Population Decline - Red Herrings and Hope

In recent years demographic experts have been revising their peak human population estimates downward.  At one time, peak population was feared to be in the tens of billions. Then it was revised down to 12 billion.  But fertility rates continued to drop, to the point where our population is now projected to peak around 9 billion sometime in the middle of this century.  This decline is being driven by some well-recognized factors:

Providing medical care to pregnant women and children reduces the infant mortality rate. When the infant mortality rate is very low, parents are assured that their children will live to adulthood. They therefore voluntarily decide to have fewer children -- usually 2 or fewer. In other words they don't try to have as many children as possible to ensure that at least some make it to adulthood. Providing medical care to children actually reduces population growth.

Enhancing women's rights and increasing their education contributes to the slowing of population growth. Women seem to generally choose to have fewer children if they have the power to do so. The more power women have in a society, the fewer children they choose to have. A 1995 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that Latin American women with no education have large families of 6-7 children, whereas better educated women have family sizes of 2-3 children, analogous to those of women in the developed world.

Free or cheap, reliable birth control has revolutionized demographics. In developed countries birth control has led to fertility rates that are below replacement rates, and even in developing countries birth control has caused fertility rates to plummet.

Food security, development assistance and education also lead to lower fertility rates. Famine is a great engine of population growth, while food security acts as a governor on that engine. Famine and hunger causes disproportionate death rates among children, which encourages parents to have more children as an insurance strategy. Giving parents and children food security leads them to have fewer children in much the same way as increasing medical care.

The world has entered a demographic phase of plummeting fertility rates -- in many countries to below the magic "replacement" fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman, which implies zero population growth or even "sub-replacement" fertility rates that imply a slow decline in overall human population. Much of Europe is worrying about and developing plans to deal with slowly declining populations.  So in the opinion of mainstream demographers we now have an excellent opportunity to have a "soft landing" in population rather than the population explosion and crash that so many have been fearing for decades.

Or do we?  Might the rejoicing over falling fertility be, if not a red herring, at least a trifle premature?  This article makes a case for extreme skepticism on this issue.  Yes, population growth is slowing, and all the factors cited above are contributing to that. However, there are a number of inconvenient truths that are not addressed in this rosy analysis. They change the picture dramatically when they are included.

Carrying Capacity

The earth's long-term carrying capacity, when considered in aggregate, is nowhere near enough to support the current human population of 6.6 billion at its current level of overall resource consumption.

The analysis of carrying capacity is fraught with uncertainty and differing interpretations. I define carrying capacity as the level of population an environment can support over the long term (i.e. many generations) without degrading the ecology of that environment. This may be somewhat more strict than other definitions, but it comes from my Deep Ecology perspective. Deep Ecology requires the recognition of the inherent value of the other life forms that share the environment, and their right to continue to exist even in the presence of a human population. Deep Ecology also recognizes that humanity exists as but one element of life among many in the biosphere, and that all life in an ecological niche is interdependent to some degree.

The conclusion that I draw from these principles is that carrying capacity has some upper limit. A sure sign that the upper limit has been reached is if the carrying capacity of a niche begins to erode for at least some of the species that occupy it. Are we seeing such erosion of carrying capacity in the world today? My conclusion, based on signals as diverse as glacier retreat, the vanishing of fish stocks in the world's oceans, declining soil fertility in the American Great Plains, and declining global per-capita grain production is that we have reached or exceeded the earth's carrying capacity.

Humanity has always used technology to increase the productivity of our environment. This should not be confused with an increase in carrying capacity, however. Such an increase in productivity has always been gained at the expense of the other occupants of that environment. While such appropriation is is a normal feature of any species, ours has been so aggressive that it has driven other species to extinction in the process. While the extinction of other species is seen by some to be an unfortunate but essentially inconsequential byproduct of our activities, it doesn't take much of a shift in perspective to understand that if life is an interdependent network, humanity can only tamper with that network at our peril. We have a very incomplete understanding of how this system functions. The Precautionary Principle warns us that in the face of such incomplete knowledge we must err on the side of caution lest we run afoul of  The Law of Unintended Consequences.

The expansion of productivity has in the past also been achieved through an expansion of our territory, drawing lands previously uninhabited by humans into the domain of our ecological niche. This is no longer possible, as our ecological niche now comprises essentially the entire globe.


The signals of human population overshoot have become undeniable - from global warming to resource depletion of minerals and whole species including fish, to pervasive chemical pollution, to resource wars such as Iraq, to the creeping famines at humanity's margins, to the widening wealth gap between rich and poor individuals and nations. All these things are signals of overshoot.

Some may be tempted to ascribe these signals to simple human greed and stupidity.  Certainly humanity has has behaved stupidly and greedily, and has failed to regulate its activities appropriately. I don't see this as a moral failure on the part of humanity, to be rectified with education and tongue-lashings. Rather, I see it as part of our nature with both biological and cultural components. There is no question that our regulatory agencies have by and large failed to act effectively.  The question is, if people are in fact capable of directing their behaviour rationally, why are such agencies even necessary?

For example, should individual fishermen not realize that it isn't in anyone's best interest to keep fishing until no more fish can be caught? Certainly individual fishermen understood that (as in the case of the Northern Cod on Canada's Grand Banks) but it appears that any voluntary reduction in their catches was immediately overwhelmed by the actions of fishermen from other nations. Why was that? Did those foreign fishermen not care about the state of the seas, or did they see the oceans as a rapidly replenishable resource, or did they see any problems they might create as purely local in scope? It was a combination of all those factors, along with a healthy dose of self-interest that seems to be inherent to our organism. Why was no regulatory action initiated until after the evidence of collapse was incontrovertible? I maintain that it is virtually impossible for a regulatory agency to institute curbs on resource utilization before frank evidence of scarcity is apparent. Any body that tried such a thing would be voted out of office either directly or indirectly and replaced with an agency that would ensure that the wishes of consuming nations.

Garrett Hardin pointed out clearly in his seminal 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" that a conflict between individual interests and the common good arises when there is a both unrestricted access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource. In the absence of effective resource management, the end result is that everyone tries to offload the burden of resource depletion onto others by maximizing their own utilization.

Examples of the tragedy of the commons can be seen in our problems with ocean fish stocks, atmospheric CO2 pollution, water and soil pollution, and fresh water depletion.  Such problems are not amenable to technical solutions, as the difficulty is correctly seen as lying in the domain of human behaviour.  That is the fundamental reason for the overshoot we are currently experiencing.

The One-Time Gift

The only thing that has enabled our numbers to shoot so far over the long-term carrying capacity is the planet's one-time gift of fossil fuels. This has also enabled our underlying destruction of the biosphere of which we are an inextricable part.  Global oil production is about to start declining, and that decline will probably reach rates of 6% per year within a decade.  There are no technologies or physical substitutes that will allow the continuing loss of oil to be offset in the time frame remaining before the loss becomes globally significant (i.e. within 10 years or so).

There is a view, promoted by economists world-wide, that as fossil fuels become expensive people will substitute other sources of energy.  National and corporate oil producers in turn support the economists' position with the message that there's lots of oil left anyway. I believe this view is a faith-based position, and has precious little objective support from the available facts - facts both of technology and social behaviour. 88% of the world's energy is derived from fossil fuels. Aside from hydro power, less than 2% is derived from renewable sources. There is a lot of activity in the renewable energy sector as oil prices increase. The issues that make me less than sanguine about the possibility of a smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewables are:
  • The time frame is so short. Peak Oil is here now, and supply has already started to fall behind demand.  That's why oil is trading over $70 a barrel as I write this.

  • The rate of production of replacement transportation fuels is very low, and and even this low level of production is having negative impacts on both the environment and food prices.

  • The net energy of the replacements that are being introduced is declining. Net energy ranges from 90% for conventional crude oil, through 60% for oil sands synthetic crude, to 30% or less for ethanol. The lower the net energy, the more the energy economy needs to invest in itself, and the less there is for the end consumer.

  • Alternative forms of transportation energy (e.g. battery vehicles), while technically feasible, appear unlikely to penetrate the market in sufficient quantity to offset the rate of oil decline I predict.

  • As the price of oil rises, so does the cost of many of the feedstocks required for these new energy sources. The equation turns out not to be quite as simple as we'd been told. Just ask Suncor in Fort McMurray what has happened to project costs in the Alberta Tar Sands.

The question of belief enters the picture when you ask questions like "When will the oil peak happen?", How severe will the post-peak decline be" and "How vulnerable is our civilization to interruptions in its energy supply?" It is possible for reasonable people to differ on their answers to these questions, because this is an unprecedented event in human history, and we won't really know the answers until it is upon us. I base my conclusions on a good-faith analysis if the data I have available, and I hope those on the other side of the fence are doing likewise.

Infinite Growth Forever?

The economy that powers our civilization has as its central shibboleth the principle of permanent growth. If you doubt this, try borrowing money from a bank and offering them a negative return.  This is not just a matter of living in a consumption-oriented society, though that contributes to the problem.  The real difficulty here is technical - our entire civilization, even the parts of it that claim not to be capitalist consumer cultures, depends on a global financial structure that charges interest on loans.  While there is nothing immoral about that, it makes it unavoidable that the economy must continue to grow overall in order to support that mechanism.  If growth falters, even regionally, we get recessions.  If growth stops for a while we get depressions. If global economic growth were to begin shrinking with no foreseeable chance of resuming its former growth, the loss of confidence in the world's financial systems would be sudden and deep. The consequences for our civilization would be catastrophic.

Is such a fracture possible?  If we were to recognize the possibility ahead of time could (or would) we do something about it?  Read on.

Human Behaviour

Studies in evolutionary psychology have shown that consumption, reproduction and competition are genetically driven traits that are almost impossible to alter within the species as a whole (though individuals may not be so constrained). This means that our current patterns of behaviour are unlikely to change in the short or medium term.

Of course genetics doesn't turn human beings into robots. The current view of evolutionary psychology is that our genetic makeup predisposes us to behaviour patterns, and that in a group these tendencies can be understood as a statistical integration of the individual tendencies of its members. While an individual or a relatively small group may exhibit countervailing behaviours (such as reducing consumption, declining job promotions, or having no children) the larger the group you consider, the more the overall behaviour normalizes to the genetic predisposition. The smaller the group, the more likely it will be that its behaviour trends away from the norm.

There appears to be a genetic mechanism selected into every reproductive species, from bacteria to flatworms, robins to rabbits, tigers to chimpanzees that favours excess reproduction beyond the replacement rate. It's easy to understand why that is a general rule of nature. In an environment where there are predators this is a survival-positive trait: if a few individuals get eaten, the species isn't threatened. However, when there are no predators, it's catastrophic. Think of the rabbits in Australia. We are like those rabbits: we have no predators except ourselves. The result is a human population that has quadrupled in a century, to which we add over 75 million new members every year.

The question of why we are see declining human fertility rates when the genetic predisposition is the opposite is fairly simple to answer, though more complex in action. Human beings, as I said above, are not genetic automata. Their behaviour is influenced by a wide variety of factors including resource availability, the stability of the social environment, the perception of expanding or contracting opportunity, and the perception of whether the benefit of extra children outweighs their cost. It's likely that these considerations are evaluated quite differently from place to place. I'd put good money on the last one (cost/benefit) being a very important factor in explaining why reproduction levels are much lower in developed than developing nations, for example.

Complex Adaptive Systems and Resilience

Our civilization is a complex adaptive system, and so follows the progression of all such systems. Such systems go through a growth phase characterized by increasing productivity, efficiency and interconnectedness along with a directly related loss of resilience. This decreasing resilience (or increasing brittleness if you wish) makes the system vulnerable to "synchronous breakdowns" or failure cascades as a result of external shocks. When that happens, the system can enter a release or collapse phase in which its organization changes abruptly, resources are released, and the system regains resilience at the expense of productivity. In short, big complex systems are disproportionately vulnerable to small shocks. Human civilization is the largest, most complex system ever built.

The common view of our civilization, that its increased specialization, efficiency and interconnectedness confer on it increasing flexibility, diversity and resilience are strongly disputed by the work of The Resilience Alliance. It's obvious to me that earlier, less efficient and interconnected  civilizations were much more resilient than ours. Take for example the fact that the Black Death did not decimate North America or that previous collapses of civilizations like the Romans or the Mayans did not resonate far beyond their borders. A trivial but trenchant example of how interconnections like transportation make a civilization more vulnerable is the global effect of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Although it was much less virulent than the Black Death, it managed to rage through every corner of the globe in only 18 months.  The fear of what could happen with with such a disease given the speed and universality of modern airline transportation was played out in the SARS scare of 2003.

The Effect of All This on Population

So here we have a huge, complex, brittle system built on the foundation of a depleting, non-renewable resource and depending on a damaged environment with diminished carrying capacity. If this system receives a series of shocks (such as repeated local interruptions of its energy supply) the resulting failure cascades can disrupt the organization of the system to such an extent that the cohesion provided by its interconnections fails.  Ironically those connections themselves become the pathways that spread the failure to other parts of the system.

What has all this theorizing to do with population? Because we are now a global species with a global civilization, continuing growth of our numbers depends on the continuing growth of our civilization. Humanity does not grow through demographics alone, there must be a sufficient level of food, shelter, energy and medical care available. All these factors will be put at risk globally within the next two decades due to the loss of oil. As they go away, our ability to keep people alive will decline.

As our ability to maintain a complex high-energy civilization is compromised by the loss of its master resource, Liebig's Law of the Minimum will come into play to stop its growth. Food production and distribution will be hampered or in some cases made impossible, and due to the damage of soil and water local agriculture will prove very difficult in some places. If medical care erodes, so will infant mortality and longevity. The erosion of urban sanitation systems will have an identical but greater effect. Across the world the effects will be highly variable, with some places like the United States suffering from the catastrophic decline in net global oil exports that is now underway. Other countries like those at the bottom of the list of developing nations will simply be too poor to compete against the developed world for the resources needed for survival. Populations will fall as a result.

Based on my understanding of the oil situation and of humanity'ss position within the earth's ecology (especially that we are in at least a 50% overshoot situation without oil's help) I predict that the global population will never rise above 8 billion.  It will achieve this value just after the end of the oil production plateau we are now on.  As oil production falls off the plateau our population will begin to decline in response - very gently at first, then very steeply within two or three decades, leveling out at one to two billion by the end of this century.

Lest I be suspected of advocating eugenics, authoritarian population control programs or other coercive measures, let me make my position on the coming population decline perfectly clear.  I do not believe there are any mechanisms or policies, either humane or inhumane, that would significantly reduce our numbers in the time we have left before global disruptions start to materialize.  As a result my position is that events will be overtaken by reality.  The effects of environmental and resource-based limits to growth will combine to increase mortality, and that these effects will far outstrip any programs of fertility control.

Despite this, the fewer people we bring into this world, the less severe any subsequent changes will be.  It is therefore crucially important that we continue vigorously to pursue policies aimed at reducing fertility world-wide.

We must focus any such efforts on low-energy policies.  Such developments as improving women's literacy and social standing, and improving access to family planning (specifically birth control techniques and abortion facilities) will do the most good over both the medium and longer terms.  They are also policies that could be maintained in the face of energy declines.  The fact that these programs can be successful in such an environment is demonstrated by the example of Kerala, an Indian state of 30 million people  that has been able to maintain a quality of life and fertility rates more typical of the developed world even in the presence of income, energy and resource usage typical of a less developed country.

There is one cautionary observation that is well worth making.  It has been observed by demographers in the past that industrialization appears to correlate well with declining fertility.  This has led some to hope that the world can grow its way out of the population crisis by increasing the industrialization of less developed countries.  This is an absurd expectation for two reasons.

First, there is neither enough energy nor other resources available to permit such industrial growth. Even attempting such a thing will damage the global environment, as is happening now in China. While a massive resource redistribution program might help, the adoption of such an approach by the developed world is unlikely in the extreme

Second, the problem the world faces is not one of population per se, but rather our population's overrall consumption of resources.  Stabilizing our population at 9 billion while doubling or tripling global resource consumption, even it it were possible, would be a major step backwards and would make an eventual population crash more rather than less likely

This leads inevitably to the objection that such a position caps the aspirations of less developed countries and is thus morally unacceptable.  Be that as it may, the facts remain: there aren't enough resources to bring the whole world up to the industrial level of the OECD, the developed world is unlikely to consent to their own voluntary impoverishment in favour of industrializing the less developed world, and attempting such an approach would increase rather than reduce global ecological devastation.  There appears to be no possibility of reducing global fertility through industrialization.

In the face of our physical circumstances, it matters not at all which demographic theories you prefer. In the face of our overshoot and the 10 to 20 year time lines for severe oil decline they are all moot.

Where Then is the Hope?

This is a very bleak picture.  If I am right, there is precious little that we can or even will do to stem the coming decline. But people need hope to keep on going.  Why should we not just all slit our throats right now, or at least go on a final frenzied binge of consumption since it's all going to come to an end anyway?  Are there signals of hope that we can use to rally ourselves and continue being good, kind, moral, helpful people?  In fact there are.

I've just come out of a two-year episode of depression and despair brought on by realizing the inevitability of the decline of this cycle of human civilization. What brought me out was a spiritual (though emphatically NOT religious) transformation that I describe briefly in "The Spiritual Effects of Comprehending the Global Crisis". Upon more reflection it turns out that the spiritual perception that I describe is more correctly and usefully understood as a conversion to Deep Ecology as defined by Arne Naess in 1972. I am convinced that such a "spiritual" realization is essential if one is to emerge from the inevitable despair and resume a functional life.

Now, what about hope? After all, the last thing in Pandora's Box was "Hope". Since we are staring deeply into that box right now, what new revelation might we take as a hopeful sign? The state of affairs right now seem utterly hopeless. Ecological devastation, oil depletion, population growth and socioeconomic instability are converging to give humanity the thrashing of its life, in the process reducing the human community to perhaps one billion members before the end of the century.

In fact there is a hopeful sign, but only if you change your perspective.

Start from these three realizations:

1. The genetic imperatives that drive our reproduction, consumption and competition guarantees that we will not change our civilization's value set voluntarily or preemptively.

2. Humanity is like yeast. We reproduce and consume until our ecological niche is stripped of resources and poisoned by waste, then we die off.

3. Humanity is like cockroaches. We are resourceful, adaptive and hardy, and you can't kill us all.

These three facts mean that although we are heading for a bottleneck, some portion of humanity will survive to regroup and rebuild in a massively damaged, resource-poor world. On our way through the bottleneck we will lose much of our physical and social capital. The one and only good thing about this, from a species, biosphere and planetary perspective, is that the existing socioeconomic structures will be forcibly and involuntarily stripped away, leaving room for new structures to take their place.

The change in perspective involves not looking forward from our current situation into the decline.  Rather, step forward a couple of hundred years and look back.  what I believe you will see is the rebirth of the next cycle of civilization.

The question for me has become, "How do we ensure that the seeds are in place for a value set that will survive through and bloom after the bottleneck, a value set that will ensure that the next cycle of civilization has a chance at sustainability even in such a badly damaged, resource-poor world?"  How will we ensure that our descendants will  eventually inherit a sustainable world, even though our current situation is not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination?

I've become convinced over the last couple of months that the seeds for such a transformation have already been planted. They are even resilient enough to make it through the bottleneck, and they carry the correct values for the rebirth I suggest.

American activist Paul Hawken has just written a tremendously important book called "Blessed Unrest" in which he describes a set of one to two million local, independent, citizen-run environmental and social justice groups. These groups exist world-wide, and each is acting on local problems of its own choosing. There is no overarching ideology beyond "making the world a better place", there is no unifying organization, no white male vertebrate leader setting the agenda. As a result the movement is extremely resilient - no government action anywhere can shut it down, even though individual groups may be suppressed. These groups make up the largest (though unrecognized) social movement the world has ever seen.  For a glimpse of some of these organizations, take a look at the web site WiserEarth.org.

Hawken sees this movement as part of humanity's immune system. While I like the metaphor and think it is exactly correct, I believe the importance of these groups is much greater than just their efforts to mitigate an unavoidable collapse. These groups have been called into existence by the world's dis-ease, and do two things: they work to fix local problems now (which will mitigate some local effects of the collapse), but more importantly they act as carriers for the values of cooperation, consensus, nurturing, recognition of interdependence, acceptance of limits, universal justice and the respect for other life. Those are precisely the values that a civilization will need to achieve stability and sustainability. To top it all off, many of these groups are led by women or espouse specifically matriarchal values, one attribute I see as essential for any sustainable civilization.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I call these groups the antibodies in Gaia's bloodstream.

I am convinced we will not save this civilization, and will lose a large fraction of humanity in the process.  But I'm equally convinced that thanks to the seeds that have already been planted in these groups we have a shot at a much better one in a couple of hundred years. The crucial change in perspective required to see the hope in this is to stop looking from here forward into the decline, and instead look backward from a position out two hundred years and imagine what it will take to rebuild a truly sustainable civilization from the ashes of this one. The values required are already embodied in a resilient organization, enough of whose elements will survive to transmit a sustainable value set into the ecologically damaged, resource-depleted world we will bequeath to the future.

July, 2007

© Copyright 2007, Paul Chefurka

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