The broken glass: some thoughts on ‘Population 10 Billion’

Danny Dorling’s book Population 10 Billion1 has been sitting in the in-tray of the Small Farm Future review department (along with a whole load of other books) for a couple of years now. I’ve been on their case about it, but until now I’ve had nothing from those slackers. Maybe I should introduce performance related pay… On which note, just a shout out for this blog’s seasonal appeal for funds, Wikipedia-style: “if every reader of Small Farm Future donated, er, about £1,000 annually, I could devote myself to it full-time and turn out the reviews a lot faster.” Or maybe I should make a pact with the devil and run ads. What d’ya think? Meantime, donate button is on the right.

Anyway, I have now read Dorling’s book and I want to share a few thoughts about it. They’re not in the form of a comprehensive warts-and-all review – rather, I want to highlight five themes of interest to me that anticipate some future posts, on which I think Dorling has thought-provoking things to say. And here they are:

1. Possibilism and the broken glass

Dorling defines himself as a ‘practical possibilist’ in his orientation to the future, arguing that we need more “stories that sit between those who say that all will be fine, and those who claim that we are doomed” (p.6).

It’s a good opening gambit, except that I think almost everyone occupies this ‘possibilist’ middle ground. Let’s call those who think ‘all will be fine’ in the future the optimists or utopians, and let’s call those who think that all of us are doomed no matter what we do from here the pessimists or dystopians. That leaves a very wide spectrum of opinion between those two poles. And yet we spend way too much time playing status games about our chosen positions on the continuum, castigating others for their excessive optimism or pessimism. I daresay I’ve been guilty of this myself at times. Enough of it. What really matters is debating the underlying models or visions, not sorting out the pecking order of who’s most appropriately optimistic or pessimistic.

For that reason, I’d like to suggest retiring the metaphor of the half empty or half full glass. Besides, why does it always have to be half empty or full? Suppose it was a quarter full, or three-quarters empty? Would we still be debating whether we were full or empty kind of people, or would we get busy trying to do something useful?

Another problem is that, for me at least, the human world seems a pretty dysfunctional place even in the absence of issues like climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss etc. Suppose someone waved a magic ecomodernist wand and vanquished all our environmental problems so that the world could settle into its existing social, political and economic arrangements for the long haul. For me, this would be a profoundly depressing prospect. All that misery, unfairness and anomie! So no, I don’t look at the potential salvation of contemporary civilisation as something to feel ‘optimistic’ about


Did you just hear the sound of a glass breaking? Me too. But was it a half-full or a half-empty one? Let me tell you this. I – don’t – care.

2. Population growth

Anyway, forget all that. When it comes to population, Dorling says the glass is half-full. Despite all the fears of a spiralling human population swamping the planet, he points out that fertility is falling almost everywhere, often rapidly. Human numbers are still set to rise for some time because of the demographic lags involved, but possibly as early as 2075 (p.38) an absolute decline in human population may start on the basis of current demographic trends without the need to invoke future collapses and catastrophes – the four horsemen, Dorling says, may already have paid their visit.

What interests me most about Dorling’s line of argument here is not the human numbers involved or their likely impact, but the historical demographics of it. Human numbers began to surge around 1850, and stopped surging around 1970. This is the context in which all of us alive today have been formed, but it’s historically unprecedented and it doesn’t look set to continue in the future. Dorling cautions that we need to stop seeing our recent past as some kind of stable norm from which to predict the future. His discussion of why this recent anomaly occurred is interesting, if a bit vague – issues such as the long-term consequences of Europe’s conquest of the Americas, the fossil fuel dividend, the rise of capitalism and concomitantly rising inequality. His discussion of how it’s coming to an end is also frustratingly vague at times – and, dare I say it, over-optimistic – but also interesting in its focus on improving public health, improving social rights, particularly for women, and migration. Let’s just hold those thoughts for a moment…

3. Population and Consumption

Dorling is entertainingly severe on the school of thought that puts population levels and consumption levels jointly in the dock for our present environmental ills. My own illustrative example of his point comes from the following passage, where Herman Daly – rightly feted as a pioneer of ecological or steady-state economics – is taking another writer, Mark Sagoff, to task for asserting that pollution results not from our numbers, but from our lifestyles and rate of consumption:

“The false denial of cause a in order more forcefully to assert cause b is faulty as logic and tiresome as rhetoric. It becomes ludicrous when the effect is caused by multiplying a and b together”2

OK, but what are a and b here? If a x b is total resource use (or pollution) and b is total population, then a must be per capita resource use, which is the same as total resource use divided by total population. So another way of writing Daly’s ‘causal’ equation of a and b is:

Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population

So I think Dorling, and Sagoff, are right. Population cancels out. The problem is resource use.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The conceptual problem surely arises because both rising population and rising resource use are joint determined consequences of a deeper underlying historical trend – which, for shorthand, I’d call capitalism. Call it commercialisation, globalisation or marketization if you prefer. Barring some unprecedented catastrophe, there are going to be a lot of us on the planet for generations to come, and the reason we got to be here is basically because of capitalism/commercialisation etc. But population and resource use are ultimately autonomous variables. So can we maintain our high (if soon to be decreasing) human populations under a different economic regimen with a lower total resource use?

Dorling thinks so and, to his credit, although he occasionally veers towards ecomodernist terrain he’s clear that the answer doesn’t lie in some high tech solutionism which would have 8-10 billion people in the future consuming at US levels without environmental cost. “We who consume most have to consume less”, he writes (p.20). He talks – over-optimistically, in my opinion – about how the ‘developed’ western countries have already reached ‘peak stuff’, but I find his general line of argument interesting. Global population is set to decline, the conditions that prompted its enormous recent surge are no longer operative, and people are tentatively moving into a phase of more dematerialised consumption.

I doubt that on current trends these factors will be enough to stave off some major shocks. But I think they’re complementary in interesting ways to the neo-agrarian or neo-peasant agenda I promote on this blog. One of the main reasons people oppose a small farm or ‘peasant’ future is because the recent peasant past has been pretty grim. That’s partly because governments have deliberately made it so, but we’re emerging from a world of high rural fertility and high rural poverty into a new world of lower fertility based on more health and social rights, a degree of dematerialisation among the wealthiest but also a powerful need for the wealthiest to consume less. To my mind, this points to the need for a new kind of global peasantism based on relatively labour-intensive but relatively low fertility and socially entitled peasant households engaged in high nature value, reasonably remunerated (in cash to some extent, but more importantly in kind) local farming. I’m not saying that it’ll be easily achieved, but it does help identify some big social trends that peasant and agrarian activists can hitch their wagons to, and it puts some clear water between what a peasantism of the future might look like and what some of the peasantisms of the past looked like. Certainly, we can learn from the latter, but reading Dorling underlines for me a point I’ve tried to make before – a small farm future doesn’t necessarily have to look exactly like a small farm past.

However, in order to hang on to the benefits of a low fertility, steady state society we need to retain peace, order and social rights, particularly women’s rights. In other words, we need to retain the kind of liberal public sphere that – another point I’ve made before – various cheerleaders for a post-liberal politics within and without the environmental movement are enthusiastically trying to dismantle at the moment.

Bottom line: more or less whatever happens we’re set to have unprecedentedly high populations for a long time to come, a population level arising from a high consumption capitalist society. But it’s possible that in future there may be a lower consumption, non-capitalist, high population society. Let’s get on it.

4. Migration

I’m planning to write another post about migration soon, but to anticipate a few points by way of Dorling’s analysis, he points out that while much of our attention in the ‘developed’ countries on migration issues focuses on the international movement from poor countries to rich countries, the movement of poor people between poor rural hinterlands and their nearest large cities is and will be of vastly greater demographic importance.

Still, if we do just focus on international migration, Dorling suggests that poor migrants go to where wealth is concentrated, because wealth creates secondary employment markets to service it (note that this isn’t the same as saying that wealth ‘trickles down’ to the poor). Poor migrants from high fertility countries also tend to quickly assume the fertility patterns of the host society – so if global population reduction is a goal, then increased international migration from poor (and typically high fertility) countries to richer, lower fertility countries is a good way to achieve it. But if a rich society does want to reduce in-migration of people from poorer countries, a good way to achieve it is by reducing its inequalities in wealth.

Another issue is the bulging elderly population in many ‘developed’ societies as fertility crashes in the younger generations – an arguably one-off social problem which can be tackled by in-migration of young workers from poorer countries to balance temporary fertility/mortality disparities, which is often the way migration functions.

So some things to chew on there, which I’ll come back to in a later post. But where I’m generally going to go with this is probably fairly obvious – the best and most humane way of reducing in-migration in a ‘developed’ society isn’t by trying to ban it. “When migrants come,” Dorling writes, “times are generally good” (p.256). There are, perhaps, some additional complexities here, but Dorling has a point. After all, there seems to be no clamour in London to stop people migrating there from, say, Cumbria on the grounds that they’ll take jobs from Londoners. That’s not how the job market works. But if we turned to a society structured like neo-peasant Wessex, the migration picture would undoubtedly start to look different.

5. Cities

Dorling’s writing on cities seems a bit conflicted, but let me quote this:

“the worst of poverty is now found in cities, places where people can have literally nothing, not even a scrap of land. It is, perhaps, surprising we do not fear the city and our current demographic transition more” (p.202)

And also this, from Vaclav Smil’s recent book,

“another great uncertainty is the long-term viability of urban living….large parts of many of the world’s largest cities remain epitomes of violence, drug addiction, homelessness, child abandonment, prostitution and squalid living…Cities have been always renewed by migration from villages – but what will happen to the already mostly urban civilization once the villages virtually disappear while the social structure of cities continues to disintegrate?”3

Again, I hope to write more about this soon, and I’d want to question an over-simple ‘city vs. village’ dichotomy, but after spending years wading through endless, skin-deep eco-modernist paeans to the redeeming power of the slum, I find it refreshing to see some popular-academic writings telling a different story.


And that pretty much wraps up Small Farm Future for 2017. I haven’t made as much progress as I’d have liked in getting to the politics of an agrarian populist society, but I did at least get some groundwork done in outlining what such a society might look like productively and in getting a lot of global history off my chest as a kind of background to the politics. Thanks to those hardy souls who’ve ploughed through all that output. And thanks more generally to everyone who’s read and commented on this site – it’s appreciated. Hopefully, 2018 will provide opportunities to move things on. Though I do have a few side projects to attend to as well, such as building a house. Ah well, it’s good to keep busy. So happy festivities to everyone, whichever way you care to take them, and hopefully we’ll meet here again sometime in January.


  1. Dorling, D. 2013. Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It. Constable.
  2. Daly, H. 1998. ‘Reply to Mark Sagoff’s “Carrying capacity and ecological economics”’ in Crocker, D. and Linden, T. eds. Ethics of Consumption. Rowman & Littlefield, p.55.
  3. Smil, V. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.437.








82 thoughts on “The broken glass: some thoughts on ‘Population 10 Billion’

  1. Now I want to by buy myself yet another book I’ll never have time to read – so much for reducing unnecessary consumption in my life.

    I better start by saying I’m pretty much on the doomist end of that spectrum. I just don’t see any major political engagement with the problems of environmental degradation, species extinction, climate change, pollution, soil loss, deforestation, overfishing etc etc etc that would give me grounds to sit anywhere else on that spectrum. In fact across the world politics engages in the pursuit of economic (i.e. consumptive) growth at all costs.

    Undoubtedly we need to engage with population growth but it’s not the main driver of any of the above problems. Kevin Anderson regularly asks audiences to do a though experiment – imagine a world without the poorest 10% of our global population and ask yourself what impact their absence would have on co2 emissions. Now put that 10% back and imagine a world without the richest 10% of our global population and ask yourself the same question. Ultimately population growth may well cancel out the good we do by reducing consumption but in the short term there’s no other game in town if we wish to tackle some of the above problems. George Monbiot puts it well “Perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many post-reproductive white men are obsessed with human population growth, as it’s about the only environmental problem of which they can wash their hands.”

    You’re absolutely right Chris, no one talks about a person from Cumbria stealing a Londoner’s job when they move there – which is an interesting observation in so many ways. I heard a black academic talking about Theresa May, who, as Home Secretary, advocated not rescuing migrants from boats in the Mediterranean as a way to discourage further migration – I can think of other ways; not selling arms, mitigating the impacts of climate change, instituting fair trade arrangements, canceling debt, eliminating land grabbing i the developing world – oh that list goes on and on, but now I’ve written it I can see the problem with it – in advocating any one of those actions/solutions we implicate ourselves in the problem of migration – this is not allowed. As an aside, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff in George Bush Jrs administration, says that when he was in the Pentagon they war gamed climate change and migration and didn’t come up with a single scenario in which more affluent countries weren’t building fences and putting machine guns on them to keep migrants out. Back to our black academic and Theresa May’s policy – he described it as a “dead nigger” policy – string a few up in a public manner to encourage the others to stay in their place. With politics like that what reason to be hopeful?

    Oh yes – Happy Christmas

    • Bruce:
      Can you help with the Kevin Anderson you’ve mentioned… all I get is the tennis player. There’s Benedict Anderson – emeritus from Cornell University who died a couple years ago… he wrote Imagined Communities, back in ’83 which deals with Nationalism, but I’m suspecting this is not the same Anderson you have in mind.

      Even though Benedict Anderson is likely not the one we’re talking about right now, I will offer that from the little I saw in hunting for Kevin… Benedict has some interesting thought to mull over – particularly in regard to how larger populations congeal around a nation concept once the group is too large for individuals to know all the other members of the group.

    • Regarding (over)consumption/(burgeoning) population and the attendant problems, does Kevin Anderson – who I’d never heard of until now – consider that the poorest among us might well wish to or indeed be striving to consume at levels similar to those in more affluent societies?
      Thanks again for a most thought-provoking series of posts Chris (et al). Happy Christmas everyone.

      • I believe Kevin Anderson believes we should take the Paris agreement at face value – that we should strive to keep the increase in global temp below 2 degrees, that our efforts should be informed by the best available science and based on the principle of equity. So the best science says that given an agreed value for climate forcing we can only emit so much co2 for a given amount of warming and that carbon budget should distributed equitably. Given the rich nations higher historical emissions Anderson suggests that
        the poor nations should have a larger share of the available budget because they need development, this makes our share lower and the need to really change our lives more urgent. So his position would actually be that we can’t continue to consume like affluent societies.

        One of the things he’s most critical of, and which his engineering background gives him the technical knowledge to speak to is BECCS. Almost all the IPCC scenarios in which warming kept below 2 degrees rely to some extent on Bio Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage – a technology that has been trialled at small scale but which mostly exists only on the drawing board. Anderson suggests that the reliance on this in the models is a convenient way to allow our politicians and ourselves to avoid the hard task of actually engaging with the scale of change that’s required.

  2. Hey, I proposed a similar thought experiment here: Where Small Farm Future leads, the Tyndall Centre follows. I guess I should have patented the idea…

    Oh, it seems like he came up with it first. Dammit…

    As Simon hints, the low emissions of the poor is not a fact of their choosing. Which is yet another reason why the rich countries need to take action first. I think George Monbiot is onto something, as he often is, in the quote from Bruce.

    If you look closely, you’ll find Benedict Anderson referenced in my history of the world cycle. His ‘imagined communities’ book is one of the classics of the literature on nationalism. His brother Perry, history professor at UCLA (though English), is also worth a look – a luminary of the new left.

    Bruce, I’m with you on most of those points. But where I found Dorling interesting is the notion that increased population (itself possibly only a short-term issue) doesn’t necessarily have to cancel out reduced consumption – and not because of either a fanciful ecomodernist decoupling or a return to complete rural subjection. So in that sense his thinking is quite complementary to the path I’m trying to chart here. In practice, I think you’re right that current pathways to reduced consumption will prove inadequate to staving off future shocks. Still, I’m not averse to small rays of hope, and Dorling’s way of construing the population – consumption relation sets up some of the possibilities I’m trying to chart here quite nicely.

  3. An aside Chris re house building. Though you’ve probably got it all sussed, if you’re not aware of it, the ‘world’s first’ miscanthus bale house build in Wales may be worth a look… Staff at Aberystwyth University are working on hybrids of the grass to suit the construction industry (to decarbonise it, no less). A compelling direction to go in for the breeders and builders I would have thought.


    Any way, all the best with the project and a happy new year to one and all.

  4. Drat. I don’t want to have to add Small Farm Future on to my list of places to fight about population. But when you out with the Ecomodernist line that population cancels out… well, it is clearly time for some pugilism.
    First, let me be super clear about a few things, just because the first thing that happens when you start saying “Population matte…..” is that people scream Eugenics! Hitler!
    I do not support genocide or eugenics or Hitler. In fact, I saw a calculation (now a few years out of date) that found if every couple had just one child the global population would drop to one billion by 2100. No eugenics required.
    Speaking of one child, I do not support coercive social policy. But simply stating that your government knows global population matters, and thinks it would be great if each couple had only one child would be quite powerful social proof that could begin shifting mindsets. We don’t coercively stop people from speeding, say by having the Secret Police sit in the passenger seat holding a pistol to your head. We simply put up speed limit signs, and occasionally hand out speeding tickets. So, social proof and social policy can achieve goals without the Western world immediately sliding into Chinese Authoritarianism.
    Once more for those who are already furiously typing. No coercion. Only beginning to shift mindsets.
    Lastly, I think it is generally more effective if we agree on some basics of a shared reality. You can see how loopy the policy ideas get without a shared reality, like how the ecomodernists don’t share the knowledge that energy is a critical resource, and our access to highly concentrated deposits of energy is rapidly diminishing. You end up with all sorts of loony ideas—fantastical suggestions of what we could do if only pigs were to begin flying. And yet pigs remain quite happy in their wallow.
    So, no eugenics, no coercion, but let’s try to share the rough outlines of a reality. That is my goal when we discuss population.
    My reality, and the reality of Herman Daly and assume many or most or all ecologists is that population cannot be cancelled out.
    This is easily explained because individual resource consumption cannot drop to zero. It cannot even drop near zero, because starvation is the result, and I said no genocide.
    So, we can look at a field of grain, supporting a fairly stable and happy population of mice. The mice eat some of the grain, have a few babies, the grain grows many seeds and has a few sprouts, and everybody is happy.
    Of course, in nature, there are several factors keeping the mice levels balanced—owls, hawks, eagles, foxes, dogs, coyotes, raccoons, snakes, cats, and many more.
    But we said no coercion in our human population, while we have simultaneously been relentlessly reducing the amount of infections and predators that affect our population.
    Anyhow, if we reduce the downward pressure on our mice, they can indeed have more surviving babies, all of which need a minimum amount of sustenance.
    This cannot be cancelled out. Population X Level of Consumption = Impact.
    This is not the same as the formula you gave—Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population—because we are not trying to find for Total Resource Use, we are trying to find for Impact.
    We are trying to find for impact because we don’t care about how many trees we cut down, we care about the displacement of birds, animals and bugs. We care about the loss of carbon sequestration. We care about the loss of oxygen generation. We care about the loss of water management and cleaning.
    Resource use tells us nothing, because it has no context. “We cut down a tree” has a very different impact in a coastal rainforest versus a desert oasis.
    So, we can rewrite your formula to be Impact = Per capita resource use X Population.
    The only way population can be cancelled out is if we can reduce the resource use of some individuals to zero. We can do this on paper, but we can’t in real life because that means starvation, and we said no coercion.
    Now, as we talk about human population and consumption, there is quite a bit of wiggle room. After all, three men have as much wealth as nearly four billion of the poorest humans. So, we can redistribute in a huge way.
    In fact, this is where I do believe in coercion. I think we should bring Madame Guillotine out of retirement and start shortening the super-rich. Redistribute their wealth and the standard of living of many people will improve noticeably.
    There are also massive efficiencies we can drive out. Food waste or poorly optimized farmlands are a common example. Simply by wasting less food we can nourish many more humans much more completely. And I agree with this as well. Capitalism is bullshit. The idea that it most effectively allots resources is bananas.
    Perhaps the greatest hope is that population will start dropping “spontaneously” thanks to education and empowerment.
    But we have a little problem that humanity has been in planetary overshoot for decades. If population is truly to be cancelled out, we must be well under ecological overshoot and we are nowhere near that.
    And every human needs a minimum amount of resources that cannot be zero. Enough food. Some clothing. Some shelter. Education, we hope, and healthcare. Opportunities for personal growth.
    So at some point we are going to be faced with the math that was always there, Population X Level of Consumption = Impact.
    We should start by eating the rich, and sharing their selfish hoards. We should reduce waste and increase social programs.
    Above all we should start our population control discussion in the Industrial West, where Population X Level of Consumption creates by far the greatest impact.
    But we must also face that ecosystems are in cascading collapse. Our impact is enormous and far more than the planet can bear to maintain an ecosystem we recognize. So, while we are putting the heads of the rich on our pikes, we should also be starting to discuss how humans, like every creature that has ever lived on this planet, have limits. If we cannot even admit that number of consumers matters, we have little hope of creating reality-based responses.

    • “My reality, and the reality of Herman Daly and assume many or most or all ecologists is that population cannot be cancelled out.”

      Thank you, Ruben. That’s my reality too. When I see this stuff about how population does not matter, I remember back to when they were laughing at Paul Ehrlich and gleefully predicting that population will begin to fall off by 2050. What BS. All they were doing was saying, don’t you worry your pretty head about THAT, dearie. Nothing to see here, keep movin’ on. And so we all did…

      Been reading about dopamine addiction, and my thought is that humans find population problems so dopamine-averse that they will do anything and everything to kick the can down the road. And I finally understand why all the posthumous abuse of Malthus.

      Happy solstice, and merry Christmas to those who celebrate.

  5. Well, this is a nice summary of the state of the problem we need to engage with, and no doubt a good springboard for next year’s blogging – I look forward to it!

    Nothing really to disagree with Chris, and I share your concern for the ‘liberal public sphere’, but, without wanting to come across as a detractor, I do wonder what the l-word adds to the two that follow it. Maybe ‘democratic public sphere’s is a better formulation, and avoids some of the more harmful meritocratic tendencies associated with the liberal version.

    Of course, we also need to keep up our health and sanitation to keep the fertility rate down – let’s hope most people think that a well-provisioned health care system on a national scale is a good idea…

    Ruben, I think I agree with most of what you say, but I also think that population doesn’t really matter, in the sense that the evidence would suggest that most people do already reduce their fertility rate given the ability to choose to do so. The difference between people and mice is surely that the former do not expand their family sizes when ‘downward pressures’ are removed – quite the opposite. Population numbers are not so much a problem as a precondition for where we go from here – as you said, genocide and coercion are off the table. The trick will surely be to create and maintain conditions for healthy family planning while destroying capitalist consumption.

    A couple of links that might be of interest here, from each end of the utopian-doomer spectrum. First, the late Hans Rosling, a rather naive optimist who was I think a rather good popular communicator. Here he is explaining what I assume is the same population trend considered by Dorling:

    Second, Mr Seymour again, who got a mixed response when I linked to him in a previous comment, reminding us that any strategy for the future must not just be non-capitalist but actively anti-capitalist if we’re going to get anywhere nice (again, agree with you there Ruben):

    Anyway, ’tis the season to raise a full glass, so let’s hope our godforsaken leaders are visited by the ghost of the neo-peasant future this year. Merry Christmas!

    • On the public sphere, I’d be happy to dispense with the ‘l’ word if we could find another one that captured the sense of debate, compromise, empathy, identities. “Democracy” might do it if we could somehow reinvigorate it to mean those sort of things. Sadly, though, for me it’s been ruined for that purpose by seeing too many ringing declarations along the lines of “Brexit is the democratic will of the British people”.

      • That’s happened to me before, but not often. Now I copy my comment to a document before clicking the “Post Comment” button, just in case.

  6. I’m with Ruben here. I think Daly’s quote is on the money, and the cancelling logic faulty.
    What if we restated Kevin Anderson’s thought experiment to imagine a global population comprising only the current wealthiest 10%. To then cut population (by the bottom 10% say) would have a huge impact. As would a drastic reduction in resource use, as they are multipliers of each other’s effect.
    To bring the least consuming 10% of the world’s population into this particular question muddies the water in the sense that it gives a false impression of population not mattering, there being a kind of sleight of hand, for want of a better phrase, is in how the focus switches from ‘impact and consumption’ to ‘lack of impact and population’.

  7. Well I’m pretty much with you on all that Ruben. Unfortunately the dominant culture is shaped by science and capitalism (two ideas that emerge in Europe at pretty much the same time), both of which are underpinned by philosophies that allow no limits to human endeavour – I’ve been reading a bit about the history of science and this absence of morality from the philosophy of science, from which we get the idea of the disinterested scientist seeking after some sort of pure truth, is there by design – Francis Bacon is pretty clear about this. The more I think about the more I feel that this lies at the root of our current crisis – somehow we’ve come to believe that knowledge is a substitute for wisdom. So when what’s required is a change in behaviour our culture unfailingly proposes a technical solution (which no doubt has as many unforseen consequences as the last).

    I had a look the other day at responses to the limits to growth report when it was first published – much of the criticism then was that the authors had underplayed the positive role technology would play in avoiding the problems the report suggested we might encounter if we continued along the path we were then on. Now, 45 years later everyone says what a wonderful piece of work the report was, how well the reports business as usual scenario tracks what has happened since and then suggest that in this century technology is going to undo climate change, reverse extinctions, feed billions more of us etc etc.

  8. But population and resource use are ultimately autonomous variables.

    Ruben covered this mistake thoroughly, but let me second his point; there are two components to per capita resource use. The first is the minimum required to keep a body alive and reproducing and the second component is all resource usage above the minimum. The minimum is a fairly substantial value (whatever is needed to produce about 2000 calories per day per person, plus water and shelter) and it certainly can’t be zero. Population and resource use are not autonomous variables.

    The pertinent question then becomes, “Would our problems with overshoot at present population levels be remedied if we reduced the per capita resource consumption to the bare minimum?” The answer to this is clearly “no”, since “the bare minimum” requires that resources be acquired and consumed in a sustainable way (not using non-renewable resources like fossil fuels).

    Any use of non-renewable resources is, by definition, in addition to the minimum that people needed prior to their widespread use. This means that any steady state human population of the earth is far closer to the population that existed prior to fossil fuel use than it is today.

    Ruben’s proposed use of the guillotine and redistributing the goodies of the recently beheaded (de-headed?) to the poor might make the poor better off, but it doesn’t reduce the total impact of resource use. The resource use of the rich needs to be eliminated, not re-distributed.

    It might be argued that we could use our remaining supply of non-renewable resources in a more equitable manner and allow everyone a normal lifespan until world population declines through reduced fertility, but I don’t think that strategy would reduce carbon emissions fast enough even if everyone were persuaded to try it. We need to get to a situation where everyone on earth is using the minimum resources possible, but the long term trend toward urbanization skews resource use in the opposite direction.

    I would like to bring up another aspect of population that relates directly to the feasibility of agrarian peasantry as a sound ecological strategy. A farm population living with resource consumption near the minimum possible will most likely be one with a demographic profile similar to that which existed in the pre-industrial era. Farming without fossil fueled machinery needs lots of manual labor. Multi-generation households optimize resource consumption by assigning tasks to those who will use the least energy doing them. For example, why send an adult to the coop to collect eggs when a four-year-old can do it? Save the adult’s time for heavy work in the field.

    To optimize energy (food) consumption every farm family needs a wide range of physical strength and corresponding metabolic load. Your “..relatively labour-intensive but relatively low fertility” world is going to be impossible to achieve, unless, as you suggest, mass migration of young people is used to achieve the required demographic profile. But I doubt that any region would have a surplus of young people under conditions of exclusively manual agricultural production. The average agrarian peasant is going to have to produce more calories than they consume, which will make it very difficult to support the current demographic profile of the rich world via peasant agriculture.

    And it must also be remembered that modern methods of birth control rely on industrial civilization for their production and distribution. It is possible to reduce the number of children per woman without condoms or hormonal contraceptives, but it is much, much harder to do so consistently.

    All in all, I just don’t see how there is any way to avoid a period of much increased death rate as the principle cause of diminished resource consumption. That’s the price we will pay for using a non-renewable resource to temporarily allow our population to greatly exceed long term carrying capacity.

    • “But population and resource use are ultimately autonomous variables.”

      OK agreed, that’s a mistake. I should have written that they aren’t entirely collinear variables and their degree of collinearity can vary. I don’t think it especially undermines the larger point I was trying to make.

      As in my reply to Ruben, I’m not quite with you on your point about overshoot – partly because I wasn’t really writing about overshoot above, and partly because if we’re going to confidently declare overshoot, then we need a strong objective definition of ‘shoot’, which I don’t think is possible. However, perhaps I’m splitting hairs since I basically agree with you, Ruben et al that a trouble-free transition to a more sustainable human ecology looks unlikely from where we’re at.

      Your point about farm family sizes is interesting. Still, large families can also be quite problematic in view of the demographic cycle – as I think Chayanov showed in his analyses of 19th century Russian peasant households. In order to come to any definite view on this you’d need to look at surplus extraction from the state (historically a massive drain on peasant production) and also return welfare payments, plus inter-household cooperation and various issues around technical inputs. Generally, people are pretty inventive about creating household and kinship structures to get the things that need doing done, so I’m not sure quite how much to ponder this one. But for sure in a collapsing, dog-eat-dog sort of world fertility would increase…another reason to try to avoid that outcome.

  9. Ruben (& Bruce & John & Vera)

    There’s a lot you say here with which I agree…there’s also quite a lot you seem to impute to me which I don’t think I actually said. For brevity’s sake, I’ll just comment on a few points where I disagree with you, or where I think there’s a lack of clarity between us.

    1. If you take any equation of the form Y = X x population (Y can be ‘impact’, resource use or whatever), then logically X has to be a per capita figure, and population ‘cancels out’ in a mathematical sense. It seems to me that Daly is logically wrong here and so are you with your impact equation (or at least you’re wrong unless you assume that the relationship between X and population is intrinsically collinear). That’s not the same thing as saying that population levels don’t matter – and I didn’t say that above. The main point I wanted to make above with reference to Dorling is that the forces that were impelling population growth up until around 1970 have changed radically, and it would be a good idea to incorporate the implications of that into future neo-agrarian visions. As I said above, my main interest for present purposes isn’t total human numbers or their impact – I agree with you that the impact is severe – but the social implications of the changing demographics. Therefore I think a lot of your barbs aimed at me are misdirected.

    2. You write: “Resource use tells us nothing, because it has no context. “We cut down a tree” has a very different impact in a coastal rainforest versus a desert oasis. So, we can rewrite your formula to be Impact = Per capita resource use X Population.”

    I agree with you up until your ‘So’, but the rest is surely a non-sequitur. Precisely because cutting down a tree has a different impact in a coastal rainforest versus a desert oasis, you can’t write some generic formula about impact as a direct function of population. Again, I’m not saying that this means population levels are irrelevant. But what matters is the impact of the felling. And, sure, you can say that pressure of population lies behind it in some sense, but not necessarily in the direct and unmediated way you imply in your formula. So then we need to start talking about the more indirect and mediated factors at play…and these are the kinds of discussions we should be having. Writing formulae with impact as a direct function of population circumvents those discussions – and since we both agree that genocide isn’t an option, such formulae really don’t take us anywhere useful.

    3. So maybe we’re talking at cross purposes about ‘cancelling out’. There’s the mathematical sense discussed above – then Bruce used it in his comment to mean relative effects of population and consumption, and I echoed his usage. I take no position above about the magnitude of those relative effects – all I’m saying is that Dorling prompted me to think that their relative autonomy could be greater in the future than they have been in the recent past because of demographic trends that are already in train…and that’s a good place from which to articulate neo-agrarian arguments along the lines of reducing the consumption of the rich etc etc where I think we’re mostly in agreement. Some of the time, though, you seem to talk about the impossibility of ‘cancelling out’ in terms of humans having zero biotic impact as if that’s some kind of desideratum. From my point of view, it isn’t.

    4. You write: “Perhaps the greatest hope is that population will start dropping “spontaneously” thanks to education and empowerment.” Well, that’s exactly what’s been happening to population growth rates since about 1970, and will possibly start happening to population itself from around 2075. But it’ll continue only if the right social infrastructures are in place. If you think it’s a good idea for couples to have only one child without coercion, then you have to ensure people are hugely confident that there’ll be job opportunities for the young and good pension schemes and social care for the elderly in 20 or 30 years time. Personally, I don’t have that confidence, but if reducing global population is the aim then those surely ought to be top policy priorities.

    5. What a lot of you seem to be saying in the comments is that human population levels do matter. Yes, sure they do. But nothing I said above suggested otherwise.

    • Ah Chris, I am sorry my thorns pricked your fingers.

      It is juvenile on my part, but I can never resist a passing comparison to the Ecomodernists when I think I need to catch your attention! Cutting back on the verbal brambles in this comments section can be my first resolution for the New Year.

      So, I am sorry to impugn both your dignity and intelligence, as a reference to the Jetsonian “socialists” must do. I am very grateful for your thinking and writing–my only complaint is that you cannot do more of it.

  10. As a coda to the above flurry, it could be that a more apposite equation would be:

    Total non-sustainable resource use (i.e. impact) = (Resource use per capita X Population) – Resource created

    Population cancels and the resulting problem or challenge is to make the productivity of your renewable economic system balance with the consumption requirements of your population, whatever it’s size – i.e. its size doesn’t formally matter, although it will affect the actual form of the economy’s design.

    Of course, such a calculation would actually be impossible to calculate, at least at a global scale (just like the infamous Malthusian one). What’s needed is a regional case study, say on the scale of the old kingdom of Wessex – any ideas?

    • I think this is actually just Ecological Footprinting isn’t it?

      And the big benefit of not cancelling population in this mathematical way is in talking about the different levels and kinds of impacts created by specific people, classes, nationalities, etc.

      If we don’t cancel, we easily can see we should begin by eating the rich, not the poor.

      • I’m all for a bit of cathartic grass-roots cannibalism! But logic demands that population be cancelled in this equation, and its point (for it surely has no actual calculative point) is to show that our energies should be spent on testing the ecological footprint of ideas for new renewable, sustainable, economies, and trying to implement the best of them. Such economies will, by definition, discourage fertility to increase, or they wouldn’t be sustainable. But they must also, as a point of principle, be designed for the actually existing population in the first instance. Actively tinkering with population numbers, even the light-touch coercion that you suggest, does nothing to resolve the economic crises – the equation will continue to produce a positive number representing ‘impact’ because the economic system hasn’t changed; resolve those crises, and the rest will take of itself.

  11. Interesting discussion. John suggested that Kevin Andersons thought experiment muddied the water by suggesting population didn’t matter – I don’t think that’s the case. I think the purpose of the experiment is to show just how much we could achieve right now by reducing consuption – doing that doesn’t imply we shouldn’t tackle the population problem but allows us the space to tackle it,

    There was mention of the large families in pre-industrial societies and the implications for population. I’m not sure that’s as much of an issue as we might imagine. Global population in prior to the industrial revolution was relatively tiny and growing relatively slowly. If one looks at graphs of global energy use and and global population the two map onto each other really well – which has always suggested to me that as oil peaks (or as net energy declines) we’re going to see reductions in population. I live in a village in Somerset which grew in size when coal was discovered and then grew with increasing rapidity through the 20th century – I sometimes wonder how many of those houses/households are supported by fossil fuel energy – the village is certainly well past a size that could be supported by the land within the parish boundary.

    I’m pretty certain we’re headed toward a future with far less available energy – to me the real question is how we make that transition – which is why I’m looking forward to Chris blogging about the politics of the agrarian future. The doomist in me feels the inertia in our current system and the belief in human genius that we’re all inculcated with by the culture means we’ll struggle to make that transition in a decent manner – but we ought to try.

    • Hm. Doesn’t Jevons Law (or whatever it’s called) apply to reduced consumption by some? If I reduce consumption, more for my neighbors to consume, and consume they will.

      • I believe Jevons Law applied to individual consumption – so if I have more energy efficient appliances then my expenditure on energy falls and I’m likely to then use more appliances. There’s no reason why changes in costs to me would influence the behaviour of others.

        I think what you’re thinking of is the tragedy of the commons

        • Don’t forget supply and demand, Bruce. It won’t apply for everything but it certainly does for some things: where demand exceeds supply, an individual choosing not to buy simply makes that thing available to someone who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

          There was a long discussion about meat-eating recently, on the LowImpact site, where a farmer called Rob Rose (who uses cattle for conservation) made the point that, generally, the people heeding the ‘eat less meat’ message are the same ones who are prepared to pay more for the sustainably-produced stuff.

          The result is that he and others like him are being squeezed while the industrial producers are relatively unaffected – which deters other farmers from switching to more sustainable production. Given that there are many people in the world who would like to eat more meat than they currently can, individual abstention may therefore actually be counter-productive, because it discourages sustainable production. He argued that a better way to encourage a reduction in overall meat consumption is for individuals to eat as much sustainably produced meat as they like, because that will tend to raise prices and decrease supply.

        • Nope. I applies across the board.
          Wiki: “In economics, the Jevons paradox (sometimes the Jevons effect) occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.”

  12. Thanks for the further comments, including your compliments amongst the brambles, Ruben. Indeed, it’s very naughty of you to taunt me by likening me to the ecomodernists – as laid out in point 1 above. If you’re not careful, you may not get a visit from Santa next week…

    And thanks for the Monbiot link, Bruce. I’d largely agree with him, with a few caveats, though really I think the problem is better tackled at source, which is the availability of cheap fossil fuels. But meat-eating is an interesting test of people’s theories on the population – wealth – consumption nexus. You might argue, for example, that people generally like to eat meat – so as global population and global wealth rises, meat production is also likely to rise. Are there any solutions? Yep – make people raise their own livestock, of course…

    • Yes people generally like to eat meat and they also like to fly off for foreign holidays, own more pairs of shoes than they’ll ever wear, have hot tubs on their patios and on and on and on. I claim no superiority here – I, for example, buy more books than I’ll ever read. It might be that the only way we can reduce consumption is to reduce wealth, but I fear if that is the case, then to quote Derrick Jensen, “we’re so fucked”. To me this is a cultural question – we have a culture that says we can indulge in what we like (assuming we can afford it) without thought as to consequences or limits. If we reduce wealth without changing our acquisitive cultural imperative then I fear we’ll simply see the same problems reemerge in new forms (assuming we last that long).

      For myself I think arguing about the perfect way to approach our current ecological crisis is a fun distraction – But I’m not going to kill my 2 kids to help reduce the population and while I’m waiting for land to be redistributed so that I can raise my own ‘default’ livestock along the lines you advocate I should probably, regardless of my wealth (or perennial lack thereof) give up eating meat (and air travel) because it’s one of the things I can do relatively easily that has a reasonably significant impact in reducing the size of my ecological footprint – this assumes I like a healthy biosphere at least a little more than rump steak – the one abstract the other less so, and perhaps therein lies some of our problem. Other changes i wish to make are harder because they are more dependent on the way society and the economy are structured – I really don’t believe that individual action is sufficient to create the scale of change we need but absent significant structural change its all we’re left with – So come on Chris where’s the post on how we get from we are now to the utopia that is the Peasants Republic of Wessex.

      • Well, again I agree with most of that but I didn’t really intend this post to be a general airing of the ‘what can I personally do to help the environment’ issue. “I really don’t believe that individual action is sufficient to create the scale of change we need but absent significant structural change its all we’re left with” pretty much sums up the problem – individual action can make sense for numerous reasons, but since as you concede it’s ineffective, then there’s something of a question mark over it, no? So it’s not that surprising that it’s a minority pursuit. Personally I like it when people take some kind of a stand on their personal consumption, though I don’t think it makes them more praiseworthy or more part of ‘the solution’ than people who don’t. Ah yes, and talking of solutions, to answer your question I’ve got it all stitched up – firstly in an article in ‘The Land’ magazine (publication imminent, I think) and secondly in a longer piece I’m currently working on. So watch this space…

        But seriously, I don’t think we’re going to get to utopia. However, there are some possible routes to getting somewhere slightly less grim than where we’re currently headed and I intend to map them as best I can next year.

        • I hadn’t meant to get into a discussion of personal actions re our ecological crisis – but somehow we ended up there. I don’t really think there’s a question mark over personal action whether effective or not – without it one’s demands for systemic change just appear hollow – John Micheal Greer amongst others has made this point with regards calls from environmentalists for phasing out of coal in the USA – that it tends to look like one set of people demanding a change in someone else’s behaviour/livelihood. If there is an issue with personal action then its in the holding it up as praiseworthy – as likely to turn people off as any perceived hypocrisy – oh what a fine line to walk.

          My point really was that our culture drives us in a direction other than that which we probably need to be heading and that within that that each of us must start from where we are and do what we can and see where that takes us, rather than waiting for an ideal solution.

          Looking forward to The Land and future posts – I wasn’t really suggesting that you/we/anyone is planning for utopia – somewhere less grim/more hopeful would be wonderful

          • The idea of ‘a question mark’ over individual action intrigues me, though I thought reasoning it to be ‘ineffective’ was a bit harsh. Inadequate, for sure, though I’m in hair-splitting territory here I realise. Looking forward to The Land article.

          • “I don’t really think there’s a question mark over personal action whether effective or not – without it one’s demands for systemic change just appear hollow”

            I understand your logic, but as I see it this takes us into a blind alley where environmentalism has been stuck for decades. Anyone who wants to dismiss my demands for systemic change on the grounds of my hypocritical personal complicity with the system will easily be able to so no matter how many abstemious boxes I tick unless I adopt such drastic measures that they will then easily be able to dismiss me as a freak whose personal choices are irrelevant to most people. This is the whipping post on which so many environmentalists allow themselves to get tied by the mainstream media by framing it as an issue of personal choice.

            Greer himself has become so delusionally obsessed with middle-class hypocrisy that I’ve come to see his case as a negative exemplar or cautionary tale for the troubles that have befallen us in substituting the individual for the collective or systemic in contemporary politics – but I’ll be writing more about that soon.

            Instead I’d invoke David Fleming: “The charge of hypocrisy is efficient, popular and turns up everywhere. But it is flawed, for what matters is not the arguer, but the argument. Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights”.

            But on the individual/collective point, it’s noteworthy that most cultures/spiritual traditions (including northwest Europe) have historically found a valued place for asceticism and world renunciation – something we’ve now virtually lost that, if we could rebuild it, could perhaps be more genuinely exemplary as a collective movement.

        • I will come down all over the map on effective change.

          I have spent the better part of a decade looking at pro-environmental behaviour change, and behaviour in general, and I am super-duper, extremely clear that system change is the only possible way to achieve the scale of change we need.

          But changing systems is very hard. People are invested in the current way of doing things, and are literally physiologically repelled by demands for change.

          Greer’s point speaks only to the practicalities of changing systems, and it is a point I think is supported in the research I have been reading.

          We need to think of personal change as being nothing more than a proof-of-concept. Enough people have to voluntarily make the change to prove Western Civilization will not collapse. This is then used to lever system change.

          My little city, for better or worse, is about to ban plastic grocery bags. This surely would not have happened without several decades of a small group of people carrying cloth bags to the store.

          Unfortunately, too many campaigns see and position personal change as the end goal, and this is absolutely disastrous. I think it would be much better to understand, and clearly communicate, that personal change is just to make a political point that will enable system change.

          • Oh! And I agree that if people raised and killed their own meat, it would be impactful on consumption.

            I actually think it would be easier to control population than to challenge the access to meat in North America, though.

  13. Welcome back Ruben! It’s been too long. New shoots on the old olive tree… I hope I needn’t go for my shears.

    Cannibalism. Head spiking. Blood lust. The symbolism catches the eye. And perhaps enough talk of the same might catch the attention of the too wealthy and if they are as intelligent as they imagine there could be some change in behavior. Surely at this time of year one could point to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the behavioral change of Mr Scrooge.

    But on the matter of wealth redistribution… I’m less optimistic. A great deal of the ‘wealth’ held be the super wealthy is not a productive wealth – by another angle consider the context question…. Owning an 80 story sky scraper might earn someone lots of rent… but I’m not sure how many of us will find a way to eat it if we take it from the rich owner. Similarly the real estate value of a seaside mansion is many multiples greater than a similarly festooned property many miles inland. And you can’t ‘eat the view’ (though I am reminded there is a group using exactly that phrase to encourage urban gardening efforts).

    The recent electrical outage at the airfield in Atlanta… the train wreck in Washington state… technical hiccups on the one hand; Homo hubris wakeup calls on the other.

    I guess what I’m suggesting is I’m not looking for any sort of windfall if there were to be some sort of ‘soak the rich’ revolution. Diamonds aren’t edible, gold either. The hoped for benefit of preventing outrageous wealth accumulation would be prevent outrageous resource squandering. Little to no air travel, that sort of thing.

    Overshoot? I’m sizing up the olive branch marketplace before I dance on that topic here.

    • Well, it’s true that you can’t parlay a skyscraper into a good meal directly, but the economic structures rippling out from it do have tremendous resource-guzzling consequences, as does the personal emissions profile of the super-rich. And indeed the profile of the only moderately rich, which in global terms probably applies to everyone debating here. I’d agree that ‘soaking the rich’ isn’t necessarily apposite, though levels of global inequality are so shocking that it’s a tempting line of thought. Perhaps the most obvious alternative way of tackling all these different manifestations of runaway consumption and environmental breakdown is taxing carbon at an appropriate(ly high) level. But to do that would bring the existing economy juddering to a halt, so in those circumstances maybe it’d be a good idea to have a Plan B – preferably one that might even be appealing to some degree. Enter neo-agrarian localism… That’s what I’d like to move on to talk about…

    • A less Old Testament version of my earlier comment…

      You are so right that you can’t eat diamonds, my friend.

      I have often raged about Bill Gates’ so-called philanthropy. This leech has sold a buggy product for too much money for decades now. Rather than charging heinous prices, amassing a fortune, and then giving some of it away, he could just steal less from his workers and customers in the first place. His success could be in never actually becoming rich.

      I cannot understand a person who is chauffeured past homeless and hungry people on the way to their mansions and cottages and penthouses, except as an evil person. What could explain that behaviour except a marrow-deep sociopathy?

      Anyhow, I think the rich have quite a bit of money sitting around in stocks and bonds and securities and various other investment instruments–not in mansions and gold faucets. That cash and all of the cash that is sitting in offshore accounts can be shared around.

      We won’t be able to extract as much value from the small amount of physical baubles the rich surround themselves with. But hey, we can always repurpose mansions and megayachts as homes for the unhoused.

  14. Excellent to see Kevin Anderson, one of my climate hero’s come up here – Well worth following him on Twitter if folk are into that. And as David Fleming came up, I’d point all towards his idea for Tradable Energy Quota’s (TEQ’s) as a workable policy idea to decarbonise/localise the economy:

    TEQ’s was an idea whose time nearly came but was greenwashed in to “personal carbon allowances” by HM Treasury and then washed out completely, because yer know, we need growth and all that.

    Anyway have a great Christmas and new year all – Keep up the excellent work in 2018 Chris.

  15. Good points Chris – I personally can’t read Greer anymore – I find him far to enamoured of his own brilliance (I might not agree with him about just how bright that brilliance is).

    The whipping post thing is certainly a valid observation and but I’m not sure the strength of one’s argument is really that important. The scientific argument on climate change was won many years ago and yet emissions of co2 are now something like 60% higher per anum than they were when the Kyoto protocol was signed. Right now I’m still stuck on this being a cultural thing – and that the culture in which we are immersed and from which we grow overrides our conscious knowledge and leads us to act in ways that are incongruent with out stated beliefs and objectives. Perhaps small personal acts in some way begin to shift that culture.

    • Bruce, you might enjoy my thoughts on behaviour.

      But in sum, I think we have to stretch the understanding of culture past its usefulness. There are definitely huge swathes of cultural consumption. But there is also a massive amount of carbon that is burnt by our building codes and urban planning–the systems.

      Why do we have those systems? Culture surely plays into it, but I think does not explain it all. We do lots of things just because it seemed like a good idea when the system was designed and we didn’t understand how broadly it would play out.

      This is one of my favourite examples of that:

      • Thanks for the link Ruben – I will take a look later (I’m supposed to be working). I suppose when I think about culture what I have in mind is the unconscious drives, assumptions, heuristics (that we absorb from birth) that underpin, and from which grows, the behaviour of the system in which we are living.

        Last night I was thinking about neo-liberalism and its trajectory. How long it took from the founding of the Mont Pelerin Society for neoliberalism to achieve its hegemonic grip upon the world. How much dedicated effort and resources were mustered to achieve those aims – Margaret Thatcher once said something along the lines of ‘economics is the means but the aim is the soul’. Here was a group of people with a very definite agenda to create a culture – but there were a whole range of very deep assumptions that they had no need to challenge, around growth, the understanding of the natural world primarily with regards its utility to humans etc – all of which we do need to challenge.

        That they succeeded so spectacularly is perhaps grounds for optimism that systemic change is possible while the level and scale of change required is almost overwhelming.

        • Interesting Bruce. The MPS and its history makes for a certain cautionary tale in itself. I might have gone a bit shy of “hegemonic grip” but I will agree the impact, given the relatively small group to get it rolling, is very impressive. And no blood spilled that I can see (at least in getting the effort underway).

          And I’m particularly impressed with your use of the adjective ‘almost’ at the end of the last sentence. I’d offer to buy you a book, but I suppose that might be considered overshoot.

          • I think I sense your meaning… but is it “progress” to go from utopia to dystopia? Is progression the intended word, or is someone being sarcastic?

            Incremental change… and realistic evaluation… tweeking, careful application… cautious optimism. Eyes wide open, considering, watching out for unintended consequences. Resilience.

            Evolution makes changes in various fits and starts. Sometimes extremely slow, other times with remarkable speed (relatively speaking). How difficult would it be to imagine the human experience as a sort of evolution? As we change how we do things our fellow critters experience habitat change and some keep up – others, not so much. Commensal relationships in nature exhibit this all around us. We merely (yeah, merely might not be the right adverb) leave a fatter footprint as we go about changing how we’ll deal with our commensal partners.

            The Guardian link is something to chew on… thanks (as always).

          • No sarcasm intended, I just used ‘progress’ fairly unthinkingly to mean the development of something over time…which I think is much the best way to use it, really…

            There’s a long (and fairly troubled) history of using biological evolution as a metaphor for social change. I’m sure it can be illuminating, though. But I often think of parallels such as with the dodo. Going about its day-to-day business on an island with no predators, natural selection soon honed its adaptive fitness by removing the power of flight. And then the sailors came… The difference between natural selection and social change is that people have self-directed long-term projects, and the power of foresight, both of which make it unlikely that we’ll go way the of the dodos, right? On the other hand…

          • I see you’re progress sense and agree. Putting one foot in front of the other… to progress from here to there.

            And I also have some reservation about the comparing of human behavior to the simplicity of evolution… (simplicity he said??). But I don’t imagine the dodo example breaks the bank. The dodo’s fate might just as easily have been sealed by the arrival of some other predator or a parasite of some sort. So while we sapiens may get the credit, it could have been different. Just the same I’d argue history might have turned out differently had a significant battle turned an outcome on its head. Hannibal’s elephants might have done better and Rome crushed earlier (where does Britannia come out on that score?).

            The difference between natural selection and social change is that people have self-directed long-term projects, and the power of foresight, both of which make it unlikely that we’ll go way the of the dodos, right?

            The power of foresight is awesome, but if viewed as just another attribute of the critter – and one with significant potential to influence events – it can still be seen to respond to natural forces. Indeed success or failure in warfare could be viewed as adaptive elements. Are behaviors responding to natural phenomena or shaping them? Both perhaps. But just as other critters form social connections, and some deliberately build nests etc (niche construction) the race to pull us aside as somehow unnatural or heaven forbid – supernatural – is about as fraught as the alternative.

            But to the spirit of a holiday break and peace and good will to all… have a great holiday. Gin up a wholesome 2018, and keep your stick on the ice.

          • Well, I’m happy with the notion that humanity is a ‘plain member and citizen of the biotic community’ and not exempt from natural selection. Whether natural selection is a good model for social change is another matter…something to think about over another slaughtered bird while I get ginned (wholesomely) up…

        • Bruce, you have cut right to the complex part of understanding and changing behaviour.

          You said, the unconscious drives, assumptions, heuristics…that underpin, and from which grows, the behaviour of the system in which we are living.

          I suggest these two are more separate than that. As you will see, when you have time to read my post, I separate drivers of behaviour into Conscious, Social and Systemic.

          Our Conscious behaviour, despite its overwhelming place in our cultural narrative, is almost nonexistent–certainly very, very small.

          Most of our behaviour is simply responsive to our context–the social and physical context we find ourselves in–these are probably the unconscious drives you mentioned. I think the vast majority of our behaviour is in response to the physical circumstance we are surrounded by.

          After that, our social context is very powerful. We outsource huge amounts of decisionmaking to various social groups.

          And then what little we can’t handle through these methods we have to think about–but not quite yet.

          We are still very defensive of using our conscious attention, and so we have another huge swathe of almost-conscious mechanisms–the assumptions and heuristics you mention.

          So, our physical and social contexts determine the majority of our behaviour. Surely these powerful drivers must have been designed? Chosen?

          The second link I gave says not so much, tracing the design of the International Space Station back before the Roman Empire.

          Huge parts of our world are determined by factors so obvious we don’t even see them, they are are simply the water in which we swim.

          And then other huge parts are determined by things we never imagined. Remember Y2K? This consumed huge amounts of conginitve space, generated tons of economic activity, government regulation, people built bunkers and stockpiled beans and bullets, all sorts of behaviour flowed out of this.

          And why? Because early coders never considered their line of code would endure long enough to create a problem that had never existed before.

          All of which to say…

          I think it is very difficult for us to draw clear lines between systems and culture and individual choice.

          In my personal contemplation on this topic I have long thought that racism, for example, is a personal/cultural problem. We dealt with the systemic aspects in the 60s, with various Civil Rights legislations, and therefore what remains must be addressed with our limited conscious attention.

          However, the scholar Ibram X. Kendi says there are still system mechanisms that are creating the racist divide (he is writing from and about the US).

          So, he is challenging my thoughts on the granularity and insidiousness of systems.

          Juicy stuff. I am sad to say, though, that all my work on behaviour did not give me much hope for change.

          • Thanks for the reply Ruben. I think I basically agree with you – the conscious choices of individuals plays but a tiny role in societal change – but none the less change happens. The gauge of the track on which the Shuttle moves may be determined by the width of a horse’s arse but it’s a space shuttle and not a horse and cart. That said I quite take your point about the inertia of a system and difficulty in overcoming said inertia, especially when the scale of change now required is so radical.

            Also the fact that conscious personal choices shape so little of our behaviour is precisely why propaganda works – but using propaganda is a choice made by either individuals or an organisation. And effective propaganda relies on heavily on creating at least the impression of social consensus – the case of attitudes to climate change in the USA would probably be a case in point – the use of front groups, social media trolls etc etc.

            The case of racism is interesting. Its so deep seated I think – our primitive tribal selves are always with us – there’s an interesting experiment talked about here And looking at the USA from across the Atlantic I think the idea that there’s not systemic racial bias really doesn’t hold water. Crack epidemic in the black community – seen as a crime problem answered with mass incarceration and 3 strikes and you’re out legislation – the current opoid epidemic affecting primarily white Americans is being talked about as a health crisis (although no answers are yet forthcoming as far as I can see). Its the same over here – if you are black you are far more likely to be stopped and searched by the police but whites who are stopped in the same way are far more likely to be carrying drugs – but the police still disproportionately stop black people.

  16. Thanks for the further comments – and for people’s various links and comments to which I haven’t responded…Sorry, I’m trying to wind down for the holidays!

    Ruben, I agree with you on personal change as a vehicle of collective change – the difference from the preceding discussion being the collective intent. I’m not convinced that this is where Greer is coming from, though. I also agree with Bruce’s parallel cultural change vs rational argument point. While I agree that personal consumption decisions can be a force for collective cultural change in this way, I’m not sure that they’re the only or the main force.

  17. Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population

    So I think Dorling, and Sagoff, are right. Population cancels out. The problem is resource use.

    This totally silly…….. the reason for dividing by population is as you rightly say, to determine consumption per capita, except that is vastly different by region/nation.

    Ehrlich’s I=PxAxT formula still stands.

    • There are some I think valid criticisms on wiki regarding Ehrlich’s formula. I would add to what they say that in some circumstances, people who would be considered poor do damage out of proportion to their income… such as poor farmers chopping down the Amazon, or the Easter Islanders chopping down the last trees.

      As for Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population, that can’t be right. What you got is Total Resource Use = Total Resource Use. Zero meaning.

      • “As for Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population, that can’t be right. What you got is Total Resource Use = Total Resource Use. Zero meaning.”

        Well quite, but that’s kind of the drift of Daly’s intervention. One way of putting the point I’m trying to make above is that there’s not much to be done at a gross level about population, so it makes more sense to work on relativizing the population/impact relation – and not necessarily via material decoupling but through other social logics. But I’ve probably laboured this none-too-brilliant point enough already in the threads above…

        • There is always “less food, less people.” 🙂

          Say, folks, I have been looking for the book (?) someone recommended here about some farmer in New England who does what Jeavons only promises — feeds his soil from only his farm (no outside inputs). Someone said he does it only to feed his own family, but still an achievement. I tried to look for it on Small Farm Future archives, but could not find it. Any help would be appreciated.

        • Happy New Year!

          I hope you had a great rest and lots of good grog. I am celebrating by building a nice built-in bookcase.

          I just wanted to add one more note to this Chris.

          You mention social logics—but I am unclear why we wouldn’t use social logics to begin shifting population.

          I see that we could address impact faster, say by increasing automobile fuel efficiency, which even if we had fewer kids, the kids that weren’t born would still take sixteen years to begin not driving.

          But why take this card off the table?

          • Happy new year to you too, Ruben. Yes plenty of grog. Too much grog. And also some bookcase building.

            The point of the post wasn’t to take the card of shifting population off the table. Indeed, the social logic of population is already shifting downwards of its own accord, and not so much because of population policy. The point of the post, or at least one of its points, was to contest the multiplicative logic of resource use x population, and I stand by that, basically because levels of resource use and levels of population are joint products of an underlying phenomenon, not independent variables best treated as things that can be manipulated in isolation.

            So while I’m not averse to policies that, at the margin, might help people to lower birth rates (subject to their other consequences) I think this really is a sideshow in terms of identifying the best actions to take to reduce the socio-environmental problems we face. I readily acknowledge that those problems would be less if the global human population was, say, 3 billion, or 1 billion, or whatever. But that’s a different point.

            Dorling ridicules the Optimum Population Forum’s contention that there is a nine million percent return on investment for the price of a condom when set against the cost to the planet of having a child, and I think he’s right to. It’s that kind of thinking that I think is best jettisoned, not the idea that a smaller human population would be a good thing. But if that’s what we want, then we’d better focus on maintaining good education, health and social care for all the world’s people – which I’d argue is a much more important ‘card’ than population control as such. Though accessing contraception and family planning would be an important part of education and health care.

          • I’m reading ‘Vestal Fire’ at the moment. Most certaunly deserves a place next to ‘Farmers Of 40 Centuries” and ‘Grazing Ecology And Forest History’ on the bookshelf.

          • Happy New Years to all… and particularly to our ambitious book shelf builders. If you finish with yet any ambition in your tank I know a small study in need of more shelving (and a small study proprietor in need of more ambition)…

            I might complain of the weather – it being colder here than even an ambitious shelf builder might appreciate. And this condition caused me to wonder what the weather might be like in British Columbia, and in British Wessex… as the pair of you are very close to 50 degrees North. But rather than cold I see that you each enjoy rather balmy temps for so early in January. Ocean proximity – and favorable currents I suppose.

            So now I’m not sure whether to be jealous of shelf building ambition or temperatures capable of sustaining human life. And I really must choose – a new years resolution is to be more green… but this is not the sort of green I had in mind…

          • “But if that’s what we want, then we’d better focus on maintaining good education, health and social care for all the world’s people – which I’d argue is a much more important ‘card’ than population control as such.”

            How? It takes a long time to lower population rates of growth via those things. In Egypt, last I checked, it took about 80 years. Meanwhile, the population itself grew from 27 million to 77 million or some such (been a while). The argument is flawed. What should Haiti do? They don’t have the time and the room to triple their population while they work on education and care.

          • This paper explains why we cannot afford to use the demographic transition to control population. Low fertility and economic development go hand in hand.


            Lower fertility rates depend mostly on lower child mortality, which is most heavily influenced by GDP per capita. Educating females has some effect, but nothing like the benefits of a woman being in an industrial economy, with all the health care and other benefits that provides.

            So I second Vera’s question, “How?” Are we going to ensure that everyone lives in a rich country and then wait for them to go through the transition that countries like Japan and Portugal are going through now? That will take too much resource use and be far too slow for the planet to tolerate.

          • Joe:
            Thanks for the link. One more quarter heard from.
            Is an industrial society a requirement for a health system that can provide the sort of environment where fertility rates can subside?
            And whether we as a species can find a way to manage our population size matters not to the planet.

          • @Clem

            The evidence seems to be “yes”. Cuba is the only exception I know of, but how Cuba would fare if they were a peasant’s republic is another question. Perhaps Chris has the plan for providing modern medicine without industry. I know Mother Nature has a plan for population control, but it doesn’t involve decreased child mortality.

            I know that planets don’t have feelings. I used the word “tolerate” in the same sense one would use “tolerance” as a prescription for staying within required boundaries. The climate and other aspects of the ecosystem will be out of spec (exceed tolerances) for human habitation if we use too many resources and create too much pollution. (I know that explanation is feeble, but at least it sounds somewhat plausible). 🙂

          • “…maintaining good education, health and social care” – Vera asks, how?

            Well, the simple answer is by continuing to invest in them rather than, say, treating them as ‘market distortions’ and ‘liberalising’ trade, which has been the dominant approach of global economics in recent decades. My argument isn’t that the world’s problems are best treated by fertility-reducing GDP growth. Rather, it’s that if you want to maintain current trends in decreasing fertility, it’s a good idea to try to maintain or increase the amount of resource devoted to education, health and social care. If the collapse scenario predicted by Joe occurs, then it’s a fair bet that fertility rates will increase. Whether that matters is another question.

            It’s true that most population-focused policies have a long payback time, though perhaps not entirely so – if education, health and social care greatly increase uptake of family planning and contraception, then the payback could be relatively fast. But otherwise I’d turn the question back to you. If you want to achieve rapid population reduction through population-focused policies then – short of mass killings or sterilisation on a truly epic scale – how?

            Thanks for the article link, Joe. I’ll have to read and ponder it. But since Vera mentions Haiti, it’s interesting to note that it’s the 21st poorest country in the world in terms of GDP/capita but only has the 74th highest fertility in terms of births/woman. Maybe that’s a data point to complicate the wealth/fertility equation? It’s worth bearing in mind that fertility rates are falling almost everywhere, including in the least ‘developed’ countries – not that that necessarily undermines your broader point.

            Still, the fact remains that the planetary impact of poor people in high fertility countries is minimal compared to those of richer people in low fertility countries, and is probably destined to remain so. Reducing the fertility rate in Haiti might be an important priority in Haiti (in fact, it’s already declined from over 6 births/woman in 1980 to under 3 there today), but if I were to draw up a list of policy priorities for tackling the major problems the world faces, population control policies in Haiti – or probably anywhere else – wouldn’t make the cut.

            I agree, though, that the GDP/fertility association is troubling for those who’d like to see a reduction in both. The only feasible approach I perceive is one that would try to offer as much support and security as possible to poor people in general, and the rural poor in particular. Yup, you guessed it – agrarian populism.

          • Comment threading gets so confusing, and I think we are all pretty clear on various standpoints, so I won’t say much more.

            The thing that troubles me still, Chris, is that all the discussion about population continues to focus on the poor, even in your last comment, in which you mention Haiti, and other poor and rural poor.

            But I don’t think anyone here has any problem with people, the concern is with impact.

            And we all agree the impact of the poorest people in the world is quite negligible.

            We should not be talking about the population of poor people.

            We do need to talk about population times impact.

            What currently happens is that we talk about impact and a bunch of other people talk about population–meaning brown people who have too many babies.

            We leave the field open for racism because we are uncomfortable having complex conversations.

            In order to shut that down, we need to take away their ability to talk about population by always discussing it in relation with impact.

            So, the smaller population in the rich world times the huge impact they have means we would be well-served to advocate for reduced population in the rich world, as well as reducing the level of consumption.

            This formula also shows the real consequences of both immigration and economic policies that follow the standard economic model of growth and development.

            Does that mean we should continue trying to keep the rest of the world poor so we can luxuriate. I think you are exactly right, we need more agrarian populism, here in the rich world.

            And for those of you who would like to see the bookshelf I just finished, here is a picture.

  18. Ruben, That is one mighty impressive bookcase. If you complete your journeyman credentials we will put you up on the farm while you complete our much needed library. I get your point about the huge amount of resources the richer countries suck out of this earth. But, that doesn’t really mitigate the damage done in poor countries either because of excessive population, right?

    • Thank you Brian. I feel very, very happy to have it finished.

      You are correct there is no mitigation of local damages, but I think we are just talking about the same thing at different scales and applying different lenses.

      When we talk about climate change, we are talking about the global atmosphere, and it makes perfect sense to treat every contribution to that problem with the gravity of a tonne of CO2. A tonne is a tonne is tonne, whether emitted in Las Vegas or Libya.

      So then we just compare the climate justice effects of the fact that Libyans produce way less CO2 per person, yet manage to raise families, get married, go to school… all of the trappings of a normal human life.

      But as you say, local population impacts sometimes stay local. Soil to a great extent is local and water to a lesser extent is local. I think the usual progressive attempts to globalize them are unsustainable.

      So, if a farmer in a poor country mistreats their soil, and starves to death, we can see that as a shame, and also as the balancing forces of bioregionalism.

      Progressives would like to prevent that person from starving by sending them synthetic fertilizers, Golden Rice seed, and consultants. This is certainly the humane thing to do.

      Except that the industrial system that aid relies on is not sustainable, and so we are just creating a likely bigger tragedy down the road.

      We are even further invested in this unsustainable system than the farmers we send aid to, so I think we may have a colossal tragedy in the rich world.

      Sustainable means something is able to be sustained. If it is unsustainable, that means it will, at some point, stop being sustained.

      Since we are running out of the fossil fuels that have created this whole clown show, much of the industrial systems we have used to make so many new humans will reveal they were always unsustainable.

      And so the human population that rely on them will stop being sustained.

      This is a long way to the Yes you already know is the answer. I am just expounding upon the layers of stucco, band-aids and duct tape we apply to the world to compensate for the fact we can’t survive as agriculturalists if we exhaust our soil.

      • Ruben, I think our positions are relatively close, but a few bumpy issues remain. I’ll probably write another post about this, because the issues are quite interesting.

        Just to summarise the bumps –

        You write: “much of the industrial systems we have used to make so many new humans will reveal they were always unsustainable. And so the human population that rely on them will stop being sustained.”

        Your ‘and so’ may turn out to be right with hindsight, but your second sentence doesn’t logically follow from the first. It seems to me we should all be interested in trying to figure out ways to help it not follow, and I think Dorling usefully focuses on this tension.

        I agree with you that reduced population in the rich world could be a good thing, but I’m not sure it’s widely appreciated how extraordinary the decline in fertility in the rich world is (in fact in the whole world) – in the rich world, it’s been below replacement level for nearly 40 years now. You could say that that’s a fine thing, but historically it’s also a weird, unprecedented thing…and I think part of the dysfunctions you identify, rather than necessarily being part of the solution.

        In Europe, births are now at 1.6 per woman. I’m not sure how feasible it is to advocate for policies to push that down a lot further, other than very coercive ones.

        In terms of impact maybe one factor is the rising global middle classes, particularly of China and India. China’s current fertility is 1.6 per woman (down from 6.2 in 1970). India’s is 2.3 (down from 5.6 in 1970).

        Clearly there is at least a lifetime lag between fertility and population impact. If the world’s population was a lot smaller than it is, that would be great in terms of impact. But it isn’t, and agitating now around lowering fertility seems to me to be focusing on the wrong battle. In terms of policy choices going forward, I’d argue that what matters isn’t population x impact, but impact.

        Anyway, I’ll try to formulate this better in another post for another round of debate.

        Regarding Haiti, I mentioned it only because Vera did. But now that President Trump has weighed in on the country, I might have to write a little more about that too.

        • Thank you Chris, and I will look forward to more of your thoughts on this.

          Though not at the expense of the Peasant Revolution! I think your thinking on peasantry is critical to “helping it not follow”.

          Actually, I think that population will decline because of the mathematics of resources, but that work such as yours could help us stabilize sooner, and hopefully at a higher level. (caveat for the wild card of a total breakdown of climate stability).



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