Book cites population growth as key driver of global warming

After virtually abandoning the issue for three decades, the environmental movement got a bold reality check this week from a new book highlighting relentless human population growth as a driving force behind global warming.

This wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in the 1970s, when the modern environmental movement had its genesis and Paul Erlich’s “The Population Bomb” was on just about everybody’s bookshelf. Since then, however, overpopulation has dropped from the vocabulary of most environmentalists despite a near doubling of the world’s numbers to an estimated 6.8 billion people today.

Now, a book by Worldwatch Institute vice-president Robert Engelman argues not only that it gets harder to curb greenhouse emissions as the global population increases, but also that human growth is a major factor in greenhouse emissions.

Engelman notes, furthermore, that we can’t grow forever, and if we can't curb carbon emissions in a world of 6.8 billion, it will be impossible when there are 9 billion.

“You really can't talk about the supply and demand imbalance that is sending energy and food prices up without acknowledging that we are adding 78 million people each year, the equivalent of a new Idaho every week,” says Engleman.

In “More: Population, Nature and What Women Want,” Engelman suggests the surest route to achieving an environmentally sustainable population is to enable women everywhere to choose when to bear children.

A former reporter who worked in population and family-planning before joining Worldwatch in 2007, Engleman interviewed women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over a 25-year period.

Weaving their stories with research in history and the social sciences, Engleman studies sexuality and procreation to illustrate how women’s lives and status have influenced modern society.

His conclusion: The key to limiting population growth is to give control over procreation to women. Even in countries and societies where large families have always been the norm, when women take control over family size, birth rates shrink.

For the U.S., the best option is vigorous foreign aid that helps make contraception safe, reliable and accessible in every country — too often women in the developing world who want to use contraception, can't get it. Beyond that, government doesn’t need to get involved.

“They don't have to be coerced,” says Engelman. “This will happen as long as women are in charge.

“It makes sense that those who bear children and do most of the work in raising them should have the final say in when, and when not, to do so.

“It's not just feminism to support population control — it's environmentalism.”

Sadly, Engelman may have spotlighted the fatal flaw in his argument with the phrase “it makes sense.”


“This wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in the 1970s, when the modern environmental movement had its genesis and Paul Erlich’s “The Population Bomb” was on just about everybody’s bookshelf.”

“The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer”
– Paul Ehrlich - The Population Bomb (1968)

“Since then, however, overpopulation has dropped from the vocabulary of most environmentalists despite a near doubling of the world’s numbers to an estimated 6.8 billion people today.”

Gee, I wonder why?

Maybe it was those “hundreds of millions of people” who were so inconsiderate as to not starve to death and make Paul Ehrlich look like a complete tit?

How about these?

I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.
—Paul Ehrlich in (1969)

In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.

—Paul Ehrlich, Earth Day (1970)

Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity…in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.—Paul Ehrlich in (1976)

Is this guy not Al Gore’s hero?

Bill, get out a recent atlas of the world and checkout the population distributions in the various continents.
The world is essentially unpopulatd by humans. More importatly about 50% of the population now live in cities and rural areas are undergoing a rapid decrease in occupancy.

Canada and Russia are unpopluated, but these land could supports billions of people.

Is 6.5 billion people a lot of animal mass? It is squat compared to the mass of the insects. The world seems highly populated because all of the telecommunication systems are located in large cities.

You every travel down Highway 1 in BC? Soon as leave Coquitlum, the land just opens up into a vast wilderness!
It’s absolutely mind-boggling!

Give me a break!

After the 2010 Olympics, people will be flocking in droves to “The Best Place on Earth” where we have swimming pools and movie stars! And no mosquitos in Vancouver in the summertime!

Sounds like a great book that will soon be on my night stand. As for the comments thus far, let me offer some enlightening thoughts:

For the Ehrlich-bashers: I wouldn’t let the fact we’ve gotten lucky for the past 200 years lull me me into complacency. In the history of man, this is an extremely brief blip of techno-fixes allowing rampant population growth. Disaster has only been put off while we liquidate the planet of its fossil fuels, biodiversity and topsoil.

For the commenter who thinks all we need is elbow room: I would suggest reading up on ecological footprint. Assuming you’re living in the U.S., if you’re typical your ecological footprint is 24 acres. That’s what is required to provide you with food, energy and oxygen and process your waste. If everyone on Earth were to live your lifestyle, there is only enough biocapacity on the planet for 1.2 billion of us. And even with all the people in poverty today around the globe, we have 25% more people than Earth can SUSTAINABLY support.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

A much needed reality check. I’ve bookmarked your site & look forward to the documentary. I recently read an article about a study re: whether sheer numbers were contributing to AGW, and it was a confusing, dry statistical read. They concluded (no surprises)exactly what you have so nicely summed up: it isn’t the elbow room, it’s the footprint.

Fern Mackenzie

“For the Ehrlich-bashers: I wouldn’t let the fact we’ve gotten lucky for the past 200 years lull me me into complacency”
It as nothing to do with “gotten lucky” at all!
A ” The phantom menace” is not much of a challenge.

I am the author of “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” To make a long story short, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

For most people who see never-ending population growth as a problem, their concerns are rooted in a concern for the environment. Economists, on the other hand, shrug off such concerns, claiming that man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacles to population growth. Resources can be used more efficiently and recycled, pollution can be abated, and so on. Making matters worse, they can’t envision how an economy can remain healthy without further population growth. So our government and business leaders hold fast to their “pro growth” approach.

This book, however, finally offers the “ultimate weapon” for environmentalists and anyone concerned about population growth - a solid economic argument for a reduced population. It explains how everyone’s wallet is directly impacted by growth which has become cancerous, driving up unemployment and eroding their finances and quality of life. It’s written in plain language, not economic gibberish, and is aimed at average Americans.

If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit my web site at There you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It’s also available at

Pete Murphy
Author, Five Short Blasts

Humans are simply exquisitely clever in finding and exploiting high quality sources of energy to augment their own weaknesses in getting work done. First wood, then animals and water, then coal and now gas and oil. We have exceptional technological intelligence (Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences) and we are very clever when it comes to exploiting these external (non-food) energy sources through machines. That wasn’t luck, it was cleverness (intelligence + creativity).

What we lack, and the reason the population problem DOES exist, despite the beliefs of the pollyannas posting here, is wisdom. Or, more rightly, the brain basis of wisdom, or what I call sapience. The average human being is simply not equipped with the mental horsepower to be truly wise. Hence we keep making the same stupid mistakes in judgment over and over. We don’t actually learn from history despite the fact that we have gotten really good at documenting it.

We have a population explosion due to the influx of fossil fuel energy, which is about to start diminishing (peak oil). We’ve been burning the stuff up like there is no tomorrow, ironically producing the greenhouse gas that now poses yet another threat. High energy input has allowed the kind of agriculture everyone who believes there is no problem has touted as the debunking of Malthus. But as we go through peak energy and it starts to decline (I actually believe we have already reached the peak BTW) the cost of food production will skyrocket. Then we will see more of the food riots, as in Egypt, spread around the world. We may even see them in the US.

And, oh yes, for those who think alternative energy sources will magically replace oil, try running a combine on solar energy.

Question Everything

I agree with you, George, but there are other factors aside from harnessing energy that are extremely important. Such as advances in medicine that have reduced infant mortality, cured things like TB (more or less), and generally allowed people to live longer, as have such things as sanitation, regulatory systems to ensure clean water & safe food etc etc etc – all of which have improved and extended our lives, but without due consideration to the pressures that greater numbers living to adulthood and into old age might have on resources. It’s not just sapience, but also balance – but perhaps that’s part of how you define the term. Wisdom is not just being clever, it’s foresight and understanding the need for balance – anticipating the equal and opposite reaction, and to plan for it.

Fern Mackenzie

In fact, Fern, I differentiate between cleverness and sapience (wisdom). The former is what got us into trouble! The latter, if we had it, would have kept us out of trouble.

I think longer, healthier lives and low infant mortality are wonderful achievements that definitely should have been ‘balanced’ with lower fecundity. So lack of wisdom in seeing this gets us here.

But the enabler for driving cleverness in the discovery of health science and technology of health care and providing the necessary foodstuffs to support long life and childrearing success was the abundant energy flow. I am deeply concerned that reduction in that flow will cause reversals in all the gains we’ve made unless there is a fairly drastic reduction in overall population soon. It takes serious energy flow to build and repair health care facilities as well as support large-scale agriculture. Without the latter I fear small-scale farming or permaculture will not support the current numbers meaning that the population problem will be solved by nature. George

There is another important point: Overconsumption. We consume far too much. I’m German, and over here, we’d have to reduce our consumption by 67%, down to 33% of current levels. In the USA, consumption would have to go down by 84%, down to 16% of current levels, and in the European Union as a whole, we have to reduce consumption by more than 50%.

The party is over, our lifestyle is not sustainable. We’ll have to build furniture again that lasts longer than a lifetime, so that you need only one sofa in your entire life, that you can still use the kitchen table your great-grandmother had before you. We need to build zero-energy houses that last for centuries. We have to become less mobile, live where we work, work where we live. We have to give up all those short-lived consumer products that break after a few years and cannot be repaired, move to more robust products that last for decades and can be repaired over and over again.

Of course that will mean a slower pace of techical progress, but I think that we have to be more careful about which type of progress we want or need. Do we really need high-definition TV sets or fridges that connect to the Internet and update the shopping lists in our mobile phones that only last two or three years until they’re replaced by the newest generation with even more functions nobody actually needs?

Global Warming is really alarming. Now that summer is here we really don’t know if it is still safe to stay outside, have fun with the beach or enjoy the sceneries. But one thing for sure, we should take care of our environment because we never know what could Mother Earth bring in the future. Still, when summer comes there is an event we all waiting for, it’s the universities basketball game. Did you know that we can now be fully update of the game even thou we are at home or at work, or even taking our vacations in other side of the world. This is by the help of March Madness On Demand, a software bundle that you can download onto your cell phone (only for smart phones) and with a broadband Internet connection get the game broadcast to that phone. It may not take payday loans to download the app, but at the least you can get news feed to see the scores. If you have a desire to see teams prevail from universities you never went to from states you have never seen compete, March Madness On Demand might be the thing for you. So how about volunteer in saving our Mother Earth then have this software if you are fanatic of university basketball game.