About 800 years ago a few Polynesians sailed to
the shores of
Large flightless birds were abundant.
The biggest were called
standing 12 feet tall --- a 500+ lb chicken burger.
Presumably, the Polynesian population grew
for a time, because nowdays:
There ain't no moa
In old Ao-Tea-Roa.
Every discovery of a new rich resource, or a new technology for
resource exploitation, has resulted in
surging human population and
The premise of a modern economy is that we can repeat this cycle
indefinitely --- human ingenuity will always find a new resource and
a new technology...
BTW does anyone remember the
Newfoundland cod fishery?
Never mind folks, the
aren't eating each other,
they've found oil!
Politically Correct Carbon Dioxide
Our industrial society uses fossil fuels.
Unsurprisingly, measurements show the concentration of
CO2 increasing in the atmosphere since the beginning of the
Some people thought the average temperature of the earth
was increasing so they put the blame on atmospheric CO2.
It became fashionable to "reduce ones carbon footprint".
The cry went out, "tax the polluters".
In a fit of self-flagellation, some people thought we should
Carbon traders got rich --- some of them also
Politically Incorrect Carbon Dioxide
Atmospheric CO2 tells a story about population
So what have we seen. Well, a doubling of carbon footprint caused
a 10-fold increase in annual population growth!
We can see how much atmospheric CO2 varies over certain
periods and compare it to how much human population has increased
by over the same period. Thus the plot to the left compares
annual increase in human population with per capita annual
increase in atmospheric CO2.
- Small carbon footprint:
From the begining of the Industrial Revolution until the start of
the 20th century, it took a billion people a whole year to
raise atmospheric CO2 by about 0.12 ppm (parts per million).
Those were the days of horses, oxen, and steam engines.
- The internal combustion engine:
The first half of the 20th Century was marked by two world wars and
rapid technological development of oil-related technologies.
By 1960, oil-related technologies were widely used.
Bigger carbon footprint: From 1960 to the present, in one year one billion people were
able to raise atmospheric CO2 by about 0.30 ppm.
Before petrol and the internal combustion engine, people had a
small energy supply and they could
only grow their population slowly.
Petroleum technologies provided us with a much more powerful engine so
humanity grew its population many times faster.
Population tells a story about Atmospheric CO2
Now comes the tricky mathematics.
If we are to view atmospheric CO2 as representing
a proxy for some sort of human impact on the environment
then we see that that impact is the product of carbon footprint
with population.... and it's increased population that explains
most of the impact!
We plot atmospheric CO2 against world population.
The black line shows measurements. The red line shows output from
a model that has two parameters: the big and small carbon footprints
mentioned above. There can be no doubt,
human population drives up atmospheric CO2.
Don't waste your breath talking about other guff, it's population that
Population Impact on Humanity
OK, we care about that! Let's talk.
First, we need to learn a little history.
A biological theory for history
Colinvaux (1980) The Fates of Nations provides
a biological theory for the broad sweep of history.
The theory is grounded in ecological theory and calibrated to
"historical fact" (ie "what happened", not some historians opinion
as to "why it happened").
Here is a crude caricature of Colinvaux's thesis:
shows how human ingenuity and the human breeding strategy
explain: class/economic inequity (including excessive bureaucracy),
restrictive laws, trade practices, warfare, and some religious practices.
- The human breeding strategy is to maximize the number of offspring
according to what couples they think they can afford.
- Human ingenuity can sometimes increase the availability of resources.
For a time, the standard of living improves.
- Given (1), the population will eventually increase
and this causes the standard of living to
decline because available resources have to be spread amongst more
All in all, Colinvaux leaves us with a gloomy prognosis that is
difficult to dismiss because it is so grounded in fact.
More recent research and some relevant observations
Big changes were obvious during the second half of the 20th Century.
Any intelligent and educated observer of that period would likely
reach their own conclusions that would be broadly similar to
those of Colinvaux and May.
Unlike out of this world fields, like
General Relativity and
human population is not that difficult
to understand within the context of personal experience...
In keeping with contemporary fashion, both
Beddington (2010) and
portray improved technologies and better regulatory structures as being
a means to solve the population problem.
This would seem to be in direct contradiction with Colinvaux (1980)
who illustrated that improved technologies and
have, throughout recorded history, been associated with
increased human population.
May (2010) implores that women's rights must be improved if we
are to adjust the human breeding strategy in order to improve the
quality of human life rather than increase the quantity of human life.
Thus there is no actual contradiction between May (2010) and
Colinvaux (1980) providing we accept that free and educated women
will produce the number of children that can be afforded a high
quality of life.
Freedom, on the other hand, may be more difficult to understand and
much more difficult to achieve.
The following passage from May (2010) illustrates some of the forces
aligned against freedom:
"... it is worth noting
that in 1992 the Presidents of the Indian National
Science Academy, the US National Academy of
Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
and the Royal Society proposed a meeting of the
world's academies of science, to prepare a joint statement about population, in preparation for the UN
Conference on Population and Development in
Cairo in 1994. Fifty-eight academies attended this
`Population Summit of the World's Science Academies' in New Delhi in 1993. This meeting placed
strong emphasis on the education and empowerment
of women. The meeting had one fruitful outcome, in
that it paved the way for the establishment of the Inter-Academy Council in 2001. But in its initial and
primary purpose it was less successful. It provoked a
counter-movement by a fundamentalist `coalition of
the unwilling', led by the religious right in the USA,
the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, which essentially took
women's rights off the Cairo agenda and went on to
the truly remarkable achievement of removing any
mention of population from the UN's Millennium
That's right folks, the "powers that be" are often aligned against
freedom and enlightenment ---
it's not so unusual...
Opportunity knocked, once
Many great break-through human achievements happened way back when
the world population was less than 2 billion people.
I think it is safe to postulate that a world population of
2 billion people is more than sufficient
to maintain and continuously improve an advanced human society.
The resources available for humanity were greatly expanded
in the first 70 years of the 20th Century.
That was the time to impliment ideas of the type
advocated by May (2010):
Unfortunately, we got distracted by
it was the ultimate illustration of Colinvaux's theory.
- Bring freedom to all, especially women.
- Bring education to all.
- Bring economic opportunity to all.
Have you ever noticed how smart humanity is "after the fact".
By the time Colinvaux and May had developed an understanding of the
problem, it was already at least 50 years too late.
An optimists view of the future
Today the world is crowded. In keeping with Colinvaux's theory:
freedom is diminishing, the distribution of wealth
is ever more inequitable, per capita wealth is falling,
trade is expanding, warfare is widespread
(albeit, limited by the threat of nuclear retaliation), and
the population continues to expand --- so we become even more crowded.
Humanity is caught in a population trap of it's own making and most
of our progeny seem destined for a diminished lifestyle.
(A priviledged minority will improve their lot, as always.)
Presently we know of only one way out of our population trap.
We need another great break through that greatly expands
the resources available to humanity.
Perhaps we have already found all the great breakthoughs that
human ingenuity can achieve?
I hope not.
If there is one more great breakthrough to be had, I hope that
we will have the wisdom to channel it towards:
and not squander opportunity upon
- Bringing freedom to all, especially women.
- Bringing education to all.
- Bringing economic opportunity to all.