This Week's Post: Population Growth, Democracy, and Freedom

This weekly blog post and its host website cover a wide variety of Fred Montague's environmental commentaries, gardening topics, and wildlife/art activities.  Please browse the website and the blog archives for topics you are interested in. 


Population Growth, Democracy, and Freedom

Garret Hardin (1915-2003) was an ecologist who taught at the University of California-- Santa Barbara.  He is known for his writings on the tragedy of the commons, lifeboat ethics, and a human population small enough that all might enjoy a diet of steak and wine, among many others.   In 1984 at the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Zoologists he presented his paper "Human Ecology: the Subversive, Conservative Science."  This included a list of what he considered to be the foundation stones of the science of human ecology.  The 8th (of 12) was population growth ultimately makes democracy impossible.

He supports this statement as follows:  "Easy communication is the sine quo non for an enduring democracy.  All communications functions are inherently affected with diseconomies of scale, since (for every well defined communication network) the burden created by the communication of n people increases as the square of n.  This burden expresses itself in information overload, which leads to misunderstandings, social pathologies, and (ultimately) the acceptance of a totalitarian regime as the least of the evils available to an overpopulated political unit.  In the face of unlimited population growth the word 'democracy' can be retained, but not in fact."

Hardin's thoughts 32 years ago seem validated by the events of today.  The global human population has increased from about 5 billion in 1986 to 7.4 billion in 2016, an overall increase of 48%.  Today the human population is increasing by nearly a million people every 4 days and is predicted to reach 9.8 billion by mid-century. 

If this growth materializes, it will happen on an Earth increasingly depleted of essential resources, both in quantity and quality.

Population growth (in less-developed countries), increased resource use and environmental impact (especially by those in more-developed countries like the U. S), and common sense, predicts that the additional 2.4 billion people in 2050 (added to today's population) will find us all ever more crowded and competing and confronting each other.  This, along with Hardin's "information overload," will pose serious challenges to the survival of democracy and freedom worldwide.

And Hardin didn't consider the effects of disinformation.

In 1992, building on Hardin's idea, I created this Fox Sense graphic.  With population increase, there comes a point where the contributions of more people (human resources) begins to be overwhelmed by the competing interests and impacts of the masses.  Then we will need more laws and bosses and stop signs (less freedom) to keep us out of each other's way.

Perhaps the U. N. could consider enacting a global "Endangered Freedom Act."  The essentials of such an act would include population stabilization, less consumption, less resource depletion, less environmental degradation and more environmental restoration by everyone.

Environmental Science Classroom: Human Population III

Economists, demographers, and other social scientists divide the 200 countries of the world into two groups-- more-developed countries (MDCs) and less-developed countries (LDCs). This distinction is based primarily on a country's degree of industrial and technological development and its per-capita gross national income.

The table below (from www.prb.org) compares a few of the demographic traits of these two "worlds" (as of mid-year 2012).

Of particular importance in understanding future population growth are the following.

1.  "rate of increase" is the annual growth rate of the population.

2. "doubling time" is how many years are required for the population to double in size. It is not a "prediction," but rather a projection of growth based on an unchanging current rate of growth. Doubling time historically has been used to comprehend very rapid rates of growth.

3. "% of population under the age of 15" indicates the size of the population from which future population growth will occur. It indicates population "growth momentum."

4. "predicted 2050 population" is the U.N.'s prediction of population size in 2050.

If you do the math, you will find that 96% of the 2.566 billion people added from now until 2050 will be in less developed countries. But, before you jump to embarrassing conclusions, consider that well-intentioned people in MDCs brought this population increase about.  More about this in future posts.

See also "Human Population I: Size and Growth" (13 February 2013) and "Human Population II: Billion-by-Billion" (25 February 2013).

Human Population III. © Fred Montague

Human Population III. © Fred Montague

Environmental Science Classroom: Recommended Reading

Full Planet, Empty Plate: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity.  Lester Brown.  2012. W.W. Norton & Co., N.Y. 144 pp. pbk.  ISBN 978-0-393-34415-8

Lester Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute, is one of the great big-picture thinkers and communicators of our time.  As the latest in his Plan B series (Plan B, Plan B 2.0, Plan B 3.0, Plan B 4.0, and World on the Edge), Full Planet, Empty Plate outlines in concise and compelling logic the deteriorating condition of the world's food system.  Chapter 1 opens with the sentence: "The world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity."  And in the chapters that follow, Brown outlines the challenges humanity faces in the next few decades with respect to growing food.  

The contents:

1.  Food: The Weak Link

2.  The Ecology of Population Growth

3.  Moving Up the Food Chain

4.  Food or Fuel?

5.  Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future

6.  Peak Water and Food Scarcity

7.  Grain Yields Starting to Plateau

8.  Rising Temperatures, Rising Food Prices

9.  China and the Soybean Challenge

10. The Global Land Rush

11. Can We Prevent a Food Breakdown?

Full Planet, Empty Plates by Lester R. Brown

Read Full Planet, Empty Plates and then begin to think of ways of addressing any one of these important issues. The book is available in hard copy or as a free download from the Earth Policy Institute. Or order from your neighborhood book shop.