When More is not Better

Theodore J. Voneida

The population has grown more since 1950 than it did during the previous 4 million years. If current trends hold, we are told by World Bank and United Nations analysts, world population will top out at 10-12 billion within the next 50 years, which will be roughly double the present population of 6 billion. Demographers also tell us that our rate of growth is gradually slowing, and that the population will reach a steady state around the end of the 21st century. In other words, if the demographers have got it right, the planet’s population will really double only one more time. That, we might say, is the good news. The bad news is that there are presently 6 billion of us, which is already putting a tremendous strain on the world. One more doubling will double the strain, and could be more than the earth can take.

Bill McKibben, in his excellent article in the May, 1998 Atlantic Monthly, examines this by posing several Big Questions. In addition to “How many of us will there be?”, he asks “How much food, water, energy and minerals do we consume” ? This is more difficult, because there are enormous differences among people and among societies in how much is consumed. Professor William Catton, at Washington State University, calculated that an average human in hunter-gatherer times consumed about 2500 calories a day. Today each person, averaged over the entire planet, uses about 31,000 calories per day, most of it in energy from fossil fuels. The average American use 185,000 – six times the global average – every day!

Human beings have, in fact, become much bigger consumers than they were (with reference to SDGS Goal 12). When we first domesticated animals instead of chasing them down, we cleared

small plots for pastures. When we turned to agriculture, we set aside a little more land for crops. Now, in addition to the land we need to produce our food, each of us needs a little forest for timber and paper, a lot of little mines for iron, copper, bauxite and coal, and a little oil well for our automobiles and our fertilizers.

“How big are we?” Big. And getting much bigger. But the questions now begin to get more difficult.

The next question McKibben poses is the classic “Are there limits to the carrying capacity of the earth?” We are all familiar, of course, with The Club of Rome’s famous 1972 document entitled “The Limits to Growth”. Have things changed much since then? Are we better off now? Just what is the situation with regard to limits? The demographer Joel E. Cohen, in his excellent book, published in 1955, and entitled “How many people can the earth support?” addresses question in detail. Cohen also makes a strong argument that we are approaching the limits to our carrying capacity, as does the Australian A. J. McMichael in his recent book “Planetary Overload”.

Time does not permit a review of the well-known essay of the Reverend Thomas Maltus in 1798, in which he predicted that population growth would soon outstrip the supply of food in the world. He was wrong, but as McKibben points out, Malthus never goes away. He was wrong about when the population would double from 750 million to 1.5 billion; we didn’t run out of food when it doubled from 1.5 billion to 3 billion; he was wrong when it doubled from 3 to million, though he was getting much closer. Will he still be wrong when from 6 billion to 10 or 12 billion in 2050? There is good, hard evidence next doubling will be the critical one.

But as McKibben points out, all our previous calculations were based on the world as we have always known it. We now have a new factor to contend with.

McKibben demonstrates quite convincingly that we are living on a different planet from the one we thought we knew everything about. He calls it “Earth 2” because we have changed some very basic systems of our planet: “The Transformed by Human Actions” was the title of a symposium held at University in 1987[i]. They concluded, on very solid evidence, that “… the biosphere has accumulated such a magnitude and variety of changes that it said to have been transformed”.

What does this mean for the next century? In a special issue of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it was pointed out that we live on a human dominated planet, where no ecosystem on earth’s surface is free of pervasive human influence. It is not simply that we are running out of resources – energy, food, and water, for example (with reference to SDGS Goal 13). We are out of what scientists call “sinks”. What are sinks? They are places we pour our cold coffee or our industrial effluent. They are places we dump stuff we have no use for, in the expectation that it will be dispersed and we won’t have to deal with it anymore. The earth is a sink, lakes, rivers and oceans are sinks, and the atmosphere is a sink. We have only figured out in the last 50 years or so the atmosphere is a sink, and what we have been dumping into it is not dispersing, but changing the atmosphere’s basic systems. And even worse, we’ve only recently caught on that what is changing our atmosphere in critical ways is not toxic pollutants, but the waste products of normal human activities, CO2, nitrogen and methane. New kinds of contaminants are coming not so much from something going wrong, but rather from things going on as they are supposed to, but at such a high volume that they overwhelm the planet. They come from normal human life activities – but there are so many of us living these normal lives that something truly abnormal is happening. For example, methane, per se, isn’t considered to be a pollutant; it comes from cow manure and the top of the termite mounds or the bottom of a rice paddy. However, as we continue to grow more cattle, cut down tropical rain forests (which cause termite populations to explode) and to grow more rice, methane concentration in the atmosphere increases at tremendous rates. It is more than twice as high now than it has been for the past 160,000 years. And methane is a highly efficient heat trap, thus contributing to global warming.

But this is trivial as compared to another non-pollutant, carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the most effective greenhouse gas that we know. If we don’t reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases – nitrogen and methane, for example, temperatures will rise between 3 and 6 degrees Farenheit by the year 2100.

But temperatures are already higher. Recent studies have shown that Spring is starting 8 days earlier than it did a decade ago in the area above the the 45th parallel – a line that runs roughly from Portland, Oregon to Boston to Milan to Vladivostok. Record heat waves across the grain belt have caused harvests to plummet. So global warming is not just a problem for the future. Global warming is a problem right now; the planet has already heated up measurably.

We have been looking at the question, “Are there limits to our growth?” and if so, “Are they being reached?” We have seen solid scientific evidence which demonstrates that there are limits, and that we are rapidly approaching them, not only with regard to the depletion of food, water, and fossil fuels, but possibly more importantly, with regard to the by-products of their use. The changes in our atmosphere – and indeed in the entire biosphere – are beginning to occur at an increasingly dangerous rate, and these changes are directly related to the size of our population. We are, in fact, as McKibben points out, living in a very special time – a time when there is a very high probability that we will be reaching the limits of our planet’s carrying capacity. We are rapidly degrading the most basic functions of the earth in fundamental ways; we are changing the way the weather works; we are changing the plants and animals from the earth’s poles to its deepest jungles; we are causing the extinction of species at an unprecedented rate in history. These are total and often irreversible changes. But consider, we have no place else to go. This is the only planet we have. We must salvage what we can of our relationship with the earth.

The final question: “What do we do about it?” Joel Cohen suggests that amelioration of population problems fall into 3 main categories. The first is to amplify human productive capacities, in what he terms the “bigger pie” approach. The second is to reduce the number and expectations of people to be served, which he calls the “fewer forks” school, and the third would change the terms which people interact, whatever the technology or the population. This “better manners” school.

There are, of course, advocates and adversaries of each of the above school of thought. My sentiments, and I feel quite certain that Professor Sperry would agree with me about this, are with the “fewer forks” and the “better manner” schools. The fewer forks approach calls for family planning programs, for effective and more acceptable contraceptives, and to continue working on whatever means possible to decrease human population growth rates, human numbers, and human levels of consumption. With regard to the latter, we might note: that a North American, particularly one residing in the United States, consumes 70 times as much energy as a Bangledeshi, 50 times that of a Malagasi, and 20 times as much as a Costa Rican. We also live longer, so our effects are further multiplied. Thus the United States, while its population, through births immigration, increases by only 3 million new Americans per year, has an average per capita consumption rate of 40 to 50 times that of Third World inhabitants. The problem of overconsumption certainly relates to both the fewer forks” and the “better manner” schools. So overconsumption is a problem -for the present moment a very large part of the overall problem. But the overall problem is still the total number of people the earth is capable of sustaining.

World population is the overiding problem, and the tremendous momentum growth will work against efforts to reduce consumption and even against technological advance.

Nor will simply reducing the worldwide birth rate end all of our problems. But I submit to you that this represents the fastest and most effective means available for slowing the increasingly rapid transformation of our biosphere which is presently taking place. More people do make a difference. John Holdren of Harvard University, for example, estimates that between 1970 and 1996, population growth accounted for 93% of increased U.S. energy use. It is astounding to me, incidentally, that in spite of these well-known facts, the recent talks in Kyoto on greenhouse gas emissions virtually ignored population growth as a contributing factor.

How can we deal with the population problem? One way is for nations to develop and mantain strong population policies. Such policies will provide the means for women to avoid unwanted pregnancies – for example, by establishing and funding family planning programs to disseminate information and contraceptive services that can help them achieve desired family size. Programs such as this in Kenya, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Mexico and other nations have been shown to sharply reduce birth rates and to appreciably reduce the number of abortions. They represent models of what can be done to help reduce fertility rates.

A number of developed nations have also achieved very low levels of fertility-through family planning programs. The United States, I am sorry to say, is a striking exception. Our annual growth of 0,9% greatly exceeds the growth rate of Northern and Western Europe, which is presently 0,1%. In addition, the United States refuses to pay our enormous debt to the United Nations unless an anti-abortion clause is part of the deal, and the United Nations has been doing a tremendous job in the way of educating people about these problems. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) has, in fact, led the way in reducing population growth. Their 1993 major concerns coincide very closely with those I have listed above. Needless to say, funding for their continued work is sadly lacking.

But work does continue – on many fronts – including, I hasten to add, the important contributions of the International Council of Human Duties. Progress is being made, particularly in the areas of population education, improvement in infant, child and maternal health care, basic education, especially for young girls, promotion of gender equity, and overall improvement in the status of women. For example, in the area of “better manners”, I would like to mention an effort that has been especially effective as a vehicle toward voluntary population control, the microenterprise movement for impoverished women.

Microcredit programs are the antithesis of large international loans and macro- economic projects such as building dams, roads and huge factories, which require developing countries to concentrate productivity on international trade in order to repay the loans. Such programs have most often benefitted only government officials and large corporations, and local wages have gone mostly to men – normally not even to the most needy men. They have, in fact, reduced overall income for the poor, and they have certainly worsened the plight of poor women around the world. There are several large microeconomic programs now in Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines, to mention only a few.

Microcredit programs presently reach about 8 to 10 million families. It is projected that these small loans will reach 100 million of the world’s poorest families, especially women, by the year 2005. Loan repayment rates, incidentally, exceed 97%. These programs provide opportunities for women, help reduce poverty, send children to school, and result in overall improvement in the quality of life. Most importantly, perhaps, by doing all these things in the way of empowerment for women, they have been shown to significantly reduce the number of children these women have. Such programs are, in my opinion, worthy of our support, and will, I believe, accomplish more in the long run than programs such as NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, which have the ultimate effect of increasing the growing separation between the very wealthy and the very poor, and indirectly but significantly, by increasing poverty levels. Poverty, as we now know, is a major factor in the continuing and dangerous upward spiral of population growth.

To summarize, it is clear that when it comes to numbers of humans inhabiting the earth, more is not better. It is also clear that we must use every strategy at our disposal to try to get a better match between the numbers of people and the carrying capacity of our planet. It is very important to stretch the capacity of our planet every way we can – make a bigger pie. It is also critical that we learn to distribute the earth’s resources more fairly, and that we learn active conservation and protection of the ecosystems on which our lives depend – improve our manners. Of course, these are things we should be doing anyway, for both practical and humane reason.

But I have no doubt that the most important strategy is to decrease our numbers, because if we don’t, neither a “bigger pie” nor “better manners” are going to save us. We must seriously begin to reduce the growth rate of on this planet.

Roger Sperry, whose vision drives the International Council for Human Duties saw this with great clarity. I would like to close with a quote from him: “For centuries it has been the starting assumption that because human life is special, even sacred, the more people the better. “Go forth and multiply and take dominion…” was morally good at the time the scriptures were written.

Two thousand years later, however, with the global situation reversed and an exploding world population with its multiform side effects threatening to destroy everything we value, it follows that because human life is precious, even sacred “less is better”.


  1. Cohen, J.E., How many people can the earth support? W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995
  2. Kraft, M.E., U.S. Population policy: Essential for a sustainable future Population Press 4: 1-2 January/February 1998
  3. Malthus, T.R., An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society. With remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwon, M. Condorcet, and other writers: 1798. In G. Himmelfarb (ed.); On Population; Modern Library, New York, 1960
  4. McKibben, B. A special moment in history. The Atlantic Monthly 281, 55-78;May, 1998
  5. Mc. Michael, A. J., Planetary overload – Global environmental change and the health of the human species. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England; 1993.
  6. Meadows, D.H., Meadows D.L., Randers, J., and Behrens, W. The limits to our growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of  Mankind. 2nd ed. Signet, New York, 1974
  7. Scaff, M.K. Microcredit for women: The hidden success story in women’s economic development. Population Press 4: 6-7; January/February, 1998
  8. Tuxill, J. 1998. Losing strands in the web of life: vertebrate declines and the conservation of biological diversity. Worldwatch paper 141, May,1998; J.A. Peterson (ed.); The Worldwatch Institute Press. Washington D.C.
Theodore J. Voneida , in: The CARTA of HUMAN DUTIES, International Council of Human Duties Ed., Trieste University Press (1998), 191-196
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