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It’s time environmentalists talked about the population problem

It’s time environmentalists talked about the population problem

Bob Brown is right – it's time environmentalists talked about the population problem
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In all the talk of tackling environmental problems such as climate change, the problem of population growth often escapes attention. Politicians don’t like talking about it. By and large, neither do environmentalists—but former Greens leader Bob Brown has bucked that trend.

Brown recently declared the world’s  must start to decline before 2100, telling The Australian newspaper: “We are already using more than what the planet can supply and we use more than the living fabric of the planet in supply. That’s why we wake up every day to fewer fisheries, less forests, more extinctions and so on. The human herd at eight billion is the greatest herd of mammals ever on this planet and it is unsustainable to have that growing.”

Research suggests our species has far exceeded its fair share of the planetary bounty, and Brown is right to call for the  to peak. It is high time others joined the chorus—not only other environmentalists, but those concerned with international development and human rights.

Population growth, by the numbers

COVID-19 has killed more than one million people. While undeniably tragic, the figure is minor compared to world’s annual growth in population, estimated by the United Nations at about 83 million.

In 1900, the world’s population was about 1.6 billion people. By 2023 it’s expected to hit 8 billion. According to the UN, it will reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

(The US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation recently forecast a lower peak of about 9.7 billion by 2064, falling to about 8.8 billion by 2100.)

Why is the population growing so fast? Much of it is due to advanced fertilizers and intensive farming practices, leading to higher crop yields that can sustain more people. Health care has improved, and people are living much longer. And many parts of the world have historically had high fertility rates.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A life on our planet – review

A life on our planet – review

I watched David Attenborough’s film A life on our planet the other evening. The first, and largest, part of the movie was very well made. Perhaps not much new, but very well presented and with excellent footage and narrative. Some images are very strong, even brutal, such as a lonely orangutan sitting on a tree trunk in a devastated landscape. I think most viewers got the message: this has to change! And let me underline that this is a film worth watching.

Because the film is so compelling and Attenborough such a sympathetic person, viewers may accept all of its statements and arguments. This would, however, be a mistake in my opinion.

I totally agree with Attenborough that human population needs to stabilize. And it is true that, as far as we know today, birth rates falls when countries get richer (or vice versa). The problem is that lower population growth in one country is associated with increasing total resource use rather than the opposite. At least in the short term and with current consumption patterns, there is no relief for nature from lower population growth.What I missed in the first part was a lack of analysis of the underlying drivers causing the threatening sixth mass extinction. This is also reflected in shortcomings of the much shorter and optimistic second part of the film. The processes and technologies he claims will save the wilderness and human civilization are renewable energy, intensive farming methods, diet transformation, rewilding and reduced population growth.

His claim that renewable energy will make energy everywhere more affordable (than now) is wishful thinking with no evidence in reality.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The population problem problem

The population problem problem

A while ago I wrote a post probing critically at the idea that human population levels were at the root of our contemporary environmental problems. It prompted various critical responses in turn, including this one from Alan Ware and Dave Gardner of World Population Balance that’s only just come to my attention. They published it so long ago that I suppose the moment to engage with it has probably passed, except that it’s helped me clarify a few thoughts – as has a recent article by Meehan Crist in the London Review of Books1. Since the issues involved are still very much with us, it seems worth wading into the population question once again, this time through the lens of the critique levelled by Ware and Gardner (henceforth WG) at my original post.

I mischievously titled that original post “Population – what’s the problem?”, not necessarily to suggest that population isn’t a problem but to question what kind of problem it is. On this score, WG have no doubts – for them, it’s an “existential problem”. They proceed to substantiate this, as do many analysts on the topic, mostly by asserting very emphatically that it is a problem, sometimes invoking the emphatic assertions of others, especially those most respected of others, ‘scientists’. These scientists include the World scientists’ warning to humanity and other works co-authored by Eileen Crist. Seems like you need to be called Crist to weigh in on this debate.

Ah well, I almost qualify – and for my part, notwithstanding all these assertions, I’d say that inasmuch as population is a problem it seems to me a secondary problem that’s derivative of other, deeper ones.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Demographic Doom? Germany, Italy, Korea, & Japan Face Workforce Collapse By 2050

Demographic Doom? Germany, Italy, Korea, & Japan Face Workforce Collapse By 2050

Forget the trade war, debt, deflation, automation, and artificial intelligence: one of the most significant threats to the global economy and the future of the world as we know it is demographics.

A new OECD report, published by International Business Times, said Korea, Japan, Germany, and Italy could see their working-age populations decline to dangerously low levels by 2050.

The report took each OECD country’s population between the ages of 20 and 64 in the year 2000 as a base and was able to project the 2050 population. What they discovered was the working class population by 2050 would be 80% of its base year in Korea and Italy. In Japan, the workforce population would be much worse, approximately 60% of its original size.

For the OECD as a whole, there are about 34 countries from around the world, the size of the working age population is expected to increase by 111% of its original size by 2050. Much of the growth will be driven by stable birth rates and growing populations, like Australia and Turkey.

The OECD noted that Japan’s working-age population has been in collapse for nearly three decades. Korea’s working-age population was expanding until just recently but is expected to begin contracting this year.

For countries experiencing a decline in the working-age population, there will be widespread consequences across all aspects of the global economy: as households shrink, so does discretionary spending, and ultimately will impact living space. In developed markets, large cities will see increased pressure on real estate and rent prices for apartments.

In a separate report, we showed how countries around the world are set to experience a decline in the number of children per household in the 2000 – 2030 period. More specifically, looking from 2015 out to 2030, Euromonitor expects developed markets to have a ~20% decline in the number of children per household and developing markets a ~15% decline.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Vanishing open spaces: population growth and sprawl in America

Vanishing open spaces: population growth and sprawl in America

Before the fossil fuel age began, about 80 to 90% of people farmed to make a living. Since the end of the oil age will send us back to the past, farmland and farmers will once again comprise the greatest numbers of people.  So it’s alarming that on the cusp of peak global production of oil, we’re losing farmland at such a fast clip to development.   We need all the land we can get – in the Great Depression people were hungry, back when there was just a quarter of the population we have now, with 25% of people still farmers, unlike the 2% today. 

Cities were originally built where the best farmland and water existed. As cities and towns grow, they sprawl outwards over this prime farmland – in fact, that’s where 85% of developmental sprawl happens. The United Nations calls this soil sealing – the permanent covering of soil with impermeable materials such as asphalt or structures.  This leads to a total soil loss of food and fiber production, for water to infiltrate and be held and purified, and often increases flooding , the ability of the soil to hold water, loss of purification capacities, loss of carbon sequestration, increased urban heat from the loss of vegetation, and less biodiversity (FAO 2015).

Between 1945 and 1975, enough farms disappeared beneath concrete to pave Nebraska (Montgomery 2007), about 49.5 million acres (77,350 square miles).

Between 1982 and 2010 the U.S. lost 41.4 million acres, 14% of its crop land.  That’s equal to 65,000 square miles, an area as large as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania

Over a third of all land that has ever been developed occurred in the last 25 years.  If we keep paving over cropland at this rate, it will all be gone in 200 years.   

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Economic Doom Loop Well Underway

Economic Doom Loop Well Underway

From 2007 through 2018, births in the US have declined by 470 thousand on an annual basis, or an 11% decline.  The US fertility rate has likewise cracked lower, from 2.12 births to 1.72, an 18% decline (2.1 births over a females childbearing years is considered zero growth).  This has resulted in 4.5 million fewer net births in the US since 2007 than the Census had estimated in 2000 and again in 2008.  This is over an entire years worth of births that never took place.  The sharp decline in births, against an anticipated rise, and a deceleration from anticipated immigration has resulted in the Census downgrading US population growth through 2050 by over 50 million persons (detailed HERE).  This decelerating growth and outright declines are happening across the globe among the “wealthy nations”, leaving little growth opportunity for the “poor nations” (detailed HERE).

The decline in US births has been particularly steep among those with the lowest incomes and assets.  From 2007 through 2016, Native American fertility rates have collapsed from 1.62 to 1.23.  Hispanic birthrates have fallen from 2.85 to just 2.1.  Black birthrates have turned lower from 2.15 to about 1.9 and white birthrates from 1.95 to 1.72.  Again, these birthrates are only through 2016 and the declines in 2017 and 2018 are significant and accelerating downward.

The reason for fast declining birthrates since 2007 in the US and among most nations globally seems to be the current ZIRP and low interest rates and Quantitative Easing programs which have the effect of inflating asset prices.  The majority of assets are held by large institutions and post child bearing age populations.  The flow through of these policies are asset prices rising significantly faster than incomes.  For example, non-discretionary items like homes, rent, education, healthcare, insurance, childcare, etc. are skyrocketing versus wages.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Census Bureau, Treasury, EIA Detail American Insolvency

Census Bureau, Treasury, EIA Detail American Insolvency

Since 2007, US births and net immigration have consistently and unexpectedly fallen sharply.  Over the same span, US federal debt and unfunded liabilities have soared while federal tax receipts, as a percentage of the federal debt and unfunded liabilities, continue declining.  Total US energy consumption also peaked in ’07 and continues declining in contradiction to those soaring asset valuations.

Simply put, this article details an American insolvency and the ongoing attempt to print and inflate away this reality.  America has shown it isn’t afraid of (mis)using this digital printing press via collusion among the Federal Reserve, Treasury, and the Federal Government to disguise the simple truth that America is bankrupt and incapable of meeting its present and future obligations absent unlimited and unending monetization.

Demographic Development and Population Growth
According to the latest 2017 Census projection, the Census expects a near halving of population growth…or 50 million fewer Americans than it expected just 8 years earlier.  But critically, nearly all the projected declines are among the under 45 year old population while the 65+ year old population growth is still on track to swell.

Given the record low birth rates in 2017 and 2018, which came in 700 thousand annually below the ’08 Census projections, plus diminishing immigration, netting at least a half million annually below ’08 Census projections, the 2020 Census is likely to significantly further downgrade the potential for US population growth.  The impact for US economic growth, unfunded liabilities, and outgrowing personal, corporate, and federal debt is devastating.

What Happened?
From the mid 1990’s to 2007, a surge in immigration (both legal and illegal) and a rise in births resulted in significantly larger child bearing population and broad assumptions that America could outgrow its unfunded liabilities and debt issues. 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Managing without Growth. Slower by Design, not Disaster

Managing without Growth. Slower by Design, not Disaster

Book cover

It took homo sapiens some 200,000 years to reach the first billion by about 1800. In just the 10 years separating the first and second edition of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster, the human population increased by the same amount putting increased pressure on an already crowded planet. In the past decade the global use of resources spiked upwards, greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase, income and wealth inequality rose to the highest levels in half a century, the global financial system almost crashed, and mammal, bird and insect populations declined markedly because of increased deforestation and industrialized agriculture. So, while material living standards of the poorest rose, mostly in China, which is something to celebrate, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned about what lies ahead. Humanity’s grossly unequal ecological footprints greatly exceed the Earth’s regenerative biocapacity and it is doubtful whether the planet can support the continued economic growth to which virtually all of the world’s governments are committed.  Can we do better?

The opening chapters of this updated, revised, and expanded second edition Managing without Growth tell how the recent idea of economic growth emerged from the idea of progress, itself only a few hundred years old. There are many reasons for questioning growth as a key economic policy objective supported in the book based on extensive data as well as on conceptual and methodological considerations.  Critical attention is given to the commodification of nature through monetization. ‘Natural’ capital captures the spirit of the times, but it can hardly be said to capture the spirit of nature.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Two Cheers for Population Decline

singe child family car

Two Cheers for Population Decline

Eventual gradual population decline, provided it results from free choice, should be welcomed. Indeed, the greatest demographic challenge to human welfare is not low fertility and population aging, but rather the high fertility rates and rapid population growth still seen in Pakistan, much of the Middle East, and Africa.

LONDON – Since China abolished its one-child policy on January 1, 2016, annual births, after a temporary increase to 17.86 million that year, have actually fallen, from 16.55 million in 2015 to 15.23 million in 2018. The baby boom that wasn’t should surprise no one.

No other successful East Asian economy has ever imposed a one-child policy, but all have fertility rates far below replacement level. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.48 children per woman, South Korea’s is 1.32 and Taiwan’s 1.22. China’s fertility rate will almost certainly remain well below replacement level, even if all restrictions on family size are now removed.

Population decline will inevitably follow. According to the United Nations’ medium projection, East Asia’s total population will fall from 1.64 billion today to 1.2 billion in 2100. Nor is this simply an East Asian phenomenon. Iran’s fertility rate (1.62) is now well below replacement level, and Vietnam’s 1.95 slightly so. Across most of the Americas, from Canada (1.56) to Chile (1.76), rates are already well below two, or falling fast toward it.

The clear pattern is that successful economies have lower fertility rates: Chile’s rate is much lower than Argentina’s (2.27), and wealthier Indian states, such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, already have fertility rates around 1.8. In the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, fertility rates over three are still observed.

We should always be cautious about inferring universal rules of human behavior, but, as Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson suggest in their recent book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, it seems we can identify one.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Economic Breakdown Starts In East Asia due to Collapsed Births & Childbearing Populations

Economic Breakdown Starts In East Asia due to Collapsed Births & Childbearing Populations

The floor under the East Asia neighborhood (consisting of China, Japan, South / North Korea, Taiwan, & Mongolia) is about to fall away.  These nations (combined) equal slightly more than 20% of the global population and consume 27% of total global energy.  From 2000 through 2016, this region (spearheaded by China) represented 48% of the global growth in total energy consumption.  So, when I tell you these countries are economically entering long-term domestic declines (or perhaps outright collapses), the impacts will reverberate everywhere.
Why domestic economic decline or collapse?  This is simply following a massive population decline which has already taken place (past tense).  The chart below details the 44% fall in births since the double peaks seen in East Asia in ’67 and ’89.  This is an ongoing birth dearth of over 14 million fewer annually, since 1995.  Now this birth dearth will be compounded by the rapidly falling childbearing population of 15 to 39yr/olds, represented by the red line below (I exclude the 40+yr/olds because they simply have so few children as to simply create distraction).  By 2035, the East Asia child bearing population will decline by 30% or -202 million (no estimation, this population is already born and will just shift forward).  Absent some seismic shift (or turning away from the inflationary urbanization underway?), births will continue to tumble and national populations will ultimately likewise crumble.
Noteworthy above is the low water mark of just 15 million births in 1996…and the muted L shaped aftermath.  Those born in 1996 will be 23 years old in 2019, or generally entering adulthood.  On an annual basis, this is a relatively sudden 50%+ decline in new adults, new potential employees, new potential parents, new potential consumers entering the economy…and this is just the start of the “new normal”.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why the Fed, Nor Any Central Bank, Can Ever Truly “Normalize”

Why the Fed, Nor Any Central Bank, Can Ever Truly “Normalize”

Last week, I highlighted that since ’00, when the Federal Reserve has ceased adding to its balance sheet or begun “normalizing” (via rolling off assets), equity markets have swooned (detailed HERE).
A simple idea today…that the end of population growth (where it matters) has long been upon us (detailed below).  Absent population growth among the nations that do nearly all the consuming, a debt based economic and financial system (to coerce ever higher levels of debt fueled consumption) can’t ultimately succeed.  That is, without population growth, assets generally don’t appreciate, homes are just shelter rather than “investments”, and debt is generally only a drag on future spending.  Likewise, without population growth, total global energy consumption is on the precipice of secular decline (detailed HERE).

In this reality, the only means of maintaining or lifting asset prices further is ever more central bank monetization (aka, centrally planned and executed counterfeiting).  Of course, this monetization scheme is doomed to fail but while it continues, the gains are privatized while the losses are socialized.  But ultimately markets (and economies, as a means of honest exchange), will get cleared.  So, without further ado, I detail the end of population growth (particularly where it matters):

1- Simply put, topline global population growth (births) ceased increasing almost 30 years ago!  Looking solely at the top-line (dashed black line, chart below), note that from 1950 to 1989, annual global births increased 73% (+57 million).  Conversely, from 1989 to 2018, annual global births have risen just 1% (+1 million).  Based on UN data and UN median (overly optimistic) future estimates.

However, the distribution of those births among the differing groupings of nations (by income) has dramatically changed from 1950 to present…and will shift further by 2050.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A Debt Based System Can’t Succeed Without Population Growth

A Debt Based System Can’t Succeed Without Population Growth

A simple idea today…that the end of population growth (where it matters) is upon us.  Absent population growth among the nations that do nearly all the consuming, a debt based economic and financial system can’t ultimately succeed.  That is, without growth, assets generally don’t appreciate and debt is generally only a drag on future spending and activity.  The timing of the failure can be delayed and the gains privatized while the losses are socialized, but ultimately markets (and economies, as a means of honest exchange), will get cleared.  So, without further ado, the end of population growth:

1- Simply put, topline global population growth (births) ceased growing almost 30 years ago!  Looking solely at the top-line (chart below), note that from 1950 to 1989, annual global births increased 73% (+57 million/annually).  Conversely, from 1989 to 2018, annual global births have risen just 1% (+1 million/annually).  Data based on UN data and UN median estimates.

However, the distribution of those births among the differing groupings of nations (by income) has dramatically changed from 1950 to present…and will shift further by 2050.  The chart below shows the proportion of births among the high income, upper middle income nations, and China have nearly fallen in half since 1950…while the proportion of births among the lower middle and low income nations have soared.  More simply put, births among those that consume heavily (about 90% of total energy) have long since collapsed while births among those who consume relatively little (less than 10%) have soared.
But now, lets look at the sources and timing of those changing births and the implications for consumption.
High income nations births (blue line) and year over year change (red columns).  Incomes range from $90k to $12k, per capita, and these nations (US/Can, EU, Japan/S. Korea, Aus/NZ, etc.) consume 47% of total global energy.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The curse of Thomas Malthus

The curse of Thomas Malthus

Running through some notes from last year, I came across an article by Dietrich Vollrath published in 2017 that I’d printed out to give it proper consideration. It’s called, “Who are you calling Malthusian?”, and it addresses that interesting futures question of why calling someone “Malthusian” is such an effective form of ad hominem attack that it closes down any possible argument.

Poor old Malthus. He has had a bad reputation ever since he predicted, towards the end of the 18th century, that over-population would lead to famine and then to social collapse. It didn’t turn out like that, largely because we stumbled across a one-off supply of cheap energy, and because of the Industrial Revolution. And, because he turned out to be wrong, that means that if you mention Malthus these days you are instantly labelled as a crank.

So Vollrath does us a service in his long post in two ways. First, he tries to create Malthus’ argument in its original context, and second he goes back to the relationships that sit behind Malthus’ model of the world.

Malthusian relationships

The relationships are simple.

One: living standards are negatively related to the size of population. This is because at time of writing the major factor of production was land, whose supply is largely fixed. Vollrath shares a diagram, originally from Greg Clark’s work, which demonstrates this. Peter Turchin’s model in Secular Cycles effectively has this relationship at its core.

Clark UK population and real wages Malthus

Two: population growth is positively correlated with living standards. As Vollrath notes

“This may be because kids are a normal good, and so fertility rises when people have higher incomes. Or it may be because health is a normal good, so people take better care of themselves (and their kids) when they have higher income.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Population growth and food: A systems perspective


In this age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary to look inward as well as outwards to find systemic solutions. People may or may not be “a plague on earth” as David Attenborough has stated, but we are without doubt the dominant force on this planet. Some introspection is needed if we are to use our power ethically.

As Organisational Outreach Officer for Population Matters, my task is to contact ethically-oriented organisations (from faith organisations to environmental NGOs) and suggest ways in which the issue of population growth could be covered on their website and integrated into their ethos. Many organisations I approach agree that population size contributes to climate change, conflict and malnutrition, but they frequently respond by saying that the issue lies outside of their remit. Population Matters’ patron Jonathon Porritt talks about the reasons why organisations avoid referencing population growth in this 14-minute video, debunking a few myths along the way.

To be truly systemic, one has to include all aspects of the problem. So what is ‘systemic’ or ‘systems thinking’? In simple terms, it is an approach for analysing complex issues by viewing them holistically, as purposeful systems containing interdependent variables, stakeholders and perspectives. This allows an awareness of one’s own bias and limitations. Systems practitioners use simplified diagrams to uncover key issues and when this is done comprehensively they are able to see the interwoven social, economic, political and environmental dimensions.

The issue under investigation here is the global food system, the purpose of which is to feed humans (and to a certain extent livestock) over a sustained period of time. It is embedded in and dependent on ‘macro’ systems as shown in the diagram below.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

7.5 billion and counting: How many humans can the Earth support?

Humans are the most populous large mammal on Earth today, and probably in all of geological history. This World Population Day, humans number in the vicinity of 7.5 to 7.6 billion individuals.

Can the Earth support this many people indefinitely? What will happen if we do nothing to manage future population growth and total resource use? These complex questions are ecological, political, ethical – and urgent. Simple mathematics shows why, shedding light on our species’ ecological footprint.

The mathematics of population growth

In an environment with unlimited natural resources, population size grows exponentially. One characteristic feature of exponential growth is the time a population takes to double in size.

Exponential growth tends to start slowly, sneaking up before ballooning in just a few doublings.

To illustrate, suppose Jeff Bezos agreed to give you one penny on Jan. 1, 2019, two pennies on Feb. 1, four on March 1, and so forth, with the payment doubling each month. How long would his $100 billion fortune uphold the contract? Take a moment to ponder and guess.

After one year, or 12 payments, your total contract receipts come to US$40.95, equivalent to a night at the movies. After two years, $167,772.15 – substantial, but paltry to a billionaire. After three years, $687,194,767.35, or about one week of Bezos’ 2017 income.

The 43rd payment, on July 1, 2022, just short of $88 billion and equal to all the preceding payments together (plus one penny), breaks the bank.

Real population growth

For real populations, doubling time is not constant. Humans reached 1 billion around 1800, a doubling time of about 300 years; 2 billion in 1927, a doubling time of 127 years; and 4 billion in 1974, a doubling time of 47 years.

On the other hand, world numbers are projected to reach 8 billion around 2023, a doubling time of 49 years, and barring the unforeseen, expected to level off around 10 to 12 billion by 2100.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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