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Thread: Apocalypse Now (Speech on Human Population Growth)

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    Exclamation Apocalypse Now (Speech on Human Population Growth)

    Apocalypse now

    Melbourne neuroscientist Dr John Reid is somewhat sceptical about the ability of science to rescue humanity from its own folly. He suggests that our planet will be unable to support an ever increasing population and talks about ways to limit population growth.


    Robyn Williams: Do you remember a book by Professor Paul Ehrlich called The Population Bomb? It was published in 1968. Or perhaps, Limits to Growth, put out by the Club of Rome in 1972? Both offered scenarios rather than forecasts about the future, some bleak, some fair, but most commentators picked up only the bleak. We had someone from the Limits to Growth exercise pointing that out on ABC Radio National last week, saying that only the first grim scenario was reported, the other eleven ignored.

    So what about growth and population all these years later, as we approach 2007? Dr John Reid has a view, though a challenging one. He does his research in Melbourne.

    John Reid: I have titled this talk, 'Apocalypse Now', a title borrowed unashamedly from the film director Francis Ford Coppola, because it expresses both the magnitude and the immediacy of the problem I'm discussing.

    Most people seem to have a 'business-as-usual' approach to the future of life on Earth. They assume Planet Earth will keep revolving and generation will succeed generation. And each generation will be more affluent than the preceding generation. As one bank advertisement put is, 'Every generation should live better than the last!'

    Science, people believe, will find solutions to the problems that seem to preoccupy Greenies and other doomsayers. Well, I am a scientist, and I have to say I am more than somewhat sceptical about the ability of science to rescue humanity from its own folly.

    The fact is, Planet Earth cannot support the present human population.

    The Global Footprint Network estimates that in 2001, and I quote, 'humanity's Ecological Footprint ... exceed the Earth's biological capacity by about 20%', and the latest WWF Living Planet Report 2006 now puts the figure at 25%.

    Current estimates of world population growth over the next 50 years show the population stabilising at 9 billion to 11 billion, at least half as big again as the present population.

    The consumption of resources, due to the growing affluence of emerging economies, such as China and India, would then require at least four biospheres to satisfy the demand. Or to put it another way, if everyone alive today had a standard of living equal to ours in Australia, we would need 3.7 biospheres to meet the demand. But we only have one planet, although there are people (mostly engineers) who seriously contemplate moving off-planet as a way to solve the problem.

    Many people would say the character that most distinguishes human beings from all other animals is language. I suggest the only attribute that really distinguishes our species from all others is our ability to delude ourselves.

    Human beings are self-deluders. We can convince ourselves, in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, that black is white and heat can flow from a cooler to a hotter body.

    It is this power of self-delusion that leads us to believe that somehow we will find a way to fix the problem of our unsustainable consumption of the Earth's resources.

    In the discussion of human impact on the biosphere, two separate but interactive issues are being conflated. These two issues are climate change, due to the emission of greenhouse gases, and the excessive demand for resources, due to overpopulation. (Bear in mind, population and consumption, like mass and energy, are interchangeable qualia.) Unchecked, both climate change and the overuse of resources are at the level of 'catastrophic' on the scale of their impact on the biosphere.

    But the problem of climate change is solveable by means we can discuss. We can talk about alternative sources of energy, carbon trading, energy-efficient buildings and a host of other technological fixes, including esoteric notions such as a sunshade-in-the-sky, as discussed recently on The Science Show.

    By engaging in this discussion, we can feel at least we are addressing the problem. And as long as we feel we are doing something about climate change, we can relegate to the back-burner having to think about the much more confronting, unmentionable problem of how to reduce the human population.

    I believe the problem of overconsumption/overpopulation will not be solved by civil means, as the United Nations Millennium Ecosystems Assessment optimistically suggests. By the time there is consensus that drastic action must be taken to reduce over-consumption, it will be too late.

    Consider just a few examples of the measures people will have to accept: First and foremost the notion of steady economic growth – every year an increase in the world's GDP, as The Wentworth Group of Scientists and the Stern Review envisage – will have to go into reverse. We in the affluent world will have to accept substantial reductions in our standard of living to allow space for the poor, mainly in Africa, to improve their nutrition and health status.

    To achieve this, income and wealth distribution within our societies will have to become much more equal. The higher up the tree one is, the greater the sacrifice one will have to make.

    Stringent measures will have to be put in place to reduce water consumption, particularly in countries like Australia where water is a scarce commodity. Using potable water to cool industrial processes and as wash-water will have to stop, and this includes air-conditioning equipment in large buildings, power station cooling towers, paper mills, dairying and agriculture, etc, etc.

    And forget the idea that water can be used to grow cotton in Australia. I have heard it argued that the return on the cost of the water is higher for cotton than the return on the same water used to grow food. This is the private-benefit-at-the-expense-of-public-cost argument, and it won't wash!

    Contrary to a recent forecast that the world's fleet of fossil-fuel-burning motor vehicles will triple over the next 50 years, the fleet will have to be reduced to no more than about 10% of the present number.

    Perhaps water meters that turn off automatically after a household's daily ration of water has been consumed will be fitted to every house.

    Meat will be rationed to no more than, say, 200 grams per person per week.

    Municipal authorities will provide allotments so that people can grow their own fruit and vegetables. We could turn some iconic sports arenas into vegie gardens.

    And private property rights will be severely curtailed to prevent landowners from engaging in environmentally-damaging behaviours. And many, many more such infringements on what we now regard as our rights will have to be accepted.

    I'm afraid, by the time this consensus could be reached, we will have crossed the threshold of the event horizon. We will be on an accelerating, irreversible downhill run to the Holocene Mass Extinction. In the words of Elliot Morley, Britain's Special Representative on climate change, we will 'sleepwalk to oblivion.'

    A few years ago, the possibility that our beautiful, life-sustaining planet could become a Venusian hell was dismissed as being impossibly alarmist. It's still a highly improbable scenario, but it is no longer seen as impossible.

    If we do not delude ourselves, and if we accept the calculations made by the Global Footprint Network and WWF (and I know of no scientific analysis that refutes the basic validity of the model) there is only one ineluctable conclusion. The population of the world must be very quickly reduced to 5 billion (that is, if 6 billions equals 120% of capacity, then 5 billions equals 100%). And then, as the average level of affluence rises, fairly quickly reduced further to, say, 2 to 3 billion.

    The urgent discussion then becomes, how do we achieve these targets? Leaving aside uncontrollable natural events, such as a collision with a large asteroid or comet, or the eruption of a super-volcano, there is only a limited number of ways population decrease can be achieved. These ways are all painful, and most are brutally painful in their effect.

    Let us canvass them.

    When we consider ways to reduce the human population there is a natural dichotomy between ways that kill a very large number of people and ways that control the growth of the population, that is, ways that prevent people from breeding.

    War, Pestilence, and Famine, three of the horsemen of the apocalypse, can bring about a reduction in the human population. But these kill on a scale of tens of millions, which is not enough to solve the problem of over-population. And they are most brutal in the ways they kill. Consequently, let us consider the alternative.

    The most humane way to achieve a reduction in the human population would be for people to voluntarily stop breeding, but this would never happen. The urge to procreate and the innate belief that people have the inalienable right, if not the duty, to have children is too strong to be suppressed, just to save the planet.

    One small, but appropriate, token gesture would be to ban immediately all forms of assisted conception, including the use of donated sperm or ova. The fact that relatively affluent couples, or single women who cannot achieve pregnancy by good old-fashioned copulation, or even choose not to do so, can demand the use of expensive medical technology to satisfy their 'need' for parenthood is unacceptable in a hugely overpopulated world.

    The next most human way to reduce the population might be to put something in the water, a virus that would be specific to the human reproductive system and would make a substantial proportion of the population infertile. Perhaps a virus that would knock out the genes that produce certain hormones necessary for conception.

    The world's most affluent populations should be targeted first. According to the 2006 Living Planet Report, the six populations that have the biggest per capita ecological footprint live in the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, Finland, Canada, Kuwait, and Australia.

    A question I have been told I should address is this: If we interfere with the 'natural' structure of the population by limiting the production of children, how do we support an ageing population?

    Dealing with a healthy aged population would be manageable. If all the world's aged were like the 80- to 90-year-old Okinawans, we could probably manage quite well. But dealing with an ageing population beset by the consequences of over-eating the wrong food and under-exercising will be an order of magnitude more difficult. Societies will not be able to provide the healthcare services needed to keep large numbers of unhealthy old people alive.

    A triage approach will be necessary so that scarce medical resources go to those who can contribute most to the long-term viability of the planet. Consequently, many middle-aged-to-elderly people will die uncomfortable deaths. Not every problem is solveable.

    I have also been challenged to say why I claim Australia cannot support a larger population. But how do you explain a self-evident fact? Considering water alone, all our capital cities, except perhaps Darwin, and many provincial cities are running out of water. Then there is salination of our agricultural land, which is increasing at the rate of about 10% per annum. Not only must Australians cut their own consumption, we are exacerbating the problem by producing agricultural products from an increasingly unproductive land for consumption by other societies.

    Our global footprint is worldwide.

    Meanwhile, people like the Federal Treasurer promote population increase. Sorry, Mr Costello, your 'One for the wife, one for the husband, and one for Australia', will have to be changed to 'None for the planet'!

    My plea is that we should face reality and begin to discuss the unspeakable. Humanity must undergo a mind-shift. If you must have a God, at least recognise he/she/it did not give humanity licence to trash the planet, whatever the Bible may tell you.

    Indeed, humanity has been all too compliant with the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.

    The precepts of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam represent the quintessential perversion of the human mind. They must be abandoned and the notion of the sanctity of human life must be subjugated to the greater sanctity of all life on Earth.

    Robyn Williams: Some startling suggestions there from John Reid, who lives in Melbourne and does research in cognitive neuroscience there. Of course it's often suggested that the greatest force for limiting population is affluence, and the education of women.


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    Delete post please Mods. I will reply later.

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    That guy is a fairly delusional leftist if he thinks westerners are going to accept "reductions" in their standard of living for the sake of a bunch of starving Africans. Despite all the crowing from the average white person about how they love Africans/Indians/Arabs, the day they actually have to make a sacrifice to help these people is the day political correctness goes out the window.

    It will be how it has always been, the strong will take whatever resources they want and crush those who stand in their way. Just look at the Iraq war, at the time of the invasion people who said that it was about oil were dsimissed as paranoid, with hindsight it's fairly clear that securing a source of oil supplies and a position from which to threaten and strike at non compliant OPEC states was the only logical reason for the invasion.

    I liked this little gem though:

    "One small, but appropriate, token gesture would be to ban immediately all forms of assisted conception, including the use of donated sperm or ova. The fact that relatively affluent couples, or single women who cannot achieve pregnancy by good old-fashioned copulation, or even choose not to do so, can demand the use of expensive medical technology to satisfy their 'need' for parenthood is unacceptable in a hugely overpopulated world."

    I love how these people ignore the fact that the problem is caused entirely by brown people. yet it's the resposnibility of white people to not even have a single child!

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