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Green New Deal II - Population growth and control

In Part I of this blog, I explained difficulties with comprehending the astronomical scale of change that is awaiting us, the rich people in the developed countries, in our journey to a more sustainable, greener future of humankind.  I have also pointed out a few of the many ways people escape responsibility for the crimes against the Earth we  - you and I - have committed.  And, please, let's not blame the poor people in Honduras or Gabon for our sins, plastic in the oceans and greenhouse gas emissions.

Exponential growth.  Remember a lonely lily pad floating on an empty pond?  She multiplied daily, so after day one, there were two lilies; after two days, four lilies; then eight; and so on.  After 20 days, there were 1,048,576 lilies. After 21 days, there were  2,097,152 lilies that covered the pond, exhausted nutrients and died. Question: After which day was the pond half-filled?  You already know the answer, it was day 20.  On that fateful day, 95% of the time allotted to our lilies had passed, but the lilies thought their world offered so much more space to grow! This fatal mistake in perceiving availability of resources is now common not only among most humans, but also among most economists, who are more of a space alien ilk. In Figure 1, I show you how humans will possibly undergo 20 doublings, but will massively perish attempting to double for the twenty first time. Such is the creepy logic of exponential growth.  Figure 2 illustrates intensity of the problem humanity and the world trampled by us are facing.  We add to this planet one China worth of people every 17 years.
Figure 1. Doublings of a human cohort 10,000 strong, 250,000 years ago.  After 10 doublings, this cohort grew to 10 million people, the highest population of hunters and gatherers our planet could bear.  After 19 doublings, we grew to 5.2 billion people in 1990.  The 20th doubling will happen sometime around 2070, when human population will exceed 10 billion people.  There will not be the 21st doubling! We will be done one way or another.

Figure 2. It took all human history to reach 1 billion people, then 123 years to double human population from 1 to 2 billion people, and 33 more years to add another 1 billion people. I was born at the end of 1951, in a Holocene world totally different from the Anthropocene world today. Nowadays, in takes 12 years to add to the living another billion of mostly poor and hungry babies. We are adding a population of China in 2014 every 17 years. 

Is there a solution to this runaway growth of human population? Likely there is none, and we will perish like any other dumb, unchecked species that overshot its ecological welcome. But, if the earthlings were sane, they could pass a voluntary UN Assembly resolution, empowering governments around the world to support financially only two or fewer children per family. Each extra child would be a cost borne by the parents, or would go for adoption by people who have less than two children. There could be fractional children, such as 1.8 legal children, with a possibility of buying credit for the missing 0.2 child from the people who do not have children or have only one child. Of course, for this voluntary population limitation to succeed, a massive global program of educating and empowering women would have to commence in parallel.  No man of whatever color of skin and religious creed should have power over a woman's body. It is fascinating that at the very moment reproductive control is needed almost everywhere in the world, the religious fanatics everywhere are doing their best to shut it down.  As usual, the right wing crazies in the US are blazing this backward trail.
Figure 3Primary power (mostly thermal energy in raw fuels per unit time) generation by earthlings since 1820, in trillions of watts (TW). Today, we are a 17.4 TW thermal machine, whose power is equivalent to 17,400 1000 MW giant electrical power plants.  This comparison is somewhat misleading, because electricity is a more useful form of power than heat (thermal energy of combustion or fission) that comprises most of primary power production in the world. Still, in 2018, the human economy devoured and astronomical amount of power.  Between the years 2000 and 2010, global economy added one US worth of primary power production.  Eleven TW of primary power comes from oil and coal alone.

As my philosopher friend, Ken Weiss, puts it: "Didn't all of the earth's creatures, on the land or in the dark, blue sea get here by grabbing whatever they could grab from whomever they could get away with it? Indeed, we're the only species ever that could comprehend future implications of present actions, so life, as a whole, hasn't had much practice with prudence. So maybe the definition of 'tragedy' should just be: how humans behave."  It appears that humans too have had little practice with prudence and foresight.

As shown in Figure 3, more humans need more power to keep themselves alive and well, especially in the resource hogging rich countries where I reside.  Today, our global civilization is an obscene, monstrous, 17.4 terawatt (TW) machine, powered mostly by fossil fuels, as Figure 4 demonstrates.  In the decade of 2000-2010, the fast-growing world added one US worth of primary power.  Today, the hunger for primary power is receding and its production seems to be peaking. Oops, I should have never used the word "peaking."  The global fossil amoeba knows only of eternal exponential growth and rejects any of the limitations the physical world requires.
Figure 4. Days in a year the world is powered by a given source of primary power.  In 2018, coal, oil and natural gas powered the human economy for 103+129+89 =321 days, or between Jan 1 and Nov 18.  Nuclear power and dams powered the world for another 15 days, or until Dec 3.  All "renewables," mostly biomass (wood), powered the world for 28 days, until the end of December. This power mix is similar to the power mix used to generate electricity in the US over the last 70 years (the horizontal dotted line).  The financial crash of 2008 is denoted by the vertical dotted line.

OK, my environmental and sustainable friends, it is time to sound retreat from this fossil amoeba monster I just painted above. In your mind, you already have many renewable solutions that you have colored green, just like pictures in those coloring books for little children. Since your solutions are already "green," you can relax and continue living happily ever after. Or can you?  Well, therein lies the first of many, many difficulties we shall run into here and in Part III.  To begin with, each transition from one dominant source of primary power to another one took several, sometimes many decades to accomplish, as shown in Figure 5.  I know, you only want to talk about the blue part of the curve below: a transition away from the nasty fossil fuels that power the world today into something else you will enjoy. There are three key features of this transition:

  1. Production of primary power will increase from the current 17.4 TW to about 22 TW, or by 25%, to subsidize the transition you wish for.  This subsidy will come from fossil fuels outright, cement, steel, copper, aluminum and rare earth metals, to name a few.  It will cause a significant incremental environmental damage and pollution of air, soil and water.  But then we all want to live in a Nirvana, don't we?  And we don't want to limit our current happiness, do we?
  2. Depending on how ambitious this transition from fossil fuels (FF) to whatever will be, it will take three to ten decades, as I will show you in Part III.
  3. In the end, humanity will limit its power generation to about 1/2 of the current 17.4 TW.  We all, my resource devouring friends, will then live in a world that will be as different from today as today is different from the 1960s. With one difference, however, 60 years ago the world was much less depleted from all resources and the population was 3, not 7.6 billion people.  This means that in 30 years from 2020, each person in the rich countries will be using 4-5 less power than today. And that's significant.

Figure 5. Transitions from one leading source of power to another take decades.  Here is the last 400 and future 200 years of our fossil fuel (FF) civilization.  The transition from wood to coal started in roughly the year 1800 and ended after WWI.  The transition from coal to crude oil was complete after WWII.  One simply could not run tanks and bombers on coal.  The transition from oil to natural gas started in the 1990s and is ongoing.  Notice that in this scenario the world economy will demand 22 TW at the peak in 2030, to power a transition from fossil fuels to some mix of "renewables" and nuclear power.  After this transition, the earthlings will be generating something like 7-8 TW, less than 1/2 of  current primary power production. 

Figure 6 shows that the demand for power generation increases in direct proportion to the number of humans living on the Earth.  This has been the case for the last 200 years, only the slope of both curves quadrupled since the year 1900.  You are now facing the scariest two curves in this blog.  Please take time to think about the many implications of what you see here.  I'll tell you what I think:  No transition to anything sustainable can be achieved without a drastic reduction of growth and eventual decline of human throngs that trample our planet.

Figure 6.  Growth of normalized global population and primary power.  Zeros correspond to the year 1820, and ones to 2018.  As you can see, the population and power generation have been growing in tandem over the last 200 years, or the duration of our industrial revolution.  The slightly faster expanding power production between 1950 and 1973 reflected the unprecedented economic expansion of the US after WWII, and up to the Arab oil embargo of 1973.  Conclusion: more people need proportionally more power.   

Thus, the main conclusion from what you just read is this:  Stop multiplying first and decline in numbers next, because without a population decline no Green New Deal can ever happen.  I know that I am boring, but please stop focusing on the technologies of power generation, but rather on education, contraception, and a UN proclamation calling for two state-supported children and no more.  And, no, God will not provide for your five or six children today.  She has an infinity of problems with the rest of the Universe.

P.S. (06/03/2019)  I forgot to tell you that since 2008, humanity has been stuck on  the 1.27%  annual rate of population growth.  Call it a residual growth rate, after better education and enrichment here and there have been discounted by the families. This means that in 2019, 98 millions of new babies will need water, food and shelter in mostly desperately poor, failing countries.  In 2020, the number of net new babies will exceed 120 million, or the population of Egypt, see Figure 7.
Figure 7. Current population of Egypt is around 105 million people and continues to grow exponentially.  Historically, Egypt's Nile River could support 3 million people on the average (the horizontal line at the bottom of the plot).  The Aswan Dam (1960) has damaged Egypt's ability to feed itself by preventing inundation of the river valley and delta with sediment-rich water.  Today, Egypt is beyond the point of no return and she will implode. The question is how soon and how drastically? Watch out Europe, because you may have tens of millions of Egyptians knocking on your door.  But not to worry, Egyptians will first mine the ancient, 200.000 years old water from the Nubian aquifer.


  1. As has been the threat for over 100 years, population makes such an easy target for the scientifically illiterate. Just one more attempt at this canard, and no contrition when predictions of doom and gloom fail yet again. Color me unsurprised.

    1. This is now about doom and gloom, but about acting with foresight against the painfully obvious and preventable plague. Of course no attempts at voluntary control of human population will happen. Instead, the G20 countries will meet again and blabber away about 3% economic growth; on a finite planet mind you!

  2. @anonymous (coward): it is you that are scientifically illiterate. Every biologist knows how this story plays out. Humans have been very clever but unwise, always finding a short-term dodge around the usual checks on population growth. But each dodge has added another layer of complexity to the point we find ourselves today where it's doubtful we are even in control of our technology. We're in for a world of hurt but it will hurt much less if we turn around human population growth. One child per family is plenty and we can do it without coercion but we need to have "the talk" and face the reality of our predicament.

    1. Dear Meh,

      Patience, please. Limiting population is a very emotional issue to most people. I have tried to deal with hundreds if not thousands of people in various public settings for at least 20 years, and very few groups of whatever background that number more than five people can arrive at a mutually accepted solution. According to my friend ecologist, Bill Rees, who was behind the original ecological footprint accounting, we have exceeded 1.75 Earths worth of human consumption. Bill admits that the assumptions behind current ecological footprint accounting are as limiting as they come to avoid a conservative backlash. My own calculations of the various aspects of human overshoot point to between three and eight Earths. The upper limit is my answer to the following question: How many people could live on the Earth for millennia without major strife, war and hunger?

    2. "Bill Rees, who was behind the original ecological footprint accounting, we have exceeded 1.75 Earths worth of human consumption. Bill admits that the assumptions behind current ecological footprint accounting are as limiting as they come to avoid a conservative backlash. My own calculations of the various aspects of human overshoot point to between three and eight Earths."

      Remember that old concept of "carbon budget"? It was originally framed as, basically, the question "How much CO2 can we safely emit?" At the time it was assumed that we were in the safe zone on this spectrum of climate risk and harm:


      Now pretty much everyone agrees we crossed the "safe" line some while back and are not, at best, attempting to avoid catastrophic. We're solidly within a dangerously disrupted climate system, with human activities being the principal cause of this destabilization.

      But, as my friend Rupert Reed perpetually points out, "it's worse than that,"
      because anthropogenic climate change is but one of several major ecological crises on our planet, and some of these would put us in dangerous territory even if there were not an anthropogenic climate crisis -- such as the rapid destruction of ecosystems around the world and the associated collapse of life both in biomass / numbers terms but also in species terms.

      So my point here is that as just these two major factors -- climate disruption and biodiversity/eco-system collapse -- are now so very much at or beyond (?) recoverability in a best case scenario of human responsiveness that MEASURING how many Earth's we're using now in this overshoot is looking a bit silly. We cannot measure it. We're humans, not gods. We're talking about a sick patient in the emergency room and we're in totally unprecedented territory. The best we can do is understand some of what we must do to address that patient on her sick bed -- and measurements of this particular kind will neither be possible nor useful. What we have here is a systems crisis which ultimately comes down to humans hacking everything to death in the name of "wealth production". I think we're going to have to return to the Middle English root word from which the word "wealth" emerged with early modern "economics" -- which was wele, and meant well-being. If we do this we will finally have an economic paradigm which doesn't mistake rape and pillage with wealth production. And then our patient my have half a chance at a future.

  3. HarryflashmanhigsonJune 10, 2019 at 8:43 PM

    200 million at 50% of the current European lifestyle. That's reasonable. Trouble is, I can't find a biological engineer willing to create the virus to get us there(with a vaccine for me and mine of course...).

  4. Overpopulation is not an issue in most 1st world countries.
    For example, the US has averaged under 2 children per household since 1977.
    This piece erroneously interprets sheer numbers vs how those numbers need heat,
    cooling, light, food, housing etc. and all of that can be done far more efficiently and "greener" than it is worldwide. That is the issue.

  5. Well, dear Ethiessen1, you seem to separate out the rich countries, in which we both live, from the poor ones. Unfortunately, there is only one planet and she knows of no national boundaries. What she feels is us invading Africa, South and Central America and Asia Pacific, and ravaging these regions for our economic gain, while *their* population is exploding in most cases. There is a reason why the current American president is striving to build a super wall along our southern border, and EU is imploding due to its inability to handle desperate migrants from Africa. With 100 million/year of new hungry babies, and 200 million of their desperate parents, you will not escape the dire consequences of population growth somewhere else in your comfortable cocoon. Such is the sad truth. Overpopulation, war and famine do make for a greener world, but for more desertification. In the meantime, climate change will continue to disrupt human lives everywhere.

  6. Thank you for these excellent posts: over the last few years, I've done my own transition from utter ignorance -a typical switch-flicking and button-pressing citizen of an advanced economy, not caring how any of it is powered - to the horrible enlightenment which the facts provide.

    Over-population is for so many reasons now untouchable politically and theoretically - no one wishes to face it, whether in developing or advanced regions. We can e that i the poor reasoning of the hostile comments above. I suppose that it also attacks one personal sense of a right to exist....

    Just as they don't care to face the implications of an economic and social system (urbanised indstrialism) that consumes resources on a trajectory of theoretically infinite growth on so over-burdened a planet.

    You may be interested to know that in Britain those claiming welfare are now limited to only 2 children, no payments being made for a 3rd child or more. The only escape clause is if a child is conceived through rape. Many of these claimants are in fact working, and so badly-paid that they need these welfare extras to survive. Notwithstanding, they are still having the kids..... Personal responsibility seems absent.

    Britain is now popping at the seams, above all the cities which have been stuffed with immigrants from Africa and Asia over the last two decades in order to maintain consumption levels, rather than attempt to manage sensibly an ecologically desirable decline in population.

    Meanwhile, in schools and through the media children are being indoctrinated in the false postulates and glowing promises of the Green New Deal, which only wicked old people and oil barons oppose. Oil, coal and gas can just be put away, just like that! Leave it in the Ground!' So simple.

    And in the public sphere, every construction developer knows to give his scheme a green-wash in order to get planning permission -a wildlife hedge here, a cycle park there, some solar panels.....

    I am coming to the conclusion that we have just enough energy left - and just enough intelligence as a species - to do ourselves in, but not save ourselves.

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful, heart-felt comment that arrived on the day this blog was viewed by 1020 people. This gives me faint hope that perhaps sanity that drips slowly will eventually cut through the concrete shells of denial and ignorance.

    Just as you observed, the developed countries with low or negative population growth will never be insulated from the global market in humans. The big question is how many immigrants do we let in, how do we arrange them by age, sex and occupation, and how do we integrate them solidly into our societies?

    Just as you observed, letting migrants in just for cheap labor and extra consumption, will deliver a coup de grâce to the global fossil amoeba, whose very existence depends on exponential growth and the pyramid financial schemes that depend on this growth.

    In the end, everything boils down to education, not indoctrination of people in all countries, rich and poor. Educated people, especially women, make better choices and have fewer babies. And that's that.

  8. I totally agree with you! What do you think of my idea of a Permavillage?
    Thank you!

  9. Thank you for this article and ignore the naysayers! They are too influenced by their own biological imperative to reproduce to even acknowledge there is a problem. They are living in a fantasy world, thinking we can expand forever on a finite planet. I always ask people who try to debate the world's population and impact on the planet by showing them how little they can even comprehend the numbers they are working with. "If 8 billion isn't enough to have an impact, then what is? 18 billion? 80 billion? 800 billion? At what point do you draw the line?"

    I've felt the same way you feel about overpopulation for years, so your article is just further validation, but really, this issue should be obvious to people. Nothing can double and expand forever. Didn't we learn that in first grade? Didn't we learn that by accidentally overfilling a drink!?

    There is nothing good environmentally that comes out of a large population: more pollution, more strain on resources, more demand, less supply, more competition, higher population density, more poverty, more crime, more extremist politics, the list goes on and on simply due to the fact that quality of life becomes diluted as you add more and more people. The only purpose of having a high population that lives in poor conditions is for capitalists who can't afford robots yet. Go to work, get given the bare minimum, sleep, come back to work and make me money. Quality over quantity, or why even bother!?

    The real insidious part is that most people are oblivious to these inevitable conclusions and this shows that the public at large does not deeply or logically think about things and that there is a collective "LALALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" type neuroticism taking place. It also shows that humanity rides on coattails of geniuses and wouldn't be where it is today without them. Problems are to be solved and action taken. That is how all progress is achieved. But the majority can't even see anything outside of their own life to even admit there is a long-term problem. How will we survive if that type of thinking is the norm, is the way our leaders govern, is the way financial markets operate!?

  10. Really pleased to have stumbled across your blog and it's encouraging to see the topic of over population/population control becoming slightly more mainstream and acceptable to talk about. For too long, in my opinion, it has been a taboo which has been ignored by our elected leaders for fear of deriding political party popularity. The fact is we cannot keep growing exponentially as a global population without this causing significant changes to the way of live many have become accustomed to. I believe this issue transcends rich and poor as it will ultimately effect everybody once the demand for resources outweighs the availability of resources. Essentials such as clean air and healthy open spaces for recreation can only be provided by a central authority with the power to legislate. I feel we're a long way of this central authority, sadly.

    As I mentioned at the start, I'm really pleased to have found your blog and will continue reading your perspectives with interest.

    I wrote a paper on the subject of over population and what our collective response might look like. It's called Population Hypothesis and you can find it here -

    I'd be grateful if you gave it a read and left a comment. The thoughts of the author of such interesting content on a similar subject are of great interest to me.

    Many thanks


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