Preface. Youngquist emphasized overpopulation in everything he wrote, since this is the root of all our problems — pollution, climate change, soil erosion, fresh water depletion, extinction, biodiversity loss — can you think of a single problem that wouldn’t be better if there were fewer people?
Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:
- Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies
- Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Coal
- Youngquist: the extraordinary geodestiny of Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations
- Youngquist on Oil, natural gas, heavy oil, tar sands, GTL, GTO, oil shale
- Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Exponential growth
- Youngquist on Oil, natural gas, heavy oil, tar sands, GTL, GTO, oil shale
- Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Exponential growth
- Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Minerals
- Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Metals
- Youngquist: Geodestinies Population
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
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“Population growth is the primary source of environmental damage. Any organization dedicated to environmental protection must recognize that and devote at least part of its efforts towards population control. Treating only the symptoms of the problem while ignoring the cause is no solution.” Jacques Cousteau
In 1992, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London together issued a warning that “If current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.
It is important to understand that a technology fix is not an answer to unrestrained population growth. It is a decision made by people, and they may or may not choose to use the “technology” of family planning.
Because past predictions of resource and population problems have proved incorrect, future predictions will not come true, therefore there is no need to be concerned. This view stems in part from past predictions of impending disasters that did not materialize as scheduled. Notable were those made by Thomas Malthus in 1798. The argument presented by those who apparently see no need to relate population to resources is that since Malthus’ predictions of two centuries ago proved so wrong, why should similar predictions be taken seriously today. Malthus’ predictions were wrong because he could not foresee the coming industrial and scientific revolution, including the Green Revolution. The Industrial Revolution provided much improved housing with adequate space heating, greatly improved sanitary facilities, and the machines and the energy to run them. It provided the basis for supporting an enormously much-expanded population. Huge resources not known to Malthus were discovered and developed. But, in the long run, Malthus was clearly right. Unchecked population growth will outstrip food supply (Ferguson, 2008d). That time may be near at hand. In 2008, world grain supplies stood at a 60-year low and per capita cereal grain production was the lowest it had been in more than 50 years. It is still on a steep downward trend.
Ferguson further observes that “For many decades, there has been a willful blindness to recognize that population is the pre-eminent problem.” In 1798, Malthus wrote, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, but subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” This is an early recognition of the importance of the exponential factor, which applies to many aspects of human existence and resource consumption.
We are running out of more Earth to explore and exploit. In Malthus’ time, the entire world’s mineral and energy resources were virtually undeveloped, and the means to exploit them did not exist. The situation is now reversing. The difference is the present peaking or declining energy and mineral production in many parts of the world, and an already huge and continually expanding population. We live on a finite globe, and there are no more new continents to move to as one region becomes depleted. The globe has been encircled.
United states. Based on indigenous resource sustainability and its ecological footprint, the U.S. is already overpopulated. The U.S. standard of living has been declining for several years. Costs of food and energy, both vital elements of everyday living, are rising faster than incomes, and 46 million people now receive a food stamp subsidy. The U.S. has no population policy. The size of a nation’s population, and on a personal basis, the number of children and standard of living are almost always in an inverse relationship. The only substantial meal some children in the United States now receive is at school.
The United States continues to add more people, but we are almost certainly already beyond a sustainable population size. Pimentel (2006) estimates that a sustainable U.S. population may be between 100 and 200 million, with the smaller figure more likely unless unexpected technological advances are made in energy sources. The U.S. population is now 315 million and counting. For the world, “Our suggested 2 billion population carrying capacity for the Earth is based on a European standard of living and sustainable use of natural resources” (Pimentel and Pimentel 2006).
World population still growing. The Population Reference Bureau (2005) writes: “Some stories in the popular media suggest that world population growth has stopped — but world population is still increasing at 1.2 percent per year, resulting in an additional 80 million people annually.” All estimates are for world population to increase for the next several decades at least. Riley and McLaughlin (2001) conclude: “Population growth the next two or three decades is possibly the world’s most serious problem, reducing our chances for a successful transition to sustainability while maintaining quality of life.
In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the serious problem of a growing population related to Earth resources and urged family planning as a solution. He said: There is no human experience more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is easily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.
In an article titled “There Is No Global Population Problem” Hardin (1989) points out that unlike air pollution, which can be a global problem, population problems are within countries. He writes: We will make no progress with population problems, which are the root cause of both hunger and poverty, until we deglobalize them. Populations, like potholes, are produced locally, and, unlike atmospheric pollution, remain local unless some people are so unwise as to globalize them by permitting population excesses to migrate into the better endowed countries … . We are not faced with a single global population problem but, rather, with about 180 separate national problems.
Globalizing the population problem by allowing the free migration of excess populations is no solution. If we follow that road, eventually we will have perfect equality. Poverty and hunger will be equally distributed. If individual countries match their populations to the resources they can secure on an environmentally sustainable basis, then a reasonable standard of living can be achieved. But at present, this does not seem to be on the world’s agenda.
Subsidizing families larger than two children with tax incentives is a highly questionable policy. It does not improve the environment nor make it easier to obtain the resources to sustain a high standard of living. Governments should aid in family planning. This is probably the single most important thing that governments can do through the United Nations or individually for the future of the Earth’s inhabitants. Just a small fraction of the money spent on armaments would be a great asset for such a cause. Excess population in some areas is a cause of war, and continued population growth in other regions is the sole factor in environmental degradation. Environmental quality is a major part of any standard of living. If religious factors enter in, respect for the quality of life surely can be invoked. Quality, not quantity of life should be the goal.
Optimum population size
The most important variable for determining future quality of life will be population size. Optimum size depends to some extent on culture. What one culture regards as a good quality of life may be considerably different from another culture. But comprehensive studies indicate optimum population size is significantly less than the seven billion on Earth today. Smail (1997a) says: “ …the Earth’s long-term carrying capacity, at what most would define as an ‘adequate’ standard of living is probably not much greater than 2 to 3 billion people.” Other studies indicate less. Brown and Kane (1994), in a book with the very clear title, Full House, provide compelling evidence the environment now contains all the humanity it can handle. Pimentel and Giampietro (1994a) arrived at the same conclusion: “This brings us to the present situation where the world is full. The exponential increase in the demand for natural resources, due to demographic and economic growth, is rapidly eroding resource stocks and national food surpluses all over the world.
Birth control methods are relatively simple and are widely used, but not widely enough. The problem is human nature and ignorance. That is where the social sciences and education can do more than technology. And it would help to have the widely read and influential New York Times, as well as other media, find the courage to recognize and publicize the problem — and solutions. Legislative bodies must also confront population growth in the allocation of their resources. Funding family planning would probably do more for world peace than any other dollar spent.
Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Justus Liebig was a German chemist (1803-1873), who, working with the chemical elements as they are applied in agriculture, determined that regardless of how many other nutrients were put on plants, if one essential element was below the minimum required, the plants would not grow. His law can be stated: “The growth of a species is limited by whatever required nutrient is least available. An organism is no stronger than the weakest link in its ecological chain of requirements. Liebig’s Law can be applied to inanimate natural resources as well. For example, the ultimate limiting factor on the rate of production of oil from the Athabasca oil sands is likely to be either water supply or energy available for the recovery process
In the Great Plains of the United States, the limiting factor for agricultural production is water supply from the underlying Ogallala aquifer. The general tenet of Liebig’s Law has widespread validity throughout the environment. The point is that there are limiting factors in the survival and growth of anything.
In determining what level of population is optimum, Liebig’s Law also applies. It means that the sustainable carrying capacity of a region is determined by the minimum environmental circumstances, not by the maximum. A simple example is in the populations of big game animals in northern latitudes. It is not the lush summer range that determines the survival rate, but the much more limited and harsh winter range environment. By the same token, human populations tend to expand for a time under favorable climatic conditions, as in parts of Africa for example. But periodically prolonged drought conditions arrive, and we see pictures of emaciated and dying children when famines occur. In the harsher minimum conditions, the population is beyond sustainable size. Sending food into such a situation is logical and humanitarian, but it ensures that when the next drought arrives, even more will starve.
Energy is the key that unlocks all other resources. It mines our minerals, and transports, smelts and processes them into useful forms. It plows our fields, transports our crops, processes them, and distributes them to consumers.
Energy supplies have determined the outcomes of wars
Two problems certain to dominate worldwide concerns this century are energy and population. The most basic source of energy for humans is food. More than oil, natural gas, coal, or any other form of energy, food is the first concern of everyone. In some regions, it already is. Eventually this concern will be universal. Unfortunately, as Roberts (2008) warned, the basic foundations of food production, soil and fresh water are being depleted. He says, “ … because water, unlike energy or fertilizers, has no alternative, this emerging scarcity poses a constraint on food supplies that in some ways is more final than that of oil or climate.
If anything backs the U.S. dollar now, it is the country’s manufacturing capacity, the ingenuity of its people (e. g., advanced electronic and medical devices, sophisticated forms of heavy equipment, airplanes), and its natural resources. Chief among these are its remaining minerals, its forests, and especially its fertile soil and freshwater supplies related to agricultural productivity. The United States is the world’s largest source of corn.
In some regions and in different times, emigration was the historical outlet for overpopulation. Movement of people to less occupied lands or recently to more affluent lands relieved social stress. But there are no longer empty lands, and many nations resist large immigrations.
David Attenborough (2011) raises this question concerning the problem of population growth: “I meet no one who privately disagrees that population growth is a problem…So why does hardly anyone say so publicly? There seems to be some bizarre taboo about the subject…this affects the people who claim to care most passionately about a sustainable and prosperous future for our children…their silence implies their admirable goals can be achieved regardless how many people there are in the world, even though they all know they can’t.
Population now grows faster than food production, and the result is that more than half the world population is currently undernourished. This is the largest number ever in history (Pimentel, 2011). Future agriculture is not likely to be as mechanized as it is today, and transport of foodstuffs from far places will not be as easy or inexpensive. Chilean grapes, Brazilian orange juice, and Australian oranges will show up less frequently on American and other nations’ tables, and ultimately not show up at all. Estimates are that the total distance food now travels to the average American dinner table is now about 1500 miles.
People use energy. More people use more energy if per capita physical standard of living is to be maintained. To raise the low standard of living in many nations takes more energy. It is as simple as that. Almost all deliberations about future energy are concerned with obtaining more and more energy from every possible source. The idea that population growth is the main, underlying problem does not seem to be generally recognized.
Deffeyes’ comment (2005) is pertinent: “Global per capita oil production peaked in 1979. Since 1979, the world has been producing people faster than we have been producing oil.” This will be a major problem this century.
The more people, the lower the standard of living.
THE POPULATION EXPLOSION IS DESTROYING BIODIVERSITY & THE ENVIRONMENT
The effects, some very subtle and some very obvious, are gradually decreasing the carrying capacity of our planet.
Although the interdependent relationship between humans and the Earth was understood in most earlier cultures, in many parts of the world today, this vital point is unrecognized or ignored in the current ideology of growth. We live in the shallow zone of a friendly environment. Relative to the size of the Earth, it is thinner than a coat of shellac on a large schoolroom globe. The topsoil on which all land life depends averages less than a foot deep, and above about 30,000 feet, the air is too thin for humans to exist. It is within these two limits where we must live. This delicately balanced zone vital to our existence needs great care.
In a classic and comprehensive study of past civilizations, Ponting (2007) writes: The most important task in all human history has been to find a way of extracting from the different ecosystems in which people have lived enough resources for maintaining life — food, clothing, shelter, energy and other material goods. Invariably this has meant intervening in natural ecosystems. The problem for human societies has been to balance these various demands against the ability of the ecosystems to withstand the resulting pressures.
Biodiversity is our most valuable but least appreciated resource (Wilson, 1992). Countless organisms support our life systems by diverse processes, which, collectively have been aptly termed “nature’s engineering,” the value of which can hardly be overstated. Eldridge (1998) states, “Scientists estimate that humans utilize over 40,000 species every day.” He lists 400 (just one percent of the 40,000), which help to support us. The substances these organisms give us, and the tasks they do, include antibiotics, food, pest control, pollination, nitrogen fixation, anti-inflammatory medicine, laxatives, skeletal muscle relaxation, antiseptic, carbon cycle, anti-hemorrhagic, anesthetic, fermentation, cellulose metabolism, and anti-malarial drugs.
Nearly half of humanity’s medicines are drawn from, or based on, natural ingredients, extracted from the very few species with which we are passably acquainted. Of the world’s higher plants, for example, scientists have screened only 0.5 percent, and these now provide the bases of forty-seven of the world’s major pharmaceutical drugs. Yet, according to a recent survey … tropical forests contain about half the world’s 125,000 species of flowering plants, and each plant will yield an average of six compounds that have medicinal potential…. Nevertheless, the world’s tropical forest, already reduced to half its preindustrial size, is disappearing faster than ever (Morrison, 1999).
In just one year, 2005, 10,400 square miles of the Brazilian rainforest were destroyed. At that rate, it will all be gone within less than 30 years. This great diversity of plant life, already the source of many useful drugs has been called “the green pharmacy.” To destroy it before we have studied the other 99.5 percent of plants for their medicinal potential has been described as burning down a library before we read any of the books. Yet, the destruction continues.
Rainforests are the world’s greatest repository of naturally occurring drugs, with a greater percentage of alkaloid-bearing plants than in any other region. Fourteen-hundred plant species may offer a degree of protection against cancer. One example is that someone suffering from leukemia in 1960 faced a one-in-five chance of remission. But, two drugs developed from a tropical plant raised the chances of survival four times. Worldwide sale of these two drugs in one year totaled more than $100 million.
Robert Costanza of the Institute for Ecological Economics has calculated an economic value for our natural biological systems. Studying forests, wetlands, and other ecological systems, he concludes that the value of nature’s services come to “ …about $33 trillion a year.” A freshwater marsh in Canada was worth 58 percent more intact thanks to hunting, angling, and trapping, than farmed…. A mangrove swamp in Thailand was worth 72 percent more when left intact to provide timber, charcoal, fish, and storm protection than after being converted to a shrimp farm” (Begley, 2002). A study by biologist Andrew Balmford at Cambridge University concluded, “In every case we looked at, the loss of nature’s services outweighed the benefits of development, often by a large amount.” A simple example of the value of natural services is the pollination of fruit trees by bees. It cannot be done by humans, but the bees’ work results in millions of dollars worth of produce just in the United States. Unfortunately, through the indiscriminate use of pesticides, the loss of honey bees has become a severe problem. In 2011, the traveling beehives available to orchardists needing their services were substantially fewer than the needs. Every act of destruction of part of the environment costs money, and adds to the perils of our survival.
The impact that population growth is having on the environment was clearly summarized in 1992 by the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. Signers of this appeal included 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, among them were 102 Nobel laureates. These were a majority of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences living at that time (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2012). “Human beings,” they said, “and the natural world are on a collision course.” This important document, spearheaded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Henry W. Kendall, who is a Nobel Physics Laureate, and Union of Concerned Scientists cofounder, went on to say about population:
The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits…. Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth…. No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.
POPULATION & RESOURCES
More than 10 million people crowd Haiti’s limited area. Once almost entirely wooded, Haiti is now nearly treeless. People are digging up roots for fuel.
With Haiti’s population growth rate of about 2.8 percent annually, one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere, the problem will only intensify. At that rate, the population will double in about 25 years, which can become an absolute disaster. Supplying more and more imported food to such a situation with no attention to population control, simply treats the symptoms and not the cause, ensuring even greater problems in the future.
Some reasonable relationship between population and the resource base a country has or can import must be established. Otherwise, people will either starve or depend on permanent international welfare. To continue to export population cannot be the ultimate solution. Fewer and fewer countries are now willing or ultimately able to continue to be the safety valve for migrating population. Japan accepts virtually no immigrants, and Sweden for the first time has been turning some away. Germany has been expelling foreign nationals.
the United States now has a liberal immigration policy, allowing over a million newcomers in each year. It also has a relatively porous border, which lets in another estimated half million or more illegal immigrants
Because of the impact of illegal immigrants upon their resources, the states of California, Texas, and Florida filed lawsuits against the U.S. Government in 1994. The suits asserted that lack of enforcement of federal immigration laws resulted in an intolerable drain of resources from the states. In California, all the recent growth of that state has been due to foreign immigration. To accommodate the increase in children, in 1995, one new schoolroom had to be built each hour, and one new school each day (Carrying Capacity Network, 1995). In 1994, California passed Proposition 187 denying illegal immigrants a variety of services, including schooling. This caused numerous protests and demonstrations. But the immigration which accounts for almost 100 percent of the state population growth continues. California, which has had a 75 percent increase in population since 1970, now has 38 million residents, and expects to have a population swelling to 58 million by 2040. California is now the fourth largest consumer of oil in the world behind the United States as a whole, China, and Japan. Water is becoming critically scarce in some areas of the state, with Imperial Valley agricultural irrigation water from the Colorado River being sold to the cities. California’s resource base is already strained. How will the additional 20 million expected by 2040 be supported? This prospect must be squarely faced because most people living in California today will see that increase and its accompanying demand on resources.
The high physical standard of living in the United States, which attracts immigrants, legal and illegal, is based on availability of Earth resources. To maintain that standard of living, each year, each person in the United States must be provided with some 20 tons of mineral resources. As more and more people enter the country by birth or legal or illegal immigration, 20 additional tons of minerals must annuall—not just once, but every year—be provided for each individual.
Ethiopia, with a present population of 57 million faces a colossal increase of 106 million during the next forty years, based on current growth rates. It is almost impossible to imagine how Ethiopia could possibly feed so many more people. It has some of the world’s most severely eroded soils, much of its cropland is on steep slopes, and its tree cover stands at a mere 3 percent. Many in Ethiopia’s next generation will probably have to choose between emigration and starvation.
LIMITS TO GROWTH
if nations do not shift spending priorities from military security to investments in the long-term environmental and social health of their citizens, these numbers may be dwarfed by the tide yet to come.
Today there are no large unoccupied resource-rich areas to absorb migration. There are no vacant fertile, well-watered lands. The globe filled up. New lands with untouched resources were no more.
With no new geographic frontiers in which to expand, today’s nations jostle for position within the well-populated and fully explored world. The competition through migration and perhaps military conflict will increasingly be over access to Earth’s remaining resources of energy, water, fertile soil, and other minerals. Making rational and successful adjustments between population and resources will determine the destiny of the human race. Populations must recognize that this destiny is by geology imposed upon them. There must be a recognition of natural limits (Hardin, 1993; Meadows, et al., 2004).
Because resources and population are unevenly distributed, the current trend is for people to move from distressed areas to areas that have more resources, or for wealthier nations to send basic resources to the impoverished regions. Such aid does not solve the basic problem and may only make it worse if it allows more people to survive temporarily on a land already over-populated for its resources.
Hardin’s observations are a facet of his “lifeboat ethics” (Hardin, 1974). A ship is sinking, and there is one lifeboat. It is launched and filled to its stated capacity of 50 people, but there are still 100 people in the water. Do you, in the spirit of fairness for everyone, take on the additional 100 from the water and have everyone drown, or do you preserve the one lifeboat and its passengers so they can get to the far shore and survive? Do you convert the entire world to a giant slum by unrestricted immigration and no population control? Or do you restrict immigration and insist that individual nations do something about population, so that at least some of them who are successful survive? At present, a number of nations are trying to export their population problems, which ultimately will, if not checked, become a global disaster. However, it will have the merit of equality. Poverty will be universal.
Continued population migration will make this concept of “lifeboat ethics” a serious consideration. Responsible and firm action may be required to prevent “lifeboat nations” from being swamped and sunk. Lucas and Ogletree (1976) relate this problem to world hunger. Pimentel and Giampietro (1994) have an implied “lifeboat” role for the United States in their statement, “Self-sufficiency in food production and other basic resources should be viewed as a strategy to guarantee a continued high standard of living and national security to U.S. citizens in the face of turbulence that can be expected around the world in the next decades.
The United States should consider where these trends are taking the nation. Together with Canada and Australia, it is one of the few industrial nations still experiencing rapid population growth. With an increasing population consuming diminishing domestic resources, it is difficult to see how the present standard of living can be maintained. By some measures it is already in decline. Inevitably, a balance between resource consumption and population must be achieved. The question is: at what standard of living will that be achieved? People use resources. Divide resources by population to help answer the question.
SIGNS OF OVERPOPULATION
NEPAL nestles amongst the Himalayas. Much of the land is precipitous, and winters are cold. The Nepalese need fuel, which they get from trees. Because more Nepalese are being kept alive now, the demand for timber is escalating. As trees are cut down, the soil under them is washed down the slopes into the rivers that run through India and Bangladesh. Once the absorption capacity of the soil is gone, floods rise faster and to higher maxima. The flood of 1974 covered two-thirds of Bangladesh, twice the area of the ‘normal’ floods, which themselves are the consequence of deforestation in preceding centuries.
Hardin observed that it is never said that people die of overpopulation. They die of floods, famine, typhoons, landslides, and other disasters. Bangladesh has an area of 55,126 square miles, about 1,100 square miles smaller than the State of Iowa. Yet, 151 million people now live in this area! Imagine 151 million people living in Iowa with a substantial part of the state consisting of a marshy deltaic area only a few feet above sea level. At times, typhoons from the Indian Ocean sweep in and flood the Bangladesh lowlands killing thousands of people. At other times, floods from the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, whose headwaters lie in the once heavily forested areas of the southern Himalayas, inundate the extensive lowlands. Stripping these headwater areas of vegetation to use for fuel caused by the overpopulation of the region, further compounds the problem, increasing the rate of runoff from the barren slopes.
HAITI is a country of 10,500 square miles inhabited by more than ten million people. It is projected to have 11.5 million people by 2025 and 14.3 million by 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2010). Haiti has no oil, natural gas, coal, or significant water power. Much of it is mountainous. To obtain fuel, the country has been almost entirely deforested. Roots of trees have been dug out to make charcoal. It experienced devastating heavy rains in 2004. I visited Haiti and observed the worst erosion I have seen anywhere during my travels in more than 70 countries. Haiti has been dependent on international welfare for many years. Given present trends, there is no apparent escape. The question arises as to how much longer such welfare can be provided, and who will provide it? The rest of the world cannot support Haiti indefinitely. Population problems are homegrown and ultimately must be solved there. In the meantime, when the next heavy rains come, more people will die from debris floods caused by the deforested hills. Clearly, overpopulation resulting in the destruction of the environment kills people.
Some countries are still unable to feed themselves from domestic food production, and are now permanently dependent on international food assistance. At the same time, this has enabled their populations to grow without the basic historic limitation of food supply. Currently, 27 countries depend on international food assistance, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Senegal.
Too many people destroys the environment
At the same time that environmental rules are enacted, it is important to remember that society has been brought to its present state of affluence through the use of these resources. A higher standard of living in material terms, means the use of more energy and mineral resources. Environmental impacts of obtaining these resources can be mitigated to some extent, but to drive an automobile, holes in the Earth have to be dug somehow to obtain the iron, aluminum, copper, and glass to build the car. Energy has to be obtained to process these materials into the car (all materials listed have to be smelted which is an energy intensive process). Energy in some form, now chiefly from derivatives of petroleum, is necessary to move the car. Getting all this energy involves environmental impacts. To lead the good life, or any life, Earth resources must be used. The more people, the more is demanded from the Earth.
Many offshore ocean areas are now off limits to mineral resource exploitation, which mainly affects petroleum operations. This is particularly true off the California and Florida coasts. The reason for this, in part, is that ocean view property is extremely desirable and expensive. Tourism in both states is also important to their economies. Therefore, the value of a pristine view, unobstructed by offshore drilling rigs or petroleum production platforms — or large wind turbines for that matter — is thought to be more valuable than the resource that might be developed. Yet both states are highly dependent on imported oil and are huge oil consumers. In world oil consumption, the United States is first, China is second, Japan is third and considered all by itself, California is fourth. But California has large areas, chiefly offshore, where oil exploration and development is forbidden. “Dirty someone else’s backyard, not ours, for the resources we use,” is the prevailing view. This ethic is referred to as NIMBY, Not-In-My-Backyard.
Substantially adding to the problem is that population continues to increase. Currently 80 million people are added to the world each year, a number about equal to the population of Germany. The additional resources to support all these people must come from somewhere. Also, many relatively undeveloped countries are striving to achieve a higher-material standard of living. So there is not only the problem of providing material resources for 80 million more people each year, but to provide increasing amounts of raw materials for the many people already here who aspire to a better existence. The so-called Third World and lesser-developed countries account for half the world’s population. The resources necessary to appreciably raise their living standards are enormous, and in fact may not be available. The problem has the potential for serious conflict.
The current world environmental scene with regard to mineral resource development is mixed. In some areas, the situation is not good; in other places, strict laws are minimizing impacts. On the negative side, one might cite the 1980s central Amazon basin gold rush (Lea, 1984). Tens of thousands of people invaded the area and set up crude mining facilities. The panning and sluicing operations put tons of sediment into local streams much to the detriment of the fish. But possibly even more destructive was that in most operations, mercury was used as an agent to recover the fine gold. This mercury is now in parts of the Amazon drainage and can be a deadly contaminant to the aquatic life, and ultimately a part of the food chain that leads to humans. Elemental mercury (Hg) is converted by bacteria into toxic methyl mercury (HgCH3), a neurotoxin. Through bioaccumulation and biomagnification, methyl mercury concentrations increase to potentially dangerous levels in organisms higher on the food chain – in carnivores and predators like human beings.
Population and Climate Change
If population growth promotes more industrialization with more power plants, more cars and trucks on the road, and is a significant factor in global warming, then those concerned with global warming should also be concerned with population matters. Professor Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics argues that the positive effects of a 40% cut in per capita carbon emissions in the developed world would be completely canceled out by global population growth by 2050.
Overpopulation is decimating fisheries and wetlands
Fish populations are diminishing around the world. The dramatic decline of codfish off the coast of Newfoundland and the decimation of fisheries in the China Sea are two of many examples. Sharks, swordfish, and other big game fish are been greatly overfished, with some populations reduced by 90 percent. Off the West Coast of the United States, bottom fish (rockfish) found in markets, have been greatly reduced and fishing is greatly restricted. A contributing factor is the use of bottom trawlers, which scrape the seafloor, catching everything, and in the process tearing up the seafloor’s delicate balance of organisms. Another factor is the slow growth of many bottom fish. Some take 5 to 20 years to reach reproductive maturity. The yelloweye rockfish begins to bear young at 16 years, and may live to 114 years. Overfishing off the Oregon coast resulted in a drop in yelloweye landings from 364,458 pounds in 1992 to 9,564 pounds in 2000. An extreme example of overfishing a particular species is the boccaccio. It is estimated that even if it is not fished again, it will take 92 years to rebuild the population to earlier levels. One fisherman said, “We have the technology to catch all the fish in the sea.” This is the problem. Off the Oregon coast, fish landings dropped 61 percent from 81 million pounds in 1993 to 39 million pounds in 2001.
Water habitats also are being destroyed by sedimentation, contamination from waste water, and toxic runoff from the streets of cities and towns. This is the story of streams and estuaries across the United States. Coastal marshes, the nurseries for many fish and other organisms, are in decline because of human encroachment. California has lost about 90 percent of its valuable wetlands. In the states of Oregon and Washington, wetlands are under assault from both development and pollution, degrading their life supporting systems.
The state of Louisiana contains 40 percent of the wetlands of the United States. The value of these lands is huge, with 95 percent of all marine species in the Gulf of Mexico spending all or part of their lifecycles there. They supply the source of more than 30 percent of the nation’s fisheries’ catch. It also is one of the largest habitats in the world for migratory waterfowl. It provides protection from storm-generated ocean surges for the more than two million people living in the coastal zone, including New Orleans. Yet, about one million acres of these wetlands have vanished since 1900; many square miles are lost each year.
In part, the loss is due to the natural sinking of the land. But in nature, this is compensated largely by the inflow of sediments from river distributaries. However, levees have been built to keep the Mississippi River in a single channel away from where it would naturally spread out and distribute the load of sediment laterally through marsh areas. There is a program under way to restore the wetlands as much as possible by river water introduction, sediment and nutrient trapping, vegetative planting, marsh creation and other measures. This is projected to be a 20- or 30-year project costing $14 billion or more. At best, it can only be partially successful in replicating the natural system.
Interfering in natural systems such as deltas and river courses has been disastrous in many areas. This is now widely recognized. One project was undertaken in Florida, in which streams were “channelized” by straightening the meandering streams that entered the Everglades region. This practice proved to be destructive to the Everglades environment, so now more money is being spent to restore the streams to their previous natural meandering courses. The once lush four million acres of wetland Everglades wilderness has been reduced to less than half that size. It is finally apparent to the six million residents of southern Florida that they depend on the Everglades for their drinking water. They are now directly interested in preserving what is left, and have launched the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Human habitation, however, continues to expand. The Commission for a Sustainable South Florida warned that, “rapid growth and sprawling development patterns are leading South Florida down a path toward wall-to-wall suburbanization.” Population growth is the problem. Land and water resources cannot expand accordingly.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that the U.S. loses 60,000 acres or more of wetlands annually. In the ten years from 1986 to1997, the loss was 644,000 acres. During that decade, the United States added 30 million people to its population.
The coastal marshes and shallow waters of the continental shelves are far more biologically productive than deeper open ocean areas. They are the nurseries of many marine species. But these are the areas subject to increasing contamination from the polluted run-off of the continents.
In a study of United States coastal areas, Brinckman (2001) makes a number of significant observations: Half the U.S. population lives in a 50-mile-wide ribbon along the coasts. Projections for the next 25 years show that half the nation’s population growth will occur within that ribbon adding 39 million people to 17 percent of the U.S. land area…. The construction of roads, buildings and parking lots along U.S. coastlines has become one of the most serious dangers to the oceans, joining the better-known threats of overfishing, industrial pollution, and invasion of non-native species. The primary reason: Development and roads near ocean shores send toxic chemicals and other pollutants directly into fragile ocean marshes, estuaries and lagoons…. Findings released this month in Portland show that when paved areas near ocean shores exceed 10 percent of the land area, coastal ecosystems degenerate rapidly. Rainwater flows off impervious surfaces quickly, instead of seeping into the ground. Stream banks erode, the water gets warmer, and pollution from cars and homes washes into estuaries and marshes…. Population growth in coastal regions is increasingly recognized as a major cause of harm to fish, birds, and ecosystems along the shore.
The Mississippi River system drains parts or all of 31 states, a total of 1.2 million square miles. All the pollutants drained from this large area eventually become concentrated in this one river. Water runoff from streets and farms create huge amounts of chemical runoff. In places, raw sewage sometimes discharges into the river. This huge volume of chemicals, much of which is agricultural fertilizer and feedlot runoff, becomes nutrients breeding widespread algal blooms at the mouth of the Mississippi.
These blooms grow and multiply until all available nutrients are consumed by the algae at which time the algae dies and sinks to the sea floor. Bacterial decomposition of the algae then uses up all the oxygen available in the water column, killing all marine species that require oxygen and can’t rapidly leave the area. Oysters, worms, and other similarly immobile species perish. This dead zone moves around in the northern Gulf of Mexico with the prevailing currents and can even trap and kill mobile crustacean and fin fish species (Phillips, 2005).
Lack of media recognition of the basic population factor. An example of how the issue of population and population growth is be ignored by a major newspaper is found in an article by a columnist for the New York Times. Returning from Niger, which he identifies as, “ … the most wretched country in the world”) he writes: I stopped in village after village where peasants told me of young children dying of starvation in the last few months. One man named Haroun Mani had just buried three of his eight children…. We need a new international initiative to extend the Green Revolution to Africa…. Momom Burhary, a 63-yearold man, stated: ‘And this land used to be far more productive than it is now. When I was a young man, the annual harvest would last a full year. Now it only lasts three months and then we run out of food.’ We are not even using our aid money wisely. Unless we help start a Green Revolution in Africa, we’ll be back in Niger year after year — and every village will be surrounded by more tiny graves. What the columnist advocates is simply making more food available so more people can survive to produce more children, and on and on. Producing more food would be good — only if population is stabilized at the level where the food supply can support the population at a decent standard of living.
The columnist avoids any mention of population or population control. One would think when the man told him he had just buried three of his eight children, it would have dawned on the writer that population is a large part of the problem, and until it is recognized as such, all other efforts are doomed to fail. Niger’s population, now 16 million is projected to reach 55 million by 2050. But, the word “population” does not appear in the article.
It is always the children who do most of the starving. Emaciated bodies are carried in the arms of people still at least able to get around to some degree. If we don’t want to see starving children, we must first acknowledge they are long-term responsibilities. People must assume responsibility for each life they create and not pass their child on to others for care. This most personal aspect of public policy must be confronted the world over in undeveloped areas, as well as in industrialized societies. Global lack of responsibility on population growth will assure that, as resources become more and more limited, social chaos will grow. If it could be arranged that whenever more children are brought into the world than parents can support, the parents would be the ones to starve and the children be allowed to survive, the problem might be solved rather quickly. Children who are totally innocent in creating the problem have to suffer the ultimate consequences.
Herschel Elliott (2005) in his book, Ethics for a Finite World, an Essay Concerning a Sustainable Future, writes: It is important to stress that to prevent the citizens of overcrowded nations from becoming permanent residents of less-populated countries is not racism or imperialism. Rather it is a logical consequence of the finitude of every nation’s boundaries. Inevitably, the land and resources of every nation have a maximum support capacity at any given standard of living…this is not a cultural racial prejudice; rather is a logical consequence of the fact that people live in a finite world — a world in which citizens become desperate when their rapidly rising numbers exceed the capacity of their environments to sustain them.
Beyond whatever other matters relate to immigration, the problem should be viewed in the larger, more fundamental context of how many people a country can adequately support at a desired standard of living in both the immediate and long-term future. In the case of the United States, people continue to migrate to it because it is, among other things, a “rich” country. However, that view may be increasingly an illusion. With an annual deficit in international payments of more than $600 billion, the rest of the world is loaning the U.S. nearly $2 billion a day to support the American lifestyle. It is like a giant credit card and, like all credit cards, it has limits, and must eventually be paid. Historically, the U.S. economy has generated employment and that is the “pull” of many immigrants to the United States. During recent street demonstrations by Hispanics, one who was interviewed simply said, “I can’t make a decent living for my family in Mexico.” To a considerable extent, this reflects a failed Mexican economy. It also reflects a population growing beyond what the environment can support. In 1960, Mexico’s population was 34 million. By 2011, the population had more than tripled to 115 million. This trend ensures strong and continual pressure to migrate.
In direct contrast to its actions at its northern border, where Mexico has provided maps and instructions on how to cross into the United States, Mexico is actively trying to protect its southern border with Guatemala. Guatemalans and Hondurans, with annual population growth rates of 2.5 percent and 2 percent, respectively (doubling times of 28 and 35 years, substantially higher than Mexico’s at 1.3 percent), seek to enter Mexico. In Mexico, illegal entry is a felony that is subject to a two-year imprisonment and a $28,000 fine. Mexico is very cognizant of its population problem, and, indeed, has done much more to address it than all of the Central American countries except Costa Rica.
Eventually, some nations will try to balance population with indigenous renewable resources. This cannot be achieved with unrestricted immigration. Elliott (2005) writes: “Autonomous nations must be allowed to carry out their own cultural experiments without incurring the moral obligation to rescue the nations whose misguided experiments have failed. The autonomy of nations requires them to be self-reliant and self-supporting … the citizens of all nations have to experience the destructive consequences of their own experiments in order to learn how to correct them and better to fulfill the goals of moral life. Any nation that does not limit immigration loses its ability to make its own cultural/ moral experiment. Its failure to curtail immigration would prevent it from choosing to use its lands and natural resources to support a minimal population at a high standard of living, and maximum quality of life. In effect, uncontrolled immigration allows the nations whose experiments have failed to overload the world lifeboat and cause it to founder.” When the world is forced to rely chiefly on renewable resources, the challenge will be for each nation to live on its indigenous resources. This was the world condition prior to the industrial revolution.
Many immigrants to the United States are refugees because environmental problems are not being dealt with in their native countries…many of the world’s violent conflicts are heavily influenced by — if not caused by — overpopulation and environmentally mismanagement of agriculture, water, and forestry resources. Immigrants from Central America, Haiti, and other places to the United States are, in many instances, environmental refugees.
I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it.
I’ve made eight posts of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).