By Donella Meadows
–March 31, 1994–
As the nations gear up for a World Population Conference to be held in Cairo next September, a Cornell professor has given them something to talk about. He says the number of human beings, currently 5.6 billion and rising, really should be somewhere around 2 billion.
The professor, David Pimentel, is not a crackpot, and he did not make his statement lightly or quietly. He put it forth with press-release fanfare at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the largest, most media-attended gathering of U.S. scientists. He backs his claim with a number-crunching paper that will appear soon in a journal called Population and Environment. Rush Limbaugh has already spent a three-hour radio program ridiculing him.
The notion that there should be fewer of us is bound to trigger emotional reactions. Before we jump into those reactions, let me summarize what Professor Pimentel says and why he says it.
He looks at global endowments of land, water, and energy and recognizes not only that they are limited, and diminishing given the way we are managing them, but that they are interdependent. We could cultivate more land, but only by using more water. We could get energy from the sun, but only by using more land. The land could give higher yields, but only with more energy. Because he accounts for these interdependences, Pimentel comes up with lower supportable population estimates than those who look at one resource at a time.
At present we need about 100 million more acres of cropland each year just to feed that year’s additional population. Instead we degrade and abandon 25 million acres a year. Assuming we stop abusing land and want to provide a good diet for everyone, it would be possible, says Pimentel, to feed a global population of 3 billion. If we also use land to provide renewable energy — as we will have to someday — and if everyone used roughly half as much energy as Americans now do, there would be enough productive land for a world population of 1 to 2 billion. By this reasoning the U.S., with a current population of 260 million, could support about 200 million sustainably and well.
Pimentel is trying to calculate an optimal population, not a maximal one. He is not interested in how many people living at bare subsistence could be crammed onto the earth. “Does human society want 10 to 15 billion humans living in poverty and malnourishment or 1 to 2 billion living with abundant resources and a quality environment?” he asks, and he makes his own choice clear.
He envisions not a sudden population reduction, but one that happens over a century, by greatly reducing birth rates. “Granted, a drastic demographic adjustment to 1 to 2 billion humans will cause serious social, economic, and political problems, but to continue rapid population growth to 12 billion or more will result in more severe social, economic, and political conflicts plus catastrophic public health and environmental problems.”
Pimentel says his proposition has produced virtually no scientific criticism. To the contrary, he is receiving letters saying, in effect, what I have heard people say in the halls after he discusses his work. “His numbers may not be exact, but they’re in the right direction. But I wouldn’t dare say that in public.”
Why not? Because of the emotional reactions. (OK, stand back, here they come.) You can’t tell me what to do in my bedroom. You can’t tell me to give up what I have earned, inherited, or extracted from the earth or from other people. The whole argument is Malthusian nonsense. With new technology we will make food out of air and fuel out of seawater. We can have 40 billion people all living like Donald Trump. I refuse to talk about the future until women are compensated for the 10,000 years of patriarchal oppression. Or until the poor are released from the prison of their poverty. Or until the rich renounce their greed and wastefulness.
Or (to raise the volume), I will not discuss this topic until we ban abortion. Or fine, let’s diminish the population by eliminating the Jews. Or the Arabs. Or the blacks, or the whites who do the heavy-duty consuming. This question of overpopulation may be important, it may be the most crucial question on earth, but if we raise it, we will stir up every fascist nut on the planet. So let’s not raise it.
Thus the scientific community quietly approves, but publicly ducks, a proposition raised by a responsible scientist in a scientific forum — and leaves him to the mercies of a rabble-rousing radio host. Politicians plan a world population conference that will not ask the most obvious question: how many of us can be supported at what standard of living? We bury the idea that there may be too many of us, because are afraid to talk about it. We would have to talk about sex, sharing, power, greed, freedom, and responsibility. Though most of us can imagine a tolerant, equitable world with fewer people and more resources, though we yearn to live in such a world, or at least to prepare it for our children, we will not do the first thing necessary to bring it about — talk about it, seriously, with civility and compassion and determined fairness.
David Pimentel has dared to talk about it. He deserves more than silent approval and public ridicule. He has served humanity and nature far more by raising the tough questions than anyone does by wishing those questions would go away.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994