Posts Tagged ‘population’

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.

Food Security: Mission Impossible

This article is a work-in-progress, still being researched and developed.  Feedback is welcome.  Feel free to leave a comment.

To achieve food security for everyone on the planet is an impossible goal, and any efforts in this direction will have the opposite effect, making the situation worse.

A lesson in population dynamics, Ecology 101.  The population of any species will increase as the food available to it increases.  As the food available decreases, the population decreases.  This means that a proportion of individuals in this population experiences a lack of food, and starve to death.

In terms of the current situation of human population and food availability: the more we try to provide enough food for everyone – the more food we make available – the more the population grows, and the more food is required to feed everyone.  Food security is a paradox.  Starvation is inevitable.

I recently read Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick.  It is a true story of living in famine conditions in North Korea in the 1990s.  It includes accounts of people experiencing starvation, and seeing people around them starve to death.

A kindergarten teacher sees her students arrive each day in a weaker state than the last, until they can’t lift their heads from the table.  After a few weeks they stop coming altogether.  She can’t bring herself to ask their parents what has happened.  She knows that they have died.  Her family has access to food through the black market, but to share with her students would be her own death.

A family spends a whole day to get to the countryside where there are pear orchards they might be able to raid, as there is no food available in the city.  So many people have come before them that they find only one pear, partly rotten.  They take it home and divide the edible part between them.

A woman sells what she can on the black market to buy food for her family.  It is not enough for them all, and over the course of a few months she sees her husband, her mother-in-law and her son die in the house.

Between 1994 and 1998, up to 3.5 million died of starvation in North Korea.

During the 1930s Depression, five thousand people died of starvation in Melbourne, Australia.  There are a lot more of us now, and the situation we are facing is a lot larger than an economic downturn.  We’re also a lot less prepared to deal with it.

A few of the issues facing the world food system:

  • Collapse of aquifers.  Once underground water has been extracted to the point that an aquifer is empty, it collapses and can never be restored.  A large percentage of global agriculture is currently dependent on harvesting water from aquifers at a faster rate than can be replenished.
  • Peak oil.
  • Peak nutrients.
  • Land availability.  Land grabs by corporations and governments, meaning farmland is not available to small-scale farmers.
  • Land degradation.  Soil loss and erosion.  Land is becoming less viable for farming.
  • Climate change.
  • Climate chaos: extreme weather events causing crop losses.
  • Decreased pest resistance in crops that are grown in industrial monocultures.
  • Collapse of honeybee populations.  Honeybees are essential to pollinate almost all food plants.
  • Corporate control of food production and distribution systems.
  • Large-scale, centralised food system vulnerable to shocks and interruptions.
  • Loss of diversity of food plants and animals.
  • Loss of skills in food production, preserving and preparation.
  • No new farmers.  Existing farmers are aging, and very few of the next generation are taking up farming as a career.
  • Urban sprawl taking over valuable farmland.
  • Exponential population growth, requiring an ever-increasing amount of food to be produced to feed everyone -> more land to be given over to farmland -> loss of wilderness areas -> climate change, species loss and loss of soil fertility -> existing farmland becomes less viable.
  • Waste.  Around half of all food produced is wasted.
  • Lack of awareness of these issues in the general population.

Any one of these issues on its own can cause a food crisis.  All of them together, and all of them becoming increasingly present, seem unlikely to be understood and overcome in time to prevent a global famine on a massive scale.

I’ve listed 18 separate issues here, all are interconnected.  Most current approaches to these issues address them separately, and actions taken often have disastrous effects elsewhere, leading us further along the path of collapse.

Conclusion:  Enjoy the food you have.  It won’t last long.

Thoughts on being hopeful, positive and in denial:

Any actions taken can only have a tiny impact, given the scale of the situation.

The most general definition of food security is “there is enough for everyone to eat.”  The term food insecurity is occasionally mentioned, but I’ve never heard any acknowledgement that this means “there is not enough for everyone to eat, so some people starve.”

I feel that we are better placed to address these issues if we understand and accept what we are facing.

This article brings together the ideas presented in two books that I am partway through reading: The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb, and If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways, by Daniel Quinn.  And another one that I finished reading, called Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick.