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Captain Kirk surrounded by Tribbles

Let’s Make Babies and Live in Grinding Poverty

That sounds like quite the sustainability strategy. The “Oh Good Grief” award, along with Wall of Shame dishonor, goes to this piece by Lloyd Alter published on TreeHugger:

Do We Have a Population Crisis or a Consumption Crisis?

I imagine kids in grade school see things in black and white; it’s either A or B. But by middle school most of us gain the ability to appreciate more complex information; it could be some of A and some of B, and maybe even a little bit of C. Yet there are SOME sustainability advocates and defenders of nature who insist we must choose just one.

“We love comments, really we do! But sometimes it seems that every post ends up with a discussion of the population crisis, like a rerun of a Star Trek episode…. And always: ‘Why does TreeHugger never talk about population?’ In fact we do, we have, going almost back to our beginning…. And we keep coming around to the fact that our problems are not caused by overpopulation but overconsumption.”

Alter is a member of TreeHugger’s “core team,” and this reads like he is speaking for the organization. If this is TreeHugger’s official position, so much the worse. It’s disappointing to see this on (and from) a website that bills itself as “the leading media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream. Partial to a modern aesthetic, we strive to be a one-stop shop for green news, solutions, and product information.”

It remains unmentioned in this commentary, but I’m pretty sure the “crisis” Alter is discussing is the fact we are in overshoot – the scale of the human enterprise (consumption AND population) has outgrown Earth’s capacity to sustainably support it. His position, though, is that population is taking care of itself.

“In much of the world, birth rates are falling and populations are actually dropping.”

It is true that fertility rates are falling in most of the world. Population levels are falling in very few places, but it is beginning to happen. However, even if this trend continues – and even accelerates a little – the UN projects world population will increase roughly another 50% by the turn of the century. Knowing we’re in overshoot now, with our impact qualifying as an emergency in several respects (like CO2 levels), I’m nowhere near convinced we can or should relax and celebrate that we’ve got overpopulation licked.

Alter does, for some reason, make the case that we should do a few things he believes will accelerate fertility rate reduction, with a focus on “eliminating grinding poverty” and empowering women. Both are worthy and noble goals, regardless of fertility rates. But he conflates “correlation” with causation. The reality is that fertility rate reduction almost always precedes graduation from poverty. But I digress. Alter admits there’s a problem with his prescription for the non-existent population crisis:

“But as we eliminate grinding poverty, we increase consumption per capita, and that is causing problems now.”

Of course, Alter’s solution is for the (over)developed world to cut way back on our rates of consumption. Having graduated from the 6th grade, I have no argument with that. We in the over-consuming industrialized world must significantly scale back our lifestyle. But if we do that while relaxing about population growth, we end up with a world of 11 billion people who must figure out how to live sustainably. Can we cut our consumption enough to make that balance out?

Interestingly, many readers were able to do the math Alter ignores. Here are two particularly sharp reader comments:

“The thesis supports a false dichotomy and is not supported by the data; according to your graphic, in order to not over-tax the planet we all need to roll back to standard of living somewhere between Uganda and China?!?

I accept that technology can, and will, make it possible to use fewer resources, and some sacrifices need to be made, but what the data shows is that the current population, given current technology, is only ok as long as the modern world is wiling to reduce its standard of living by 50-75%.

As a bike-commuting vegetarian, with a small apartment lit by LEDs, even I consider this ludicrous. Fortunately, I’m childless.”


“If I read that correctly, you are basically saying that the whole world should live in absolute poverty without doing anything to curtail population growth. Is that right?”

Nearly ALL the comments revealed readers aren’t buying what Alter is selling. That gives me hope.

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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

Comments (1)

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    Brian Sanderson


    Hans Rosling was like a magician, using graphical illusions to trick gullible people into thinking that they were seeing the impossible. Lloyd Alter is a failed magician — everything that he says is transparently wrong!

    Rosling was a guy who made “nice-sounding noises” but he was selling very toxic ideas…


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