Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization


 Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization

Paul R. Ehrlich

A major shared goal of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and Sustainability Central  is reducing the odds that the “perfect storm” of environmental problems that threaten humanity will lead to a collapse of civilization.  Those threats include  climate disruption, loss of biodiversity (and thus ecosystem services), land-use change and resulting degradation, global toxification, ocean acidification, decay of the epidemiological environment, increasing depletion of important resources, and resource wars (which could go nuclear).  This is not just a list of problems, it is an interconnected complex resulting from interactions within and between what can be thought of as two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system.  The manifestations of this interaction are often referred to as “the human predicament.”   That predicament is getting continually and rapidly worse, driven by overpopulation, overconsumption among the rich, and the use of environmentally malign technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service the consumption.

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.  One would think that most educated people now understand that the larger the size of a human population, ceteris paribus, the more destructive its impact on the environment.  The degree of overpopulation is best indicated (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis, which shows that to support today’s population sustainably at current patterns of consumption would require roughly another half a planet, and to do so at the U.S. level would take four to five more Earths.

The seriousness of the situation can be seen in the prospects of Homo sapiens’ most important activity: producing and procuring food.  Today, at least two billion people are hungry or badly in need of better diets, and most analysts think doubling food production would be required to feed a 35% bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050.  For any chance of success, humanity will need to stop expanding land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase efficiency in use of fertilizers, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; reduce food wastage; stop wrecking the oceans; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural research; and move feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda.  All of these tasks will require changes in human behavior long recommended but thus far elusive. Perhaps more critical, there may be insurmountable biophysical barriers to increasing yields – indeed, to avoiding reductions in yields – in the face of climate disruption.

Most people fail to realize the urgency of the food situation because they don’t understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear connections to the drivers of environmental deterioration.  The system itself, for example, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and thus is an important driver of the climate disruption that seriously threatens food production.  More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is now entrained, with the prospect of more crop-threatening severe storms, droughts, heat waves, and floods— all of which are already evident.  Thus maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be ever more difficult in decades ahead.

Furthermore, agriculture is a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services supplied to agriculture itself and other human enterprises, as well as a major source of global toxification, both of which pose additional risks to food production.  The threat to food production of climate disruption alone means that  humanity’s entire system for mobilizing energy needs to be rapidly transformed in an effort to hold atmospheric warming well below a lethal 5o C rise in global average temperature.  It also means we must alter much of our water-handling infrastructure to provide the necessary flexibility to bring water to crops in an environment of constantly changing precipitation patterns.

Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth.  And, of course, one of our most serious problems is the failure of leadership on the population issue, in both the United States and Australia.  The situation is worst in the U.S. where the government never mentions population because of fear of the Catholic hierarchy specifically and the religious right in general, and the media keep publishing ignorant pro-natalist articles, and in Australia even advertise on prime-time TV to have more kids.

A prime example was a ludicrous 2010 New York Times screed by David Brooks, calling on Americans to cheer up because  “Over the next 40 years, the U.S. population will surge by an additional 100 million people, to 400 million.”  Equal total ignorance of the population-resource-environment situation was shown in 2012 by an article also in the New York Times by one Ross Douthat “More Babies, Please” and one by a Rick Newman in the USNews “Why a falling birth rate is a big problem,” both additional signs of the utter failure of the US educational system.

A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply.  Then analysts (and society) might stop treating population growth as a “given” and consider the nutritional and health benefits of humanely ending growth well below 9 billion and starting a slow decline.  In my view, the best way to accelerate the move toward such population shrinkage is to give full rights, education, and job opportunities to women everywhere, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion.  The degree to which that would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but it would be a win-win for society.  Yet the critical importance of increasing the inadequate current action on the demographic driver can be seen in the decades required to change the size of the population humanely and sensibly.  In contrast we know from such things as the World War II mobilizations that consumption patterns can be altered dramatically in less than a year, given appropriate incentives.

The movement should also highlight the consequences of such crazy ideas as growing an economy at 3-5% per year over decades (or forever) as most innumerate economists and politicians believe possible.  Most “educated” people do not realize that in the real world a short history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of such growth.  Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (“the MAHB” – mahb.stanford.edu), goals now also a major mission of the University of Technology, Sydney.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org.

To respond and see others’ comments join the conversation on the MAHB Forum: Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization.


Progress in Population

I am posting this report mostly because it IS a report, as opposed to someone’s skewed propaganda, and I have then annotated it.  I hope, if wordpress will cooperate, with my comments in red.


Ms. Beatrice Mwago introducing Bill Ryerson at the University of Nairobi

Access to family planning alone won’t stop the population boom
See: http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/article-145223/access-family-planning-alone-wont-stop-population-boom


Beatrice Khalayi Shibunga is a community health worker and family planning champion, working in the slums of Korogocho in Nairobi. She goes door-to-door to offer women in her community family planning information. In her work experience, she has met women who use contraceptives but without the knowledge or consent of their husbands.

“Because some men are unco-operative, some women are forced to use contraceptives without the knowledge of their husbands,” she says.

Elizabeth Lule, director of family planning, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, confirms this: “Injectables (contraceptives) are popular because it can be used covertly because men may not give consent to their wives to use contraceptives.”

(Availability of contraception is an absolute first-step requirement.  Using excuses to not make them availab le is unacceptable.  Dealing with the reasons is a necessary second or concurrent step)

During a forum organised recently to assess the progress that Kenya has made towards expanding contraceptive access and options to its citizens, experts spoke of the need to expand access to family planning options so as to improve the lives of women and infants.

That is an excellent idea. However, from Shibunga’s revelation, it seems that the population problem is more complex than simply providing more contraceptive options.

In a speech last year at the University of Nairobi, Bill Ryerson, president of Population Media Centre in the US, said changing the current situation where married couples are still not using family planning as a means of controlling their families will take more than provision of more family planning methods.

Abraham Rugo from the Institute of Economic Affairs says up to now, many Kenyans don’t realise the connection between family size and development. He says this is so because it does not make a difference if you are poor. However, he says the government should come up with programmes that motivate people to have small families.

“I think the government can create incentives such as subsidising provisions for the first two or so children. Also, where cost of living is lowered and opportunities for development assured, then people would not need to have large families for social security,” he says.

(It is not possible long term to fight population growth by using economic growth.  Mathematically and physically impossible on a depleted earth,  LL)

During the just concluded International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Kenyan researchers said myths and misconceptions on the side effects of using contraceptives are among the reasons why women do not use the services.

The Addis Ababa meeting was a follow up of a meeting that took place last year in London, at which global leaders committed themselves to provide an additional 120 million women and girls in the world’s poorest countries with access to modern contraceptive information, services and supplies by 2020.

In the 2012/16 National Family Planning Costed Implementation Plan released last year, the government has identified low male involvement as one of the traditional barriers to family planning uptake, and says that it plans to develop a comprehensive strategy for male involvement in family planning issues.

(Training women to think like men – as was done to “help” me –will not repair our corposystem culture of male dominance.  We might try is training men AND WOMEN to think like women if we want to approach a viable balance in our cultures.)

Prof Fred Segor, Principal Secretary for Health, told the forum that the government was on course to achieve its goal of reaching a 56 per cent modern contraceptive prevalence rate by 2015. He said that in the 2013/14 financial year, the government had committed $9 million (Sh765 million) to family planning programmes. This is a marked improvement compared to previous years.

The PS says this will help increase the contraceptive prevalence rate from the current 45.5 per cent to 56 per cent by 2015, as part of interventions to accelerate achievement of Millenium Development Goal 5 and Vision 2030. Prof Segor said the poorest women and those with the lowest level of education report the highest ‘unmet need’.

“Family planning is one of the most cost-effective methods to improve the health of women and provides them with the tools to plan their families and their lives,” he said.

‘Unmet need’ refers to women who want to delay their next pregnancy by at least two years but were not using a modern method of contraception. The reasoning of policy makers has been that if there was a gap between what people want and what they are doing, improving access to contraceptives would close that gap.

According to Charles Westoff of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research, a review of numerous demographic and health surveys determined that about half the women categorised as having an ‘unmet need’ have no intention of using contraceptives even if they were made freely available.

This sounds pretty great to me.  When the cultural pressures reach the point where those with smaller families are visibly better off (which is more likely to happen as communities learn better methods of land usage) then there will probably be a rapid switch of many families.  Of course, with another population doubling in a decade or two, this goal may be impossible, but the other option seems to be not to try, so providing negative data might not be helpful.

Ryerson says the confusion between the term ‘unmet need’ and ‘unmet demand’ has misled policy makers to assume that such ‘unmet demand’ could be overcome by improving family planning services and contraceptive distribution. He says the discrepancy between attitudes and behavior has less to do with availability.

Well indeed if all the unmet demand has already been met, then it is time to put more stress on environmental issues, but that should not be used as an excuse to back off on the provision of services.  This is not an either/or problem.

Major global health players have come in to help meet this ‘unmet need’. Bayer HealthCare recently reduced the price of its long-acting and reversible contraceptive implant, Jadelle, by more than 50 per cent over the next six years. Merck Sharp & Dohme has also halved the price of its long-acting, reversible contraceptive implants, Implanon and Implanon NXT.

However, Ryerson points out other factors that hinder the use of contraceptives. According to the 2008-09 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, 96 per cent of currently married women and 98 per cent of husbands know about modern contraceptives. Of the married women who are non-users, 40 per cent do not intend to ever use contraception.

So what?  That is not a reason to withdraw services from the 60 percent who do (which I know some will attempt).

Among the reasons given for not using contraception by women who are not pregnant and do not want to become pregnant, only 0.8 per cent cited lack of availability of contraceptives. The top four reasons among those who are still capable of bearing children were concern with the medical side effects of contraceptives (31 per cent); religious prohibition (nine per cent); personal opposition (eight per cent); and opposition from husbands (six per cent).

Ryerson says these issues are best addressed by information and motivational communications, rather than focusing only on increasing the prevalence of contraceptives as government and health partners are currently doing.

I believe the remaining people will have to see some evidence of the benefit of smaller families by actually making it beneficial, and that will take time.  I also believe the only long-term useful way to do this is to work as Gates and also Jane Gooddall do to improve the conditions of the community.  We MUST STOP thinking within the corposystem box that forces us into either/or confrontations.,  This biological problem CANNOT be solved by dichotomous corposystem thinking.  Biology doesn’t function that way.  On the other hand, if we can pull together a new cultural vision, we might make it.


Changing the situation requires helping people to understand the personal benefits in health and wealth for them and their children of limiting and spacing births. It also involves role modeling family planning use, and overcoming fear that contraceptives are dangerous. It requires getting husbands and wives to talk to each other about use of family planning, Ryerson says.

“Access to family planning methods is not sufficient if men prevent their partners from using them, if women don’t understand the relative safety of contraception, compared with early and repeated childbearing throughout the reproductive years,” says Ryerson.

Many population planners measure progress in reproductive health on the basis of contraceptive prevalence rates. Ryerson agrees that this is critical, but he says that it will not result in population stabilisation if desired family size is five or more children.

A survey done by Health Rights Advocacy Forum, a health rights advocacy group, concluded that the budget for contraceptives by government is inadequate since the budgeting process is guided by bureaucratic considerations, rather than by priorities identified by the department of reproductive health.

Further, the Heraf report says 90 per cent of all funds allocated for reproductive health goes to procuring contraceptives while the remaining 10 per cent goes to distribution of the same. This shows that there is little that goes to advocacy and communication.

“The government needs to provide full choice and full access to those currently demanding contraceptives, as it improves its efforts to increase demand in the regions with poor contraceptive prevalence rate,” says Josphine Kinyanjui, a programme officer with Heraf.

Rugo says that little is being done to change the attitude of Kenyans about family planning. He adds that most of these efforts (reproductive health) are donor-funded and contraceptives come from the same countries, and thus the reason for the skewed focus.

“Moving forward, there is need to spend more money on focal areas of attitude change but that would mean that the Kenyan government will have to spend its own money,” he says.

Part of the wider strategy could include non-medical interventions like raising women’s status by providing mandatory and free education for children, especially girls. If we have more young women staying in school, they will most likely join the workforce and provide a better future for their families.

Again, teaching women to think like men will only reinforce the existing cultural imbalances.

Available information shows that no country has gone from developing status to developed status without first reducing birth rates and population growth rates. Reduced family size enables couples and nations to save more and invest in education, infrastructure, health and industry.

Providing family planning services has helped reduce fertility rates, particularly in Asia and Latin America. But meeting unmet demand for contraceptives is only part of the solution. Such countries have emphasized changing attitudes of the people regarding the role of women, ideal family size, age of first pregnancy, and the benefits of using modern contraceptives.

“We can solve the population problem voluntarily and relatively quickly, if we apply what we know, and mobilise the relatively small amount of funds needed, to provide all people with family planning information and services,” says Ryerson.

Bare Bones Biology 179 – Culture Collapse

Here’s the problem with my statement of our problem.   Nearly every sentence needs to be defined and qualified so that people who are raised in a different world view (https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/) will perceive the logic of it.  I’m working on that defining and qualifying, but it takes time and space.  Meantime, here is the outline:


1- Human survival is facing two immediate physical root problems, one related to Biosystem needs and the other related to human wants and wishes:


a.  overpopulation (note that to say “as the population grows” is not useful here because the growth is now in the final phases of exponential doubling (http://youtu.be/bsd1IT7ySfE, please do watch this one) and will begin to decline as food availability declines.  It is not a question of “when” we run out of food.  We have already overgrazed the food supplies that Earth can produce (http://www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep/fpepch3).  These are things that can be measured.  Of course we can argue over anything, but it is not wise to argue over measurable facts because they eventually prove themselves and make us look foolish for wasting the time we could have been helping.


131122-crescentcity-ASC_7329RLSs            b.  we have grown a corposystem, our American political system, that is based on the corporate model ( https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/  toward the end of the post).  The corposystem evaluates itself (and everyone in it) by winning, that is dominating other people, and by profits.  This is not how the Biosystem functions.  Success, in Biosystem terms, is NOT based on winning or “survival of the fittest.”  It is based on the balance among all the necessary parts of Life.  All the millions of life cycles of earth. in equilibrium.  As it relates to us humans, we can simplify the necessary parts of Life as:  air, water, soil and food.  This is what we are destroying with our technologies and our populations.  All the other species of plants and animal (other than human I mean), working together, generate the balance of Life.  Therefore, as we destroy these other species in our search for more and ever more food — our air, water, soil and food supply continue to deteriorate.  In other words, we are committing suicide by our belief in our own omnipotence.


2- Human cultures historically have been “successful” (and note that none of them have been successful for very long) to the extent that they can balance human behavior within the resources provided by the Biosystem.  We have always had war, poverty, starvation, religions, spirituality, and degradation of bits of the Biosystem because of our human cultural choices.  Those things are caused by human cultural interactions, not by the unchanging Laws of Life.  We humans cannot change the Laws of Life; the other option is to put our money where our mouth is and change our choices.


131125-Cyd-ASC_7361RLSsThe reality is that our culture is in the collapsing stage because it is based on a non-sustainable model.  The FACT is that we cannot change the basic biology of how God (or whatever) created the Biosystem to function.  It was created; it does function.  It will not change in response to our opinions. Our obligation to Life and to other humans is to grow a biologically sustainable, reasonably comfortable way of life.  Our viable way to accomplish this is to change our culture so that our belief systems align sustainably with the unchanging, factual Laws of Life.  It’s not useful to point out that other people aren’t doing this.  The question is, are YOU fulfilling your obligation to Life.


Fighting among ourselves is of no benefit to anyone and causes great harm because we COULD be using that effort to ACTUALLY STUDY how the Biosystem functions and learn how to live within the Biosystem in a way that is sustainable.  Opinions do not change facts, and the tragedy is that the facts we need are available.


And we must change – or die.  Because that really is how the Law of Evolution works.


This is Bare Bones Biology, a production of FactFictionFancy and KEOS radio, 89.1 FM in Bryan Texas.  A podcast of this program is available at:






http://youtu.be/bsd1IT7ySfE, please do watch this one


https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/  toward the end of the post







Bare Bones Biology 178 – Do Something

131116-Benicia-ASC_7186RLSsSo much for the glass is three-quarters empty. Most people do not want to sit around watching it fade away. They want to DO SOMETHING,

What we need to do, in order to achieve our goal of developing a viable, sustainable, reasonably comfortable human presence within the Life system of earth — is to change the human corposystem from a destructive force to a constructive force for Life. I have defined system and Biosystem and corposystem in https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/the-real-answer/ toward the end of the post.

We humans have grown the corposystem. All of us are part of this corposystem. Thus we can change the corposystem. It won’t be easy, because one of the functions of a system, any system, is to maintain itself. (https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/)

But it is possible. We can change the corposystem from a competition-based growth machine into a Life-nurturing maintenance system. Simply by deciding what we all want, and discussing among ourselves how to get it, we can change the system.

I believe what we all want is not “happiness” (undefined and undefinable), nor is it peace defined as absence of war, nor any of the things we are touting that divide us. I believe what we all want is to develop a viable, sustainable, reasonably comfortable human system.

To be viable, sustainable and reasonably comfortable, our corposystem must be changed from what it is now, because now it is not viable long term, and it is based on a competition-and-growth model that is biologically unsustainable and humanly unethical. To be biologically sustainable, the corposystem must stop trying to get what it wants by competing with the Biosystem; to be humanly ethical, we must develop a nurturing model that compassionately supports the needs of the Biosystem, some of which conflict with our own desires. That’s it – we must all (or at least the majority of us) cooperate in that effort, discuss it, evaluate it and stop letting the corposystem tell us what we can and cannot talk about — and it will happen.

If we all have the same goal, and I think we do, then we need to discuss that goal among ourselves rationally, compassionately, realistically, and we will get there. Of course we will also need to learn how to interact in a rational compassionate realistic manner, but I trust us to learn these skills when we finally realize the current corposystem competition (war) model will end in a fight to the death between the corposystem and the Biosystem.

Most of us are not really interested in promoting a fight to the death, especially when we cannot win.

Most people know these things, at least intuitively, and a great many people are working hard or at least contributing by their daily behaviors, such as recycling, to the welfare of the whole community of the Biosystem. But many of the people who are working hard are, in fact, working at cross purposes. Why? Mostly because we do not define and discuss our goals in terms of compatibility with the needs of both of the human community and of the Biological community (defined in https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/

Where to begin? Start talking cooperatively about our common goals on our mastheads, letterheads, in our meetings and mission statements. Avoid competing against or dis-respecting the efforts of others who have the same goals and missions. Everyone. No matter what is your individual talent and/or life mission. Everyone can do this.

Systems evolve, and we can evolve this one if we recognize that it IS a system, and it will inevitably try to protect itself from change. How does the corposystem protect itself?

In our culture at this time, the corposystem protects itself primarily by PREVENTING us humans from engaging in honest, ethical, constructive, fact-based communication that engages all the three parts of our brains (https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/

And what I see the most is defensive rather than constructive responses.

How to change the corposystem? Talk about it.


https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/ bare-bones-bio…a-quarter-full/)

Facts are real; learn about them; individual “heroism” does not grow communal “happiness;” the glass is not half full, and we need to learn about the things that are wrong so we can intelligently deal with them; our behaviors today absolutely affect the quality of life of our grandchildren; blame-placing does not solve problems; speculation should be relevant to the facts on the ground or it won’t solve the problems on the ground; anger and hatred that are used to dominate others do not solve either our own problems or theirs; and even in the most benevolent conditions, focusing on the small picture without regard to the overall Facts of Life only tends to perpetuate the system we already have.

How to change the corposystem? Stop being controlled by the corposystem mantras, either the pie-in-the-sky fairy tales or.the claims that there is nothing we can do. They are all excuses to avoid positive change. If our corposystem tells us that we must not think about positive change, or it tells us to believe in magic, or it tells us we can’t talk rationally about hard issues such as population or climate change (https://factfictionfancy.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/) — then –

131116-May-ASC_7202Rsthe way to change our system is to talk — reasonably, rationally and constructively about these problems as they relate to our common goal — to develop a viable, sustainable, reasonably comfortable human presence within the Life of Earth.

Please don’t tell me you can’t think, or that you have more important things to do than to talk.

This is Bare Bones Biology, a production of FactFictionFancy and KEOS 89.1 FM radio in Bryan, Texas. A copy of this podcast can be downloaded at:

Native Street Scene in Benicia


We are Living in the Middle of an Orange Grove