Thinkers paint dour population picture

Authors debate consequences of human proliferation

Albert Bartlett has preached the gospel of population restraint for years, having presented his talk "Arithmetic, Population and Energy" more than 1,600 times.

"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 a larger population ?" the University of Colorado physics professor emeritus asked.

Al Bartlett
Albert Bartlett, a CU physics professor emeritus, has presented his speech on keeping population in check more than 1,600 times. Paul Aiken/Camera file photo

Even apparent exceptions have fatal flaws, he says. Having more young workers to pay for retirees is good for the Social Security system's solvency. But that simply puts more pressure on succeeding generations and the environment.

Bartlett says human-induced global warming "constitutes positive proof that the human population , living as we do, has exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth."

Dr. Warren Hern, a University of Colorado adjunct professor of anthropology and director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic, has published peer-reviewed journal articles on his hypothesis that human population growth demonstrates the same characteristics as cancer, growing uncontrollably and metastasizing at the expense of its host.

With cancer, it happens until the host dies.

Hern says the hypothesis is refutable, and efforts to restore ecosystems are examples of how things can turn around. But on the whole, he fears he is right.

"I would like to be proven wrong, and I think the tragic thing for me is I don't think this diagnosis is going to change, and it's really frightening," Hern said.

Not everyone has agreed with such views of population growth. Julian Simon was the best-known proponent of the "cornucopian" belief that human ingenuity and technological progress would render obsolete the historic pattern of population overshooting the carrying capacity of available natural resources and then collapsing in a miserable heap.

Such a pattern, well-known to ecologists studying animal populations , has recurred over human history. Jared Diamond's bestselling book "Collapse" details the case of Easter Island, where the population grew from zero at settlement to 20,000 over a few centuries. They razed the big trees for firewood, could no longer build dugout canoes to hunt dolphins and eventually starved en masse.

Thomas Robert Malthus's 1798 "An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society" predicted a similar fate for contemporary agricultural societies. His view was that that an imbalance between exponential population growth and limited agricultural productivity would bring disaster.

A "green revolution" prevented such an outcome, and Malthus has taken his lumps as a result.

But in his book "The Long Emergency," James Howard Kunstler argues that Malthus was right. It's just that petroleum-based fertilizer and pesticides made from cheap oil - not to mention the petroleum burning in farming and food transportation and storage - has "skewed the equation over the past hundred years while the human race has enjoyed an unprecedented orgy of nonrenewable condensed solar energy accumulated over eons of prehistory," Kunstler says.

Perhaps appropriately, we have gone forth and multiplied amid this orgy. Globally, today's population of about 6.5 billion is 2.6 times that of 1950. The Population Reference Bureau estimates the world will host 9.2 billion people in 2050. Population would thus increase more in the next 44 years than it did between our genetic split from chimpanzees 6 million years ago and 1955.

"I don't think we'll get there," said Lester Brown, president of the Washington D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute. "I think systems will be breaking down, and mortality rates will be rising."

Brown said Malthus would probably focus on water scarcity today. Half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling, he said, and 500 million people are living on grain produced from over-pumped aquifers. Brown gave Colorado's Front Range as an example of where growth is drying out farms as cities buy up the water rights.

"You can do that in the short run, but eventually it catches up to you," Brown said.