Guest Commentary | Population problem persists

Guest Commentary | Population problem persists


Bruce Kauffmann's column headed "When the population bomb bombs" spins toward the optimistic view that science can conjure magic to support any increase in population. What scientists say, however, is different.

Short summary: Economists like Julian Simon, who said "no limits," were ignoring laws of physics. Read Herman Daly's review of Kerryn Higgs' book "Collision Course" at the website. Or Ugo Bardi's "Limits to Growth Revisited." Or check the Rockstrom et al. "planetary boundaries" website. Or "footprint analysis." Or check out the IPCC scientists' (800 authors) fifth climate assessment report.

Many scientists think our numbers are already over long-run sustainable carrying capacity. Growth is the problem, not the solution.

It is beyond spin and well into self-delusion to count on science to solve all our problems and then ignore climate scientists, biologists, crop scientists and so on who warn that the Earth has limits to what it can provide.

Green Revolution scientist Norman Borlaug said in his 1970 Nobel Prize address, "Doubling of food supply just gives us a generation to stop population growth or we'll be back where we started."

More than 17,000 scientists have issued a "scientists' warning to humanity" about overshoot and collapse (

Paul Ehrlich was called "wrong" partly because people paid attention to the warnings and cut birth rates. World population growth peaked at 2.2 percent in the 1960s but fell to 1.1 percent by 2010. Fertility rates fell from a global average of five children per woman to 2.4. Nevertheless, between 1970 and 2011, world population doubled from 3.5 billion to 7 billion. So 2.2 percent x 3.5 = 1.1 percent x 7.

The world is still growing as fast as ever, a billion more people every 12 years.

The new element is massive carbon emissions, cumulatively enough to raise atmospheric CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 405 ppm and still rising at 2-3 ppm/year. Uncertainties about future climate responses go both ways. Runaway feedback loop processes (the warmer it gets the more forests burn) could melt all ice on earth and release enough carbon from trees, soils, sea beds, permafrost, sea water and of course from continued burning of fossil fuels, to send global temperatures up 10 degrees C or more.

Melting ice means less energy reflected into space, in itself enough to warm the Earth 10 degrees C (18 F) if all ice melts. Hot enough to kill us and our crops. Sea levels could be 200 feet higher, drowning many of the world's biggest cities.

The places where women still have five kids are almost all poor, with millions of desperate people trying to migrate as soils erode, drought or floods hit and violence breaks out. The places where women have few children are mostly rich and peaceful. Over 90 countries average less than replacement fertility rates. But overall global population growth has increased each year from 2002 to 2016 — from 79 million to 86 million per year according to the World Bank. Ehrlich was right to recommend birth control.

Sir David Attenborough pointed out in a presidential lecture to the Royal Society, "All social and environmental problems become more difficult and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more people."

In 1848, John Stuart Mill, author of the classic "On Liberty," wrote "On the stationary state." His point was that even if twice as many people could be supported, life would be better with fewer people.

"If the Earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.

"It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the art of living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on."

Max Kummerow is a retired real-estate professor. He has written a dozen papers, presented at Ecological Society and Population Association and other professional society meetings, and a Ph.D. dissertation, on the world's challenge in completing the demographic transition to low fertility rates. The papers document connections of population growth to violence, climate change and immigration.