The Bomb is Still Ticking…

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earth with timer bomb wrapped around it
Fizzing Out? Or Still Ticking?

More than forty years after its publication, the predictions made in Paul Ehrlich’s landmark book ‘The Population Bomb’ are still the subject of debate. Australian think-tank The Centre for Independent Studies (‘Population bomb still a fizzer 40 years on’, The Australian, 8 November, 2010), says Ehrlich’s warnings of dire consequences, including of mass starvation as a result of overpopulation, have not materialised:

More than 40 years ago, American biologist Paul Ehrlich sketched a doomsday scenario for planet Earth in his book The Population Bomb…Since the publication of the book, the global population has nearly doubled but most of its gloomy predictions have not come true…

By all means, let’s have a robust debate on population, both at the national and global level. Both are long overdue.

But let’s make it a sophisticated debate, grounded in the science we have available and a thorough understanding of all the issues in play.

According to the United Nations’ Population Division, the global population has increased from one billion in 1804 to over six billion in 2010.

It has taken most of human history to reach one billion people. It took just over a century to add the second billion.

The rate of population growth since then is such that it has taken only twelve years to add the most recent billion people.

The moderate UN scenario is for a population of 9 billion by 2050 – that’s within the lifetime of many of us.

Whether or not we admit it, and whether or not we like it, these numbers matter.

While it is true that ‘taming nature and a hostile environment’ have until now been part of the human survival story, is it possible that the Judeo-Christian approach of ‘subduing the earth’ – which is only one worldview of the many cultural traditions – may no longer be a survival strategy in a world that is ‘full’?

That we are in the middle of the largest mass extinction of species since the dinosaurs were wiped out; that we are raising the planet’s thermostat beyond what has been the survival spectrum of the species that populate Earth today; that billions are still undernourished and underfed, apparently falls outside the authors’ definition of ‘gloomy predictions’.

In this country, perhaps the competition for affordable housing and increasingly scarce water resources has somehow escaped their attention.

The article also reflects the belief that homo sapiens is somehow separate from nature:

It is remarkable that people now regularly put “nature” and “the environment” ahead of all other concerns. Historically, this is an oddity because not long ago taming nature and overcoming a hostile environment were humankind’s priorities…

Worshipping their new goddess nature, the environmentalists have forgotten something. We human beings may not all be cute and cuddly, but we deserve at least as much love and attention as our distant relatives in the animal kingdom.

It is this mindset that is at the root of all our current dysfunctional relationships with nature, our ultimate means of survival. Maintaining our natural capital, our natural asset base, is a non-negotiable prerequisite for securing human survival and wellbeing.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – an international collaboration of over 1,000 of the world’s leading biological scientists who analysed the state of the Earth’s ecosystems – grouped ecosystem services into four broad categories of functions that support life: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

Whether or not anyone ‘worships nature as a goddess’ is perhaps not as relevant as physics and biology, which show that aside from their own intrinsic worth, ecosystems and biodiversity are the life support systems of humanity,  providing us with a range of goods and services which are both essential and priceless.

The notion of homo sapiens somehow being marginalised by concern for nature is not supported by the science – human beings have colonised every available niche on the planet we possibly can. Research by Professor Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba in Canada shows that as a percentage of mammalian zoomass, human beings and our domesticated mammalian animals (for food, beasts of burden and as pets) have gone from <0.1% 10,000 years ago, to 10-12% at the start of the industrial revolution to between 96-98% today. Human beings can and will expand to fill every available ecological niche within reach, and has done so at the expense of other species.

The article also failed to make the connection between protecting ecosystems and improving the lives of  ‘poor’ people:

What is disguised by nice, touchy-feely slogans about sustainability, nature and the environment is often just misanthropy by another name. It has no respect for people in developed countries and is completely oblivious to the needs of people in poorer places….

Things get even more cynical when our subservience to the planet dictates what we allow poorer peoples to do. The thought that millions of Indians would want to drive their own little cars drives Western environmentalists crazy. They would never admit it, but deep down they wish these poor Indians would just remain poor; all for the sake of the planet, of course.

As human population grows, and as consumption continues to grow, resource constraints become ever more an issue of equity.

Development that ignores the limits of our natural resources ultimately ends up imposing disproportionate costs on the most vulnerable.

Contrary to the authors’ claims, the vast majority of people who identify as environmentalists are not misanthropists – they are absolutely concerned with humanity, which must start with maintaining the systems that support our existence.

No environmentalist would argue against the notion that there are many people in this world whose material standard of living needs to be increased.

But this raises the conundrum which is at the heart of sustainability:

The 21st century question is not whether we can sustain more than six billion people on a western industrial model of development, but how to sustain the global population so that everyone has a good quality of life – of which material living standards are only a part – within the biophysical limits of one planet.

We cannot end extreme poverty unless we accept this.

We cannot address climate change unless we accept this.

Efficiency and technological innovation will only delay inevitable impacts, as the gains of efficiency are gobbled up by more people consuming more.

The other two thirds of the IPAT equation, the consumption and population issues, are both politically sensitive, which makes it difficult to ask the ultimate question – why do we need to keep growing?

Is the challenge now how to grow better, instead of bigger?

Human beings all have the same fundamental needs and desires. We all want a great quality of life for ourselves and our children and their children – and the vast majority would readily agree that material standards of living are only one part of what constitutes ‘quality of life’.

To secure that quality of life and well being for human beings, we need to recognise ecological limits, and accept that demand on these is a product of both numbers of people and levels of consumption.

We also need to secure the integrity of our life support services – meaning other species and ecosystems that pollinate our crops, clean our water, filter our air.

What’s anti-human about that?

Are we going to acknowledge the population bomb and defuse it, or are we going to stick our heads in the sand…and hope that’s the sound of it fizzing out?

Published by Sharon Ede

Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst and is founder of Share Adelaide Share Adelaide. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

19 replies on “The Bomb is Still Ticking…”

  1. Bravo, Sharon, for taking apart so succinctly the dangerous misassumptions and misinformation in the rant published in The Australian. It probably felt like shooting fish in a barrel! The author is employed by one of the many organizations posing as “think tanks,” that serve as mouthpieces for the pushers of growth addiction.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  2. Hi Sharon,
    When talking about population and limits to growth it’s always handy to have an idea of the scale of things.

    In the 1960’s there was concern raised about population growth. There were about 3.6 billion people then. Sceptics scoffed and claimed that the whole population of the world could stand on the Isle of Wight (148 square miles in area, off the South coast of England) and their argument was that therefore the world was empty in reality and the alarmists were just being silly.

    That sounded pretty convincing to me at about 14 or so, however, out of curiosity I wondered what the “opposite” figure was.

    I divided the land surface of Earth by the concurrent population. It worked out that the “share” of Earth’s surface each human had back then was a square of land 200 yards on a side. Instantly, Earth seemed very crowded particularly when I remembered that some part of each persons 200 yards square was ice, some desert, some mountains etc.

    Nowadays, with a population of around 6.8 billion our share of the land surface has shrunk to about 145 metres square. Within this patch we have to cast our personal environmental shadow, using energy, manufacturing goods, disposing of our personal waste, farming our share of animals, growing our own food crops, extracting minerals for our purchases, catching fish and dissipating our personal waste, pollution and cumulative pesticides etc not to mention room for the multitude of wildlife and plants that generate our oxygen etc and form the ecological web of life without which we could not survive.

    Recently I recalculated to find out what size our personal environmental “spaceship” might be. It can be seen as a globe about 1km in diameter within which we have a patch of “Earth” about 270 meters square, 70% of which is ocean, leaving the aforementioned patch of land 145 metres square to live on. I have seen (from one fairly good source) that we have approximately 61 trees per person in our patch.

    I think that all shows that Earth is pretty cramped and it is beyond rational belief that our activities are not affecting things, it’s just that so much of what we are responsible for happens a long distance away from where we are. Clearly there is little or no space for further growth.

    I have not actually seen these figures so obviously presented elsewhere so, if you can make use of them or spread them around, please do – just give me a mention…

  3. Thanks all!

    And Nick – you are right, we definitely do need metrics to communicate the scale of things, and counter those who would say ‘well, we can all fit, standing room only, on the island of Tasmania, so it’s all cool then’.

    This is why Global Footprint Network developed national Footprint accounts for most nations – to calculate supply (of Earth’s renewable capacity) and demand (human use of food, fuel, fibre, ocean resources etc).

    Although the EF is more comprehensive than just measuring physical space, it measures how much of the Earth’s bioproductive capacity we use – which is the true limiting factor.

  4. Thanks for this post, and especially thank you for the reference to Vaclav Smil.

    I’m interested in your quote from Vaclav Smil about 96-98% of mammalian zoomass is humans, their livestock, and their pets. I’m curious as to where he says this and how he calculated it. My reason for asking this, by the way, is that it’s a great quote and I have cited a similar figure myself in some of my blogs.

    When I search the Vaclav Smil website on the word “zoomass,” the only thing I come up with is this:
    . . . where he estimates that there was 620 Mt (megatons, I presume) of domesticated zoomass on the planet in 2000, and “wild terrestrial mammals” are below 40 Mt. This suggests a percentage of 94%, pretty close and certainly convincing enough.

    I saw a very similar quote in Plan B 2.0, where Lester Brown says that 98% of land-based vertebrates are humans, their livestock, and their pets. He cites Paul MacCready . As I recall he says this is a personal communication, and as far as I can tell (Google searches) it dropped out of later editions of Plan B. Brown is not saying quite the same thing — Smil includes sea mammals but excludes vertebrate reptiles whereas Brown and MacCready reverse this.

    However you cite it the percentage of human-influenced animal biomass, it’s still totally amazing and over 90%, which shows how totally warped we’ve made our ecosystem.

  5. I’m familiar with the ecological footprint figures. Most people in the environmental movement are but communicating what they mean to ordinary people is not as straightforward as we might imagine. We are all familiar with the concepts but they are fairly alien to the average Joe – even to “significant” individuals. I was once, when I was with Friends of the Earth, in a meeting with the President of Finance and Economics in our government and I had just told him about how conventional growth was eating up the planet, population was getting to big, our eco-footprint too large etc. He stopped me and told me that he travelled a lot in his job and he told me that he had flown over vast areas of forest and plains “Mr Palmer”, he said, “the world is empty – I have seen it – and the Creator would not allow us to destroy our world in the way you say that we are doing”.

    Telling people like him or the man in the street that we are using three planets worth of resources; that population growth is a huge problem has no impact – they doubt the maths, the political aims or even the honesty of those who come up with things like eco-footprints.

    I have discovered, over the years that giving them simple figures which they can do on a calculator themselves in 2 minutes is powerful.

    The United Nations Environment Programme calculated how many hectares we have per capita a couple of years ago and how it has shrunk over the last few decades. That was good but no ordinary person can easily visualise a hectare. Give them a figure of 145 Meters square and they can walk to a nearby field and pace it out – They have a square about an English football field length and a half on a side. You can go on to tell them how many square feet they are losing each year because of the growing population too.

    I think presenting the figures in this way is far more effective at communicating that there is a real problem than academic footprints, species extinction rates and hectares etc…

  6. Jared Diamond suggests that there’s hardly been a civilisation in history that has willingly, voluntarily, moved itself to a state of lower complexity and material standards of living in the face of resource shortages. As much as I hope we can rationally move to a more sustainable way of life – it might just not be in our evolutionary makeup.


  7. Maybe the concepts are ‘alien’ right now – but maybe the social learning that has to happen is still occurring. Who would have understood the term ‘biodiversity’ in 1900? ‘Plate tectonics’ was an alien idea as recently as the middle of the 20th century. Now its a given.

    Accountants undertake years of study so they can utilise systems to track financial capital; the rest of us cannot expect to thoroughly understand these methodologies and conventions unless we have undertaken similar study, yet everyone readily accepts the outputs of accountants, but the Footprint still encounters suspicion and demands for ‘transparency’ (although it is all documented here for anyone to read:

    I suspect this is because we have a common, and well-understood unit of currency (within nations, and exchange rates between nations), whereas the common unit of Footprint accounts, the global hectare, is one that people do not always get to grips with right away.

    That people see the world as ’empty’, while the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, IPCC, GFN and others are warning of overshoot on a range of fronts is perplexing. His comments reflect a total lack of understanding of the ‘peak everything’ situation humanity is facing – which seems to be an occupational hazard for anyone involved in economics and finance! It seems dispiriting at times, that some of us can see what is happening – whereas others are just blind to the evidence. The resistance to the messages we are raising lie deep in the vast majority of human cultural DNA. This is a massive communications challenge – how to turn data into meaning, because its not working approaching it from a rational basis of evidence.

    ‘The Creator’ comment sounds suspiciously like the fellow bidding chair the powerful House Energy Committee who said that ‘we shouldn’t concerned about the planet being destroyed because God promised Noah it wouldn’t happen again after the great flood’:

    On the physical space vis-a-vis Footprints question:

    National Footprint Accounts calculate our use of bioproductivity (the true limiting factor), by adjusting physical space with the use of equivalence and yield factors.

    Direct comparison of actual land areas used by different countries raises an equity issue, as countries have access to different land types of varying quality, and comparing physical land areas would exaggerate the Footprints of those countries who are compelled to use lower quality land. Therefore world average yields are used for all countries instead of local yields – this enables a more meaningful comparison, as the adjusted figures relate to global rather than national ecological space.

    The hectares of physical land needed to provide the uses outlined above are converted into ‘global hectares’ which are the common ‘currency’ of Footprinting. Global Hectares actually measure bioproductivity, not physical area (hectares), and are a standardised unit that allows for the meaningful aggregation of different land use types, and the comparison of Footprints and biocapacities across regions. Global Hectares are derived by multiplying the actual area of land (hectares) by an equivalence factor.

    The equivalence factor represents the productivity of (eg. arable, pasture) land globally as compared to ‘average’ land globally ie. arable land is scaled up in relation to ‘average’ space, as it is more biologically productive. Equivalence factors scale the area of each land use category in proportion to its relative primary biomass yield, enabling comparison of a particular category of land to world average land (which has an equivalence factor of 1).

    Equivalence factors are the same for all countries, and are calculated for each Footprint data set in order to reflect changes in bioproductivity (change of land use, declining/improving quality of land).

    A yield factor is used to compare the productivity of a country or region’s (eg. arable) land to world average productivity of (eg. arable) land. Yield factors illustrate how much more or less productive a country’s land is in comparison to the global average of the same category.

    Yield factors therefore differ between countries, and are calculated for each year in order to reflect changes in bioproductivity (change of land use, declining/improving quality of land).

    …accounting conventions!

  8. I believe the Footprint is the best metric we have for communicating physical limits in numbers, a) because it reveals the message of limits by comparing supply to demand and b) it does so by calculating our use of bioproductivity (how much stuff different biomes of nature generate that we use) not space – the two are very different measures.

    >I have discovered, over the years that giving them simple figures which they can do on a calculator themselves in 2 minutes is powerful.

    Well, if that helps communicate the message, then great! But in terms of knowing our actual position, to inform decision making and policy, we need metrics like the National Footprint Accounts maintained by GFN, which are underpinned by a huge amount of data from the FAO, IEA etc tracking our physical demand on nature’s renewable resources. They were invented to answer a scientific research question which is: how much of the earth’s renewable biocapacity are we using, compared to how much there is?

    The whole rationale for choosing land area as the common unit for Footprinting is because people it expresses data into a single ‘currency’ – land, which is a powerful indicator because everyone understands land.

    I would disagree with your assessment of Footprint as not useful for communicating the problem – there are too many examples of where it is being used as a teaching tool that dispute this. For some reason, school students can understand it (the concepts and the meaning, if not all the calculations) the same way they can understand gravity, although they might not learn the more in-depth stuff in that field until they hit college. It’s others who have perhaps already had their neural pathways blazed who have problems getting their heads around it! What sits below the Footprint in Excel spreadsheets is complicated – but the message it reveals is not.

    However, Nick – at the end of the day, to the extent that different methods communicate the same problem to different audiences, for whom different methods work – then by any means!

    As long as the message of limits sinks in, one way or another 🙂

  9. Sorry, but this is a dangerous pseudo-debate – this can be understood easily when you realize that the problems we currently have on this planet are not caused by “too many people” but by a greedy and ruthless minority. This “too many people” discussion is arrogant – who will decide who is “too many”? Is it YOU?
    Absolutely unacceptable is the resonance of “people of poor countries” in conjunction with this “too many people” ideology – here you are simply spreading extremely cynical propaganda – or you have been mind-trapped in it. It is not the poor that are causing the problems – the rich are destroying the planet!
    Where does this thinking lead? What goal do you want to reach in a discussion about “to many people”? Does “too many” in conjunction with “poor countries” give you any solution? It´s, again, the rich countries that are generating the problems – poor people, in fact, are living very sustainable!
    Fact is: Real US Bombs are causing more problems than any “Population Bomb”.

  10. @John, you can relax, as the posters haven’t advocated euthanizing you or any of your relatives (or anyone, for that matter). And while they may recognize that reducing fertility rates in poor nations will improve their financial well-being and sustainability, they have not limited the overpopulation discussion to poor nations. Indeed, having smaller families in the rich nations is extremely important, since – as you correctly point out – it is the rich world that is destroying the planet.

    I don’t feel it’s arrogant to want everyone on Earth to make family size decisions armed with all the facts about the implications for the quality of life for their own children, not to mention all children and future generations.

    We can’t achieve a sustainable state without both reducing consumption in the rich world and reducing the total number of people doing the consuming. We can’t leave overpopulation out of the discussion just because it is uncomfortable to talk about.

  11. Good to see this post has raised some debate!

    John – I agree with you that any kind of physical bomb is indeed a problem – a symptom of the pathology that exists which makes people feel the need to drop them.

    However it is also a biological reality that the more people there are, the more of nature’s capacity we will demand.

    It is true that the ‘golden billion’ in the global consumer class – wherever they live – have availed themselves of the majority of the world’s resources, and rigged the playing field, but the assertion that ‘poor people live sustainably’ (apart from being open to interpretation) is based on the premise that those people will *stay* materially poor. I think you, like me, would like to see a heck of a lot of people’s material standards of living, and with it, health and education, increased.

    At the same time, our best science is telling us we are already “too many” and in trouble on a range of fronts from species/ecosystems services loss toclimate change – even though we still need to lift all of those ‘poor people’ out of poverty and increase their material standard of living (the somewhat patronising reference to “people in poor countries” came from the Centre for Independent Studies, as quoted in their article in The Australian).

    It has been demonstrated over and over that the best way to bring down our population is to empower women with education and access to family planning – with choice. No-one coerced women in the developed countries to have less children, and no one concerned with humanity would want to raise the spectre of population ‘control’.

    Because it touches on so many personal issues, population is a painful debate which generates a lot of emotion, but it is not a pseudo-debate – human impact is the product of consumption x numbers x technology. It’s not an either-or question. Numbers of people *are* a factor.

    I would find it unacceptable that any debate to steer us away from collapse did not face this truth – because it is those who are most vulnerable in this world who will (who already do) feel the impacts. To some extent, the wealthy will be able to insure themselves from resource crunches and food security issues.

    The worst thing we can do is turn this into a blame-game, as it will paralyse any efforts to address the totality of the situation.

    The goal of this work is to determine what are the safe operating limits for Spaceship Earth – what do we need to do to ensure the totality of our impact (levels of consumption x numbers of heads) is within what the planet can support, AND how do we ensure that our collective draw on nature is more evenly and fairly distributed?

  12. Sharon’s answer to John Smith is correct. Simplifying it yet further, no matter how “sustainably” the “poor” live, if the total numbers of people continue to keep increasing, it is a mathematical certainty that we will overwhelm the planet’s ability to support us – even if we assume that the “rich” do not increase their current impact. The UNEP’s GEO4 report identified that we are already living 25% beyond the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

    The problem with the “it’s not the poor people who are the problem” argument is this. The only known non-forcible way that we know to stabilise population growth in any country is if that country achieves Western European living standards. Global population is forecast to start stabilising at around 9 billion by 2050’ish. The problem is that assumes that the poor achieve the aforementioned living standards which would, of course, be good except that it would mean that we would require at least three planets worth of resources to sustain that general global standard of living. Clearly impossible.

    Mr Smith’s argument is reminiscent of the old hard Left one that there is no problem with the ultimate supplies of resources, it is just a matter of distribution. In that way they are eerily similar to the fundamentalist right wing free market economists who claim that never ending increases in efficiency, and endlessly substituting for resources which are nearing exhaustion, will enable the global economy to keep on growing indefinitely.

    I think both extremes of politics are barking mad and obviously ignore the very rules of the universe in their pursuit of their ideology. Wishful thinking is no way to run a sustainable planet..

  13. No one ever responded directly concerning my post above about Vaclav Smil and the following facts attributed to him:

    “Research by Professor Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba in Canada shows that as a percentage of mammalian zoomass, human beings and our domesticated mammalian animals (for food, beasts of burden and as pets) have gone from <0.1% 10,000 years ago, to 10-12% at the start of the industrial revolution to between 96-98% today. "

    This appears to be slightly in error, the figure should be 94% today, based on this reference:
    (See "page 618," page 20 of the PDF.)

    Furthermore, Smil doesn't seem to give a figure for domesticated mammalian zoomass 10,000 years ago or at the start of the industrial revolution. Page 618 suggests it was 27% in 1900.

    However, Smil might have better information in a different article, so please let me (us) know if this is the case.

  14. Keith, the statistics you quoted were so amazing – too amazing – that I couldn’t fully believe them. I just made a mental note to check them out some time. I’d like to see other sources coming up with similar figures.

  15. Hi Keith

    The numbers were derived from Smil’s work by a contact of mine at Bond University in Queensland, who advises that the percentages for 10,000 years ago and start of Industrial revolution were based on population, meat diet intensity and agricultural technology.

    Whether its 94%, 96% or 98%, the salient (and scary) point is that its a frightening demonstration of human appropriation of the planet.


  16. Thanks, Sharon, for this post and the clarification.

    I got to this discussion through the” Steady Staters” discussion group at If I have any other questions I’ll post them there rather than try to continue this conversation in two places. (Now that I’ve figured out that “Sharon” in one place is the same “Sharon” in the other! Duh!)

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