World population is projected to reach a new milestone — 8 billion people — tomorrow on November 15, 2022. According to United Nations Population Fund chief Natalia Kanem:
“Eight billion people, it is a momentous milestone for humanity, yet, I realize this moment might not be celebrated by all. Some express concerns that our world is overpopulated. I am here to say clearly that the sheer number of human lives is not a cause for fear.”
As usual, I beg to differ: the“sheer number of human lives” is a big issue — although far from being the only factor behind the woes of our civilization. Consumption, pollution load, technology use and inequality (among many other things) also play their roles. Since this is a major milestone in human history though, I felt the need to discuss the effect of population growth separated from these other topics, examining its upshot on our, and on future generations’ lives.
Being fully aware that this is a highly controversial topic, I suggest a simple thought experiment to somewhat distance ourselves from the emotions raised by this issue. Whenever I’m confronted with a difficult question like this (Is hitting 8 billion good or bad news? Are we headed in the right or wrong direction?) I always try to imagine two very extreme outcomes and see which one is better, and ultimately where should we — in my opinion — be headed. (Before you label the author an ‘ecofascist’ I’m not contemplating here on how to reduce living populations, but rather on long term trajectories and their sustainability.)
If you like science fiction, then think of the following scenarios as two different scenes set in an parallel universe. In each of these cases you will be presented with population numbers set to their very extreme ends to see how it would affect human civilization, and more importantly the living planet it occupies.
In our first parallel universe, named after the central planet in Asimov’s Foundation, our population is about to hit not 8 million, but 8 trillion tomorrow. Yes, you’ve read it right: that is exactly one thousand times more than what we on Earth ‘celebrate’ today.
Where would all those people fit? — you might ask. Well, in this very extreme case the average population density would be 61 000 people per square kilometer (instead of 61 on a global average today), double that of the most densely populated place on Earth (Dhaka, Bangladesh). Remember, this would be our global average population density — on the entire habitable surface of the planet, not in just one city.
That would mean, that we would have no forests, no meadows, no deserts, no agricultural land… Nothing, but the densest of cityscapes you can imagine, stretching from Cape Agulhas in South Africa to the tip-end of Kamchatka, Russia. From Prudhoe-Bay in Alaska to Cape Horn in Chile. Multi story buildings everywhere. Every square inch covered in asphalt or concrete. Very few plants or animals — if any. No tranquil places left to escape the hustle either: you could only use your private cell for that purpose. (Ask anyone, who lived through the lock-down in Shanghai, how this has worked out for them.)
As we would have absolutely no space to grow food, of which we would need a thousand times as much as today, we would need hundreds if not thousands of other planets just for agriculture — not to mention mining all the raw materials needed to build out this one-city planet. Earth alone would be clearly unable to feed or support this many of us. Since it would take years (if not decades) to get food here even with space ships traveling at the speed of light (we still have no idea how to do that) most of the population would be starving — or worse.
Our machines churning through a ‘meager’ 176 431 TWh annually on Earth today would need to be replaced with ones consuming ten thousand times as much ‘clean, green, and of course infinite’ energy. As no one could live a low-tech rural life here (there would be no space left for that), we would have to live indoors and have even our most basic needs be taken care of by power hungry equipment: processing our water, fresh air, food, waste and sewage — 24/7. In other words: our energy use per capita would need to increase tremendously — and remember, we are talking about 8 trillion people here, living in a single densely populated city stretching across five continents. All this machine activity in turn though would produce an unimaginable amount of waste heat, as — according to the laws of physics — all energy would eventually end up as heat, after the work it has performed for us.
Today, on our planet this waste heat is insignificant compared to the effects of heat trapping gases we combat so fiercely (in words at least). Trantor’s energy use, on the other hand — scaled up to 10 000 times as much as we have today — would be producing waste heat equaling the total solar irradiation the entire planet receives. That is to say: Trantor would be heated by not one, but the equivalent of two Suns. One shining from the sky, and one emanating heat from within our structures. This extra heat alone would be enough to boil the oceans and raise planetary temperatures above uninhabitable levels outdoors, forcing us to get rid of the atmosphere and to be kindly asked to live indoors all the time. (Again no idea how to do that…) Put in a different way:
Planet Earth in this ‘Trantor’ scenario would be nothing more than a dead, sterile planet, turned into a supermax prison for humans.
Clearly this is neither a desirable, nor a livable future. No creature should live like this. After this little experiment I guess it is not hard to admit that Earth’s living ecosystem simply could not carry as much as 8 trillion humans. Admitting this means, however, that there must be limits to what Earth can bear of humans, ideally somewhere in between what we have today (8 billion) and this nightmare scenario of 8 trillion. There must be a red line somewhere we should never cross unless we want to end up locked up in our cells on a dead overheated rock flying around the Sun.
But what if we have already passed this safe threshold, and our present population level is already well above the natural carrying capacity of the planet? What if we owe this 8 billion figure solely to artificial fertilizers and our technology making so much food available? If so, how long would we be able to feed, provide water and shelter to this high number of people? How long would our fossil fuels and minerals last, feeding us via fertilizers, or growing, mining and moving our stuff with diesel? What would happen when (and not if) these one-time inputs start to run low? What will we do then…? ‘Celebrate’ the birth of the nine-billionth human?
Now take a deep breath. Relax. We need you to stay composed. For the sake of completing this mental exercise, let us now imagine something completely different: namely, that instead of 8 billion, we just hit 8 million. Globally. One thousand times less then what we have today. With the same level of scientific knowledge, same technology, same culture (OK, probably somewhat better) — only with a thousand times less of everything.
Where you see a city spanning throughout 300 square miles (778 km2) and hosting 8.4 million people on Earth (like present day New York for example) we would see 8467 residents living in a city occupying .3 square miles. A mere block. The rest? Covered and populated with trees, rivers animals and nature. Or the other way around — sticking to the one planet = one city idea — the entire planet would be left in a pristine condition untouched by human activities, where the only population center would be around New York itself, surrounded by agricultural lands, with a mine here and an oil well there.
And that’s all.
Africa, Eurasia, the rest of the Americas, Australia? Left completely uninhabited. Wild, free and happy.
Needless to say, even with our current polluting and dirty technology, climate change, hunger, mass extinctions would be all non-issues. Global CO2 emissions would equal levels not seen since 1802 (36.7 million tons versus 36.7 billion tons today) — perfectly within Nature’s capability to absorb.
It is hard to think of any problem we face today, which could not get a thousand times better with a smaller population.
Mineral and fossil fuel reserves would last tens of thousands of years into the future, with a peak in their production projected comfortably around 12022 AD, instead of a mere couple of years from now— after which we have really no idea what to do today, but to wage wars against each other.
Presuming that we could stop the urge to grow our population on Shangri-la and settle with a steady state economy instead, the entire planet could remain one city state where you could live wherever you wish. If you want a bustling city, go to New York. Crave for a quite life? Move a few tens of miles north or south and you will have no pesky neighbors anymore, for sure.
In this world at least we would have choices. Democracy, as any other form of governance would be a real option — unlike today. If you didn’t like the system, you could move anywhere you wish and start anew. In our world, on the other hand, inhabited by 8 billion folks, ruled by plutocrats and bound by laws applied only to the lower castes, we have less and less choices. We have become mere numbers in the eyes of our rulers — and they know that we have nowhere left to go. Everywhere you go on this planet there is a dictator or a local psychopath telling you what to do, what to think and what to say. With more people, can this can get any better?
If you had a button, Dear Reader, to teleport you anywhere, which alternative universe would you choose? Where would you rather live? In Trantor or Shangri-la? (Please leave your answer in a comment below.)
Before you dismiss both options as equally and wholly impossible, consider the following. Let’s assume an annual rate of 2% in population growth or decline (depending on you ‘preference’). Living your daily life you would not notice either: there would be an odd, excess birth or death, but nothing cataclysmic. Compounding this tiny annual growth or decline over centuries though would have major impacts. In a mere 350 years, by 2372 AD, a steady growth (or decline) rate of 2% would result in just what we have discussed above: 8 trillion, or 8 million of us inhabiting this planet.
Sounds incredible? This is the power of exponential growth. The rate of change seems small, insignificant even, but the compounding effects are huge. What is this three and a half centuries in the history of mankind anyway? A blink of an eye, or two?
Speaking about realities, one of the two options is perfectly feasible and in-line with planetary boundaries, the other is wholly impossible for a great-many reasons. Our civilization and (western) culture still owes a great admission to itself: that our current way of life, high levels of consumption and (like it or not) our high population numbers are all, entirely, 100% due to our discovery of fossil fuels and a one-time boom in mineral extraction it resulted in. That’s it. Neither of these input flows are sustainable (or substitutable). Not only because they cause climate change and wreck the environment, but because both of them are coming from finite reserves and require an ever higher effort to get as cheap resources slowly deplete.
The good news is, that we will never run out of these materials, there will be always some left. The bad news is, that as our cheap options slowly run out, we will not be able to uphold this way of life for very long. In fact, I argue, we have probably already passed the peak of human technological civilization, and we are now on a long, slow descent: back to a more natural, Ecotechnic future. Shangri-la is very much in the cards — presuming the big guys can keep their nukes in their pants.
The question is, what will our descendants do with a planet slowly healing itself from the ravages of industrial civilization? Once, far-far out in the future, when the climate settles at a much higher temperature zone than what we have today, once both polar ice caps melt, once all our radioactive and poisonous waste gets covered with countless feet of sediment, once forests regrow and fisheries repopulate what will we do with this planet and the life it supports? Will we start over with civilization, building empires and large capitals out of stone? Or will we return to our ancestral way of life?
Until next time,
(1) No one knows the exact number, all of these counters are just statistical estimates — but that’s not the point anyway.