Questions on Human population reduction | Brussels Blog

Questions on Human population reduction

posted by on 28th Oct 2014

Questions I put on Corey Bradshaw’s blog,  Conservation Bytes, after his recent paper.

The abstract for the paper, “Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems”, starts:

The inexorable demographic momentum of the global human population is rapidly eroding Earth’s life-support system. There are consequently more frequent calls to address environmental problems by advocating further reductions in human fertility… Assuming a continuation of current trends in mortality reduction, even a rapid transition to a worldwide onechild policy leads to a population similar to today’s by 2100.

My questions and comment …


With regard to your PNAS paper “Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems”.


I heard you on the BBC World Service early this morning (28th October) and noted there was no mention of reducing consumption or of the uneven distribution of relative consumption between the rich and the poor. Having paid for access to your PNAS paper I find…

“A corollary of this finding is that society’s efforts toward sustainability would be directed more productively toward adapting to the large and increasing human population by rapidly reducing our footprint as much as possible through technological and social innovation”,

So you have an emphasis on “rapidly reducing our footprint”.


Before the potato famine in Ireland, human population reached 1000 people per square kilometer, on simple arithmetic the land surface of the Earth now supports about 50 per square kilometer. It seems that the Earth could support many more people (if absolutely necessary) were their lifestyles less resource intensive and polluting.

The carrying capacity of the Earth clearly depends on the lifestyles of the inhabitants.

Is “limited change in per capita consumption” an important assumption? You say “technological improvements .. allow for decoupling of impacts … and so can vastly reduce consumption rates of primary resources.” Does this imply we can get by without radically changing the nature of “per capita consumption”?

Do you assume we can keep the current levels of the most polluting activities like flying, driving cars and eating beef?


The affluent of the world are increasing their footprints at a rapid rate both by becoming more numerous and consuming more per capita. In Growth and Inequality: Understanding Recent Trends and Political Choices, Thomas Pogge points to the increasing inequality in developing countries – in other countries too. I note that this goes alongside their increasing footprints.

Technological fixes, like feeding the world with GM foods mentioned on the BBC, may help but this is a solution from the globalisation model – global companies solving problems with technologies to make profits which feed back to the affluent thus fuelling high-footprint affluent life-styles.


I have been recently struck by Richard Wilkinson’s TED TALK , How economic inequality harms societies. Among developed countries unequal societies are the least happy. The bike-riding inhabitants of Copenhagen are happier than the inhabitants of the unequal car cities of the USA. They eat less beef too!

You might like to look at, where I discuss some of these issues.

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