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7 Billion


As the world’s population reaches 7 billion sometime today, it’s worth remembering that while overpopulation is an important environmental issue that needs addressing, it is a vastly lesser problem that the consumption of the planet’s resources by the wealthy. I don’t know if there’s any kind of conversion mechanism on the internet, but the purchase of an SUV, the heated backyard swimming pool, and the transatlantic flight each cause tremendously more damage to the climate and to resource depletion than that family of 12 in Chad or Bangladesh. Westerners bemoaning population growth are usually shifting blame from their own responsibilities and blaming poor and brown people for our environmental crisis.

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  • Since I have never owned a car, yet alone an SUV, I am guessing I am way ahead of most people with a US passport in not harming the environment. Can you please send me some cookies now? Make sure they have plenty of preservatives because it will take at least six weeks by post for them to arrive from North America.

    • Jonathan

      I am way ahead of most people with a US passport in not harming the environment.

      Only 25% of Americans have a passport, so I’m guessing you’re not on the low end of the carbon scale.

      • Malaclypse

        J Otto lives in Ghana, so he is probably correct.

    • jon

      Someone did a study a while back to determine what average use of resources might be. It turns out that each person would receive one, one-way trans oceanic air transport. Folks who live in airports are most definitely part of the problem. Personal cars are also pretty high up the scale for resource consumption.

  • dave

    OTOH, if one’s goal is to reduce human suffering, and particularly the suffering of women, then slowing down the avalanche of births amongst the very poorest is most certainly a laudable goal. You can tell how laudable it is from the way in which major religious organisations are relentlessly opposed to it.

    But overall I quite agree, America must die for Africa to be free.

    • Right–to be clear, I’m not arguing against family planning or that large families aren’t problems in other ways, including what you mention. Strictly that the population explosion serves as a way for wealthy first world people to shift blame for the environmental crisis onto the developing world.

      • dave

        If they had any sense, of course, it would be the other way round – solve global warming, or the South will walk North, and you won’t be able to stop them…

        • That’s why we’re building that fence. While to us it may seem a good rationale to convince 1st-worlders, unfortunately it’s often seen as a reason to buy more F-22s.

    • massappeal

      dave, good news! The “avalanche” of births among the poor is declining rapidly—in large part because the poor are becoming less poor. The basic rule of thumb among demographers is that the higher the socio-economic status of women, the lower the birth rate.

      P.S. Oddly, freedom in American and in Africa have both increased demonstrably over the past two generations. Perhaps there’s some connection between the two.

      • Malaclypse

        Oddly, freedom in American and in Africa have both increased demonstrably over the past two generations.


      • Freedom in America has increased? Really? Granted, there’s gay marriage in a couple of states, but I’d say it’s more than offset by Homeland Security, warrantless wiretapping, etc.

        • BradP

          “Over the past two generations”

          That was an important part that you missed.

          • Malaclypse

            No, he did not miss anything. The claim we are “more free” now than in the 1970s can be believed only by someone who holds that deregulation of major industries is more important than the PATRIOT Act – you know, a moron.

            • But the other half of the claim that Africa is freer than in the 1970s is true for a number of countries. It is certainly true for Ghana. I think we can safely add South Africa as well to the freer catagory. I am sure other people can add other examples. So we can give him partial credit.

              • Malaclypse

                I’m not disputing the Africa claim for a moment, just the laughable America one.

                • Ed Marshall

                  The way I read it (in the probable neoliberal fashion), it probably referred to South and Central America.

            • Njorl

              Police can be found guilty of a crime when they murder people now. That wasn’t the case in 1970.

              I think you are confusing technical issues with the way things really work. We are much more free today.

            • BradP

              Perhaps I am wrong, but I’d rather worry about wiretapping than conscription.

              • Malaclypse

                The draft ended in 1973. I suppose there might be some ambiguity about what “two generations” means, but since people my age have grandchildren, and the draft ended when I was seven, I think it seems reasonable to assume that the draft was not a big part of the change.

                • DrDick

                  Heh. I was drafted in 1971 and my oldest grandson is now 15. I concur that it is totally risible to suggest that we are more free now than in 1970. The corporations and top1% are more free to rape, loot, and pillage at will, but the rest of us have significantly lost rights, especially labor rights, over the past 30 years.

                • witless chum

                  Just having freer action to abortion and birth control seems like a pretty big deal to me. Women having a much easier time of having a career.

                  Also, a lot less racism. I think there were a lot more places in 1973 where you just couldn’t live if you weren’t white.

                  My impression is that society is just more open to people living in alternate ways, whether unmarried, gay-married, etc. That counts more something when we’re talking about freer.

                  But I was born in 1978, so maybe I don’t know.

                  Whether freer = better off, I think is a different question, given that we’re also much freer to not have decent jobs and just generally freer to live sleep under bridges, as the saying goes.

        • L2P

          I think you’re a little pollyannish about how awesomely free life was in America two generations ago. We only CARE about warrentless wiretapping because of laws and court cases that are roughly 40-50 years old; until then, the cops could do pretty much whatever the hell they wanted to. Every now and then I find a VERY OLD civil detective who was a patrol guy in the 60’s who tells me about what they used to do, and it’s not pretty.

          Warrantless wiretapping? How about “warrantless going into your house, beating you up, dragging you into a car, and driving you to the Nevada border in your underwear?” We used to do that in the 60s. Homeland security? Not sure what that means in a world where we don’t even let members of certain political parties work. Gay marriage is VERY cool compared to a a world where birth control pills and abortion are illegal in some states.

          One thing I thought was beyond dispute was that the US is more free today than 50 years ago.

          • Malaclypse

            I’m willing to admit my perspective may be colored by my status as a middle-class, middle-aged white dude.

          • wiley

            “Freedom” is relative and often subjective. The losses and gains are uneven and not evenly distributed across the population, either. Win some. Lose some. The Reagan administration had definite and negative impact on our rights to privacy—the one example I can think of, off the top of my head, is Probable Cause for search and seizure.

            After spending two years in Germany in ’81 and ’82 I was shocked at how much the right to privacy had declined in my absence. The first time I went to a library after returning stateside, I very nearly made a scene over the librarian asked to look in my back-back when I was leaving. I said, “What??!!! You have got to be kidding me!You want to look in my backpack! Did I hear you right.” Poor woman. She said, they had to because there was a problem with people stealing books. Over time, like everyone else, I got accustomed to these invasions of privacy.

            After 9/11, when people were saying “I’ve got nothing to hide,” in response to warrant-less wiretaps, it was way more gobsmacking to me than having a librarian looking in back-packs for stolen books.

            Every generation is born to a deader planet, and less privacy. It’s hard to convey the difference between then and now.

          • Bill Murray

            now isn’t it no knock warrant going into your house shooting your dog, maybe tasering you, and then finding out it’s the wrong house. So I guess they get a warrant from a friendly judge, so that’s good.

            So the US may be more free for some value of free than 50 years ago, but may not be more free compared to 30 years ago.

            • mpowell

              This is an important point. For me, I don’t see how you could talk about the 70s as being two generations ago. A generation is more like 30 years at least, not 20. And if you go back to the 50/60s you’re an idiot if you think wiretapping is worse than what was going on then. Sure, the abuse was mostly directed at minorities, but non-powerful whites got the shaft too if it was convenient. No knock raids are a bigger concern in my view than wiretaps, but at this point the difference in casualty rates on the freeways then and now make this era safer and the primary consequence of no knock raids is violence, not corruption or intimidation.

  • jon

    Perhaps it’s time for some erroneous Jevons Paradox think pieces about how Americans would have so much less impact on the environment, if we only had larger families.

    • PhoenixRising

      As anecdata for that, my friend who has 3 kids flies a lot less than I do, because it’s f’ing expensive.

  • Murc

    I actually seem to recall reading somewhere that we’re actually on the cresting surge of a population bubble, and even without assuming environmental catastrophe or other such megadeath producing phenomena, we can expect world population to peak and begin a decline well before the middle of the century.

    This isn’t me advocating that we not take good long looks at resource sustainability, of course. And I might be totally off my nut.

    • I read that too, but I wonder how true it is. And even if it is true, it will almost certainly be a lopsided decline.

    • It may be true, but it is also a bit deterministic for my tastes, not taking in the possibilities that for cultural reasons people will want to continue having large families. But this general idea is passed around as truth pretty freely. We’ll see.

    • djw

      Well, the global fertility rate has gone from almost 5 in the late 60’s to about 2.35 today, a halving in 40 years. That’s pretty remarkable, and fairly unexpected. Of course, if/when it gets down to replacement level (roughly 2.1), we’ll still have population growth for a while because there’s a bubble in the childbearing age group.

      That said, all we can do is project ranges. The UN offers three projections that map out the possibilities. The low projection has birthrates continuing to fall, and a peak in the 2040’s at just under 8 billion (IIRC). The middle one peaks closer to 10 billion in the 2080 range, and the high one doesn’t peak, and has us at 13 billion and climbing in 2100.

      As we’ve been constantly revising our projections downward over time, I’m inclined to think the low is more likely than the high, but there’s obviously a lot of guesswork and probabilities involved.

    • wengler

      Well, we still have the eugenics war and Colonel Green to look forward to.

      Mass Casualty Events might cause the population to tick down a bit.

  • EcoNerd
  • DrDick

    Also, last I saw, we were still producing enough food to feed everyone (at one point, the US alone did so, though we fed much of it to livestock), though this may have changed as I have not kept close track of this. The fundamental problem has long been maldistribution of resources, with the developed north consuming far more than its share of resources to the detriment of the underdeveloped south. Obviously, at some point we could cross the threshold beyond which the population will exceed our ability to produce sufficient food. Global warming is hastening that time by adversely impacting agricultural productivity in much of the world.

  • mpowell

    I don’t really what to make of this post. I guess it depends a little on your values. If you are okay with 10B people living on the equivalent of $2/day (instead of the $1/day currently enjoyed by, what 1B people?), then sure, the consumption of the western world is your concern. But even if you take as your baseline goal the $10/day enjoyed by the average (don’t know about the median) member of the PRC, it is unclear to me that the world can even support the current 7B population. And then the world’s population is a pretty big problem. 1.3B Chinese have already started to reverse the long term decline in world commodity prices, not to mention the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Can the world support 8B vegetarians? Probably, but that is neither a realistic or particularly desirable outcome.

  • Jonathan

    The only way that our species can continue is if we get rid of all the White people.

    80% of the world’s resources are consumed by 20% of its population, with 50% of its resources being consumed by 10% of it’s population. Guess who makes up that 10%. White people. The modern luxury of White nations is built on the past and continuing exploitation of people of color.

    I’m not saying that without Whites the world would be all sunshine and puppies, I’m saying that the only chance for the survival of our species is if there are no more White people in the world.

    • mpowell

      This is a great approach to the problem. The only difficulty I see is that if you actually take this approach, I think the issue might be resolved in the opposite way you are hoping.

    • Leeds man

      Wow, that is the stupidest comment of October by a country mile. In one fell swoop, sidestep (yeah, mixed metaphor, fuck off) classism, sexism, corporatism and sundry other isms. There are line-ups around the block to immediately take the place of white malfeasance. China and India alone would happily fill the gap.

      Better idea – wipe out the USA.

  • wiley

    I believe this is the TED talk I listened to that discussed the progress in Africa. Compared to the West right now, it may look hopelessly backward, but if you compare where Africa started, say, fifty years ago to where it is today, it’s comparable to progress made in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. (Roughly, don’t quote me, I’m only relating a sketch of what I heard. I do not remember what he specifically said).

    So, the birth rate in many African countries should be declining accordingly.

    • wengler

      Yet, if you actually look at Africa you will find a lot different story than you presented. You will find several countries ‘progressing’ as you described but several more backsliding and regressing into a less modern state of affairs(especially in central Africa).

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