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"Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, maybe we should control the population to ensure the survival of our environment." Sir David Attenborough
October 25, 2011 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Population to Reach 7 Billion This Week. As experts wait for the human population to reach 7 billion this week, some estimates claim even larger growth by the end of the century. One forthcoming United Nations report estimates that the number of humans on the planet may reach 15 billion -- more than double current levels, according to The Observer.
posted by Fizz (140 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
We have room for you in Iowa.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:32 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


We should call it John Brunner day.

BTW, if your plan for saving the world includes Malthusian population control then your plan for saving the world will not work, and if your plan for saving the world includes mass die offs then it is not a plan for saving the world.
posted by Artw at 10:34 AM on October 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


In all the discussions of this issue, no one seems willing to speak about parking places...a coverup?
posted by Postroad at 10:34 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Simon–Ehrlich wager

..."For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they'd been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days "experts" spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:34 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fortunately, extreme weather brought on by global warming will lead to an increase in famine conditions and deaths directly related to catastrophic weather, so it will probably all even out in the end.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:35 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Somewhere, Norman Borlaug is smiling.
posted by BobbyVan at 10:36 AM on October 25, 2011


HUFF HUFF HUFF HUFF HUFF IM COMING AS FAST AS I CAN
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:36 AM on October 25, 2011


One forthcoming United Nations report estimates that the number of humans on the planet may reach 15 billion -- more than double current levels, according to The Observer.

Fizz, I have no problem with the merits of this very interesting and important post, but this sentence seems like an amusing parody of breathless reportage. The UN report says that it will climb from 7 to 15 billion, but the Observer's math wizards needed to be consulted to verify that 15 is more than double 7?
posted by clockzero at 10:36 AM on October 25, 2011 [12 favorites]


Breeders gonna breed?
posted by cavalier at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'm hoping it exists, and that it doesn't include introducing predators into the ecosystem.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


We have room for you in Iowa.

Really, nobody under the poverty line or homeless in Iowa? Great job.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Simon–Ehrlich wager

In 1968, Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which argued that mankind was facing a demographic catastrophe with the rate of population growth quickly outstripping growth in the supply of food and resources. Simon was highly skeptical of such claims, so proposed a wager, telling Ehrlich to select any raw material he wanted and select "any date more than a year away," and Simon would bet that the commodity's price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager.


The very definition of short-term, can't-see-the-forest thinking.

Is/was Simon under the impression that the Earth is infinite?
posted by DU at 10:39 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well it doesn't have edges, so.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:40 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Too much garbage in your face? There's plenty of space out in space! BnL StarLiners leaving each day. We'll clean up the mess while you're away."
Waits for cute robot to fix the world.
posted by Fizz at 10:41 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Meanwhile...
posted by cmoj at 10:42 AM on October 25, 2011


I had that discussion with my philosophy professor for like 10 minutes before I realized he never would understand the difference between "unbounded" and "infinite". They are orthogonal properties.
posted by DU at 10:42 AM on October 25, 2011


But even infinite quantities can have boundaries. The set of all even numbers is still bounded, even though it's infinite. My conclusion is that the earth is flat.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:44 AM on October 25, 2011


Melle Mel said it best "Too much... too many people, too much... ha a ha ha ha"
posted by symbioid at 10:44 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


if your plan for saving the world includes mass die offs then it is not a plan for saving the world

Petroleum-based agriculture + Peak Oil means mass die offs are coming, whether we plan for them or not.

And they will in fact "save the world" - which is not defined by the 7 billion homo sapiens currently inhabiting it
posted by Trurl at 10:46 AM on October 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


The very definition of short-term, can't-see-the-forest thinking.

The proposed second wager dealt with that, but Simon wouldn't take it, because they were moving the goalposts.

"Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don't want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure."

Is/was Simon under the impression that the Earth is infinite?

The point was that, humans are actually pretty smart, and things generally get better over time, not worse. We may indeed start to run out of tungsten ... and then we'll find a replacement for it, or a technology that obviates the need for it ... or a super-magic-birth-control drug that lowers the number of people that need it.

Things are getting better, not worse.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:48 AM on October 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


f your plan for saving the world includes mass die offs then it is not a plan for saving the world.

Of course it is. Humanity != "the world". As Carlin used to say, the planet will be fine no matter what we do... it's humanity that'll be fucked.
posted by vorfeed at 10:49 AM on October 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


I like how some people point at Europe and disparage its low or negative population growth, as though we're somehow "failing". They mock the "aging" of Europe like we're the ones headed for disaster.
posted by Jehan at 10:49 AM on October 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


Funny, living in the rust belt all I hear about is fretting over population loss and how to get more people here. I forget that's not exactly a problem in other places.
posted by octothorpe at 10:50 AM on October 25, 2011


Things are getting better, not worse.

☑ Saddam Hussein
☑ Osama Bin Laden
☑ Muammar Gaddafi
☐ Internet Explorer
posted by Fizz at 10:50 AM on October 25, 2011 [30 favorites]


Shouldn't we all chip in a little something for the seven billionth? I think that would be nice.
posted by Curious Artificer at 10:53 AM on October 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


Some population numbers based on data rather than on demographer's mathematical models here and here.

I suspect sensationalistic overpopulation panic is a useful idea for nudging people to view others with less empathy.

But as this article notes:
The major problem with the UN’s approach is that it has revised upwards the projected growth rates of the world from its predictions in 2008 despite the fact that the current actual world population and growth rates are lower than that predicted two years ago. So in effect the UN has predicted that the future growth rates will be higher than it predicted at a time when the actual growth rate and population was higher.
There are actually lots of signs human population has already hit its peak. So I don't really understand what these fantasy numbers have to do with anything. (Also, Sir Attenborough is apparently kind of a dick.)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:53 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Well I know it would seem silly to point to the obvious, but since no one has said it yet-- why the **** are we not perfecting the ability to live on other planets/use resources from other planets?

I get that we aren't there yet, but we damn well should assume this is an essential mission since no matter what we know the sun is going to end and if we want the human species to go on beyond that we need to live in outer space.

I get that that seems so far away so as not to matter but it is inevetable that time will progress to that point whether with out without humans on this planet and if there are humans on this planet they damn well WILL care very much.

If we could figure out how to live in space in the next thousand years, it would be great.

Also, we should figure out how to let humans use photosynthesis in order to produce their own energy. Seriously. Photosynthesis. I think we might even be able to find a way to do this without genetic alterations.
posted by xarnop at 10:53 AM on October 25, 2011


We may indeed start to run out of tungsten ... and then we'll find a replacement for it, or a technology that obviates the need for it ... or a super-magic-birth-control drug that lowers the number of people that need it.

You aren't allowed magic birth control, because that's not "at the current rate of expansion".

At some point, every single human gets exactly one atom of Earth. Now a human is born. No amount of rose-colored glasses or pollyannaish "things will always get better" will fix that.
posted by DU at 10:54 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


we'll find a replacement for it, or a technology that obviates the need for it ... or a super-magic-birth-control drug that lowers the number of people that need it.

The search for these dei ex machina might be hampered by resource wars and global famine, so try not to cut it too close.
posted by Trurl at 10:54 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


why the **** are we not perfecting the ability to live on other planets/use resources from other planets?

Who's going to pay for that?
posted by shakespeherian at 10:55 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


See, we've got enough people to lob some at Mars. Just keep doing that until some of them figure out how to build colony. WIN WIN.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:55 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


why the **** are we not perfecting the ability to live on other planets/use resources from other planets?

Who's going to pay for that?


Our children or their children. Oh wait...
posted by Fizz at 10:57 AM on October 25, 2011


Funny, living in the rust belt all I hear about is fretting over population loss and how to get more people here. I forget that's not exactly a problem in other places.

I already have a solution for this. It involves the Jesusland map and cutting off water supplies.

Is it bad that I believe there is a genuine chance for the US to split apart in my lifetime?
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:57 AM on October 25, 2011


why the **** are we not perfecting the ability to live on other planets/use resources from other planets?

That would be rather more difficult than learning to live on this planet, which we are a long way from perfecting.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:57 AM on October 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'm hoping it exists, and that it doesn't include introducing predators into the ecosystem.

The best way to achieve population control is to improve infant mortality rates, increase education, and improve the status of women.

Improve infant mortality rates, and farming families won't feel the need to hedge their bets and have more children to help out on the farm, in case half of their children die in infancy anyway.

Improve education, and you can get more people off the farm and can improve productivity.

Improve the status of women and you can ensure better birth control, better nutrition, better education.

But it's important to address infant mortality (that is, improve neonatal life expectancy) if we want to curb the population.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:58 AM on October 25, 2011 [17 favorites]


Funny, living in the rust belt all I hear about is fretting over population loss and how to get more people here. I forget that's not exactly a problem in other places.

Don't be so sure. As the article I linked above points out, all this current 7 billion nonsense is based on nothing more than mathematical population growth models that haven't been actually matching the real-world data for some time now.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:59 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


The point was that, humans are actually pretty smart, and things generally get better over time, not worse. We may indeed start to run out of tungsten ... and then we'll find a replacement for it, or a technology that obviates the need for it ... or a super-magic-birth-control drug that lowers the number of people that need it.

I keep my ears open about food. Particularly new, exotic forms of protein that get gently advertised/reported on in the media, like horse, which is not something on most dinner tables in the United States.

Another story I heard recently was about fish restaurants surreptitiously replacing one type of (expensive and scarce) fish with another (less expensive and plentiful) fish, when consumers will not notice. And a burgeoning middle class in China and (to a lesser extent) Russia is hungry for fish that are endangered, like bluefin tuna. Tuna is an apex predator, and if they go extinct, it is unclear what effect that will have on other species (and, indirectly, food supply).

It seems like we're hitting a food consumption wall at some point soon. The question is when, and to what extent economics will drive consumption and extinction of species we'd otherwise never eat. If we don't stop reproducing, I wouldn't be surprised if Soylent Green comes to our supermarket shelves sooner rather than later. We have a lot of hungry mouths to feed.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:59 AM on October 25, 2011


Things are getting better, not worse.

Which planet do you live on? On my planet, during my lifetime, populations of many species have fallen dramatically or become extinct. Water and air are globally polluted. Productive topsoils have been lost. Forests have been reduced and deserts increased. The oceans have become depleted of life and coral reefs are dying. If your view of improvement is the techno-optimism that says humans are "pretty smart" and can solve their problems.... well let's just say I don't share your faith based on the evidence I have seen.
posted by binturong at 10:59 AM on October 25, 2011 [21 favorites]


But by all means, don't let facts keep you from discussing a preferred counter-factual reality...
posted by saulgoodman at 11:00 AM on October 25, 2011


Shouldn't we all chip in a little something for the seven billionth? I think that would be nice.

Reserved.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:02 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Unless we can feed kids tungsten, in which case the magic of science may yet help bail us out.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:03 AM on October 25, 2011


I invite the "A chance to begin again..." off-world types to imagine that human colonists have just landed on a lush virgin planet orbiting the nearby star of your choice.

How long would it take for them to establish their first garbage dump?
posted by Trurl at 11:03 AM on October 25, 2011


Well, at least on the positive side, we've still got a ways to go before it's like Coruscant.
posted by crapmatic at 11:15 AM on October 25, 2011


Population growth is actually slowing in most countries, including most developing countries, though in a few it remains stubbornly high. The long-term challenge isn't how to deal with too many people, but how to plan for a world with shrinking populations.

Energy prices are going to get more expensive, for sure. That's just a product of two billion people in China and India being released from the grip to socialist policies that kept them in isolated poverty for decades. It's a good thing. But there's also plenty of fossil fuel discoveries going on that will ensure that while energy may never again be cheap, it's also not going to run out. And price signals are the best way to spur both conservation and innovation, which in the long run will be the most important contributors to dealing with a world with a large, relatively wealthy population.

Neo-Malthusians always take pleasure in telling us why THIS TIME IT'S DIFFERENT. Malthus was wrong; Ehrlich was wrong; the Club of Rome was wrong. But this time, Thomas Homer-Dixon or whoever else is predicting catastrophe is right because X has changed. They never count on price signals driving substitution, innovation and conservation; and they never give enough credit to human ingenuity. They inflate real challenges and problems into insurmountable, inevitable catastrophes. They ignore the fact that humanity is healthier and better-fed than it has ever been.

Global warming, in particular, has become the new trump card. Well, things may be getting better, but soon - just you wait - it will make EVERYTHING INEVITABLY WORSE. Any potential upside is dismissed - that global warming might allow an increase in food production in marginal areas, or that global cooling would be inestimably worse (dry conditions can at least be dealt with by irrigation, but try growing crops in sodden, cold summers for a few years and see what happens).

It all amounts to doom-mongering. It's immensely psychologically satisfying - to be in possession of the harsh truth, to be one of the few willing to face up to it, to be superior to the masses fooling themselves. If only the same pattern of thinking had ever had any predictive ability. But it hasn't, and it won't. Because humans won't let it. We'll adapt, we'll outthink our problems, and life will go on.
posted by Dasein at 11:15 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


The market is going to save us? Okay, good luck with that.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:17 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


You're right, living in space will be too complicated, we better focus on developing the ability to photosynthesize our own energy source to reduce the potential for famine. We should stick to plans that are realistic.

"don't let facts keep you from discussing a preferred counter-factual reality"

Don't worry saulgoodman, I'll stick to the facts. So, on to brainstorming, could we inject some little photosynthesizing thingamagigies from plant cells into our cells, you know kind of like an organ transplant, but it's an organelle transplant? I think we're getting somewhere. Yes yes.... I need a research lab muahahahah!!

Ok so we would all turn green but we could live through famine like no other!

Really if everyone had no more than one or two kids the population would reduce. I actually don't think it's unfathomable that education/resources/support to help people understand the value of this and also carry it out wouldn't see this trend take hold.

Where it's not taking hold are areas where there is a lot of poverty/poor education/emotional strife and situations where immediate present moment thinking is more needed than long term thinking. So, let's work on getting support to kids who lives are so chaotic they don't have much brain power to devote to control their desires for a mate/love/sex/support and to think through how their breeding choices affect anyone other than themselves. Really, truly, healthy parenting environments, peer groups and school systems tend to give people better tools to do this kind of "more than the self, more than the present moment" kind of thinking. And parents who have stable living conditions and health and well being, i.e. are getting the mental and emotional and nutritional etc support they need, will be better able to give their kids these kinds of tools.

So just to say, I think the othering and hatred of "breeders" serves to make people from populations that are already marginilized where higher birth rates are more common retreat from interacting with the more educated and monified populations that scorn them. When really, if you actually want them to see your way, you might try seeing them as human beings with speficic reasons for their behaviors before communicating a message to them.
posted by xarnop at 11:17 AM on October 25, 2011


A building 100 km long by 100 km wide by 100 meters tall would house 10 billion people with 10 cubic meters each. Just sayin'.
posted by No Robots at 11:21 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


A building 100 km long by 100 km wide by 100 meters tall would house 10 billion people with 10 cubic meters each.

You're really going to pay extra for those balcony units.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:24 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


A building 100 km long by 100 km wide by 100 meters tall would house 10 billion people with 10 cubic meters each. Just sayin'.

That would be a hell of a morning commute.
posted by fusinski at 11:24 AM on October 25, 2011


Once I heard that if you turned the Grand Canyon into an apartment complex, every human being could get his or her own 1000-square-foot apartment. I'm sure that figure was intended to emphasize how large the Grand Canyon is, but now every time I hear about the world population I imagine one very large apartment building, a mile or so tall and wide, and a hundred or so miles long. Even though our resource use dominates the planet's ecosystem, our actual habitat is incredibly tiny.

On preview, what No Robots said.
posted by miyabo at 11:24 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


A new mother I work with was fretting over this to me last week, wondering what it would mean for her son to be born into such a crowded world and what she should teach him that could help. My suggestion of butchering skills wasn't well received.
posted by Blue Meanie at 11:27 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Watching this population clock makes me dizzy. People are flowing in and out of existence like water.
posted by WalkingAround at 11:27 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


A building 100 km long by 100 km wide by 100 meters tall would house 10 billion people with 10 cubic meters each. Just sayin'.

Again again again, the problem is not overcrowding. The problem is resource allocation. You can fit trillions of people on the earth, no problem. You will need more room if you want to feed them.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:27 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


No Robots: And everyone could stand on Zanzibar if they had to. The problem is the amount of land needed to produce enough power. food, air, and consumer goods to keep the poor bastards in that teeming termite mound of an arcology alive, healthy and somewhat sane.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:27 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


They ignore the fact that humanity is healthier and better-fed than it has ever been

There are more people hungry today than existed on the entire planet 200 years ago.

So I would say it matters which side you're looking at it from.
posted by Trurl at 11:28 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


We'll adapt, we'll outthink our problems, and life will go on.

I must agree that life will go on and that "we'll adapt" (although, who's "we" white man?). But your perception that the problem is a purely human one that can be solved by technology ignores the wider reality: we are one species of animal on a planet with finite resources and dependent, like all animals, on pretty fundamental things such as food and water. Genetic engineering and space travel and alternative energy don't even begin to acknowledge ecological facts of life.

It all amounts to doom-mongering. It's immensely psychologically satisfying

I guess being Polyanna is psychologically satisfying too.
posted by binturong at 11:28 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


My suggestion of butchering skills wasn't well received.

She's seen Delicatessen?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:31 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


But your perception that the problem is a purely human one that can be solved by technology ignores the wider reality

Technology doesn't solve any resource problems. I thought that was a well-established notion pretty much beyond reproach at this point.
posted by fusinski at 11:37 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


TUNGSTEN?

every new life on this planet, no matter what form it takes, requires resources. food, energy, water. if it's a human life it wants cars and plastic junk and gasoline and doritos (well not all of them but people use stuff). resources, aside from solar and wind energy, are finite. well, solar energy is finite but we can stretch that one out a bit longer. animals deal with shortages of these requirements by not reproducing in excess and also dying off when their resources run out. humans think they can outrun that. animals don't have money to pay for more resources. money gives humans the illusion they'll always have more resources than the next human who doesn't have as much money. and also animals cannot consume resources outside of their living area. humans use money to do that.

i'm not completely pessimistic. if technology can push nuclear, wind, and solar to the point where we can use them as primary sources of energy instead of petroleum, then life for humans becomes slightly more sustainable. i'm afraid we'll still have that pesky water problem, however being cleaner with our energy use can help prevent the pollution of viable water resources.

all of this economic turmoil right now is being pinned to a lack of real growth. real growth, as we've known it, has come on the back of cheap energy. there were 2.5b people in the 50s. that cheap energy is gone now. even with sputtering growth and threats of a fall back into recession, oil prices are still edging back up towards $100bbl.

i just don't think this is gonna end well. we've already lost valuable time this year because of what has happened in Japan regarding nuclear energy. i'm glad we have all learned the word 'sustainable', but 7b humans is NOT sustainable with the tools and resources we have now.
posted by ninjew at 11:42 AM on October 25, 2011


Technology doesn't solve any resource problems... by itself.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 11:43 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Educate women -- educate girls before they become women -- and make birth control free to everybody. Use a little of that missile money to help women in poor countries (mainly in Africa) where the average woman bears about three or four times as many children as she should.
posted by pracowity at 11:43 AM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


You will need more room if you want to feed them.

Hmm. If 7 billion people each eat 2500 calories a day, they consume about 850 gigawatts. A big nuclear power plant is about 10 gigawatts, so you'd need 85 of those. Or the insolation from a square area 30 miles on a side would do the trick.

Sadly we don't have a technology for converting electrical energy into food energy, but how hard can it be?

I think I'll go write a sci-fi novel.
posted by miyabo at 11:46 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's Grim Dire on famine in West Africa.

I have a horrible suspicion that the solution to the population crisis in the industrial north is going to be machine guns on the border and gunboats in the ocean. Coupled with smug hypocrisy about 'consequences of poor planing' while Africa exports food and natural resources. It worked a treat with the Irish and the Indians.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:48 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I say, we just sew all seven billion people into one big human centipede. Then we'll really only need food for one person.
posted by XMLicious at 11:49 AM on October 25, 2011


I'm surprised no one has proposed the quick and easy alternative solution. We still do have those fantastic nuclear stockpiles from the cold war sitting around. All we need is some mine shafts and a little Balthorium-G and this pesky population problem will go the way of the dinosaurs.
posted by Hactar at 11:51 AM on October 25, 2011


Dasein: Things can be done to mitigate population growth, but it remains that they only mitigate it. And capitalist growth systems might be able to feed everyone, but will it be able to support them on a level beyond mere sustenance? We might be able to feed radically more people than we do now (and I don't really know if we can), but what will life be like to those people?

As demand for food increases prices will increase, and of course it'll be the poorest who are hurt by that the most. It's only a matter of time before the "solution" is posed by the richest people who are in control of the media that we should just let the poor die off, and when confronted by the insanity of that plan will respond with "What are we going to do? There's just not enough food!" the same way John Boehner shrugs and says "We're broke" while advocates curtailing government services. Boehner will of course leave out the possibility of raising taxes, and the rich will of course neglect the possibility of them giving up some of their money to feed the poor.

It's one thing to say that we can overcome the formidable obstacles ahead of us through research and technology, but it is a fact that there is no guarantee that solutions can be found. We are going to have to transition to more sustainable systems eventually, and that's going to eventually have to include some form of birth control. In fact, I think we'll eventually end up not having to impose too hard a hand there, since people do have to pay to raise the children they have; lots of people now choose not to reproduce rather than have to sustain them, that's part of the reason population growth is slowing in developed countries, and that will probably increase in the future.

fusinski, on Jevon's paradox: While I didn't know it by name I had suspected something like that would be the case, but it appears (to me anyway) to primarily apply to industrial uses. If we improve energy production we tend to find uses for that extra energy, and then some; if we improve food production, people aren't going to eat more each, at least not beyond a certain level.
posted by JHarris at 11:52 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


It all amounts to doom-mongering. It's immensely psychologically satisfying

I guess being Polyanna is psychologically satisfying too.


Can't we avoid both? Just because I don't think its helpful to put faith in questionable models before the actual data, I don't at the same time consider it helpful to pretend there aren't real problems with resource use, pollution, irresponsible development, and over-consumption that threaten our ability to sustain a human population at current levels for long.

Either way, how some folks can make the leap from population growth to climate change like that, when damning new evidence against the climate change skeptics came out just this week, I'll never know. Is this one of the upsides you had in mind, Dasein?

All I'm pointing out is that these climate models have recently been found to be inconsistent with actual data on population growth, and that may mean we've already peaked. Not that, suddenly, we can use up every drop of water in the ocean and poison everything else without fear of consequences.

Maybe we lucked out and our population levels have actually leveled off now, in contrast to the sensationalistic model-based claims in the FPP. That doesn't mean we need to go forth and be fruitful and multiply the earth with renewed vigor and damn the consequences now.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:53 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


We'll adapt, we'll outthink our problems, and life will go on.

Tell that to, say, the coral reefs, and all of the animals that depend on them. Or a third of the world's mammals.
posted by IjonTichy at 11:53 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


*I say, we just sew all seven billion people into one big human centipede. Then we'll really only need food for one person*

Trickle down economics?
posted by Phalene at 11:53 AM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


I used to live in Southern California; we had smog alerts in the 70s and couldn't play outside. There are twice as many people there now, and the air is cleaner, not worse.

All of you doom-sayers ... I'll just say, see you all in a few decades when everything is better for most people. See ya.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:57 AM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


I say, we just sew all seven billion people into one big human centipede. Then we'll really only need food for one person

Luckily, this would be a movie so disgusting that there would be no more need for food, ever.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:57 AM on October 25, 2011


Nature: Hidden assumption hypes species-loss predictions
posted by BobbyVan at 11:58 AM on October 25, 2011


People around the globe are healthier, richer and better educated than ever before, with most developing countries registering huge gains over the last 40 years, a U.N. report released Thursday shows. (article from November, 2010)
posted by BobbyVan at 12:02 PM on October 25, 2011


It's only a matter of time before the "solution" is posed by the richest people who are in control of the media that we should just let the poor die off, and when confronted by the insanity of that plan will respond with "What are we going to do? There's just not enough food!"

I'm already getting a little of that kind of vibe from certain quarters even about the unemployed in my own state (it's not nearly to that point yet, but there's a bit of--well, resentment toward the unemployed and a sense of futility over how to deal with them, for sure), so that's a factor in why I'm eager to point out the actual data isn't supporting the "out of control population growth is our biggest problem story" so much anymore. Also this topic always seems to lead to casual joking about genocide, or mass starvation fantasies, which can't be a healthy habit to indulge...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:02 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nature: Hidden assumption hypes species-loss predictions

You might want read that news article a bit more carefully:

In 1995, Pimm wrote a paper estimating extinction rates of birds in eastern North America due to historical deforestation3. Pimm says their method predicted that 4.5 species would be lost — and today, four have been lost and one teeters on the edge of extinction. "Our paper nailed the number on the head," he says. Hubbell and He overlooked dozens of other examples of studies that have successfully used species–area curves to predict extinction rates, he says.

That doesn't invalidate the usefulness of He's work where models fail, but to categorically claim that extinctions are not happening at predicted rates is false.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:07 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Monkeys like to fuck.
posted by Lon Mem at 12:11 PM on October 25, 2011


I think we'll eventually end up not having to impose too hard a hand there, since people do have to pay to raise the children they have
That's the prehistoric biological solution to population control, yes: animals which try to have too many children can't "pay for" (i.e. focus enough resources on) each, so the excess children die, so the more prudent animal population which remains has been selectively bred to avoid having too many children.

Is that the solution we want for humans, though? Despite hypothetical negative long-term consequences, it's pretty popular to interrupt this selection process by redistributing resources away from the prudent, because otherwise we find the "excess children die" step to be grossly appalling.
posted by roystgnr at 12:13 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gentlemen use condoms.
posted by No Robots at 12:14 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


You might want read that news article a bit more carefully:

You might not want to latch onto the first critical quote from another scientist before making your judgment. And no one "categorically claim[ed] that extinctions are not happening at predicted rates" either. What He and Hubbell did was to show that there are some significant problems with the model used to estimate species-loss, and that the assumption that shrinking habitats are necessarily correlated to extinction has the potential to overstate estimates.

This article in the NY Times gives a pretty balanced look at the extinction rate controversy.

Whether we're talking about Malthus or Erlich or any other "Club of Rome" scientist with a doom-and-gloom model, the spectacular failures of past predictions should counsel skepticism.
posted by BobbyVan at 12:18 PM on October 25, 2011


They mock the "aging" of Europe like we're the ones headed for disaster.

Who's gonna wipe your ass, grandpa?

I post this in every one of these (many) threads:

"There is a 60 per cent probability that the world's population will not exceed 10 billion people before 2100, and around a 15 per cent probability that the world's population at the end of the century will be lower than it is today."

"The population timebomb is fast being defused – now we need to fix the habits of the greedy few."

It's also interesting that there is no scientific consensus on the maximum number on people the planet can support. Not even close.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:20 PM on October 25, 2011


"But it hasn't, and it won't. Because humans won't let it. We'll adapt, we'll outthink our problems, and life will go on."

A) The early doomsayers are almost certainly an important part of this process.
B) Just muddling along as a species doesn't really do much for the 50,000 people who die from poverty every day.

Cornucopianism are the people who chide The Boy Who Cried Wolf that one last time while their sheep are being eaten. On one hand, you sure taught that Boy a lesson. On the other hand, you just lost your livelihood, wool and food source.
posted by Skwirl at 12:24 PM on October 25, 2011


Also this topic always seems to lead to casual joking

The reality is that, in most cases, we are the direct cause of a worsening global ecology, and the progression of this will continue indefinitely, without some changes. Overpopulation is one cause, and while there are different models for future population changes, if you have hungry people, that puts pressure on a shrinking supply of food, clean water and cheap energy.

You have a few options. You can hope that humor gets people to reconsider problems and causes (in order to make needed changes), or you can remain stoic, or you can even pretend everything will work out, even though that perspective is generally colored by personal experience in an industrialized nation with environmental and ecological laws, etc. that most other countries generally lack or do not enforce to the same degree. (It's not even clear that such laws could be preserved as problems worsen.)

the spectacular failures of past predictions should counsel skepticism

Actually, that style of "global-warming-is-a-fraud" hyperbole is precisely what the second half of that news article goes out of its way to counter.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:25 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Once I heard that if you turned the Grand Canyon into an apartment complex, every human being could get his or her own 1000-square-foot apartment. I'm sure that figure was intended to emphasize how large the Grand Canyon is, but now every time I hear about the world population I imagine one very large apartment building, a mile or so tall and wide, and a hundred or so miles long.

It'd be like Friends, only with more selection when we wanted to all marry each other by the end.
posted by orange swan at 12:28 PM on October 25, 2011


Whether we're talking about Malthus or Erlich or any other "Club of Rome" scientist with a doom-and-gloom model, the spectacular failures of past predictions should counsel skepticism.

I hear what you're saying, but the quibbles (Look, species are not disappearing as fast as some models predict! Look, human population growth rates are slowing) still don't alter the fundamental population/resources connections that can be studied in any ecology textbook. It is certain that the human population will reach a peak and then stabilize or decline. The decline could be gradual or catastrophic. So the only question is not IF that will happen but only WHEN. And, for those around at the time, HOW?
posted by binturong at 12:29 PM on October 25, 2011


>> I used to live in Southern California; we had smog alerts in the 70s and couldn't play outside. There are twice as many people there now, and the air is cleaner, not worse.

Air pollution in Southern California is still worst in the nation.

Your comparison is like saying: "Back in the 70s, I used to get beaten with a baseball bat. Now, I only get beaten with a hammer."
posted by Lon Mem at 12:36 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is certain that the human population will reach a peak and then stabilize or decline. The decline could be gradual or catastrophic. So the only question is not IF that will happen but only WHEN. And, for those around at the time, HOW?

The peak and decline is always tied to better health outcomes. In the past, human populations were kept in check (we assume - I've asked resident archaeologist Rumple about life expectancy and infant mortality in pre-contact northwest coast indigenous communities, but he has said there is not a lot of data) by disease and food scarcity.

Nowadays, as I've already argued in this thread, it is all about improved health outcomes and education. I would actually be pretty optimistic about the fate of humanity (the fate of the planet's other animals, well...).
posted by KokuRyu at 12:38 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


species are not disappearing as fast as some models predict!

That should be stressed. He's research isn't saying that modeled species aren't going extinct, it is saying that some assumptions in some models are incorrect, and these leads to less accurate predictions about extinction rates.

There is a wide gulf of meaning between "species are not going extinct" and "species are going extinct, just not as fast".

Current extinction rates are still faster than they have been at any time in history, except for cataclysmic Hand-of-God-style events, like geological catastrophes or asteroid impacts.

If you want a world where your kids aren't eating each other, hopefully we can do better than a Koch-like approach of calling all scientific models into question, just because some might be.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:42 PM on October 25, 2011


There'll be massive die-offs or there won't, and we'll hit 15 billion or we won't. In the long run (which is really the short run) none of this matters. Individual human societies are very unlikely to persist over geologic time, and on that time scale humanity itself will probably be gone soon. Our existence is insignificant even on a planetary level, devoid of any meaning save the meaning we give it.

How many of us can live, and for how long is the wrong question to be asking, because the answer is all too obvious: beyond a small handful of moments, none. What we should be looking at is how we live, and how well.
posted by vorfeed at 12:44 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Actually, that style of "global-warming-is-a-fraud" hyperbole...

I'm really loving the irony of being accused of hyperbole by someone who thinks that restaurants substituting tilapia for red snapper is a slouch towards Soylent Green.

It is certain that the human population will reach a peak and then stabilize or decline. The decline could be gradual or catastrophic. So the only question is not IF that will happen but only WHEN. And, for those around at the time, HOW?


You're exactly right about that. Clearly there is an upper bound for human population on this planet. I just think that there is no way to accurately determine that number, as no model can sufficiently capture the impact of technological discoveries.

And as health care and education continues to improve in Africa and Developing Asia, fertility there will likely decline as it has in Europe and Developed Asia.

and on preview, again with the humans eating each other...
posted by BobbyVan at 12:46 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cool Papa Bell: The point was that, humans are actually pretty smart, and things generally get better over time, not worse. We may indeed start to run out of tungsten ... and then we'll find a replacement for it, or a technology that obviates the need for it ... or a super-magic-birth-control drug that lowers the number of people that need it.

Dasein: It all amounts to doom-mongering. It's immensely psychologically satisfying - to be in possession of the harsh truth, to be one of the few willing to face up to it, to be superior to the masses fooling themselves. If only the same pattern of thinking had ever had any predictive ability. But it hasn't, and it won't. Because humans won't let it. We'll adapt, we'll outthink our problems, and life will go on.

I'm confused as to why anyone thinks this argument holds water. I don't think it's valid to induct on the human history of adapting to problems in our way, both because there isn't a good model underlying why the presence of that ability should continue to hold (unlike the classic case of the sun rising every day) and because there are counter-examples. What it looks like to me is an easy out that keeps you from having to counter predictions that are based on extrapolations from empirical studies with real data of your own, instead allowing you to handwave scientifically grounded hypotheses away with an appeal to some as yet unrealized fruits of human ingenuity. There very well might be a good argument in favor of the hypothesis that we shouldn't worry too much about the rising global population, but this lazy tack isn't it.

The biggest irony about this debate is that the side relying on technologies that don't exist yet as a solution to our problems almost always manages to package its arguments with some rhetoric about how the other side is detached from reality.
posted by invitapriore at 12:57 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Our existence is insignificant even on a planetary level, devoid of any meaning save the meaning we give it.

Hence, favorites.
posted by Trurl at 12:59 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


As demand for food increases prices will increase, and of course it'll be the poorest who are hurt by that the most.

Yes. Poverty - not a lack of food - is the real problem. Increasing agricultural productivity is in order to keep prices down - rather than in order just to have enough food - is an imperative. It's unfortunate that there's so much resistance to GMOs, as they are undoubtedly the best way to increase productivity.
posted by Dasein at 1:00 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Things are getting better, not worse.
posted by Cool Papa Bell Candide


FTFY
posted by dhartung at 1:07 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


mrgrimm, this planet can SUSTAIN indefinitely (or until the sun expires) exactly zero humans. There is no argument to be had on that one.
posted by Yowser at 1:07 PM on October 25, 2011


>> It's unfortunate that there's so much resistance to GMOs, as they are undoubtedly the best way to increase productivity.

Undoubtedly, huh?
posted by Lon Mem at 1:09 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Undoubtedly, huh?

Yes. The alternative is using lots of fertilizer, which is expensive and creates runoff. GMOs can be tailored for particular crops in particular conditions. But they offend the primitivist sensibilities of European greens, so the most promising technology for food production is being massively underutilized.
posted by Dasein at 1:15 PM on October 25, 2011


Really, nobody under the poverty line or homeless in Iowa? Great job.
Not due to a lack of food statewide. Although I don't know if I would could feed 15 billion people.

The other thing though, as long as people are still eating meat theres' still plenty of room for more people. I forget the exact numbers, but the number of calories you eat in meat require a huge amount of calories in grain. One person with a largely meat diet accounts for a large number of people who don't eat much meat. I'd love to see stats on that.

The other issue though is that our modern agriculture relies heavily on lots of fossil fuels. It would be interesting to see how many people we can cram on this planet in the most efficient way.
I used to live in Southern California; we had smog alerts in the 70s and couldn't play outside. There are twice as many people there now, and the air is cleaner, not worse.
Thanks to environmental activists, by the way.

--
Anyway, it's easy to show that wealth leads to population growth decline. Boost the standard of living around the world, and you'll greatly reduce population increases drastically. There isn't really any need for any drastic measures (other then drastically increasing education and access to birth control in the 3rd world, for example)
You're exactly right about that. Clearly there is an upper bound for human population on this planet. I just think that there is no way to accurately determine that number, as no model can sufficiently capture the impact of technological discoveries.
Well the question is what's the ideal number for optimal quality of life. maybe we can cram 500 billion people on this planet if we all eat nothing but GMO algae and live crammed into tiny apartments below giant algae tanks, but how is that a good thing?
posted by delmoi at 1:18 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Current extinction rates are still faster than they have been at any time in history, except for cataclysmic Hand-of-God-style events, like geological catastrophes or asteroid impacts.

Let's be clear about exactly what "extinction rate" we're talking about. While it's instructive to compare the current rate against the historical "background" rate, what's the overall number? Bjørn Lomborg has pulled together estimates from UN researchers and determined a projected extinction rate of 0.7% over the next 50 years. It should be noted that that estimate dates from 2001.

Given all that humans are doing in the world, 0.7% ain't that bad.
posted by BobbyVan at 1:19 PM on October 25, 2011


BobbyVan: "Half of all living bird and mammal species will be gone within 200 or 300 years, according to a botany professor at The University of Texas at Austin."

Dasein: We'll adapt, we'll outthink our problems, and life will go on.

I'm dubious. Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in "The Black Swan" that our cognitive biases cause us to overestimate the likelihood of continued stability, and to underestimate the likelihood of disruptive change.

Our leaders aren't any smarter than we are. (For evidence, see the presidency of George W. Bush, and the ineffectual responses to the current economic crisis. Axel Oxenstierna: "Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?")

History has plenty of examples of follies and disasters. I'd be surprised if we made it through the next 100 years without some serious discontinuities.
posted by russilwvong at 1:28 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


*I say, we just sew all seven billion people into one big human centipede. Then we'll really only need food for one person*

Trickle down economics?


You know that trickle down economics used to be called the horse and sparrow theory? For, um, pretty much the same reasons.


They mock the "aging" of Europe like we're the ones headed for disaster.

Who's gonna wipe your ass, grandpa?


Sure, if that's the scale of disaster we're headed for, then we've got it easy. The are almost a billion people in the world today without enough food. Having a shitty ass ain't a bad predicament.
posted by Jehan at 1:29 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


>> We have room for you in Iowa.

No, you don't.

People look at the population issue as "where can people live," but it's mostly about the infrastructure needed to keep humans alive and enjoying the system they've come to rely on. So, if you see endless corn fields, or giant feed lots, you can't just stick humans there. Anymore than if you see an empty highway, you can imagine a house on the median. If you see an empty field, imagine the polluted ground water which flows underneath, the hidden Superfund site (assuming it's ever been assessed as such) from the factory ten miles away that dumped its tainted waste into the soil.

A giant "empty" field where soybeans or coffee is grown is not empty at all. Most "empty" places are more spoken for in terms of supporting human population than is readily apparent. Most people make the common mistake of solely equating human impact to the presence of houses and strip malls.

"Look. No one is in the park today. Overpopulation is a myth." Also, similar to the climate change denialists "See. It's cold/hot today, therefore global climate change is a myth."

Hence the common and poorly parsed misconception of the "well, everyone in the world can fit in Texas, so what's the problem" meme. Humans have altered in some way 97% of all land on earth.

First world nations like the US have a distorted view of what infrastructure is deployed to support their lavish lifestyle. Air pollution in Southern California may have decreased slightly, but it's increased in Mexico and China. Our tech waste may or may not end up in a landfill in the US, but it certainly will end up on some distant beach in Guyana or Shanghai. In Germany and UK they shipped their toxic manufacturing to Eastern Europe. Japan? To China. And so on. Not cutting down the Hoh Rain Forest for TP and chopsticks as much because it offends tourists? That's because now we clear cut in Vietnam and Alaska. Out of sight. With a shitload of beauty strips to maintain the illusion of wild places.

If someone moves into the Iowa cornfield, that means our corn or soybeans will have to come from somewhere. So the multinational that was in Iowa cuts down rain forest in Brazil and your corn chips and soy milk gets shipped from the other side of the planet, increasing the human impact.

Since most Americans don't travel and assiduously, almost religiously, avoid any information about places not five miles adjacent to Target or Olive Garden, the true impact of our indulgent lifestyle remains invisible and we whistle past the graveyard while others suffer.
posted by Lon Mem at 1:30 PM on October 25, 2011 [13 favorites]


GMOs can be tailored for particular crops in particular conditions. But they offend the primitivist sensibilities of European greens...

Oh, is that the reason?

I thought it was all this stuff.
posted by Trurl at 1:31 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Toxic rain across the Pacific from China? Fukushima radiation in our milk in Sacramento?

That's us. Not "them."

That's Asia making our toys, gadgets, and other plastic crap.
posted by Lon Mem at 1:33 PM on October 25, 2011


the common and poorly parsed misconception of the "well, everyone in the world can fit in Texas, so what's the problem" meme.

The point is that we do have the technical wherewithal to significantly reduce the footprint of mankind as a whole, while at the same time ensuring that each individual human has sufficient resources for a satisfactory life.
posted by No Robots at 1:35 PM on October 25, 2011


people: you can't live with 'em, but the f*ckers are everywhere.
posted by ironjelly at 1:55 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


A building 100 km long by 100 km wide by 100 meters tall would house 10 billion people with 10 cubic meters each.

Stack them in racks, hook them to a massive VR array, and you could squeeze 30-40 billion more in there easy. And with good enough VR, they'd be happy.

(This is my prequel to the Matrix. Big spoiler: The machines didn't force us into the Matrix -- WE DID IT TO OURSELVES!)
posted by LordSludge at 1:57 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bjørn Lomborg has pulled together estimates from UN researchers and determined a projected extinction rate of 0.7% over the next 50 years.

Maybe I missed something, but having followed that link, it looks like he conjures this number out of nothing.
posted by IjonTichy at 2:01 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gloomers gotta gloom. Yet again.

Quick show of hands: How many gloomers here are willing to put their beliefs on the line, and off themselves? For the good of humanity, of course.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:05 PM on October 25, 2011


2N2222: The 'gloomers' are advocating contraception, increased efficiency and a decrease in over all consumption, not mass suicide. Mass death is what they're trying to avoid.

Cornucopians would have much more credibility in my eyes if their default fall back position from "Technology will fix everything" wasn't sneering middle school sophistry, followed by pretending they'd made a convincing argument.
posted by Grimgrin at 2:10 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


put their beliefs on the line

I am not rooting for humanity. I am rooting for life - which on the whole did a lot better without us in the mix.

This of course makes me a "species traitor" - as people were once "race traitors".

The sooner we overconsume ourselves out of existence, the fewer species we'll take down with us.

Now pass the Doritos, please.
posted by Trurl at 2:13 PM on October 25, 2011


Life will do just fine. It life feels like it Life will just dissolve back into a bacterial sea under a purple tinged sky, and it'll still be just as much alive.
posted by Artw at 2:17 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Maybe I missed something, but having followed that link, it looks like he conjures this number out of nothing.

Scroll up to page 255 for how he gets that number...
posted by BobbyVan at 2:18 PM on October 25, 2011


I would actually be pretty optimistic about the fate of humanity (the fate of the planet's other animals, well...).

Ask not for whom the bell tolls... The observation above is why we have a problem: people think that human destiny is separate from the web of life that sustains us. A recent example: the unforseen rapid decline of honeybee populations had a huge impact on production of crops that use bees for pollination. Ehrlich's analogy still holds -- the biosphere is like an aircraft and each species a nut or bolt that holds it together. There's some redundancy, so if nuts and bolts drop off we can still stay in the air. At a certain point, loss of a bolt or two causes failure of the whole system and it crashes. Animals and plants are not just pretty or ugly things in the landscape that we may or may not notice. They are all doing a job, people!!
posted by binturong at 2:25 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Once you start seeing life-forms, including your own, as expendable, then, well, all bets are off.

on preview: What binturong said.
posted by No Robots at 2:27 PM on October 25, 2011


Not that it makes all that much difference, but the US Census Bureau is projecting the world population won't reach 7 billion until sometime in March, 2012.
posted by Dead Man at 2:38 PM on October 25, 2011


Maybe I missed something, but having followed that link, it looks like he conjures this number out of nothing.

Scroll up to page 255 for how he gets that number...


Ah, thank you. This link might be informative. I've excerpted a relevant part here:

"...he totally confounds the process by which a species is judged to be extinct with the estimates and projections of extinction rates. Highly conservative rules hold that to be declared officially extinct, not only does a species have to be known to science, it has to be observed going to extinction (as in the case of the passenger pigeon, the last individual of which perished in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914). Or, in the absence of direct observation, it must not have been seen in nature for 50 years.

Projections of extinction rates, on the other hand, are generally based on the long-established relation between species number and area (which dates to 1921, not to the 1960s, as Lomborg maintains, and which demonstrates the rate at which species number increases with increase in area). Researchers then project what the reduction in a natural habitat will mean in terms of species loss. The disappearance of a species is not necessarily instantaneous, and thus some species that survive the initial reduction of the habitat are essentially "living dead"--they are not able to survive over the long term. The loss of species from habitat remnants is a widely documented phenomenon--in contrast to Lomborg's inclusion of an out-of-date assertion that no credible attempt has been made to pin down the underlying scientific assumptions."
posted by IjonTichy at 2:46 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Quick show of hands: How many gloomers here are willing to put their beliefs on the line, and off themselves?

That's a pretty foolish comment. Not the first one in this thread, granted, but it is still pretty foolish. Someone can be rationally concerned about the future of humanity, while still wishing for our lives to continue without the kind of suffering that will, in all likelihood, very probably be coming to future generations, if we don't start mending our ways.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:46 PM on October 25, 2011


Hey, where are we going? And what are we doing in this handbasket?
posted by jfuller at 2:58 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


>> Gloomers gotta gloom.

What are you, eight?
posted by Lon Mem at 3:11 PM on October 25, 2011


Global fertility rates have halved in the last fifty years (4.9 to 2.5). Fertility in developed countries, including the US, have already fallen below replacement rates. The world population is projected to peak at 10 billion at the end of this century. The population bomb was and is alarmist nonsense.

Humanity is totally capable of putting itself in an inescapable situation, but this isn't it.
posted by Ictus at 3:27 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


>A building 100 km long by 100 km wide by 100 meters tall would house 10 billion people with 10 cubic meters each. Just sayin'.

Again again again, the problem is not overcrowding. The problem is resource allocation. You can fit trillions of people on the earth, no problem. You will need more room if you want to feed them.

Easily solved: If you rack them and hook them to VR as described above, you can immobilize their bodies (no longer needed except as brain life-support). This cuts human energy consumption drastically. Indeed, our test subjects have shown an 89% reduction in caloric ... um..I've said too much.
posted by LordSludge at 3:31 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, thank you. This link might be informative. I've excerpted a relevant part here:

I see Tom Lovejoy complain a great deal in that excerpt, but I don't see him disputing the 0.7% figure originally cited by Lomborg, much less offer his own figure.
posted by BobbyVan at 4:12 PM on October 25, 2011


Here's an estimate from E. O. Wilson.
Lomborg's estimate of extinction rates is at odds with the vast majority of respected scholarship on extinction. His estimate, "0.7 percent over the next 50 years" -- or 0.014 percent per year -- is an order of magnitude smaller than the most conservative species extinction rates by authorities in the field. Here is my brief response to the analysis of extinction rates in The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Before humans existed, the species extinction rate was (very roughly) one species per million species per year (0.0001 percent). Estimates for current species extinction rates range from 100 to 10,000 times that, but most hover close to 1,000 times prehuman levels (0.1 percent per year), with the rate projected to rise, and very likely sharply. To wit:

Based on the work of Stuart Pimm of Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, anywhere from one to several bird species go extinct annually out of 10,000 known species -- hence, say 0.01-0.03 percent of living bird species are extinguished per year. But birds are unusual in that threatened bird species receive an extraordinary amount of human intervention: The real figure of observed extinctions would be much higher, very likely 10 (0.1 percent) per year or more, were it not for heroic efforts to save species on the brink of extinction. Captive breeding, strict protection, and maintenance of reserves especially designed for bird and mammal species have many species hanging on that would otherwise have gone globally extinct in the past several decades. See, for example, the special treatment accorded the nine critically endangered but extant psittacids (parrots). If you look at non-bird species -- for example, terrestrial and freshwater mollusks, a relatively unprotected group -- the extinction rates are much higher.
posted by russilwvong at 4:57 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


We'll adapt, we'll outthink our problems, and life will go on.

So I should get back to sculpting giant heads, then? Got it.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:46 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Paolo Bacigalupi will show us the way
posted by Renoroc at 6:12 PM on October 25, 2011


That E.O. Wilson quote is pretty thin, resting on two weak points:

1) Because some many scientists' estimates are higher, Lomborg must be wrong.
2) .01 to .03% of bird species go extinct each year, but if we did nothing, that number would be .1% (the "factor of 10" increase is something we should just trust Wilson about).

So we have an appeal to authority and an anecdotal counterfactual. I don't see much science there.
posted by BobbyVan at 7:46 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


And the rest of Wilson's argument rests on species-area calculations, highly imprecise guesstimates that have come under increasing criticism of late.
posted by BobbyVan at 7:55 PM on October 25, 2011


That's a lot of fucking.
posted by bardic at 8:50 PM on October 25, 2011


So we have an appeal to authority and an anecdotal counterfactual. I don't see much science there.

You cite the same article twice, when it doesn't say what you think it is saying. Your technique of FUD is strikingly similar to that used by climate change deniers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:55 PM on October 25, 2011


That's very interesting, Blazecock. I think your fixation on doomsday scenarios is strikingly similar to followers of Harold Camping.
posted by BobbyVan at 4:40 AM on October 26, 2011


The Global 2000 Report to the President: [58 page scanned .pdf]
between half a million and 2 million species - 15 to 20 percent of all species on earth - could be extinguished by 2000, mainly because of loss of wildlife habitat but also in part because of pollution
How did that prediction, sent to President Carter in 1980, work out?
posted by BobbyVan at 5:55 AM on October 26, 2011


What He and Hubbell did was to show that there are some significant problems with the model used to estimate species-loss, and that the assumption that shrinking habitats are necessarily correlated to extinction has the potential to overstate estimates.

Well, the paper shows that the model used to predict species loss may, in some cases, exaggerate species loss by at most as much as 60%, although the news article points out that there are many other cases in which predictions based on that method were borne out quite well. In any case, 60% is a far cry from the several orders of magnitude that Lomborg is claiming. Speaking of which, I finally followed the footnotes to determine where he got that number. Here are the steps he used:

1) He took a prediction made in 1997 by a single researcher about the number of insects that will go extinct in the next 300 years. (He also claims that since 1600 0.14 of all insects have died out, but he provides no citation for this claim.) I can only assume that this is the lowest estimate for any form of life that he could find in any literature anywhere.

2) He then claims that this same rate can be applied to birds, fitting the data very well. I can't check his work here, since the citation is buried in a page that I don't get to preview. Suffice it to say that I am very skeptical.

3) Finally, he makes the mindblowing assumption that this rate will then apply to *all* animals, an assumption which I can guarantee would get him laughed off the stage at any gathering of biologists in the world. Of course, he doesn't provide any actual evidence that the 0.7% rate actually generates accurate predictions for any other kind of organism.

If you consider what I described above to be rigorous science, well, all I can say is that I hope for your sake you never take a class from me.
posted by IjonTichy at 7:37 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


IjonTichy, I think someone is misunderstanding Mawdsley and Stork's model (which Lomborg used to estimate extinction rates across different types of species). Lomborg isn't saying that the extinction rate is exactly the same for insects, birds and mammals -- he's using Mawdsley and Stork's model to estimate the correlation (i.e., for every insect that becomes extinct, let's say that .05 birds go extinct, and .005 mammals go extinct -- I just made those numbers up, but that's how I understood the point Lomborg was making).

I agree that Lomborg needs to be more transparent about his figures. But given the extravagant claims made by other scientists about extinction rates in recent decades (see my comment above for an example), Lomborg looks pretty good by comparison (and I admit that that's not saying much).
posted by BobbyVan at 9:20 AM on October 26, 2011


Well, as I said, since I unfortunately don't have access to the relevant pages in the references, I can't directly check the source. That said, here's what the footnote about Mawdsley and Stork's model states:

"Stork (1997:61) estimates that between 100,000 and 500,000 of 8 million insects will die out over the next 300 years. This is equivalent to a maximum of 0.208 percent/decade, and an average of 350,000 is equivalent to 0.729 percent every 50 years, the figure mentioned at the beginning of this chapter."

To me, this really sounds as if he's taking the figure for insects and just applying it to all species. What am I missing?
posted by IjonTichy at 9:35 AM on October 26, 2011


...that's not to mention the fact that I don't know where Stork is getting this estimate for insect extinction over the next 300 (!) years, and Lomborg doesn't give us any reason to trust this estimate over the many, many higher estimates given by practically every other biologist working in the field.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:42 AM on October 26, 2011


If Lomborg simply took the figure for insects and applied to all species, he'd be misusing Stork and Mawdsley's model so blatantly that he would have been called on it much sooner. Here's a fuller explanation of their research, which is focused on determining "relative rates of extinction" across different types of species.
posted by BobbyVan at 10:00 AM on October 26, 2011


Well, perhaps you can explain to me where's he's getting the 0.7% number, then; because (based on the link you just gave me) Stork and Mawdley apply that number only to insects. The same authors give birds a mean relative extinction rate of 7.1 compared to insects, which would lead to a 5% extinction rate over the next 50 years.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:11 AM on October 26, 2011


Hmm. I wonder if Lomborg is averaging out all the species on earth and ending up with a figure that is necessarily heavily weighted towards invertebrates. If so, that seems like quite the "trick."
posted by BobbyVan at 10:45 AM on October 26, 2011


Soylent Green is People!
posted by silkyd at 11:43 AM on October 26, 2011


Ahhh... you may be right. If so, I suppose that could be technically correct (although he could really, really stand to show his work more). That said, for better or for worse I think most people care more about the fates of the vertebrates.
posted by IjonTichy at 3:08 PM on October 26, 2011


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