Population, Poverty, And Planet Earth

Population is the issue no one wants to touch, yet the answer to the problem is as close as our own hearts

One of the articles in Birth, Sex & Death (IC#31)
Originally published in Spring 1992 on page 32
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

Week after week, Donella H. (Dana) Meadows has been brightening op-ed pages around the country with her penetrating, inspiring, yet folksy newspaper column, "The Global Citizen." (A collection of her columns under the same title was recently published by Island Press.) But Dana is no mere pundit – she is an environmental and systems scientist who teaches at Dartmouth, and a coauthor of both The Limits to Growth (1972) and its twenty-years-later sequel, Beyond the Limits (Chelsea Green, 1992), both of which use a sophisticated computer modeling system to chart critical trends in population, environment, and resource consumption. (Part of this model is featured on the inside front cover of this issue.)

We’ll be profiling Beyond the Limits in IC #32. Meanwhile, the following article – comprised of three of her recent columns – explains some of the systemic roots of global population issues. To get Dana’s column into your own newspaper, write her directly at PO Box 58, Daniels Road, Plainfield NH, 03781.

In 1986 a group of ecologists at Stanford published a paper in the journal Bioscience that made scientists’ hair stand on end. They calculated that human beings now control 40 percent of the planet’s land-based net primary productivity.

That number would have hit the front pages, if more people had understood what it meant.

The net primary productivity [NPP] is the amount of the sun’s energy caught by green plants and fixed into biomass, minus the amount the plants use for their own metabolism. It’s the net growth of all plants in a year, and therefore it’s the base of all food chains. Every other creature on Earth eats plants, eats something that eats plants, or eats something that eats something that eats plants.

Which is to say, the NPP is the energy stream that powers all life.

According to the Stanford ecologists, direct human consumption – what we eat, what we feed our animals, the fish we catch, the wood we harvest – adds up to only 3 percent of global NPP.

Where we have our real impact is in our indirect co-option of NPP – the flow of energy we channel into communities of organisms other than the ones in natural ecosystems. That flow includes the total production of croplands and grazing lands, the forest we kill by trashing and burning, and the loss of NPP as cities and manmade deserts spread.

Direct and indirect human uses of nature add up to 25 percent of the NPP of the entire planet and 40 percent of the NPP on land. That’s a conservative estimate. It doesn’t count losses to toxic wastes, acid rain, ozone depletion, greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution, which are hard to measure.

The Stanford authors say that an equivalent concentration of resources into one species and its satellites has probably not occurred since land plants first diversified. And we still have expansion plans. The human population is expected to double in 35 to 40 years. To improve living standards the economy will have to double faster than that. If it does, within 20 to 30 years virtually all the primary productivity of the planet will fall under human control.

What would the world be like then?

Some ecologists say it would be like England or Holland, where nearly every inch of land is managed for human purposes. Others point out that those countries import grain, wood, paper from outside their borders. They live above their NPP budget, because other countries live below theirs – something the world as a whole cannot do. Better examples of an economy at the 100 percent NPP limit, some say, might be the Sahel or Bangladesh or the most crowded parts of India or China.

One thing is certain: as more of the Earth’s NPP is diverted to human purposes, less is available to the millions of species we do not farm or harvest. A wave of extinctions is already under way. The survivors will be what one ecologist calls our fellow travelers and running dogs – house cats and coyotes, chickens and pigeons, wheat and thistles, cattle, fleas, viruses.

One of the ecologists who made the NPP calculation, Paul Ehrlich, has described the consequences: fewer warblers and ducks and more starlings and herring gulls; fewer native wildflowers and more noxious weeds; fewer swallowtail butterflies and more cockroaches; smaller herds of elk and bigger herds of rats; less edible seafood, less productive croplands, less dependable supplies of fresh water, more desert wastes and dust storms, more frequent floods, and more uncomfortable weather.

Wilderness would be gone. For us the world would probably be liveable, but with diminished options. We would live on the biological edge. The planetary cycles that maintain us would be less resilient. At some point, as we eliminate species, the interwoven fabric of nature could unravel. We don’t know where that point is. Peter Vitousek, another of the Stanford ecologists, said: "The world’s going to hell while we research this interesting question."

At the 100 percent NPP limit, any further expansion on our part would have to come from more efficiency rather than more encroachment. We would have to feed grain directly to people instead of animals, to burn wood in more efficient stoves, to recycle biological materials more tightly. We would finally have to control our numbers and our waste.

The choice is whether we achieve that self-control 20 to 30 years from now, or now – while there are still songbirds, still wildflowers, still forests that are not plantations, and wetlands that are not landfills, rice paddies or fish farms. The choice is whether we want every last bit of the NPP, or whether we want to leave some for the bears and the moose, the whales and the dolphins, the loons and the geese.

By continuing to expand, we are in fact silently, unknowingly, choosing. We’re deciding that we want it all for ourselves. And we’re gambling that we can control it all without making fatal mistakes.


In April 1991 a great storm roared from the sea into the river delta of Bangladesh and killed an estimated 125,000 people, a number that probably will never be verified. Hundreds of thousands of cattle were killed, 9 million people were left homeless, and 20,000 square miles of farmland (almost 13 million acres) were flooded.

The storm came at the worst possible time, just before the harvest. Food supplies were at their lowest. Crop loss was total. Aid agencies working on reconstruction say that the biggest problem is not current starvation, which is bad enough, but future starvation. There is no seed grain for an enormous area. Even if seed were available, there can be no planting, because the soils have been saturated with sea salt.

Most news reports of this tragedy portrayed it as an event, rather than a pattern. They assumed that the cause of the event was the storm. They didn’t ask why in this part of the world this story repeats itself again and again.

Twenty years ago ecologist Garrett Hardin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote an editorial for Science magazine titled "Nobody Ever Dies of Overpopulation." Here’s how it began:

I was in Calcutta when the cyclone struck East Bengal (then a province of Pakistan, now Bangladesh) … Early dispatches spoke of 15,000 dead, but the estimates rapidly escalated to 2 million and then dropped back to 500,000. A nice round number; it will do as well as any, for we will never know. The nameless ones who died, "unimportant" people far beyond the fringes of the social power structure, left no trace of their existence.

Who killed those unfortunate people? The cyclone, newspapers said. But one can just as logically say that overpopulation killed them. The Gangetic delta is barely above sea level. Every year several thousand people are killed by quite ordinary storms. If Pakistan were not overcrowded, no sane man would bring his family to such a place. Ecologically speaking, a delta belongs to the river and the sea; man obtrudes there at his peril.

Bangladesh has 115 million people in an area the size of Arkansas, which has 2.4 million. Even in years when there are no hurricanes, 870,000 children under the age of 5 die there from hunger. In spite of that terrible toll, the population of Bangladesh grows by more than the entire population of Arkansas every year. If the loss of life in this year’s cyclone was actually 125,000, Bangladeshi parents will replace that number in about 15 days.

Impoverished families, desperate for land, move onto the silt islands in the great river delta of Bangladesh, though they know those islands are temporary, created and removed by winds and waves. They would not live there if they had any other choice.

There are many ways to define overpopulation, and many places in the world that are overpopulated by any definition – Los Angeles County, the Nile delta, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh among them. We are unwilling to say that in public. We talk about storms, about poverty, about pollution, about traffic jams, and about overflowing landfills, but we don’t talk about too many people or people-extensions, such as cars, houses, factories and fields.

There’s a good reason for that. Said Hardin, 20 years ago, "Were we to identify overpopulation as the cause of a half-million deaths, we would threaten ourselves with a question to which we do not know the answer: How can we control population without recourse to repugnant measures? Fearfully we close our minds to an inventory of possibilities. Instead we say that a cyclone caused the deaths, thus relieving ourselves of responsibility for this and future catastrophes."

We don’t know a constructive way to suggest that there are too many of us. We fear, and rightly so, that people will start thinking in terms of which kinds of people there are too many of. And so we attribute deaths from lung disease in Los Angeles to air pollution and deaths from hunger in Bangladesh to a storm. Shortly after that cyclone 20 years ago, a high United Nations official told me that "Population is the one subject we cannot discuss here."

"No one ever dies of overpopulation," said Garrett Hardin. "It is unthinkable."

The subject of population stirs up the ethnic hatreds of the world, the resentment of the poor, the guilt of the rich, and all our confusion about sexuality and about the proper balance between communal good and individual freedom. We would have to summon compassion, forgiveness, and brotherly love to address the subject of population peaceably and effectively. We do have those virtues within us. We do not have a social agreement to use them to work on questions to which we have no answers, but whose answers are vital to a decent human world.

We would rather say it was a storm that killed those helpless people in Bangladesh. Or that it was the poverty of the Bangladeshis. We would prefer not to think that it was our own silence.


The World Bank has just raised its projection for the population of the world by another billion. The population will level off toward the end of the next century, says the Bank, not at 11.5 billion as previously thought, but at 12.5 billion.

That item didn’t make the news, although there could hardly be tidings of greater import. Another billion people – another China, or four more United States – is not a trivial matter. And the fact that the projection has been revised upward tells us something not only about the future, but about the present. It is the result of a decade of economic stagnation in many of the poor countries of the world.

In order to come up with its population projections, the World Bank uses two wildly optimistic assumptions. The first is that economic development will proceed smoothly and bring birth rates down. Development does decrease birth rates – rich countries all have slow or no population growth. But the assumption that development will chug along without interruption broke down in the 1980s. Where economies regressed – in much of Latin America, nearly all of Africa, parts of Asia – birth rates stopped falling. That is why the forecast just went up by a billion people.

If the World Bank’s optimism about economic development continues to be wrong, the population projections will creep up even higher – to 13 billion, 14 billion. Somewhere along the way the bank’s second wildly optimistic assumption will be disproven: that the Earth can support so many people.

The last decade also provided evidence to cast that assumption in doubt. Soils, forests, fish stocks, waters, the atmosphere, the oceans are already strained by the present 5.4 billion people. There is no guarantee that we can plop down another whole human world on top of this one, much less two or three.

If poor people remain in desperate straits, populations will go on rising. There are good reasons for that, from their point of view. Children are their hope, children are their only security, and, because they have little control over their own fertility, even more children come to them than they aim for. At some point the accumulated consequences of their powerlessness will surpass the Earth’s limits – if indeed those limits have not already been surpassed. The consequences will not be visited only upon the poor. In this economically and ecologically interconnected world, overpopulation anywhere affects everyone.

Population growth is the most undiscussed problem on the planet. No one talks about population and no one does anything about population because no one knows what to do about population. Or, more accurately, everyone pretends not to know what to do.

We pretend for many reasons. The nations of the poor South have trouble discussing the problem directly because they entangle it with their ethnic hostilities and their old resentments toward colonizers and oppressors, so as not to have to admit their own corruptions and inequities. The rich North entangles the problem with its unresolved attitudes about sex, religion, and abortion, and therefore fails to share fertility-control technology.

The primary way to deal with the population problem is obvious. It’s that short simple word that I used in the previous sentence – share. Poverty is the cause of rapid population growth and many other evils. It must be ended, once and for all.

But how to do that?

I don’t know in detail. But I do know how to start. The way to start is to look the poor in the face and call them brothers and sisters. Start with one person; start close to home; there are people everywhere who could use an outstretched hand. Work with them in partnership, not in condescension. They are the ones who will end their poverty. They are eager to do so. But first they need to be included in the human family.

Governments can’t look people in the face and work with them in partnership, only people can do that. But when people start to do it, they will demand that their governments also recognize that the welfare of all people should be a serious concern of all people. Out of that realization will flow plenty of things to do, from debt forgiveness to development programs that actually focus upon the needs of the poor. They will cost much less than development programs that must filter through the hands of the rich. And they will ensure everyone’s survival.

It may be a cosmic joke – or a plan of God – that just at the point in human history when the human race has the technical means, the global communications and the accumulated wealth to end poverty, we are also confronted with the absolute necessity of doing so. If we don’t, the population forecasts will continue to go up – until nature tells us without ambiguity and without mercy how many is too many.

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