Greta Thunberg has captured the attention of billions, worldwide with her calls for action over the #ClimateEmergency by which she sees the world engulfed. If you would have asked anyone a few years ago how they thought the final awakening to climate change would occur, no one would have responded that a 16 year old Swedish girl with Aspergers would be the messenger. Alas, reality once again is stranger than fiction.
Thunberg is beyond her years, and unusual in her commitment and sustained focus on what she sees as the biggest challenge to our planet and our species. So many of us note this existential crisis in passing, and then go about our business burning fossil fuels, eating meat, and…procreating. And while Thunberg has been vocal about the first two, she has been silent on the third. Perhaps she is unaware that the global population has doubled since the first Earth Day in 1970, and that it is humanity’s runaway population that is the primary driver behind climate change. For those not paying attention, we just passed 7.7 billion, growing more than 80 million annually.
Thunberg is absolutely correct that humanity needs to undertake a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels. She is also correct that the global food system that allows humans to put tasty and nourishing food in our bodies must also fundamentally transform before our historic wildernesses – both terrestrial and maritime, are annihilated. But, even if these transformations are aggressively embraced by political leaders, policymakers, business leaders, professionals, journeymen of the productive class, and everyday citizens – we still will not be able to survive continued runaway population growth.
Thunberg is 16. So, it is unfair to criticize her for failing to recognize the population ‘elephant in the room’ when far older, far more educated and more worldly individuals are completely unaware of the population/climate nexus, or the broader population/environment nexus which accounts for all of the other ecological burdens caused by the larger “Human Footprint”. She is simply suffering the same cultural blind spot that most of the world has suffered from since abandoning the open discussion about the perils of runaway population growth back in the 1970s. Leaders of that era wrongly concluded that somehow, near vertical population growth would have no negative effects. Leaders of that era concluded that “Malthus was wrong.”
Indeed, Malthus was wrong. Indeed, humanity and its innovations could manage to feed a fast and continuously growing population. But, Malthus asked the wrong question. It is not “how many people can we feed?” It should be “How Many People Can the Earth Support?” And, while Professor Joel Cohen of the Columbia Earth Institute, in his 1995 book entitled just that, came to no real concrete conclusion, subsequent analysis has provided us a sound basis for estimate to conclude the unique and finite geography of our Planet Earth can sustain no more than 3 billion modern industrialized humans without accruing long term ecological debt. It is not just about atmospheric carbon and climate change, as many protesters will myopically have you believe. The larger human ecological footprint is much, much worse. As I like to argue, climate change is twice as bad as you think, yet only 1/10th of the problem”. And, it is driven by population growth.
As we hurdled past a population of 3 billion in the middle of the 20th century, this ecological debt has accumulated to a level that we can no longer service, and it is now coming due.
It is time that world leaders stop infantilizing everyone when discussing climate change. Stop worrying about how climate change anxiety will impact the mental well being of the next generation. It is time for everyone to sit their kids, their families, their neighbors, and the colleagues down and have an honest discussion about “How many people do you believe the Earth can support?” Then, perhaps, everyone will wake up to a real discussion about our planet’s actual carrying capacity, and attempt to live within it.
Most importantly, perhaps then societies across the globe will recognize and embrace the fact that it is women’s empowerment, women’s education, women’s integration in to the workforce and their access to family planning technologies that is the only real path to ecological salvation, and a planet that can actually sustain the human species over the long run.
How does my book A Planet of 3 Billion relate to the ongoing climate change debate? To find out, read this article that I wrote for the World Economic Forum. As should be obvious from the title, I do my best to do two things. First, I attempt to awaken the climate community and the general public to how ocean acidification - a chronically under appreciated symptom of human carbon emissions - is so problematic that climate change properly understood is at least twice as bad as popularly thought. Second, I attempt to put the climate change in context of the larger 'human footprint.' When you read P3B, you will see in two key chapters entitled "Industrialization of the Global Landscape" and "The Geography of Humanity's Waste" that together communicate the ten different forms of human footprint of which climate change must be understood as only one. In short, climate change is twice as bad as you think, yet only 1/10th of the problem.
Normally, when Elon Musk talks, I eagerly soak up his big ideas. The world is a better place because of the bold moves he has made with Tesla, SpaceX, the Hyperloop, and even his work with AI. Not all of his ideas hit with clarity (Solar City and The Boring Company, anyone…). But, rarely does he completely miss the mark. Yet, while on stage in Shanghai the other day, at the 2019 World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC), with Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma, Musk veered far from reality and took Ma with him. And people gobbled it up.
“Most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view,” Musk said while on stage with Ma. He went on to say "Assuming there is a benevolent future with AI, I think the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse.” Ma agreed saying that "the speed of population decrease is going to speed up. You called it a ‘collapse,’ - “I agree with you.”
Surely Musk and Ma know that the global population is not decreasing. Surely they know that instead is growing at more that 80 million annually. Perhaps they got lost in the need to be provocative on the world stage, and accidentally misspoke? Perhaps they were referring to the decline in the rate of population growth that is going on in more and more nations as women become empowered, educated, integrated in to the workforce and given access to family planning technology. The United Nations Population Division projections have the world population steadily rising from the present 7.7 billion to at least 9 billion souls, by 2050 or so. If we are lucky, the total population might begin to decrease, at that point, as global fertility falls below replacement value. Collapse? Hardly. If we are lucky, humanity will find ways to bend the global population curve downward until it reaches a more sustainable population plateau that might lessen the human ecological footprint to a level that our planet could actually sustain. Unfortunately, however, experts are not confident that growth will end at 9 billion and, the ecological implications of continued growth are dire.
It would be one thing if Musk and Ma were referring to the possibility of a precipitous population collapse due to cataclysmic disease, famine, or ecological disaster. However, it seems clear that they were not. They warn of global population going in to (or already being in?) free fall – collapse - and that something must be done to grow the global population. Ironically, by advocating for continued population growth, they are (unwittingly, I am sure) advocating for a scenario that would only further undermine our planet's long-term ecological carrying capacity. In turn, this would greatly increase the probability of a grimly abrupt population collapse.
Readers may quibble with my assessment of the Earth’s carrying capacity. How many people do you believe the Earth can support? While it is a seemingly simple question, there is no consensus on the basis of estimate we should use to make such a determination. As it turns out, most people actually do not even have the current world population at the top of mind, and many cannot tell you the number within a billion or two or three. After all, what class would you even learn that in? Who reports on it regularly? Why would you know? It is an enormous cultural blind spot, as demonstrated by Musk and Ma.
While climate change has finally established itself in the popular mind, after decades on the fringe, it is only one of many forms of “human footprint” burdening our planet’s ability to support our species. No one seems to track that the continual increase in ecological bad news is most strongly correlated to the 80+ million annual growth in human population. There is a “population taboo” that if not confronted will lead humanity down a dark alley, only to be mugged by its own doppelganger.
We have avoided a real discussion about the Earth’s carrying capacity for far too long. As such, smart folks such as Musk and Ma can be excused for making such ill-informed statements. ONE. LAST. TIME. Going forward, we must explicitly confront our planet’s “people problem,” the endless stream of ecological destruction it will deliver if something is not done, and how we – collectively - can navigate our way to a lower population plateau.
Want to read a great Q&A between Dr. Tucker and Trajectory Magazine's Lisbeth Perez? Read it here!
So, the world's population blew past 7.7 billion recently, and virtually no one noticed. Certainly not the mainstream media. Perhaps it is a sense of inevitability that makes it not newsworthy? Or, as I suspect, most people don't even know what the human population currently is - or where it is going. Kudos to Robin McKie for at least writing an article in The Guardian in advance of this Thursday's World Population Day.
His title says it all: "Global population of eight billion and growing: we can’t go on like this". But his subtitle actually leads us toward a solution: "World Population Day will mark a global crisis – one that is best tackled by more access to birth control, particularly in Africa".
Yet, like most, McKie does not discuss the most important issue which is "How many people can the Earth support?" If he did, and if his analysis came anywhere close to that in my book A Planet of 3 Billion, then the tone of his discussion would likely be very different. Still, his conclusion is similar to mine - that women must be empowered, educated, integrated in to the workforce and given access to family planning technologies. Perhaps we can work together to bend the population curve in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere downward to build a more humane planet for our species.