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An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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6 Jan 2006

Earth is Too Crowded for Utopia

familyAs Tom Atkins pointed out in his comment on the Catastrophist Apocalyptic Cultists article, overpopulation is one of the issues we have to tackle sooner rather than later. Clearly it is a deeply emotive and challenging subject, but the bottom line is that pre-oil the world never sustained a population above 1 billion, now it’s over 6, so logic dictates that as oil availability begins to diminish so will the population.

BabyThe BBC’s website just posted this rather good article on the subject, Earth is Too Crowded for Utopia by Chris Rapley, which as far as I could see doesn’t bring the peak oil aspect of the argument in, but does provide a very fair overview of the issue. There is plenty of discussion on this subject in the peak oil movement, particularly Stanton’s deeply controversial and, I think, profoundly unskillful article on overpopulation, which has been known to reduce people to tears.

Categories: Peak Oil

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Robert Alcock
6 Jan 9:44am

Hi Rob and congratulations on a good site.
Lots of things I could comment on, but I wanted to mention this one because, oddly enough, I saw Rapley’s article mentioned on your site just five minutes after someone else forwarded the same article to me.

I don’t see the article as saying anything new. This is something most ecologically aware people would agree with — that you need to consider population alongside consumption.

That doesn’t mean being in favour of hard-line policies like Mao’s one child policy. They invariably mean one child for most people and as many as they like for the political elite, anyway… I’ve heard (and see no reason to doubt, given everything else I’ve heard about him) that Mao was invariably supplied with young local girls wherever he happened to be staying in China.

Is it suprising that people don’t trust the government to regulate the birth rate considering how badly they do everything else?

I think educating women and improving their status in society is the one really effective way to control population growth in the long run — though it is a long run thing because reducing birth rate NOW won’t reduce population growth for at least a generation (because there were so many extra births in the last 30 years).

As for quicker ways to reduce population — they aren’t very pleasant, but no doubt we’ll be seeing more of them in the near future. Hopefully not, though, in Stanton’s neo-fascist version.

All the best from a fellow cob enthusiast,


Tom Atkins
6 Jan 10:45am

Thanks for taking up the issue Rob – but a picture of baby in a shanty town? These little fella’s aren’t the main problem – it’s the one’s in their newly decorated nurseries, with a future of birthday’s full of plastic toys, a gap year when they’ll fly around the world, a trust fund already set up and a pension that will allow endless holidays around the planet that we need to watch…

![bad baby?]( “bad baby?”)

Robert Alcock
6 Jan 11:08am

Hi Tom,

Perhaps the real problem is the way BOTH these innocents are trapped in an economic system with a death wish?


6 Jan 11:34am

Good point Tom about the picture, I rather unquestioningly just lifted it straight off the BBC website. I have added another which hopefully creates more of a sense of balance! I was looking for one from a great book that I now can’t remember the name of which invited people all over the world to put the whole contents of the house in front of it and then have their photos taken. There were some great ones from the US, and try as I might I just can’t think what it was. Anybody know what it was?

Robert Alcock
6 Jan 11:42am

“Material World”

6 Jan 11:56am

Material World
Ah well done.. here it is. Can’t find the picture I want from it on the net, but I really recommend this book…

Tom Atkins
6 Jan 6:39pm

**Rob:** ooh – I have the postcard set from the New Internationalist and still have the US family – I’ll send it to you Rob… In the post-card set it’s alphabetical so the US is right before Vietnam – what a contrast! Now, if only I could find a pen and remember where the post office is…

**Robert:** ‘economic system with a death wish’ – I totally agree. It’s the money system that we need to focus on more than anything else as campaigners. FAESTA and Richard Douthwaite have hit the nail on the head – but unfortunately economics has the annoying effect of sending people to sleep… I’m trying to work out a way to sex-up FAESTA… or maybe I’ll just by Richard D a thong!

**Edit** for the benefit of everyone, I scanned a couple:

The US Family:

USA - The Cavin Family

A family from India:

India - The Yadav Family

I’ll still see if I can remember how to lick a stamp Rob 😉

6 Jan 8:06pm

Richard Douthwaite in a thong…now there’s a vision to conjure with!


Ken Kinder
7 Jan 6:07am

Hey guys. It’s worth keeping in mind that in most of the first world, populations are in rapid decline. Japan’s retirement program is at grave risk because their middle-aged and young people are simply choosing not to have kids. The same is true in much of Europe.

The United States and Canada are notable exceptions. The US tends to have a steady population, but considerable immigration (largely from Mexico).

A population boom in the third world (which we have been experiencing) and decline in the first world, regardless of energy, could have some very destabilizing outcomes.

There are, however, alternatives. We can eat less meat, especially pork. That alone would greatly increase the food supply and overall production efficiency. Such a change would get us through at least the first parts of peak oil. There are other ways of generating fertilizer than oil, such as composting human manure. (Not a popular idea, but it is sound science and may become popular in a food shortage.)

Overall I don’t think the real question is food, the question is whether we can change our lifestyle and view of the world.

Graham Strouts
8 Jan 8:13pm

Stanton’s article only sounds “neo-fascist” because of our post-modern sensibilities which , coming as they do from a culture which eats out of the oil well and has never experienced real hunger- and that includes me of course- have never been called to think about such things as population reduction. However, one of the most interesting parts in Diamonds’ book “Collapse” is his discussion of “virtual suicide” as practised on some south sea islands where groups of young men, if they saw little future on a small and clearly over-populated island, would voluntarily canoe off into the horizon with little chance of survival. Other traditional cultures that have stood the test of time typically have similar strategies for keeping their population within sustainable bounds. This all comes down to the old problem of who do you throw overboard when the rations run low. We are of course all confronting this issue everyday- and we always choose to continue to throw out the starving and the poor in other parts of the world rather than ourselves.
Systems theory tells us that a collapse of Biblical proportions is inevitable. Like yeast cells in a petri dish we will suffer a sharp reduction in numbers once the sugar (oil) is gone.
I think it is important to recognise that our ethical sensibilities have themselves grown up during what William Catton calls “the age of exhuberance”, a time of plenty.
This time is now coming to an end and we will indeed be called to test the truth of the axiomn that “civilisation is only three meals deep”. The great message I took from Diamond’s book, again, is that sustainability has never been easy- it has always been a balancing act betwen supply and demand. Some cultures got it right, some got it wrong. The problem is, if you have say 100 good years, the temptation of farming the marginal fields and increasing the population is very great. By the time the climate changes angain and reverts to lower rainfall or whatever, the lesson has ben forgotten and bam: food shortage and starvation. We are at the end of a similar cycle of massive proportions never before seen- because oil has allowed us to farm all the barren land, and turn the good land to desert.
These are very difficult issues, but we shouldnt kid ourselves: permaculture will never allow the world to support anything like its current numbers. It may be that the worst effects of the decline will simply be felt in those countries and areas of the world with the highest poplation densities- which would include for example Holland and the UK.

Robert Alcock
10 Jan 9:03pm


I wasn’t using the phrase “neo-fascist” lightly… Stanton proposes the organized slaughter of arbitrarily defined groups of people (the elderly, the disabled, “aliens”). What would you call it?

I think it’s kind of strange the way that people assume that compassion will go out of the window when we are forced to give up our extravagant lifestyles. As if the Age of Oil was somehow noted for its compassion and sensitivity!