Double Whammy:  What Happens When Population Growth Meets Resource                                                            Depletion 

Jenna Orkin, World Trade Center Environmental Organization

The world population currently stands at 6.5 billion people with a quarter of a million added each day.  Of these, 3.7 billion are malnourished and therefore more susceptible to disease.   The U.S. population is projected to double in seventy years.  In China, even after fifteen years of a one-child per couple policy, the population is still growing because of the sheer number of potential parents.  For the same reason, w orld population would double in seventy years even if there was a limit imposed of two children per couple.

Food, Water, Energy

99.7% of our food comes from the land; the remaining .3%, from the ocean.  Food production in the U.S. stands at 1.2 acres of cropland per person.  World food production has been declining per capita over the last twenty years with 20% of per capita cropland lost over the last decade.  Topsoil is being lost at ten times the rate of replacement.  It takes 500 years for nature to replace each inch.  Genetically modified foods do not make any difference since their modifications have mostly to do with resistance to herbicides rather than increased crop yields.

Each acre of corn and certain other crops requires 500,000 gallons of water during the three month growing season.  In other words, it takes 250 gallons of water to make a one pound loaf of bread.

Per capita use of oil is 3000 gallons per year in the U.S. with 550 gallons going to food production.  Peak oil is expected to arrive within the next few years after which the oil will be harder to extract and of less good quality.  The enormous implications of this are dealt with on numerous peak oil websites and will not be dealt with here.  Suffice it to say that the transition to alternatives will not be simple.  Ethanol, to cite just one example, takes 30% more fuel to create than the ethanol itself provides.  And hydrogen is not the panacea the government would have us believe:  4.2 kWh of electricity are required to produce 1 kWh of hydrogen; it is also a dangerous fuel.

So what do we do?

Replace annual grain crops with perennial grain crops, says Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University.   And stop using corn to produce ethanol; it's a waste of energy, cropland and water.  Val Stevens, Co-Chair of the Optimum Population Trust   in the U.K., recommends growing crops suited to the local soil and climate, working 'with nature rather than against.' 

What about conservation?

Andrew Ferguson, also of Optimum Population Trust, emails:  "It would be a mistake to reduce energy consumption per capita without also starting on the path of population reduction. The reason is that the politicoes [POLITIcians plus eCOnomists as well as the COmmercial world] would use the reduced energy consumption per capita to say that the population can go on expanding, with the end result that when fossil fuels really do become impossibly scarce, there will be an even larger population crash."

This is a version of Jevon's Paradox which shows how trying to make a problem better can end up making it worse.  For instance someone who conserves energy may also save some money; but if he or she puts that money in the bank, the bank will lend it out to as many as six people (because of fractional reserve banking) who will invest in businesses which will in turn use more energy than was originally conserved.  The paradox comes into play when one is working in a system whose goals are antithetical to one's own.

And that is the sort of system we're dealing with when it comes to population reduction by which, I should make clear, I do not mean anything more sinister than a gradual decrease brought about by a decline in the birthrate.  Population reduction is not in the interest of the powers that be.  A growing population is a win/win situation for corporations which get cheap labor and consumers, as well as for politicians who get cannon fodder.  In addition, various religious and ethnic groups may encourage their own populations to breed as a defense against a perceived enemy.  That's why scarce resources could paradoxically be seen as a reason to increase the population of one's own group rather than reduce it:  "If there's not much left, we'd better be the ones getting it."  Apart from certain religions' advocacy against birth control, other cultural factors militating against population reduction, says Val Stevens, are machismo, the oppression of women and the lack of education. 

Does this matter for the rest of the world?  After all, when peak oil hits, globalization will largely cease.  What will count most is the resources available locally, not on the other side of the planet.  (Many peak oil experts argue that we should prepare for this eventuality by starting to think locally now but that's subject for another article.)  So population reduction may be enforced, albeit unevenly, by nature:  What AIDS, drought and flooding have left undone may be accomplished by famine and ensuing diseases.

However, before that happens we could take the reins by providing incentives to have fewer children or, as Dr. Pimentel prefers, placing burdens such as additional taxes on those who have more.  In addition, wrote Andrew Ferguson, governments should aim for more 'balanced migration.'

Instead, Val Stevens emailled, "we have 'perverse' subsidies, here in UK at least, and also in France, whereby families get all kinds of financial help from Government with the cost of children, however many children there are.  There is child-benefit, maternity benefit, paid maternity leave (and the right to extended unpaid leave for fathers.) there is also now a 'baby-bond' for every child born - a sort of bank account opened by the Govt. for it.  I believe that child benefit should taper after two, and stop altogether after three.  Various groups campaign for more and more 'child-friendly' policies that make it easier and easier for couples to have children, and go to work, pursue a career etc.  So there will soon not even be the deterrent of more children meaning serious loss of income to a couple."