A Sustainable Population

A sustainable population ensures that the population of all other species who share the land where they live is also sustained.  A population that causes the extinction of another species is not sustainable.  Earth’s current human population causes the extinction of 200 species per day.

A sustainable population can endure indefinitely.  This is the definition of sustainability.  The number of people that can truthfully be called “a sustainable population” is not something that can be decided by popular vote, by argument, by economics, or by force.  It is decided by the carrying capacity of the land on which it lives.

Ninety per cent of large fish in the ocean are gone.  Ninety nine per cent of old growth forests, gone.  That’s ninety nine per cent of the habitat that can sustain a human population.  This means that as of now, a sustainable population of humans on this planet is one per cent of the population that a pre-industrial planet has sustained.

The civilization that most humans currently live in is not a sustainable habitat, as it requires stealing from the surrounding land to maintain itself.  And as the civilized area grows to take over everything, and the land left available to steal from therefore shrinks to nothing, the whole project inevitably dies.

And the maximum possible population for any piece of land is not desirable for that population, as there is no chance for that population to survive in the face of disaster, environmental change, flood, or drought.  An optimal population allows for some redundancies in providing for its needs.  A population below carrying capacity will also be more peaceful, as it has everything it needs, and some to spare for others travelling or migrating.  An optimal population doesn’t need to be constantly on guard to defend its landbase.  Although this is conditional on the populations of surrounding areas also being optimal for their own landbases, rather than expanding and colonising.

A population’s ability to sustain itself isn’t a function of the number of people, but the relationship between the people and the land they live on.  If the people exploit the land, taking more from it than they give in return, then regardless of the number of people, they will soon reach a point where the land no longer sustains them, and they either move on or starve to death.  And in the present world, moving on means forcefully invading the land of others.  Causing them to starve to death.

A population that has reciprocal relationships with the land, plants and animals that provide for their needs, and takes responsibility for the wellbeing of these others, may not even need to consider the question of population, or population may be regulated by an intuitive understanding of these relationships.

In the current context of global population overshoot, any strategy that addresses population as an isolated issue is bound to fail.  Putting the cart before the horse.

It isn’t possible for a government that exists within the paradigm of economic growth to effectively address the issue of population.

Economic growth leads population growth.  More people buy more stuff.  Even if economic growth is possible without population growth, the economy still undermines its own foundations (quite literally in the case of mining taking over agricultural land) and will lead to whole populations of humans collapsing, regardless of the number of people.

So to see population as an issue that needs addressing is to miss the point.

Sustainability is not an abstract concept, or an optional extra for rich people to feel good about.  Sustainability is by definition the capacity to continue to exist.  If something is not sustainable, it will soon cease to exist.  Any policy or argument that claims sustainability as a virtue without understanding this core meaning will benefit no-one, and only lead to a more chaotic collapse.

Often at policy discussions, someone will mention population and use the phrase “the elephant in the room” as if they’ve said something terribly clever and important, and done their bit to address the issue.  I’ve never heard a proposal for any real action to either reduce global population or stop it from growing.  Here’s some policy options: mass murder, forced sterilisation, a deadly virus, one-child policy, withhold food so that people starve.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be on the receiving end of any of these, although there may be willingness to accept a one-child policy.

Stopping population growth is not in the interest of any government, especially not one elected on four-year term.  Governments want as many people as possible – to grow their economy, fight their wars, work their industries, buy products, pay taxes.

Attempts to influence governments to instate policies on population are unlikely to be effective.  Governments need to act in the interests of their corporate investors (or employers, or shareholders, depending on how you look at it).  To influence a government requires influencing the corporations that control it.

A corporation has profit-making as its core business.  No matter how convincing an argument may be, a corporation won’t act on it if its not profitable.  And reducing population, the market for their products, can never be profitable.

Corporations can’t be challenged by legal means, as they have power over the legal system.  So anyone wanting to challenge a corporation can only do so illegally.

By thinking strategically, and having the goal of preventing a corporation from doing business, its not all that hard to bring it down.

A corporation is a vulnerable thing.  It can’t work without electricity, internet, phone connections, transport systems, workers, and money.  If the supply of any one of these things is cut off, business stops.

By refusing to acknowledge the underlying causes of population growth, the debate on population is feeding and breeding the metaphorical elephants it so loves to talk about.

What I see is an overpopulation of elephants in the room.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Good post Kim. Perhaps not the most profound but the most telling thing you said concerning the current situation is: “It isn’t possible for a government that exists within the paradigm of economic growth to effectively address the issue of population.”. Very true. So where does that leave us?

    I have said elsewhere that at least 6 out of 7 people alive now need to die, and fairly soon. Your statements appear to imply that more than that proportion need to go but I have enough faith in the planet’s self-recovery ability to believe that a pre-industrial population level would be able to live in harmony with the ecosystem, providing they don’t have the means to progress technologically beyond the level that folk had at that time. We can still live comfortably, and even more happily, without any of the so called ‘advances’ of modern times.

    How are we going to get to that state? Again, I have faith in nature to look after the details, aided by our own blind folly and greed.


  2. Many are dying as we speak, 5000 children die every day due to deprivation, 200 species disappearing every day etc. etc.. You say more people need to die than that. Humans are part of nature, I think we need many of us to restore our planetary systems, I can’t think of anyone who is not of some value. We are part of the planet figuring out self-recovery. There is evidence that the planet is headed for 10 billion people, it is likely to level off there, so we need to create systems that are sustainable and regenerative. Why should we insist it is impossible to do if we haven tried?


  3. Reblogged this on The DeepGreen Blog and commented:
    “The civilization that most humans currently live in is not a sustainable habitat”


  4. […] Editor’s Note: Originally published March 7, 2013 on Stories of Creative Ecology […]


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