The Human Population Explosion and the Future of Life

Dave Foreman’s Around the Campfire Issue 20


Shortly after the end of World War Two, visionary conservationists and scientists such as Fairfield Osborn began to warn that continued human population growth would cause all kinds of problems including heightened plundering of wild Nature. It was not until the late 1960s, however, that population growth moved to the front burner of the conservation stove as shown by the Sierra Club’s publication of a book called The Population Bomb by a young biologist named Paul Ehrlich. During the next decade those who were worried studied, wrote, and warned about human population growth and its consequences.

Ehrlich and physicist John Holdren (currently in the highly prestigious position of president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) suggested a formula for understanding the consequences of human growth: I=PAT. This formula, once recognizable but now widely forgotten, means that human impact is a production of population, affluence (consumption), and some measure of technology. At the time, P (population size) was seen as the underlying and key factor for determining the magnitude of human impact. During the last two decades, however, it has become fashionable to discount P and stress A (affluence or consumption).

The level of consumption is a key multiplier of population’s impact and individuals worldwide have vastly different levels of consumption of goods and services. Nevertheless, some “environmentalists” and social engineers (right and left) now argue that population size or even continued growth is relatively unimportant; they say it is the level of consumption of certain groups that is key for calculating how much damage an individual or population causes. Such activists argue that reducing consumption is much more important than stabilizing population. Others of us still see population as the big rock. Consumption vs. population may be an intractable debate since it is grounded in worldview as much as in evidence. In general, those who are biologically (or scientifically) oriented are more likely to see population as paramount in I=PAT, while those socially and economically directed tend to stress consumption. I would argue that biologists deal with a more fundamental and real world than do culturalists.

Let me offer just two examples to show how total population is the key. China’s remarkable and frightening economic explosion in the last few years has now thrust it into the lead of nations cranking out greenhouse gases. However, were it not for the draconian population policies of China since the 1960s, the population of China would be closer to two billion instead of a billion and a half. How much more greenhouse pollution would China be pumping out had it not taken extreme measures to reduce the birth rate?

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2 Responses to “The Human Population Explosion and the Future of Life”

  1. ryanMarch 22, 2008 at 12:56 pm #

    how much longer can we ignore the elephant in the room ? thanks for continuing to bring focus to this.

  2. John FeeneyApril 17, 2008 at 12:43 am #

    Excellent article. I agree 100 percent. A key text on this, by the way, is anthropologist Jeffrey McKee’s _Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity_.

    Human population size and growth is breaking down the web of life. This is no less important than climate change.

    I love seeing these articles here on the population issue. The chorus of environmentalists willing to speak up on the issue needs to grow. There are far too many committed to avoiding the issue, afraid to point out the logical flaws and intellectual dishonesty in the arguments of those who dismiss it.

    Bravo, Dave Foreman.

    John Feeney

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