In 1798, Robert Malthus, in his "Essay on the Principle of Population," concluded that as population grows, "the price of labor must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise."
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich in the book "The Population Bomb," predicted disaster for humanity owing to the "population explosion." Ehrlich was also one of the first to talk about rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and introduced the Impact Formula: I=PAT (where I=Environmental Impact, P=Population, A=Affluence and T=Technology).
In 1969, the Rockefeller Commission Report on the U.S. population concluded "that our country can no longer afford the uncritical acceptance of the population growth ethic that 'more is better.' And beyond that, after two years of concentrated effort, we have concluded that no substantial benefits would result from continued growth of the nation's population."
President Nixon, who appointed the commission but never released the report, nevertheless said, "One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population. Whether man's response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today."
In 1972, The Club of Rome, an independent think tank, in its book "The Limits to Growth," suggested that a growing population can approach carrying capacity and adjust to it before it is reached, can over-shoot the carrying capacity and then die back in either a smooth or oscillatory way, or can overshoot the limits and in the process decrease the ultimate carrying capacity by consuming some necessary nonrenewable resource.
All of these writers were much maligned as cheap fossil fuels made possible chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation, and new technologies such as genetically engineered crops enabled industrial agriculture to keep food production up with population growth.
In the last few years a new group of environmental scholars has also concluded that our population size and growth is a major problem. One of the most notable is Richard Heinberg, who recently spoke in Vermont. In his book, "Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Declines," he states, "If we want peace, democracy and human rights, we must work to create the ecological conditions for these things to exist: i.e., a stable human population at — or below — the environment's long term carrying capacity." Do Heinberg and the other current authors have it right this time or are they also to be maligned?
Once again the world's food situation is bleak. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the price of wheat is more than 80 percent higher than a year ago, and corn prices are up by 25 percent. Global cereal stocks have fallen to their lowest level since 1982. Prices have gone so high that the United Nations World Food Program, which aims to feed 73 million people this year, reported it might have to reduce rations or the number of people it will help. Food riots are happening in many countries and threaten to bring down some countries as starving people demand better from their government.
However, this time the problem will not be so easy to solve. There are some 75 million more people to feed each year! Consumption of meat and other high-quality foods — mainly in China and India — has boosted demand for grain for animal feed. Poor harvests due to bad weather in this country and elsewhere have contributed. High energy prices are adding to the pressures as some arable land is converted from growing food crops to biofuel crops and making it more expensive to ship the food that is produced.
According to Lester Brown, president of the World Policy Institute, "This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before. The challenge is not simply to deal with a temporary rise in grain prices, as in the past, but rather to quickly alter those trends whose cumulative effects collectively threaten the food security that is a hallmark of civilization. If food security cannot be restored quickly, social unrest and political instability will spread and the number of failing states will likely increase dramatically, threatening the very stability of civilization itself."
The cheap fossil fuels that permitted industrial agriculture, and thus our burgeoning population, are beginning to run out. Although neither the media nor our politicians ever mention it, production of oil in the United States peaked in 1970. Now, worldwide production of oil has peaked or is about to peak in the next few years, and then will begin a decline each year. Even Jeroen van der Veer, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, admits it. Without using the term "peak oil," he said, "After 2015, easily accessible supplies of oil and gas probably will no longer keep up with demand." Others say it will be sooner. In the meantime, oil-producing nations will be increasingly likely to save those reserves for their own use. There are no easy fixes for the problem. Alternative energy sources such as solar, wind or even nuclear will not be able to support our current population size, never mind the much larger population size that we are currently headed toward.
Maybe Malthus and the earlier authors were off by a couple of centuries or a few decades (a relatively insignificant amount of time in the course of human history). However, now we are at a stage of having not just approached, but having overwhelmed the carrying capacity of our environment given the standard of living that we demand. A growing number of the world's major marine and terrestrial biomes or ecosystems are being ever more severely degraded, some of them now on the verge of collapse. Some have predicted that global warming and the resulting droughts and rising sea levels will force 1 billion people to move in the next 100 years, compounding our problems.
In the absence of extremely harsh environmental regulation and economic restriction, human reproduction can no longer be seen as a right, but as a privilege that must be exercised responsibly.
George Plumb is a longtime environmental activist in Vermont. He may be reached through the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population Web site at www.vspop.org.
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