swept aside as a problem of income distribution, necessitating yet more economic growth to resolve, and more economic growth, politically correct logic affirms is facilitated or generated by population growth. The same type of logic reversals and acts of faith, we can note, have always been a basis for religious philiosophy, for example the agonizing question of the ranks and types of angels and their direct linkage to God, or not.
What the facts show is simple: Economic growth does not at all guarantee that people eat, let alone eat more. The vast majority of starving persons in the world are poor and exist outside the mainly white OECD countries, where food surpluses able to generate serious problems of mass obesity are one food-linked problem.
How the OECD countries are presently and still able to attain or create food surpluses is very simple to explain: they burn a lot more oil than poor countries. Whatever the calls for Green Energy, in the OECD countries of the real world present, OECD national food production in the real world present is totally oil dependent.
In some countries of the OECD, specially Japan, this has attained extreme highs, Japan using an average of more than ten barrels direct oil consumption per hectare of rice production per year. The ransacking of world fish stocks, mostly by OECD countries, Russia and China, is not possible without very intensive use of oil energy.
Producing more food, worldwide, with current technology and current practices would need a very large step up in nonOECD oil consumption - which no OECD leaderships, however pro-baby and anti-misanthropic they may be in public call for at present, or will call for in the peak oil and climate change constrained future.
To be sure global ZPG is an epic challenge. Imagining a future zero emission and ZPG society and economy with oil, gas and coal burning relegated to the antique past is not only fantastic, but would demand a complete change to how economic growth is considered. Diehard defenders of the growth economy, which includes all G20 leaderships for very simple reasons, make a point of seeing no need to limit population growth and mass migration. This is totally unlike their adoption of the ecoaware revolution and their febrile hunting of the Evil Molecule CO2.
In other words ZPG, to them, remains a menace.
Simply because of reality, that climate is changing and world oil production and export supply is either close to peak, or beyond peak, both these subjects no longer get rejected out of hand as doomster talk. In fact, peak oil doomsters and climate change doomsters are now actively recycled as economically valuable lobbyists, able to speed the consumer public's acceptance of economic change away from fossil fuel burning towards a more sustainable, or less unsustainable economy.
However, environmental doomsters who continue singling out population growth as a dangerous scourge with only negative long-term results are still treated as "anti progressive" elements. Upping the rhetoric, most defenders of economic growth treat population activists as edging us towards a modern equivalent of The Fall of Rome.
History shows that it took quite a while, around 40 years through about 410-450 AD, for Rome to fall. Taking 2009 and looking forward 40 years to 2049 places us right in the middle of massive climate change, according to government and official Web sites in almost any country round the world. It also places us near to near total drying-up and disappearance of world oil supply, according to increasingly official Web site and oil company data.
Looking back 40 years takes us to 1969. At the time, not only the Internet did not exist, but more important world population was about three billion less than present-day population. If the last doubling of the world's population from three billion to six billion, had been exclusively of OECD populations, adding three billion more average oil consumers of the OECD group to world population, the question of Peak Oil would no longer have any remaining 'controversy' attached to it. It would have become a permanent headline crisis.
Climate change also would very surely and certainly be far worse, today, than it is. Similar to world merchandise food exports, wood production, metals and minerals supplies, and even cement and stone aggregates, the OECD countries with a current 2009 population of just over one billion consumes a little more than 50 percent of world oil output, over 60 percent of world metals and minerals, and about 70 percent of world wood products and merchandise food supplies.
Adding three billion OECD oil consumers who used on average about 13.5 barrels per head in 2008 to the world's population would raise world oil consumption to about 75 billion barrels a year today. If this had happened in 1960-2000, world oil demand today would be far above twice the actual consumption of around 31 billion barrels a year - and very simply totally impossible to produce.
The same of course also applies to minerals, metals, wood and food supplies. This underlines that OECD style personal and national consumption, plus population growth, only have one read out. Far from being sustainable, combining OECD style consumption and ongoing population growth - the basic driver of the Global Economy - can only generate economic collapse, uncontrolled mass migration or war for resources.
Underlying but unstated in the kneejerk rejection of global ZPG as an urgent priority, by diehard defenders of the growth economy, we have simple fear. How do we feed that many people, let alone build them green cities, or green cars with lithium ion batteries recharged by spinning windmills needing neodymium generator magnets, aligned in massive ranks on a faraway horizon? Will there be enough "Green Energy Revolution" resources, such as lithium and neodymium, to replace oil, gas and coal? Could we replace and substitute the current 98 percent oil fuelled car fleet of about 900 million units with friendly electric cars?
What happens if the new, moderate and reasonable 'consensus' population growth forecasts for 2050, of about 9.1 to 9.5 billion, come true?
This would add about 2.6 billion to the current world population, about two-and-a-half times the current total population of the OECD group. Most of this population growth will be urban. What does history tell us about large urban populations who run out of basic resources?
The world population overhang at the time of Rome's fall in the 5th Century AD was at most small, but was highly urban oriented and specially concerned unsure or inadequate food supplies. Rome's fall, relative to 20th Century barbarity was an "orange revolution" if not a green one.
History shows there was a surprisingly low body count at each visit from Hun invaders, increasingly joined by wandering population groups from all around the western half of the shrinking Roman Empire. Inside the empire's apparatus, the Roman elite had lost contact with the masses, were decadent in the extreme, and would have surely leapt at the chance to supply pesticide laden convenience foods to the masses, to keep them quiet.
Any role of fossil fuel exhaustion or technology change in the Fall of Rome was either 100 percent absent or extremely marginal. Conversely, climate change and environmental mismanagement likely had a large role in the downfall. This increasingly exposed Rome's large population to food supply shortages, which intensified as its population grew and crop yields declined in overworked fields across the Roman region, and beyond.
Today we have a "consensus view" that world population can only go on increasing. This alone shackles innovation because human numbers, and therefore needs, are so high. It is not possible to change anything, or not much, because daily demand pressure on resources, of all kinds, is so extreme high.
Due to this, the logic continues, we need the Green Revolution or "New Industrial Revoloution" but in a rigorously growth-economy context. There can only be minor change of urban and industrial systems, structures and infrastructures, in fact they must be dramatically increased due to population growth - needing strong and stable economic growth to pay the party.
If not, we get disaster. Nobody pretends this will be easy, of course, so the next industrial revolution is described as indeed painful but above all necessary.
The Ancient Roman downsizing alternative surely does not figure on "consensus view" Web sites. These vaunt the merits of the next and green industrial revolution, driving economic growth for decades ahead. This was the verbally gymnastic, but unrealistic and impossible by-line to the G20 London Summit of April 2009, catchily titled : Towards A Global Green Recovery.
Political leaderships of the G20 are to be congratulated as not so far behind their captains of industry, and finance, in polishing up their climate change based, greenwash and green growth rhetoric. Staying ambivalent on peak oil, because any weakness on that front will of course be exploited by OPEC and Wall Street oil traders, they pile on CO2 fear and loathing as reasons why consumers must love windmills, buy solar collectors and change their oil-fuelled car for an electric car the moment these come on the market. Lithium supply problems are for the 'investor community' to play with, that is handy ammunition for cranking up boom-bust market swings for the financial gambling fraternity.
Never on public view is the population bomb that eliminates most options and makes economic growth not a luxury, but a basic need. Most political leaders therefore feel heavily constrained to play correct, and always warmly approve population growth - because they fondly believe it drives economic growth.
However, the bad news for this demographic no alternative is that world population growth rates are falling, and population ageing is an increasing reality in many countries - including the world's most populous country, China.
World population doubled, that is added 3.35 billion or increased by 100 percent through 1965-2005, but not even population boomers who believe that growing population "can only mean" economic growth, are able to suggest more than another 50 percent or 60 percent added in the next 40 years to 2050. Put another way, try finding any talk on the Web, today, about world population attaining 13.4 billion in a "forecastable future", let alone the 25 billion that full-blown 20th Century-style population growth would need.
Without admitting it too openly, population boomers have to concede that population growth as an annual percent rate is slowing, and has been slowing for a long time. Since the late 1960s, as an annual percent rate, world population growth has fallen about two-thirds or 67 percent, but due to the size effect of world population is able to generate a net increase of about 65 - 70 million per year. At late 1960s peak percentage growth rates, more than 3.3 percent a year, the world's population would be growing, today, at around 200 million a year.
The annual percentage growth rate has fallen by 67 percent in 45 years. There is no theoretical reason the other 33 percent or one-third will not also disappear, bringing world population to real ZPG or zero population growth. Put another way, nothing guarantees the 40 percent or 50 percent growth of world population to 2050 that "consensus views" suggest today.
Checking consensus views in the 1990s and 1980s shows how much population boomers have had to tame their rhetoric! Previous "consensus forecasts" of world population in 2050, dating from the 1970s and 1980s, went as high as 14 billion. Few go beyond 9 to 9.5 billion today - meaning that the politically correct future world population of 2050 "lost 4 or 5 billion" in 25 years.
We can compare that with the world's total present population, of about 6.7 billion. This figure can only be given to the nearest 200 million or so, despite pretence to the contrary by agencies such as the US Census Bureau, which claims the August 2009 population is 6.7819 billion, due to census and counting errors and problems, specially in poorer countries, which are not amenable to revision by satellite sensing.
To be sure, Ancient Roman style 80 percent downsizing in 80 years figures nowhere, but world population downsizing needs to be stated as an option. Very few Roman exiles and refugees died on the spot - they voted with their feet, went elsewhere and lived differently, but tended to reproduce slower, with smaller families, afterwards.
This can be a world paradigm for the 21st Century. World population does not have to increase to 2050. It could or might fall 25 percent to 33 percent in the same 40-year period, by 2050. In other words, world population would peak very soon, by about 2015, then start falling. Responsible and pro-active treatment of the population bomb would set out to defuse it the same way China's leaders have done for over 20 years, and seek this end: 25 percent to 33 percent less world population by 2050.
Like the balance between forces and factors raising world temperatures, or lowering them, world population dynamics are anything but set in stone, and as with climate change, tipping points exist. The impact of major downward change in world population growth rates through the next 40 years would be dramatic in the extreme. Outlooks for both oil depletion and climate change could or would radically change, both of them for the better, because there would be more time and more resource capacity per person for the epic-scale adjustment that is coming.
The demographic pump that limits or destroys options would calm down or stop - but the clear and basic collateral dead victim would be economic growth.
One reason the end of population growth is a no-no subject is simple. It is as politically incorrect as saying the simplest solution to peak oil and anthropogenic CO2 emissions is to use less fossil energy, every year, starting with the most oil and fossil energy intense, most energy wasteful economies and societies. That is, the OECD group and a few small population oil and gas exporter countries.
Using less fossil energy is basic to human survival this century, and in the case of oil is a self-fulfilling prophecy simply due to geological depletion. Shutting down the demographic pump of 'classic' economic growth will make this inevitable and obligatory process all the easier.
The problem is economic and decisional inertia, due to religious style belief that population growth almost guarantees economic growth. What we find in all past history, and will find in the near-term future is that when there is population growth but no economic growth, we are in big trouble.
Population boomers like to present themselves as friends of humanity, or at least of the Pope and nearly all religious leaderships. Population boomers go hand-in-hand with New Economy growth fanatics. Their 'elegant' reasoning can be set out very simply. More population, in theory, can only drive down wage costs as more poor people seek work.
This is not the usual way this 'humanist' logic is communicated. In the stirring rhetoric of growth fanatics, dating as far back as David Ricardo, everybody could or might become more wealthier, even the poor, at some glorious far-off time in the future, placed at close to Last Judgement Day for Ricardo's pal Thomas Malthus.
In classical economic theory, when the poor dont find work, those who dont starve will emigrate to where they hope work might be available. Worldwide, simple facts show that emigrants move from poor countries to rich countries. Trying to prove the contrary is a waste of time. Not being able to drive down wage costs in their home country, because poverty, underinvestment and underdevelopment means there arent enough jobs and wages are extreme low, they tend to drive down wages in richer countries.
Added frills to the population boomers' rhetoric includes the innovation that mass poverty and low wages supposedly add to the glorious growth society and economy. Growing population pressure on resources, they say, leads to innovation and economic efficiency.
Cold and simple facts show what really happens when populations get poorer. Innovation stops, environmental resources are depradated, the economy goes to a survival setting, social conflict rises and civil wars start.
This real world impact of population growth and mass migration, which does not surface in the official rhetoric, is grist to the satanic mills and sweat shops of classic capitalism. At times of economic recession and rising poverty, overpopulation is also a good, historic, proven cause of political extremism and world wars. A simple question: would Hitler have been voted to power without the Great Depression?
Overpopulation is also a driver for historic and genocidal mass migration adventures, called "peopling the empty continents", these events being far more destructive than Hun invader visits to Ancient Rome.
What has to be understood is another no-no subject. The near quadrupling of world population in the 20th Century, from about 1.5 billion to 6 billion, was a one-off event. It won't happen again and can't happen again.
Simple math shows this: quadrupling the world's present 6.7 billion population, to 27 billion, would destroy this planet's ecosystems, destroy this planet's forests and soil resources, world fossil energy reserves would disappear in an eyeblink, climate change would slip, or race out of all control, and human populations would collapse.
Knowing that another quadrupling of world population is totally impossible, why not think about cutting present day world population ?
The reason is simple: if world population starts shrinking, or even if it continues slowing, economic growth will likely become an endangered species. The 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis could or might have already 'undermined' growth for some while into the future - but further falls in world population growth would add more certainty to the ZEG (zero economic growth) prospect.
In any case, massive population growth is now receding, simply due to population ageing, soil erosion and desertification, loss of arable land, water shortages, fossil energy depletion and transgenic disease - among others.
We can easily argue the 20th Century population boom was at least equal in unrepeatability, and close linked to the fossil energy boom of the 20th Century. Since the scramble to produce and burn the planet's fossil energy reserves in record time is now coming to be recognized as not only unrepeatable and by definition unsustainable, but also undesirable, this same reasoning and status can be shifted to population growth.
Like peak oil and climate change, calls for changing the population pump that pushes the world to make-or-break decisions on the future of civilization will likely stay underground, then break out to the high ground. This may be sooner rather than later. For decades, climate change and peak oil were politically uncorrect, the subject of controversy, of claims and counter claims, of deliberate disinformation but both finally broke out to the mainstream - and both now make money!
Likewise, calls for action to get global ZPG by about 2015 are more than just a possibility. When we get a fall in oil and energy demand, and economic growth, when these all turn negative, population growth also falls.
This has happened before: in the 1930s. We also know what happened to world politics in the 1930s, the growth of European fascism and nazism being a democratic ballot box favorite, not needed by Stalinist totalitarianism, Japanese imperialism, or US and British colonialism.
These somber forces fought it out in the past, but a remake is unlikely today. The global economy has leveled the playfield, nations have shriveled to antique textbook status, ideologies have shriveled also, and consuming more is the only and universal ethic - meaning classic wars of 20th Century style are unlikely.
Winding down the growth economy while maintaining the sustainale parts of the global economy is not going to be easy. This fact alone makes for continued and determined refusal to publicly consider population options, including controlled large scale migration, but in no way removes the coming obligation to act.
Linked with the cleantech and energy transitions, ZPG can become a key part of transition to sustainability - without ZPG the doomsters still retain a master card.