This is Albert Bartlett's revised version of an article that was published in Wild
(A journal for creatures who care about their habitat. P.O. Box 455, Richmond,
Vermont, 05477) Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall 1997, Pgs. 88-90.
IS THERE A POPULATION PROBLEM?
by Albert A. Bartlett
My answer to the question is YES there is a problem. The scale of human
activities is now so large that we are appreciably affecting the climate
and ecosystems in the U.S. and the world.
The total impact of people on the environment is proportional to each of
A) The number of people, and
B) The average impact of each person.
If we are to reduce the total impact of people on the global environment,
we must address the first, or preferably both, of these factors.
There are many strong forces that will cause continued growth of the
average impact of each person on the global environment. To the extent
that people in underdeveloped countries seek to increase their material
standard of living to levels more like ours, material consumption per
capita will grow. So we are left with the imperative of halting population
growth, and then of studying the question, Can this stable population be
To gain a better appreciation of the seriousness of the problem, let us
review some very elementary arithmetic. Let us consider a quantity that is
experiencing steady growth at a rate such as 5% per year.
First we note that this growing quantity will double in size in a fixed
time. This doubling time is found by dividing 70 by the percent growth
per year. For example, the doubling time for a steady growth rate of 5%
per year is 70 / 5 = 14 years.
Second, we note that a few doublings can give enormous numbers. It is
convenient to remember that ten doublings causes the growing quantity to
increase in size by a factor of approximately 1000: twenty doublings will
cause an increase by a factor of 1,000,000, etc.
Let us look at some current approximate, data (1997).
United States World
Population 270 million 5700 million
Annual increase 3 million 90 million
Annual growth rate 1 % per year 1.6 % per year
Doubling Time 70 years 44 years
The smallness of the annual growth rates is both deceiving and disarming.
We might initially think that surely nothing bad could happen at growth
rates as small as 1 % or 1.6 % per year. A study of the doubling times
brings us back to reality. If the world population continues to grow at
its present rate, it will double before todays (1997) college students are
my age (74)! Think what this means in terms of food and resource consumption.
Population growth rates do not remain constant; they change in response to
physical and social factors. The world population growth rate was close to
zero through most of human history, and it started to increase
significantly a few centuries ago. Around 1970 it reached a high of about
2 % per year, from which it has recently declined to the estimated 1.6 %
per year. Detailed social studies and more elegant mathematical models can
give us insight into the mechanisms that affect these rates of growth.
Why, then, do we need to look at the simple models of constant growth rates?
First, they are a useful, though approximate, representation of the facts.
Second, we in the United States are in a culture that worships growth.
Steady growth of populations of our towns and cities is the goal toward
which the powerful promotional groups in our communities continuously
aspire. If a towns population is growing, the town is said to be
healthy, or vibrant, and if the population is not growing the town is
said to be stagnant. Something that is not growing should properly be
called stable. Yet, the promoters of growth universally use the word
stagnant to describe the condition of stability, because stagnant
suggests something unpleasant while stable would suggest something
worthwhile, pleasant and desirable.
Since continued growth is the goal of the promoters in our communities, we
should understand the arithmetic of steady growth.
Now lets look at some global aspects of our population problem.
1) Global Warming.
There is a growing scientific concensus that the early phases of global
warming may be upon us now. With each passing year, our knowledge of the
situation will increase so that we will know better if the earth is
warming, and if so, how rapidly change may occur. Whether or not the earth
is warming, it is clear that by pouring increasing quantities of greenhouse
gases into the earths atmosphere each year, we are embarked on a global
experiment whose outcome we dont know. We dont know if the effects of
increasing the greenhouse gases in the earths atmosphere are reversible.
We dont know if the atmosphere go back to its pre-industrial condition if
we stopped all emissions of greenhouse gases, and if it would go back, we
dont know how long it would take.
On the scale of a human lifetime, these changes happen very slowly. So
the burden of dealing with the unknown outcome of the present global
experiment, will not fall on todays political decision makers: it will
fall on our children and grandchildren. Present population growth, so
ardently advocated by the many in the older generations, is putting our
children and grandchildren at risk. For centuries, parents have worked so
their children could have better lives and opportunities than they had. We
may now be doing just the reverse. We may be guaranteeing that our
children will not have the resources, opportunities and environment that we
2) The Ozone Hole
The destruction of ozone in the high atmosphere allows more ultra-violet
light to reach the surface of the earth where it can have serious
biological effects on plants and animals, including humans.
3) Food Grain
The Worldwatch Institute reports that global annual per capita production
of grain dropped from 346 kilograms per person in 1984 to 313 kilograms per
person in 1996. This is a drop of 9.5 % in just 8 years.
Weve all heard it said that per capita food production has been growing
ever since the time of Thomas Malthus, and that this growth has proven him
wrong. Since the late 1980s grain production has leveled off, so the
continuing growth of populations means that the per capita production of
food is declining. Perhaps Malthus was right after all.
4) World Oceanic Fisheries
Growth in the annual oceanic fish catch stopped in 1989, and since then
the available fish per capita has been declining. For many of the worlds
people, fish is a major source of protein. Most of the worlds major
fishing areas are seriously depleted. The Grand Banks off of Newfoundland
was one of the worlds major fisheries, with stocks of fish once thought to
be unlimited. Now, these fish stocks are apparently almost gone.
5) Fresh Water
A report in January of 1997 from Stockholm indicated that by the year
2025, two-thirds of the worlds people will suffer from water shortages,
and the report noted that the rate of use of fresh water was growing at
twice the rate of world population.
All of these problems are caused by population growth, and none of these
problems can be solved if population growth continues.
Today we hear many people talking about Sustainability, as though we
can accomodate continued population growth with something vague and
ill-defined that is called sustainable development. The thought seems to
be that there is no need to worry about population: all we need to do is
to make minor modifications of our way of life, (conserve, recycle, etc.)
and this will suffice to make our society sustainable. Please remember
the First Law of Sustainability:
It is not possible to sustain population growth or growth in the rates of
consumption of resources.
We now must address two questions:
1) Where on Earth is the population problem the worst?
It is my opinion that the worlds worst population problem is right here
in the United States. This is because of our high per capita resource
consumption. It has been estimated that a person added to the population
of the United States will have 30 or more times the impact on world
resources as will a person added to the population of an underdeveloped
nation. Indeed, resource consumption in North America is roughly the same
as resource consumption in the entire rest of the world.
2) Where should we apply our efforts to have the most beneficial effect
in helping to solve the population problem?
The answer is, right here in the U.S.
For many people, the population problem is a problem of those people, in
distant undeveloped countries. In early 1997, many people succesfully
lobbied Congress to restore family planning assistance in the U.S. foreign
aid programs. This was a great victory, but it treats those people as
though they were the big problem. As one member of Congress said,
Unchecked population growth in the Third World means depletion of water
resources. It means famine. It means suffering. It pushes populations to
clear rainforests. It pushes populations to go out and graze on land that
cannot sustain cattle, and that leads to expansion of deserts worldwide.
We all have a stake in the global environment.
It is so easy to blame the problem on others and to identify what other
people should do to solve the problem, while we ignore our own
responsibilities and avoid doing anything to reduce the population problem
in the U.S. We need to work to stop population growth in the U.S.
There are two sources that contribute approximately equally to population
growth in the U.S.: the excess of births over deaths, and immigration.
Both of these must be addressed.
Lets compare three aspects of efforts to stop population growth in other
countries with efforts to stop population growth in the United States.
1) When we give family planning assistance to other countries, we are
dealing with countries over which we have no legal jurisdiction and where
we have little or no immediate political responsibility.
When we confront population growth in the United States, we are dealing
with a country where we as citizens have full and complete jurisdiction,
and where we have political and family responsibilities. It should be much
easier to solve our problem than it is to solve other peoples problems.
2) The negative effects of runaway population growth in an underdeveloped
country are generally felt only in that country and in its immediate
The negative effects of population growth in the U.S. are felt throughout
the entire world, because of our enormous per capita consumption of
resources. Indeed, one of the aims of the many free-trade agreements about
which we currently hear so much, is to open up the worlds resources for
consumption by consumers in the U.S.
3) In countries receiving family planning assistance from the U.S. there
will always be individuals who will claim that this assistance is a form of
genocide. They will be strengthened in this belief if we in the U.S.
fail to take steps to halt our own population growth. As Tim Wirth of the
U.S. Department of State has said, the best thing that we in the U.S. can
do to help other countries stop their population growth, is to set an
example and stop our own population growth.
As you think about addressing the problem of population growth in the
U.S., please ponder this challenge:
Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global,
Whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way,
Aided, assisted, or advanced, by having continued population growth
At the local level, the state level, the national level, or globally?
So we can see that Pogo was right:
Weve met the enemy, and theys us!