Eight Billion – Our Greatest Mistake

According to the United Nations Population Fund, reaching a global human population of 8 billion is an achievement to be celebrated. In “a world of infinite possibilities,” they state, “imagine the boundless paths 8 billion can take.” Rather than taking refuge in irresponsible fantasies, it’s time our bloated societies reckoned honesty with demographic reality.

By Jon Austen

Eight billion people alive today is a milestone in human history. We accept this figure as though it is normal: a minor news story, nothing to worry about. But it is the most dangerous place we’ve been in the history of civilization. In only eleven years, one billion people have been added to our numbers; a number that’s still rising, and not set to peak before the end of the century. Eight billion people on the planet. It is unprecedented and unsustainable. Unsustainable, meaning logically that it will fall. But how and when it will fall is not discussed as it means facing an inconvenient truth.

When you take a look at the figures, where we actually are, it is truly mind-boggling how we have just walked blindly into this mess. Our numbers have quadrupled in the last hundred years. Fossil fuels have enabled us to multiply, by providing us with a blast of energy and food, resulting in us massively overshooting our planet’s capacity. We found the energy, we took it and we burnt it as fast as we could. Now we’ve gone into overdraft but we are still spending, addicted, and there is no easy way to stop.

Isaac Asimov once said overpopulation is more dangerous than nuclear weapons, which you make an active decision to use, but “to bring about destruction by overcrowding… there is no need to do anything. We need only do what comes naturally, and breed. And how easy it is to do nothing.” We have done almost nothing to prevent overpopulation, and the writing is now on the wall: the impacts are going to hit harder and harder in the coming decades, as the effects become exponentially worse. The climate is changing and is going to change faster. Temperature records are broken annually. Polar ice is melting and the oceans are acidifying. Plastic pollution is everywhere. We have a freshwater crisis. We are depleting soils, relying on artificial fertilizers to grow enough crops to feed ourselves. We’re in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction and have lost 69% of vertebrate animals in the last 50 years. The shocking list goes on, and we are becoming used to one disaster after another. Change is becoming the norm.

There are two ways out of this. The first is a massive reduction in consumption: lessening our use of fossil fuels, less eating of meat, less flying, less driving, less ‘stuff’. But this is very difficult to achieve in a capitalist growth-based system that constantly bombards us with messages to spend, spend, spend, for the sake of the god of ‘economic growth’.

Many of us are looking at this answer while turning a blind eye to the second answer which, simply put, is to lower birth rates – a possibility that is rarely discussed for many reasons, all spurious. But it is the easiest and most practical thing to do. All it takes is for contraception to be made freely and globally available. If the average global fertility rate were reduced by just half a child on average, the population would peak and decline far sooner than if we did nothing – and could result in several billion fewer people by the end of the century.

The world population projections to the end of the century. Source: United Nations Population Division

The long-term benefits of reduced fertility rates are immense. It means we can bend the curve on population. A world of diminishing resources will be able to cope much better with a smaller population than with a larger one. The quality of life for everyone will be much better when there are fewer of us. It is a small change that has long term impacts. Had we acted sooner, we would not be facing the existential crisis that we are now.

So why have we done nothing, and why do we continue to do nothing? Talk about population size has been shut down from all corners. The Left won’t talk about it because it doesn’t fit the narrative; the reason given is that it’s just the richest 10% doing the damage and if we shared more equitably everything would be fine. But this ignores the fact that as nations develop, they consume more, and have every right to do so. Capitalism thrives on overpopulation: the more people, the more competition for work, meaning cheaper wages and more profit. Governments want more people, as more people equals a higher GDP. The Catholic Church refuses to admit that condoms are not the work of the devil. Population has become unmentionable and, with all sides singing from the same hymn-sheet, the circle of silence on population is complete.

Today we want everything fixed immediately, but population doesn’t work like that; we have to wait. Time-scales matter. Recently I visited Stourhead in Wiltshire where, in the old stable yard, there are a number of big old walnut trees. The trees are over a hundred years old and in the prime of their life, providing a crop of nuts every year, for nothing. The ground that day was littered with walnuts and I took home two coat-pocketfuls. These trees were planted with the future in mind: of little use for the first ten years, then slowly producing nuts. The Chinese proverb says, ‘The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is today.’

It’s the same with population. Acting on population is a slow process. Sea level rise is also a slow process. Sea levels are rising exponentially and will be rising for hundreds of years. Carbon in the atmosphere has already locked this rise in and it will happen, unless we can find the miracle cure to prevent it. Hundreds of coastal cities are set to be swamped by unstoppable rising tides, which will displace millions of people. As these areas become uninhabitable, corresponding falls in the human population could mitigate the loss of land, as other housing becomes freed up. This would prevent the carbon intensive and destructive need for building new cities in order to relocate hundreds of millions of displaced people.

We should change the current narrative and talk about population as we did back in the 1970s. The benefits of a declining population are enormous. We’ve never experienced a smaller population and so don’t know what we’re missing.

But here’s what we’re missing. A world where population has stabilised means we won’t need to build more: an end to the sprawling new estates on the edge of towns, an end to more dominating skyscrapers and lifeless roads built to connect these new developments. Emissions will plummet, since building requires immense amounts of concrete, fossil fuels and human labour. This possibility is not considered in future emissions calculations, despite the benefits it would bring. We are hell-bent on building “for the economy”. We need to change this mindset.

If there were an effort to slow birth rates further, the only side effect would be economists panicking, self-interested politicians crying and profiteering builders going bankrupt. The rest of us would raise a cheer: no more soulless developments planned in our towns and cities, and we could breathe a collective sigh of relief. We could concentrate on quality, not quantity. We could improve instead of expand. The vast force of workers who are constantly building more and more would be re-purposed to quality employment, and the environment would recover.

Small families would become the norm everywhere; this would be better for the families themselves. It leads to a better life for parents, as they are able to afford everything that their one or two children need, rather than being squeezed on all fronts by the costs of providing for four or five children. In the longer term it means a better inheritance for the one or two children, rather than it being split between four or five siblings. The most environmentally damaging thing you can do in the (over)developed world is add another person to the planet.

Developing countries will improve when populations stabilize and begin to fall. Instead of facing poverty, starvation, homelessness and mass migrations, a stable population created by free access to contraception will lead to an escape from the poverty trap, better life chances for all and an end for the need for international aid. Can you even imagine charities such as Oxfam and the WWF finally being able to close their doors as world poverty ends and wildlife recovers?

With the retreat of humans, everything will start to improve as pressure is taken off the natural world. Forests will begin to regrow – not because of laws or a change of policy, but because the land won’t be needed for crops. Species under threat will be removed from the ‘endangered’ lists as their habitat returns and their numbers recover. Wildlife charities across the globe will find themselves without a cause, as animals are enabled to look after themselves, just as they did before our population exploded.

With the retreat of humans, roads will become less crowded: traffic jams will disappear as the roads remain but the numbers of vehicles decrease. Journey times will be quicker and pollution reduced. Housing will become affordable for everyone. Not everyone will be happy to see house prices fall, but the pros will outweigh the cons as families find themselves able to buy a house without the need for a crippling lifetime of mortgage debt.

The list of benefits goes on and on. We need to look forward to a reduction in our numbers; start talking about it, help it, encourage it and aim for it. We need to realise that our current state is abnormal: we’re in a state of colossal overshoot that cannot continue. We either drive ourselves back to sustainable numbers or nature will do it for us in a future which does not bear thinking about. We must do it ourselves, proactively and positively. When talk related to population growth comes up, speak out. Explain how numbers matter. There are still too many who haven’t connected the dots or who are too scared to mention it. But more and more people are seeing the reality of where we are and are not afraid to talk about our species’ numbers. We need to talk about population.


This piece was originally published at https://populationnews.wordpress.com

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28 thoughts on “Eight Billion – Our Greatest Mistake

    1. You’re concerned about the “outcome?” My, aren’t you WELL INDOCTRINATED by Wall Street and the endless pro-growthers?! I offer only two rebuttals. Scientists, including 58 National Academie, say we can’t solve ANY of the world’s environmental problems without “solving” population. Let me add, that’s most particularly in the carbon-giant nations, with the U.S. leading the pack in that it’s the highest PER-CAPITA CARBON NATION on Earth. (WAY ahead of China!). And, we’re in the midst of the largest species extinction since the die off of the dinosaurs, with that directly linked to HUMAN POPULATION GROWTH! If we don’t get to a steady-state ECONOMY and a DECREASE in human numbers AND SOON, what it boils down to is we’re not going to have a planet, though sadly, it appears Mother Nature is about to start solving the problem in her VERY BRUTAL WAYS in parts of Africa! So, I guess you need to decide with whom you stand: Wall Street or SCIENCE!

      1. Yes, we in the overly developed countries do contribute far more than our share of the planet’s environmental problem BUT those suffering the problems of climate change, naturally, seek an escape and they come to the developed countries. The result is even more increasing their carbon footprint and creating even more environmental destruction.A side story is that many of these ‘climate refugees’ are even worse off as the price of everyday life, food, housing, transportation are a lot more than in the countries from which they left. I heard some comments by the refugees from Afghanistan who were shocked at the cost of basic living. Often governments help these people through subsidies with the result that natives feel the outsiders are getting better treatment than they. In the end, everybody will suffer immigrants and natives alike. Using the trolley problem as a gauge, in the end, even more will suffer. Mother nature is without emotions including pity. She sets the rules and if we break them the onus is on us.

      2. I am usually left hanging when someone indicates the need to decrease population. Decrease seems obvious to me as a result of general overshoot. Nature will do it haphazardly in the form of famine, disease, sperm counts and climate change plus humans will chip in with war. I wonder when we might start talking (and acting) on a more conscious and I dare say proactive approach. But the taboo against dying earlier than a normal life span is powerful. Who is going to volunteer to leave early? When a being is depressed and without hope, they are more likely to wish to die. How about if the planet is do depressed by the weight of our greed and self serving behavior that it says enough is enough. By then it is too late. Could we opt for an early exit to ease the burden? Could a movement of leaders develop that would be able to create a social structure of conscious decrease?

  1. You started the article with quoting the UN Fund’s clam that reaching 8 million is an “achievement”. But the growth in human numbers is the result of extreme poverty and lack of contraceptive choices for millions of people something the UNFPA was set up to try to remedy. Surely we should be challenging the Fund much more robustly? I think there has been a right-wing takeover at the top to produce this ridiculous statement..

  2. Yes but the left is also culpable. For politicians if they go against their base they will lose. The base, for many on the left, is to open our borders to all.

    1. Many on the left support open borders, that’s true. But most accept some limits to immigration, and those on the left who are ecologically literate often support reducing immigration to limit national population growth.

      1. The problem is that people in theory accept limits to immigration, but oppose every single measure taken to reduce it, as they are all “cruel”.

      2. Yes Gaia, I agree. That’s why so many people ping back to the open borders view, or avoid the topic altogether.

        I can’t help thinking that an approach to ethics that sees life as the great value –not just human life, but all life, in its myriad forms — is the key to specifying the best population policies, including immigration policies. Truly valuing life involves accepting death and other limits, including limits to how many people to cram into a city, nation, or world.

  3. This is an exceptionally poor attempt to persuade people of the dangers of overpopulation. Whoever did the editing should be fired. I could spend an hour or two detailing why this is so, but l can’t afford an hour or two unless I KNOW somebody is willing and eager to listen and learn.

    1. I will listen if you actually need a receptor for creating an argument. We who read the article probably do not find it as poor as you otherwise we would have commented on it so we need you to show us where we are at fault.

  4. Well done Jon. As it dawns on people that humanity is in an existential CRISIS, so too will the realisation that we must actively and ethically promote smaller families to slow population growth. But the penny may drop too late. As you said, changing lifestyles (consumption per head) is essential but not enough; we are putting the planet in jeopardy by tying one hand behind our backs.

    Project Drawdown and Scientists Warning are some of the few science based organisations tackling this from both angles (consumption per head & number of consumers). Others are staying quiet, for now…

  5. I don’t understand why we’re still stuck on the binary “EITHER we reduce consumption, OR population”. It needs to be both. The situation is serious. As long as we use one option as an excuse not to do the other, we won’t get anywhere as we will always lose the support of the people in the other camp.

    As for wildlife, I don’t share the optimism. We’ve destroyed wildlife at much, much lower population densities. It will require specific protection and some honest discussion about what works and what doesn’t and what’s fair and what isn’t.

    1. Agree completely. To have any hope of creating sustainable societies, we need fewer people, lower per capita consumption, and deployment of less harmful technologies. We need to push on all three factors in the IPAT equation.

      Michel Bourban has a good discussion of this in his article “Croissance démographique et changement climatique: repenser nos politiques dans le cadre des limites planétaires”: https://www.cairn.info/revue-la-pensee-ecologique-2019-1-page-19.htm.

  6. Even as far back as Plato talked about the masses just following their appetites, the lowest forms of our existence. The masses ruling is what got us here, it is hopefully time for more knowledge and enlightenment and by that virtue for our civilization.

  7. The blame game solves little. Unfortunately, we are not exempt from:

    Simplicity is rarely voluntary. Those trying it are an exception to this Principle, and one must first be comfortable to attempt it.

    As to the most successful 10%: if eradicated tomorrow, their spots on the energy curve would be filled almost immediately, as demand far exceeds supply.

    As I wrote in a short paper given in 2000 to The World Congress of the System Sciences (reprinted on link below), the three main institutional obstacles to reversing population growth are businesses, religions, and (most) governments. There were dozens of governments seeking aid for that in the mid-90s. (listed in the paper.


  8. No opinions here, just facts: Nature is harsh. Nature discriminates.
    There ain’t no equality in Nature, and there doesn’t need to be.
    If there needed to be, then God would’ve made it that way. Some people
    want to play God, but they’ll never be qualified for the position.

  9. Philip, yes, but the problem is that, as with so many other things, the link between population growth (caused by migration in this case) and environmental damage and loss of life is indirect. So, if you send back a boat full of migrants, or deport them, or deny them permit – there aren’t many other options – you create real suffering right now. This suffering is visible, inflicted upon people who haven’t wronged us in an obvious way, and makes the public uncomfortable. On the other hand, if you let them in, unless some of them go on a killing rampage, the damage those extra people do is not immediate, visible, clearly correlated to them specifically. You’re hurting a person that needs help, for an abstract principle – that’s what it looks like. And some principles are virtually worthless in our societies.
    This is part of the reason why security- and public expenditure- related arguments against migration appear to gain more traction.
    I am in favour of trying everything to reduce and reverse (in part) migration to overpopulated countries, starting with the most humane policies (e.g. offering one-time cash rewards for people going back voluntarily). But some hard choices have to be made and no one is making them. Not even, as you can see, Italy’s “extreme right” government. Even they don’t dare.

  10. Centuries of monotheistic religious dogma and patriarchal societal dominance persist in perpetuating things like arranged child marriages, bans against contraception and abortion, denial of education to women, and status of large families. Homo superstitious deserves Darwin Awards for this idiocy, and billions are likely in line to get them this century. The sooner the better for other species and the health of the planet in my opinion. My sci-fi dream is for the emergence of a sterility virus which =affects only the superstitious. Mr Spock types would avoid such behavior.

  11. In Nature, the rule is: “Pay now, or pay more later.”, and now,
    later has arrived, and it’s time to pay more! Nature’s laws
    supersede and overrule Human laws!

  12. A greater mistake is unavoidable: nine billion. But consider more seriously how to avoid the still greater mistake ten billion? It cannot be that hard!! I appreciate TOP for trying!

  13. I personally fully agree with most of this.
    While it would be a political nightmare for western democracies to implement population restrictions.
    I strongly believe it’s their responsibility to start making this a community concern.
    They use the media for most policies so why not educate the people in benefits of a more sustainable population.
    I know humans have evolved and keep doing so, but the proof is in our past. War and famine should never be a part of any spieces at anytime.
    Until low income/low resources stop over populating this will continue to be our future.
    Stop the poor being a commodity in global pricing.
    Because all model’s point to a bill free living if we manage our population like we do with other animals such as cattle.
    This will become the major topic of whole world if steps are not taken now.

    1. Eduard Albert Meier, commonly nicknamed “Billy”, is the founder of a
      UFO religion called the “FIGU” and alleged contactee whose UFO photos
      are claimed to show alien spacecraft. Meier claims to be in regular
      contact with extraterrestrial beings he calls the Plejaren.
      He was born 3 Feb 1937 in Bülach, Switzerland. Meier left public schools
      before finishing 6th grade. In his teens he was convicted multiple times
      of minor offenses. In 1953, he was convicted of thievery and forgery and
      sentenced to a prison term in Rheinau. After escaping from the facility,
      Meier illegally crossed the border and joined the French Foreign Legion.
      He went AWOL from the Legion to return home. In 1965, he lost his left arm
      in a bus accident in Turkey. Some time later, he married a Greek woman,
      Kalliope Zafiriou, with whom he had 3 kids. The nickname “Billy” came by way
      of an American friend who thought Meier’s cowboy style of dress reminded her
      of Billy the Kid.

  14. Back in the 1990s, the Sierra Club has an internal civil war concerning overpopulation. One side characterized it as the most serious existential threat to wildlife on this planet. The other side conflated it with being anti immigration discriminatory, The latter side won, and they’ve promoting immigration ever since, despite current estimates of the world population at 8 billion.and climbing. I’m afraid that if people don’t do something voluntary about this, at some point nature will and it may not be pretty.

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