The Population Scarecrow

One of these days, we’re going to have an adult, non-alarmist conversation about population.

That would be a discussion that avoids Soylent Green imagery and talks, instead, about population in place-specific terms (which is how these guys do it). Most public debate on population, however, is conflated with a list of global concerns (peak oil, climate change, resource depletion, etc), which often makes for  a simplistic, despairing conversation. This is my one beef with the Dot Earth theme, which is summarized by the tagline at Andy Revkin’s twitter feed:

Which Comes First, Peak Everything or Peak Us?

Because I see the two problems as separate, though I know this is not conventional wisdom. It’s also a touchy subject. Several years ago, I got into a heated debate with a peer (who is a freelance, environmentally-oriented magazine writer) when I argued that, for the United States, consumption was a much bigger problem than population. I had said that suburban sprawl and our materialistic, big carbon footprint lifestyles–not too many people–was way more responsible for loss of wildlife habitat and decline of ecosystems. After ten minutes, we were practically shouting at each other.

Which brings me to this opinion column by William McGurn, in today’s Wall Street Journal. He looks back at previous population scaremongering from three decades ago and notes:

The one difference between the 1970s and today is this: Back then, the worry was that poor nations would never advance. Today we know they can and are developing.

That’s precisely the fear: that as people are eating better and living longer and making their way up the ladder, they will want more of the things that we take for granted–cars, air conditioners, refrigerators, and so on. Indeed, the really big dreamers might even hope one day to have for their families the kind of carbon-footprint maximizing manse that Mr. [Thomas] Friedman has for his family in Maryland.

That would be this kings castle.

This is the ultimate challenge for Friedman and other messengers of peak doom: articulating legitimate global capacity concerns in a way that puts everybody on a level playing ground. In other words, whatever prescriptive medicine you are calling on for society to take, you better be prepared to take it yourself. Otherwise, you shouldn’t consider yourself a credible messenger.

UPDATE: A clarification from Revkin:

To be clear, my notion of “Peak Us“ is about the cresting of both human numbers and appetites.

16 Responses to “The Population Scarecrow”

  1. thingsbreak says:

    I don’t know who your colleague was Keith, but you clearly were in the right there.

    The difference in energy requirements for a planet consuming at its present average vs. the US model utterly swamps the difference in requirements at present world average for a planet of ~7 billion vs. a planet of ~10 billion.

    As I put it a few months back:
    We can, in theory, sustain a growing and peak population under current global trends in consumption. This is obviously not an ideal outcome, as it would mean billions living in destitute poverty.  But even if we freeze population at 2006 levels, we cannot support a human population consuming like Americans. This is why the consumption part of the equation seems to deserve the lion’s share of attention, even if one does not accept that population growth will peak around mid-century of its own accord.

    From a social justice standpoint, I would like to see everyone pulled out of poverty and able to enjoy the health and safety enjoyed by those living in developed nations. But in order to do that and not run up against the biogeophysical limits of the planet (of which climate change seems to be but one incarnation), we have to ensure that we don’t all become (or remain as the case may be) wasteful Americans.

  2. kdk33 says:

    Fortunately, we have really smart people who know the biogeophysical limits of the planet; know the appropriate pace of, and can legislate technology and innovation; and, much like Solomon, know how much is “enough”, hence what is wasteful.

    I mean, without these really smart folk, a free people might innovate and create in uncontrolled ways perversely motivated by greed; and, if there were other nearby free people, they might value and pay for those innovations via a free market and become ever more wasteful – the bastards.  Of course, these material gains will not make them happy; and we know this, because the really smart people know what  makes the ordinary people happy and also know how happiness should best be allocated.

    Fortunately, I’m told there is a new government program to identify these modern day Solomons who will be placed high in the bureaucracy where they can reign in the lesser angels of the wasteful.

    I just need to know where I turn in the suburban. 

  3. Dean says:

    While a lot of the trends regarding consumption in rapidly developing countries look worrying, we need to see how they play out. I’ve read that many people in Bangkok who buy cars rarely use them because it is pointless in the Bangkok traffic. They only use them for occasional out-of-town trips. And some Chinese cities have started charging thousands of dollars for care registration permits, and there is a waiting list that can last years to register a car.
    So while copying western consumption patterns is an obvious reaction to increased wealth, they may or may not play out as they did for us. In the US, urban building patterns almost demand heavy car usage and I wonder if China’s construction patterns will also go that way.
    Even if you are an American with a relatively light carbon footprint, you still have little sway in convincing Chinese or Indians or whoever to do things a certain way. They are going to have to figure this out for themselves. I don’t think that people who voluntarily live lightly are any more convincing.
    And I say this as a former frequent world traveler who pretty much stays home these days. I’ve been to thirty-some countries on the cheap and used to have hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles with almost every major US airline. No more.

  4. Keith Kloor says:

    Andy Revkin clarifies what he means by “peak everything”–it’s in an update in the post.

  5. Jeff Norris says:


    Can you give a reference for your claim “many people in Bangkok who buy cars rarely use them“ because that does not make any economic sense. Car ownership in Bangkok is still risng  and is expanding to other cities. 

    I mean who is going to spend 1300,000 Thai Baht for a car and just used it on weekends?

    Car ownership in Bangkok is three times higher than the national rate at about 380 cars per 1,000 persons. Currently, private passenger vehicles account for 46 percent of the total daily travel trips each day. The share of person trips using public transport is already below 40 per cent and is declining.  As the city grows, increasing congestion means BMR residents spend considerably more time and expenditure traveling within Bangkok on congested roads, crowded and dilapidated buses and non-integrated transport services, thereby reducing quality of life and threatening future productivity.

  6. bluegrue says:

    Some image to keep in mind. In round numbers there are 150 million square kilometers of land on Earth and within a couple of years we’ll be 7 billion people. That equates to about 4 football fields per person. 20% of that area is deserts (shared in about equal parts between Antarctica and the other big deserts). On average a human has got half a football field of arable land of which to get his/her meals.

  7. harrywr2 says:

    kdk33 Says:

    June 14th, 2011 at 1:49 pm
    I just need to know where I turn in the suburban
    Hold onto your Suburban..the remote chance of an imminent Maunder Minimum has moved out of the remotely possible,nutcase blathering category into distinctly possible.

    There are a lot of theories about what will happen if the world is a couple of degrees warmer. What happens if it is couple of degrees colder doesn’t involve theory, it involves historical fact and isn’t pretty.

  8. Tom Fuller says:

    Well, here we go again. Let’s accept the UN’s revised projection of peak population at 10 billion and start from there.
    Seven billion of us are using 500 quads at current rates. (It’s a few less people and a few more quads.)
    At current rates that would put consumption at 650 quads in 2075, when peak is expected.
    Developed countries are using energy more efficiently, and we hope developing countries will, too. However, if the world develops in the way that the IPCC expects, we will have 9 billion people consuming like western countries and probably still 1 billion consuming the way the poor do today.
    Americans consume about 323 million BTUs per person per year. If 9 billion develop to that extent that gets close to 3,000 quads, and goes over with the consumption of the 1 billion poor.
    Danes consume about 161 million BTUs per year. If Americans reduce their consumption per person to that level and the developing world moves towards Danish efficiencies instead of American, it’s only 1,449 quads–a big difference, but still a lot more than today, and a lot more than the DOE and national and multinational governments and organisations are currently planning for. Why, I just don’t know.
    Generating 1,449 quads is not outside the realm of the possible. The key question is what fuel we will use. If it’s green and clean, we are okay. If it’s not, it’s not.
    The same process can be used to address the other related problems of increasing population.
    Feeding 10 billion depends on the spread of modern agricultural practices and the adoption of GMOs. Preservation of the environment depends on intelligent configuration of the cities that will house 80% of the population. Healthcare will depend on our willingness to accept the advances of biotechnology and nanotechnology. Employment will probably depend on true acceptance of the potential for robotics, which is great at making arms and legs and lousy at making brains and intelligence. Think remote piloting of robots in factories worldwide. It will actually increase employment and spread it equally geographically–if we don’t go all Luddite.
    This conversation we’ve been having about global warming is good preparation for the rest of the century. I’m getting old, but I intend to stick around for as much of it as I can, just to see how it all turns out.

  9. harrywr2 says:

    Tom Fuller Says:

    Danes consume about 161 million BTUs per year.
    Not to be difficult…but what are the heating and cooling degree days for Denmark compared to equivalent US populations?
    How wide is there seasonal temperature spread? Hint -average July high is 69F and average January low is 30F.
    For Boston, Massachusetts the average July high is 82F and average January low is 22F.
    The people in Boston have to deal with 8 degree colder January’s and 13 degree warmer July’s then the people in Copenhagen and consume 225 MBtu/capita compared to Denmarks 131 MBtu.
    Do you think at least a portion of energy consumption is based on ‘seasonal temperature’ spreads.

  10. Jack Hughes says:

    Peak Something has never happened in history. Never.
    Peak Stone never happened.
    Peak Bronze never happened.
    Peak Horse?  No.
    Peak “Peak Story” ? – now there’s a hope 🙂

  11. Jeff Norris says:

    What is the Danish Model?  Can it be replicated here or elsewhere?  I Cherry picked some numbers and without seeing some older history I don’t see any dramatic improvements by the Danes.  It does seem the US is making some despite a 40% population growth.
                 1980        1985   1990     1995   2003     
    BTU     168          160     150      168     165         Denmark
    Pop.      5.12       5.1      5.14     5.23    5.36
                    345        321    339       347    339          U S
                    226 .9     237.5   249 .4   262.7  279.8
    Here is some other interesting comparisons
                                                                               Denmark   U.S.   
    motor vehicles per 100 p                     408                     765
    aircraft departures    per captia            20.35              28.85   
    Air transport, freight      190.23 million tons/km  37,357.64 TV receivers per captia                       574                       740 
    Cinema attendance per 1000             2,009.39          4,804.99

  12. kdk33 says:

    Holy Ice Age (as first reported by HarryWR2):

    It’s either gonna get hotter or colder; these things are hard to predict.

  13. Pascvaks says:

    What does the future hold?  No one knows.  But there may be some benefit to a review of what we think we know of the history of man on Rapa Nui (Easter Island).  I’m sure there were many wise and knowledgeable people in time on this speck of Pacific real estate.  But they did not seem to matter much.  In the end, the real people did what real people do best.  Don’t expect much better for Earth.  We’re talking about people, not physics.  Hot or Cold, people rule.

  14. stan says:

    “This is the ultimate challenge for Friedman and other messengers of peak doom: articulating legitimate global capacity concerns in a way that puts everybody on a level playing ground. In other words, whatever prescriptive medicine you are calling on for society to take, you better be prepared to take it yourself. Otherwise, you shouldn’t consider yourself a credible messenger.”

    Certainly don’t disagree that hypocrisy plays very poorly.  Bill Gates’ driveway heaters tend to diminish his message a bit.  As for Friedman however, I think his ultimate challenge would be simply to make intelligent arguments.

  15. raypierre says:

    Well, gee Keith, you some kind of socialist or something? There will always be income inequality, and inequality of energy use is likely to go along with it.  The point is to reduce carbon emissions, not to punish individuals for their guilt, so reducing the carbon emissions of a mansion still cobtributes to the good, even if that mansion still winds up emitting more than somebody’s hovel.  I’m reminded of a talk I gave to a rather conservative club in Chicago, when some woman afterwards came up to me and said she was thinking of buying a new jet, and wanted to know which model was most fuel efficient. My first reaction was something like, “what a dumb question, well duh, just fly first class instead,” (not that I said that), but on reflection I realized that if you are the sort that is going to buy a private jet, then getting one that is even 1% more fuel efficient is like taking a couple dozen Hummers off the road (depending on how often you fly).

    So, yes, if you live like Mahatma Gandhi, you are a better messenger. I do what I can (though I’d look pretty silly dressed like him), and relative to my socioeconomic position I probably do somewhat better than Friedman.  Friedman’s house doesn’t a priori deprive him of moral authority.

    The notion of retributive justice is insidious, and is a big enemy of progress.

  16. raypierre says:

    Meant to say “10%” back in that private jet example, given the class of jet the lady had in mind.

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