Whether the stable population will be 1.5 billion or 5 billion, the question is: How do we get there?… I have no doubt we’re going to have a bad hundred years. We have the resources to gracefully handle the transition, but we won’t. We apparently can’t.
Jeremy Grantham is an investment strategist who has specialized in identifying bubbles–Japanese stocks in the 1980s, dot-com corporations in the 1990s, housing in 2008. It appears that he has come to see the current world population size as a bubble. If so, he may have reached roughly the same position as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, who has suggested that we have passed or are about to pass, not just peak oil, but peak everything. Heinberg published a 2007 book called just that, Peak Everything.
Of course, peak oil is the trigger. As fossil fuel energy becomes more expensive, everything gets harder to do. Mining, food production, transportation and travel, providing potable water, all become more expensive, and eventually too expensive.
That there is such a thing as a carrying capacity for humans and that exceeding this carrying capacity can lead to degradation of the environment in such a way that the carrying capacity is itself reduced are not new ideas. Thomas Malthus, William Vogt, Garrett Hardin, and Paul Ehrlich are a sampling of those who made the case from 1798 to 1968.
But the idea that there can be too many people is not popular, and such words as “overpopulation” and “population control” and “ZPG” have not been heard much in the U.S. since the 1970s.
In the New York Times Magazine article (“A Darker Shade of Green” 14 August 2011) from which this quote is taken, author Carlo Rotello also quotes Grantham as saying that people won’t listen to environmentalists, but will sometimes listen to people like him. Rather than concentrating on overpopulation and global warming, he talks about our coming problems with commodity shortages. “Global warming is bad news,” according to Grantham. “Finite resources is investment advice.”
Will enough people connect the coming shortages and rising prices of potassium and phosphates and other such shortages and dislocations with global climate change resulting from overpopulation (combined with our energy technology and corporate/political system)? Possibly. Grantham’s newsletters posted on the website of his investment management firm make the connections. Here is a link to the July 2011 newsletter, Resource Limitations 2: Separating the Dangerous from the Merely Serious.
I think Grantham is correct, but probably too technical for large numbers of people to consider and act on what he says. I believe all our important problems are caused by human overpopulation. It is frustrating and a bit frightening to realize that the best of efforts to do some good in this world are futile in the long run. We can feed starving children in Somalia forever, and if we cannot somehow prevent the overproduction of children in Somalia, we accomplish nothing. We can come to the aid of rebellious youths in Libya and everywhere else tyrants should be overthrown, but if we cannot stem the birth rates in those backward countries we ultimately lose the battle.
Grantham found one small thing to be optimistic about, and he does present a somewhat different approach to discussing the problem. Unfortunately, I’m doubtful that anyone will give a damn. People are too dedicated to ignoring the obvious, or content to console themselves with the notion that they will be long gone before future generations pay the price for their greed.
Japan and several European nations are the only societies I know of where populations have been declining or have become quite stable without draconian controls such as those employed by the Chinese government. Perhaps more research on what the motivators are there, and a lot of publicity about the results, would be positive.