Population Matters

Revisiting Limits to Growth

October 21st, 2009

In the past several years, concerns about climate change, peak oil, water scarcity and rising commodity prices for food, energy and minerals have led to renewed concerns about potential limits to growth.

Eight months ago, even the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story, entitled, “New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears.” But then twelve months ago, with stock markets crashing and oil prices plummeting, concerns about limits to growth almost vanished, but not for long. Oil prices, even in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression, staged a rebound. And climate change forecasts took yet another turn for the worse.

It wasn’t long before respected mainstream thinkers like Thomas Friedman started to ask whether the whole 20th century growth model was flawed.  Six months ago, Friedman wrote a column in which he said:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

On October 6, 2009, the Population Institute, the Population Media Center and the Wallace Global Forum hosted a forum to answer the question posed by Friedman’s column. Titled “Population Growth and Rising Consumption:  What’s Sustainable?”, the forum featured five notable speakers on the subject of sustainability.

In our first session on “Population and the Environment,” Dr. William Catton, Jr., the author of a classic treatise written in 1980 on the subject of population “overshoot” took us back in time to the dawn of modern humans and showed us how our species, homo sapiens, is evolving into what he calls homo colossus.

Our second speaker, Laurie Mazur, the editor of a book that’s coming out this month titled “A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Solution” reminded us that projected population growth is not inevitable. If we can educate and empower women and expand voluntary family planning services, we can also help to save the planet.

In our second session on “Population, Economics and Limits to Growth,” we were very fortunate to have with us one of the pre-eminent thinker on the subject of sustainability, Dr. Dennis Meadows, the 1972 co-author of Limits to Growth. Dr. Meadows gave a very sobering assessment of the challenges that we now face as a result of limits to growth.

Richard Heinberg, from the Post-Carbon Institute, and the author of Peak Everything showed us how a growing scarcity of fossil fuels, water and minerals could lead to economic decline in the 21st Century.

Finally, Dr. Peter Victor an economist from York University in Toronto, and one of the founders of ecological economics, described to us how economists are grappling with limits to growth, and how we can adapt and prosper without population growth and the steady depletion of the world’s resources. He also talked about his recent book, Managing without Growth.

Together, these presentations gave us an informative and compelling look at how population growth and rising consumption are imperiling both the planet and our economic wellbeing.  I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to view their presentations.

To view a podcast of the speakers, their  presentations and their PowerPoints just click here.

Observing, not Celebrating, World Food Day

October 16th, 2009

Today, we join the United Nations in observing World Food Day.

Ten years ago, World Food Day was a cause for celebration.  Hunger and malnutrition were in retreat.  World grain reserves were adequate enough to feed the world. Richard Hoehn, Director of the Bread for the World Institute, boldly declared that “the end of hunger is within reach,” and predicted that it could be eliminated within 15 years.

Today, global hunger is again on the march.  Bread for the World now reports that, “The world has witnessed a dramatic reversal in the progress against hunger and poverty…”  And a few days ago, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that the recent food crisis and the global economic downturn have pushed the number of hungry and malnourished in the world past the one billion mark for the first time in history.  Hunger, it warned, has been increasingly steadily for the past decade.

But the most sobering news of all came this week when the FAO issued its latest long range forecast. If global population, as currently projected, reaches 9.1 billion by 2050, the FAO says that world food production will need to rise by 70%, and in the developing world food production needs to double.

And that may be an optimistic assessment. The FAO’s forecast, as the report acknowledges, does not take into account any increase in agricultural production for biofuels.  But FAO itself has projected that biofuel production by 2030 alone will require 35 million hectares of land–an area about the size of France and Spain combined.

Stopping the advance of hunger may be one of the greatest challenges that the world faces today.  Keep in mind that these jumps in food production will have to occur despite rising energy prices, growing depletion of underground aquifers, the continuing loss of farmland to urbanization, and increased drought and flooding due to climate change.

The FAO estimates that doubling food production in the developing world by midcentury alone will require an average annual net investment of US$83 billion dollars (in 2009 dollars).  That translates into a 50% increase over current investment levels, and that does not include funds that may be needed to build roads and large scale irrigation projects.

And to make the challenge even more daunting, we will have to expand food production while dramatically lowering global greenhouse gas emissions.  Historically, the production and distribution of food has been a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  The large increase in the use of nitrogen fertilizer for the production of crops like corn has dramatically increased the emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.  The world’s growing appetite for beef is contributing to a rise in another deadly greenhouse gas:  methane.  The demand for new farmland is a major contributor to deforestation.  And then, of course, there’s the oil that’s consumed by all the tractors and trucks engaged in food production and distribution.

Looking at the long-range FAO forecast, our only hope may be that the U.N.’s population projection is never realized. If we can educate and empower women in developing countries, expand voluntary family planning services, and encourage parents everywhere to think about having smaller families, it’s still possible that global population will stop short of the 9.1. billion mark now projected by the U.N.

Otherwise, there will no be reason to celebrate future World Food Days.



Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Family Planning Saves Lives

October 15th, 2009

Tuesday the Guttmacher Institute released its report: Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress, which found that due to an increase in contraceptive use worldwide there has been a decrease in the number of abortions performed between 1995 and 2003. But while the number of overall abortions fell from 45.5 million in 1995 to 41.6 million in 2003, the estimated number of unsafe abortions stayed pretty much the same: 19.9 million in 1995 and 19.7million in 2003, with most of the world’s unsafe abortions taking place in developing countries.

The root cause of most abortions is a pregnancy that the woman or the couple did not plan for, or believed would not occur. Helping women practice contraception to reduce their risk of having unplanned pregnancies can go a long way to bringing down levels of unsafe abortion, as well as the overall level of abortion.

The World Health Organization reports that one in eight maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions, and seven women die every hour in the developing world from complications related to unsafe abortions. In order to reduce the levels of unsafe abortion it is important to bring down the number of unwanted and unintended pregnancies, and the best way to achieve this goal is by educating women and increasing the use of effective contraceptives.

The Guttmacher report points out that:

A 2003 study estimated that 137 million women in the developing world would like to delay or stop childbearing but are not using any method of contraception, and an additional 64 million are using traditional methods. This study also estimated that satisfying the unmet demand for modern contraceptive methods could avert 52 million unintended pregnancies and 22 million induced abortions every year.

As part of Millennium Development Goal 5, the U.S. and other donor nations are committed to giving all women access to family planning and reproductive health services, but the latest assessments, including this latest Guttmacher report, suggest that we still have a long way to go.  The U.S., at long last, is stepping up its commitments to family planning; other donor nations need to do the same.

A trained counselor provides family planning advice to women at a Sun Quality Health clinic PSI Nepal/ USAID

A trained counselor provides family planning advice to women at a Sun Quality Health clinic PSI Nepal/ USAID

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Population Institute is Carbon Free

October 13th, 2009

In less than two months, world leaders will convene in Copenhagen to develop a global plan of action on climate change.  If all goes well, a new accord will help us mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

But there’s no time to waste.  We must all do our part.  Looking into the future the Population Institute sees that two important things need to be accomplished in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; we need to reduce per capita consumption of fossil fuels, while also slowing the growth rate of the world’s population. Each one plays a key role in creating a sustainable world, and addressing one solution alone will not enable us to reach this vision. It is important that we work on both fronts.

While the Population Institute focuses our work on establishing a world population in balance with a healthy global environment, we know that this isn’t the only answer to creating a sustainable world. So in order to live by our commitment to a sustainable future the Population Institute has become carbon free. We are offsetting our carbon emissions with Carbonfund.org by becoming a CarbonFree® Partner. Carbonfund.org’s CarbonFree® Partner program supports third-party validated renewable energy, energy efficiency, and reforestation projects in the U.S. and abroad to reduce CO2 pollution and help hasten our transition to a clean energy future.

We hope you will join us in our efforts to create a sustainable world for our children and the generations to come.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Moving Beyond Elinor Ostrom

October 12th, 2009

Few people in this world have given as much thought to the “tragedy of the commons” as Elinor Ostrom, the Indiana University political scientist who shares this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for Economics with Oliver E. Williamson.  Her work has shown how humans working together can forestall the collapse of “common pool resources” such as forests, fisheries, and underground aquifers.  For that alone she may deserve the Nobel Prize, but with the rapid and ongoing depletion of so many of the world’s shared resources, one has to wonder whether it’s too little, too late.

Forty-one years ago, the ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote a seminal paper, entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he argued that individuals acting in their own self-interest can easily destroy common pooled resources, even though it’s in everyone’s interest for this not to happen.  And that’s essentially what’s happening today, as an ever growing number of humans on the planet, all acting in their own self-interest, are altering the climate, destroying tropical forests, collapsing ocean fisheries, and depleting underground aquifers.

Hardin argued that there are only two ways to prevent the tragedy of the commons: 1) convert the “commons” to private ownership; or 2) let the government seize and manage the “commons” for the collective benefit of society.

In an article published earlier this year (“The Core Challenges of Moving Beyond Garrett Hardin”) Ostrom argues–contrary to Hardin–that humans, acting independently of government regulation, can join together, and work out their own solutions for managing commonly shared resources.

She notes that, “Field settings do exist where Hardin is correct. Overharvesting frequently occurs when resource users are totally anonymous, do not have a foundation of trust and reciprocity, cannot communicate, and have no established rules.” But she argues, “To move beyond Hardin’s theory, we need to draw on both general theory related to causal processes and learn how to identify key variables present or absent in particular settings, so as to understand successes and failures.”

There’s nothing wrong about learning from our successes and failures.  There have been circumstances where the relevant stakeholders have come together in an atmosphere of “trust and reciprocity” and worked out an effective strategy for regulating a shared resource, such as a tropical forest or an ocean fishery.  The problem is that those successes are the “exception” rather than the “rule.”  Meanwhile, we are losing the race against time, as aptly demonstrated by our failure to address the threat posed by climate change.

Yes, we need better solutions to the “tragedy of the commons.”  But more than anything we need a greater sense of immediacy and urgency. In an earlier paper on this subject, Ostrom acknowledged in passing that there are circumstances where “population growth may exceed the carrying capacity before participants have achieved a common understanding of the problem they face.”  But in reading Ostrom’s papers, one gets the strong sense that this is more of a theoretical problem, than a practical one. She appears to lack what Hardin never lacked when it came to population and the preservation of the commons:  a sense of urgency.

Ostrom, in her words, may have “moved beyond Hardin.”  We need to move beyond Ostrom…to action.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Time for a New Paradigm

October 8th, 2009

Old paradigms die hard. Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution we have been operating under the growth paradigm–the belief that earth’s resources are–for all practical purposes–infinite.  It may have seemed that way two hundred years ago or even two years ago, but the paradigm is wrong and it’s always been wrong.

We may never run out of sand, clay, igneous rock and salt water, but with world population at almost 7 billion and still growing we could easily run short of oil, natural gas, fresh water, top soil, arable land, and the precious minerals that sustain us and our lifestyles.  The critical question is “How do we manage the problems posed by the possible depletion of these scarce resources?”

Economists like to focus on what they call relative scarcity (i.e. the pricing and production of saleable items in a market economy).  In dealing with relative scarcity, economic success is measured by efficiency and low prices.  On the other hand, success in dealing with absolute scarcity is measured by sustainable production levels, not by ever rising consumption.

In conventional economics–with its focus on relative scarcity–the long-term doesn’t play a prominent role; it’s short-term economic output that really matters.  As John Maynard Keynes, the great English economist, once famously quipped, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

Today, John Maynard Keynes is dead, but his focus on short-term economic output is still very much alive.  In true Keynesian fashion, policymakers today are preoccupied with recovering from the Great Recession.  Given the hardship that has been imposed by the global downturn, that’s understandable.  But the longer range and far greater concern–the one that should be keeping us up at night–is what Tom Friedman and a few others are now calling the Great Disruption.

In March of this year, Friedman wrote a column for the New York Times on the subject. ”  Here’s what he said:

“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Two days ago, the Population Institute, the Population Media Center and the Wallace Global Fund hosted a public forum to examine  that critical question. Entitled, Population Growth and Rising Consumption:  What’s Sustainable?, the forum broad together five notable thinkers on economic and environmental sustainability, including Dennis Meadows, one of the nation’s foremost thinkers on limits to growth.

Next week a recorded webcast of the event will be posted on our website.  When that happens, we will be taking a closer look at the economic challenges posed by population growth and rising consumption, and discussing the corresponding need for a new economic paradigm.

Stay tuned.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President