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From Population Crisis to Sustainable Solutions

by George Plumb and Joe Bish

In 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion. The great Amazon rainforest basin was whole and healthy. Maine had just over 914,950 citizens and New England had 92,000 miles of roads.

Today, global population has ballooned 146% to 6.7 billion people and continues to increase at 200,000 people per day. Maine’s population is up 44% to 1,320,000. Global deforestation occurs at a rate of 36 football fields per minute.

These amazing figures are only a few in a litany of converging ecological, economic and social crises - global warming, melting sea ice, rising gas prices, food and water shortages. Unfolding in eerie unison, they have finally roused serious concern in the public-at-large.

Unfortunately, media talking heads and most “politically correct” environmental organizations offer only band-aid solutions, telling us to buy a new light bulb and install a new low-flow shower head. Or, if we can afford it, drive a Prius. These actions will purportedly solve all our problems.

Meanwhile, the fundamental cause of these problems is thoroughly and painstakingly ignored.

Its the 6.7 billion people, folks.

Each person on the planet naturally wants to survive and achieve prosperity. As such, they aspire to use one heck of a lot of resources and energy - and produce one heck of a lot of waste. And, it all adds up. The Carrying Capacity Network estimates that every American child born today will consume 3.7 million pounds of minerals, metals and fuels in the course of their lifetime.

As a society in general, the United States doesn’t think twice about this sort of growth.

For instance, as Maine’s population grew from 1950 onwards, there was never a decade where less than 40,000 new homes were built in the state. In the 1970s and 1980s alone there were over 160,000 new homes constructed. Meanwhile, the six New England states have added almost 22,000 miles of roads since 1950 - more than enough road to go round-trip from Augusta to Los Angeles. Three times.

Meanwhile, citizens of developing countries are understandably striving to be like the U.S., and many are succeeding to an astonishing degree. But the Earth can’t afford one U.S., let alone a planet full.

Think about China, which appears to be advancing economically along the same path as did Japan, South Korea and Taiwan before it. That sounds wonderful, but there is just one problem. If China achieves the same level of fish consumption as its Asian neighbors, the entire sustainable wild fish production of all the world’s oceans would be required just to supply China’s fish needs. By the way, China adds 8.3 million people per year, equivalent to adding another Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

What’s more, the United Nations uses very optimistic assumptions about falling fertility to project a global population of 9.2 billion by 2050 - already a 268% increase since 1950. If current fertility rates continue unabated, the projection becomes 12 billion instead. The only way fertility will fall as much as the United Nations assumes is if governments around the world make the right investments and assure the necessary health care and contraceptives are available to all who want them. Currently, that is not the case.

Some may wonder what the big difference between 9 or 12 billion is. For instance, it probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference if you have 9 houses on your street or 12. Same as if you have 9 cents in your pocket or 12 cents. Whose counting?

But a billion of anything is an order-of-magnitude many fail to grasp. Remember that if you stacked one billion dollar bills on top of each other, the resulting tower would extend 62 miles upwards into the sky. A stack of 3 billion dollars would reach over 186 miles high. That’s a lot of dollars alright, but in terms of additional people on the planet - all of whom deserve a fair shake in terms of natural resources, education and opportunity, its a burden the Earth surely should not be asked to provide for.

Having a child creates a fundamental and profound impact on the environment. If a woman of 25 decides to change her lifestyle to live as frugally as possible, giving up her car, not flying, buying local, etc. she will reduce her consumption by 60%. If she also decides to have a child, having that child will counter her reduction by the same amount over the course of her lifetime - and that is assuming that the child lives as frugally as its mother.

If the combination of disappearing forests, loss of wildlife species and global climate change are not enough to get you concerned about population size and growth, you may want to consider that the maximum crude oil production across the entire globe may have already peaked - or will very soon. In 2006 world oil production fell from 84.631 to 84.597 million barrels per day. Factoring in ever increasing human population, oil production per capita has dropped from 5.26 barrels per year in 1980 to 4.73 barrels per year in 2006.

In the U.S., oil production peaked over 35 years ago, which is why we now import about two-thirds of our oil. With rapidly growing economies and populations of places like China (and India and Brazil and Egypt and Philippines and on and on) adding to global demand, American’s have already paid dearly for rising fuel oil and gas prices. Without cheap fossil fuels, how are we and future generations going to heat our homes, power our tractors and other machinery, ship our food from thousands of miles away, and get to work and school?

Many experts suggest that without a steady supply of cheap fossil fuels, society will only be able to support a long term population much less than its current size. One way to think about this is to go back in time when we did not depend heavily on fossil fuels. Back in the year 1900, for instance, New England’s population was about one third of what it is now: 5.5 million people. So is that what a sustainable population size is today?

Some will argue that with new alternative energy sources and greater technical efficiencies, New England could ecologically sustain a population larger than 5.5 million - but it seems unlikely to be much larger. Consider that we may well have to grow more of our food locally due to prohibitive transportation costs, and much of our best agricultural lands have already been replaced with sprawl and development.

The solution to most of our problems, environmental or otherwise, is relatively simple. We need to realize that we are part of nature and not separate from it. We then need to behave in accordance with three of the basic laws of ecology.

• The Law of Diversity. The health of an ecosystem lies in the diversity of species with it. Weaken the diversity, as we are doing now (with the lost of an estimated 20,000 species per year ) and the entire system will be weakened and eventually collapse.

• The Law of Interdependence. All of the species within an eco-system are interdependently co-evolving. We need each other. Take honey bees for example: Albert Einstein once wrote that “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” The same thing could be said about our relationship with earth worms, intestinal bacteria, and forest decomposers. The human propensity to see the rest of the world as “not us” is a propensity towards utter ignorance and self destruction.

• The Law of Finite Resources. There is a limit to the population growth of any particular species because there is a limit to the carrying capacity the Earth can sustainably provide that species. Human populations are exceeding the ecological carrying capacity of Earth and along the way diminishing non-renewable resources, the diversity of species, and our prospects for a sustainable future.

If you’ve ever bet on the outcome of a sporting event, invested in a company, or even raised a child you know that predicting the future is very likely to make a fool of you. And in that sense, no one knows at what point human population growth and profligate consumption will permanently wound the Earth’s ecological capacities – maybe they already have. One thing is not in doubt however: we are foolishly playing roulette with our own health and prosperity and the continued existence of countless species, including our own.

And so, in order not to fail as stewards of our home planet, we must immediately address two subjects with intense local, national and global resolve: the stabilization of human population and the dramatic easing of the negative ecological impacts we impose on the Earth.

You remember that back in 1950 the Amazon rainforest was whole and healthy?

Well, the bad news is that if the status quo continues, the Amazon will have lost 55 percent of its forests by 2030. Global carbon emissions are accelerating rapidly. And, the 200,000 net gain of human beings on the day you read this will far surpass the total combined number of gorillas (100,000), polar bears (50,000), tigers (10,000), giant pandas (2000) and California condors (200) alive on the Earth.

The good news is that we already know how to move population towards stabilization – providing unconstrained access to family planning and contraceptive services to every woman and man who desire them. By doing so, fertility tends to move towards replacement level all by itself. There need be no coercion, no “control”, no one child policies. There only need be reproductive liberty for all.

George Plumb is the President of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population ( and a member of the board of directors of the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population. He is a life long environmental activist and a co-founder of several Vermont environmental organizations. He does not fly or travel far for vacations but looks forward to spending a week on the Maine Coast each year and loves to stay at the off the grid Cobscook Bay Cottages. Joe Bish is the Executive Director of the New England Coalition for a Sustainable Population (

The Population-Environment Research Network seeks to advance academic research on population and the environment by promoting online scientific exchange among researchers from social and natural science disciplines worldwide.
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment attempts to bring together population-environment linkages in ways that make them easily accessible to policy and decision makers, students and the general public.
Helps people make connections between population stabilization, sustainable consumption, and the preservation of wild landscapes and seascapes. We create educational films, web sites, and print publications that foster environmental awareness and action to save the last great wild places of this tiny blue planet.
CARMA reveals the carbon emissions of more than 50,000 power plants and 4,000 power companies in every country on Earth.
The Vulcan Project is a NASA/DOE funded effort under the North American Carbon Program (NACP)to quantify North American fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at space and time scales much finer than has been achieved in the past.


More by Robert Engelman
“Population growth is emerging from its contentious history as a hot new topic. For anyone who wants to understand what's at stake, Robert Engelman's dazzling new book is essential reading. The writing is engaging, the material fascinating, and the topic vital. MORE is marvellous!" -- so says Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology, Boston College and author of Born to Buy. She is talking about MORE: Population, Nature and What Women Want, written by World Watch Institute's Bob Engelman.

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