The aim of the foundation The Ten Million Club Foundation (TMC) is to use awareness-raising techniques to create a basis of public support for a population policy in the Netherlands and in the rest of the European Union. For the Netherlands our target population is currently 10 million.
The TMC Criteria Commission has formulated criteria for such a population policy on the basis of existing research data.
A study such as this one is, of its nature, speculative. There are very few experts in the field of overpopulation. And not only are there contradictions between many reliable facts systematically gathered by different organisations but the methods by which this information has been obtained also vary significantly.
Central to this work is the quality of human, animal and plant life on earth. We thus see this study as an initial attempt at studying the possible ways of managing Planet Earth, its ecological capacity forming the all-determining factor in human actions.
Even if it proves impossible to formulate satisfactory criteria, it will be better to have a set of provisional criteria rather than none at all. The current world population of more than 6 billion is still growing and the capacity of the earth to support it is being increasingly weakened. Europe plays an important role in this issue.
2. Well-being and Standard of Living
3. Minimum Population Size
4. Maximum Population Size
5. Optimum Population Size
6. Essential Criteria
9. Available farmland
10. Estimates about Food
11. Biodiversity and Optimum Distribution Density
12. Ecologically Productive Land
13. Transportation of Food
14. Special criteria
Scientific opinion on the impending reality of a population crisis is all but unanimous. In 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists ( www.ucsusa.org
), an association of worried practitioners of the sciences, issued a pamphlet entitled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” (http://deoxy.org/sciwarn.htm
), in which they state that it is highly probable that man’s destructive activity will make life in its present form impossible on earth in the future. The pamphlet was signed by some 1700 scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences.
There are, however, powerful religious, political and economic powers that resist finding a solution to the population problem. These powers deny that population growth is the main cause of many and perhaps, ultimately, all the problems we face. Whatever the truth of the matter, increasing overpopulation is still one of the greatest existing threats to the quality of life of humans, animals and plants. By focusing on overpopulation, therefore, we are certainly not ignoring all other problems.
Government attitudes to overpopulation vary. The Population Reference Bureau in Washington publishes a World Population Data Sheet every year (see www.prb.org
). It records the attitudes of governments towards the size of their own populations. In the 1995 publication 40 European countries are cited. Of these, 24 countries considered the number of children per woman to be “satisfactory” (Neither Spain nor Italy considered 1.2 children per woman too low), 15 countries thought their birth rate was “too low”. Macedonia was the only country to consider its birth rate of 2.2 too high.
Past reports on the population problem have been published by government commissions in Great Britain (1949), the United States (1972) and the Netherlands (1977, Muntendam). In each case the general advice was to aim for a constant if not lower population size. These conclusions, however, were not what governments wanted to hear and the reports were filed away, out of sight. The political establishment in European countries is concerned but, on the one hand, only about the average number of births in relation to the unfavourable balance between active and inactive individuals and, on the other, about labour shortages. In his book The End of Work Jeremy Rifkin shows this last concern to be misplaced. On the contrary, there will be a large pool of unused human labour in the 21th century: in other words, unemployment.
If not already, then very soon population growth will be a massive worldwide plague, not just for humans themselves but also for animal and plant life. Each day the world population grows by about 250,000 individuals: that is, 1 million people every 4 days or 90 million people a year.
The world population around
As long as this plague sweeps across the world, all talk about sustainability will amount to no more than building castles in the air. It would be a falsehood to say that the difficulties we are seeing in different countries are not due to overpopulation.
The Netherlands and Japan are prime examples of highly populated yet prosperous societies. But these highly specialised industrial nations are dependent on mass imports of raw materials and foodstuffs from the rest of the world. Every country has an economic, a foreign and a financial policy. It is high time for us to speak openly about the need for a population policy.
Population policy should not concern itself with the growth of populations merely when those populations are reaching their physical limits, as is the case in China and India. Rather it should cover a wide spectrum of issues, issues that are in people’s own personal interest – such as healthy eating – as well as wider concerns like the preservation of nature. A population policy could, for instance, lead to less urbanisation, fewer houses, fewer cars, less regulation, less crime, less bio-industry, less pollution, less pressure on nature reserves and less unemployment.
What could also be reflected in such a policy is the importance of having more rural areas, more space, more peace and quiet, more natural habitats and more clean beaches and rivers. Another issue that must not be neglected is that of natural resources. Furthermore, it goes without saying that our common heritage and the interests of the current and future generations will inform any attempt at formulating a population policy.
2. Well-being and standard of living
The factors of well-being and standard of living determine people’s quality of life. Well-being and happiness are terms hardly ever used in politics. Governments do not take measures to improve people’s well-being as an aim in itself. Improving the standard of living contributes significantly to a greater sense of well-being. More often it is material need rather than an immaterial aspiration that inspires peoples’ desire for a higher standard of living. For poor people, in particular, a rise in income and increased economic opportunities are essential conditions for their development as individuals.
To ask someone if they are happy or what can make them happy – these are questions of a personal nature. Making the slogan “food comes first, morals second” his basic assumption, the psychologist Abraham Maslow scientifically formulated a sequence of human priorities, a hierarchy of needs. This is often represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs forming the base (http://en.wikipeadia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy+of_needs
). People need food, for which they will have to work. Furthermore they need shelter and seek safety, security and a certain degree of continuity in their lives. Having a meaningful inner life is also an important need. Obviously all manner of psychological factors are involved. Generally speaking, the more basic needs are satisfied, the greater the increase in human well-being.
Human well-being itself cannot be measured; and it is impossible to develop criteria whereby it can be measured. What can be measured is people’s standard of living, for which the gross national income serves as a kind of socio-economic measure. It is a factor giving an indication of the level of prosperity. There does seem to be a correlation between the rise in national income and the increase in feelings of well-being, on both macro and micro levels. On the other hand, types of work such as unpaid domestic labour and voluntary work are not included in the national income. Nor is the cost of natural resources taken from the earth included as a factor in the calculations. The profits resulting from activities that harm the environment, however, are counted as income. The harmful effects are only measured when money is actually spent on repairing some of the damage.
The national income may give some indication of the standard of living but it does not indicate the actual value of human activities. It seems to us wrong, therefore, to conclude that the quality of life and, with it, some indication of human happiness could be measured on the basis of the gross national product.
Specific ways of measuring people’s standard of living or quality of life have been developed. One criterion that has been used since 1990 is the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), an attempt to measure human well-being in a more comprehensive way (see http://hdr.undp.org/en/) The method involves a highly complex mode of calculation, based on more than 500 indicators, but the resulting index ultimately consists of three factors: life-expectancy, average level of education and income per head of the population.
In 1991 a revised version of the HDI was introduced, one which takes gender, and the related division of incomes, into account.
Measured by these criteria, the three highest scoring countries are Canada, Norway and Sweden. These three countries have one factor in common: a very low population density.
3. Minimum population size
David Willey, writer of the as yet unpublished “Optimum Population for Europe”, discusses the minimum and maximum poles of population size before reaching an optimum figure. It does indeed seem sensible to explore the two extremes in order to be able to present an optimum as a compromise between the two.
What would be the minimum population size if we were to aim for the optimum conditions for a good quality of life for every individual? To start with, each minimum or maximum figure is relative to its specific time. It is difficult to be sure of what conditions will be like in a hundred years’ time.
The question is whether a society with few people is economically viable. The economy of a country with a small population has a small market for its products but, on the other hand, causes less strain on the environment and uses up fewer natural resources. However it could be that having a minimum population is not so relevant after all, in an economic sense. Many companies using advanced methods of [production are, after all, multinationals, or sell their products to a very wide base of buyers. We have to conclude that it is difficult to determine criteria for a minimum population per country or region.
The scale of the national economy is determined by choice. What do a small number of people with a great deal of individual spending power do? Do they play an economic role different from that of a large number of people with little individual spending power? To put it another way, do half a million prosperous Dutch people buy more refrigerators than two million poor Dutch people, or do they buy fewer? This will, of course, also depend on the refrigerators.
On a local level a certain number of customers are needed to keep a village pharmacy viable, for example, and a larger customer base is needed to keep a furniture business running in a town. A minimum number of buyers are required to maintain economic activities on a local and regional level. This is not the case on a national level. How much can we shrink without losing any quality of life, if employment comes into play as well? At this point in time we simply do not know.
To what extent can a country’s security be guaranteed when it has a minimum population? There are many possible threats. The fewer inhabitants a country has and the less they are concentrated, the safer the country.
It can be argued that a large population makes a country vulnerable, since it can make it more dependent on imports of food and other raw materials. If, for instance, the United States had half the population it has now it would not be dependent on oil from the Middle East.
Another question is whether technical progress would still be ensured if the population were smaller. Some claim that the impulses for technical innovation often arise from necessity: they concur with the saying that necessity is the mother of innovation. One of the stimuli that has had a great deal of effect in the past is warfare. A certain degree of population growth could also be or have been the motor behind technical progress. It is doubtful, however, whether technical innovations are the result of impulses coming from population growth. Possibly some people experience population growth as burdensome and see a profit in inventing ways of turning the tide. Others, perhaps, see it as a challenge to take on the problem of population growth by way of inventions that could make an overpopulated society liveable. It seems almost certain that it is not the needs of individuals that have caused technical innovation. On the contrary, it is technical innovation that seems to have made population growth possible, and it creates a self-sustaining momentum.
The question that remains unanswered is whether the Western world, including the Netherlands, is willing to make concessions on this point, opting for less (rapid) technical innovation in favour of a society with a smaller population. It is a choice, in other words, for fewer people and, if needs be, less innovation and a little less luxury in favour of a higher quality of life and more well-being. The TMC opts for fewer people in favour of a higher quality of life, even if this means there might be somewhat less technical innovation.
4. Maximum population size
Sustainability is a term central to ecology. Sustainability determines the theoretical maximum density of a population of a particular species that can be supported by the resources of a particular territory, without damage being done to that territory’s future capacity for supporting the species.
The use of this term by different authors has produced a huge variety of estimates of the maximum world population, varying according to the criteria used. Many limit themselves to investigating the earth’s potential for producing food. Not taken into account are factors such as energy, land, soil, space, disease, waste disposal, minerals, forestation, biological diversity, nitrogen, phosphorus etc. Other (psychological) factors such as space, noise, and peace and quiet are hardly, if ever, given any weight.
There is much speculation about the possible criteria for determining a maximum population size. Possibly, a world population of 12 billion could be fed if a vegetarian lifestyle were to be adopted, as is practised in Nepal, for instance. If we base ourselves on the habits common to inhabitants of a country such as the US, however, the earth might only be able to feed a billion people. Energy plays an important role in determining the sustainability of these American habits. It is energy, after all, which guarantees the continuity of a certain standard of life. If everyone lived in this way there would be room on earth for no more than two billion people.
The concept of sustainability can also be defined in terms of resources: wood, fish, agricultural land, the environment’s capacity for absorbing pollution, etc. Following this line of thought, sustainability could be described as ecological space. Each person should be able to consume equally within the global ecological space. According to this definition, the “maximum population” would be the number of people who utilise completely the ecological space available to them while maintaining a certain standard of living.
5. Optimum population size
However the maximum attainable outcome is not necessarily the ideal outcome. A country with a maximum population might well have a house or an apartment for everyone, but might not have any room left for them to go for a walk in natural surroundings. A country in which the sustainability of nature is taken into account and which values all aspects of nature – of which humans happen to be part – possesses an optimum flora and fauna. This is why a society should formulate how best to guarantee human quality of life, also in the long term, in such a way that other societies, flora, fauna and what we understand by the term environment, are not endangered but respected.
If that is the aim we also need to look at the number of people needed for a society to function optimally. Too often it is only the economic aspects of an issue that receive attention. A country’s population has the best chance of a good and lasting quality of existence if it does not need to cause damage to people in other countries; if it has its own food reserves, raw materials and other elementary resources; if its members have space in which to develop mentally and physically, and can take their leisure in natural surroundings; if they can escape from the pressures and overcrowding of everyday life and can provide the prospect of an equally dignified existence for coming generations. The rules that should apply to human life should apply equally to animal and plant life. Only then can we talk about an optimum population.
Optimum population density is somewhere between the minimum and the maximum, but closer to the minimum. What it implies in our definition is a fair distribution of wealth among all world citizens, in contrast to the current situation. If we are aiming for a just distribution amongst the billions of people whose levels of consumption are very low at the moment, we will have to base our calculations on a much higher consumption per head than the current average. By taking this into account we arrive at a surprisingly low value for optimum population density. For a number of subjects tentative criteria have been formulated.
6. Essential criteria
We make a distinction here between essential and special criteria. Essential criteria relate the limits of the maximum population to certain basic materials indispensable to human life. Some of these criteria can be measured on a worldwide scale, others only regionally or nationally. Examples of such basic materials are energy, water and agricultural land. In these examples and the resulting calculations, unavoidably we have had to base ourselves on the current state of technology. No speculations have been made about future developments aimed at solving the problems identified.
The aim is to come to a reasonable estimate, using current means and possibilities, of a world population that can count on a decent existence for all. If there are future developments that justify a larger population than the current result, then a decision can always be made, at that time, to pursue regulated growth. In the meantime, reverse reasoning and speculation have led to the problems discussed here and are, in our opinion, catastrophic.
Special criteria serve as a gauge for the things that are not categorically indispensable to human life but which make life much more enjoyable. Often these criteria too can only be indicated regionally. They are discussed further on in the text.
Of the increase in the consumption of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal over the last 140 years, 50% can be attributed to increased needs and the other 50% to population growth. The increase in the use of these energy sources has lead to a high degree of pollution of the air, water and soil. The constant use of coal, gas and oil as fuel can only continue for so long; at some stage there will be none left.
Using solar energy requires large areas of land. As David Pimentel indicates in his 1994 report “Renewable Energy”, over 20% of the total land surface of Europe would be needed to obtain the required energy from the sun’s rays. Wind energy also demands a large surface area, as does the use of timber as a source of energy. The constant consumption of timber would, furthermore, soon exhaust timber supplies. Opinions are still divided on the safety of nuclear energy and the potential future application of nuclear fusion.
Meanwhile world population is growing steadily towards an estimated number of 10 billion in 2050. In 1994 15 TWh was needed to supply the total consumption of energy in the world. According to John Holdren, who does research into energy at the university of California, this consumption will rise to 30 TWh in 2050, a doubling in world energy consumption relative to today.
The current total consumption of energy in developing countries is, on average, 1 kWh per person per day. In the United States the average consumption is 12 kWh and in the other industrialised nations it is 7.5 kWh (the consumption of energy by industry is not included in this average).
Can the biosphere actually produce 30 TWh of energy? Raw materials are irreplaceable and can naturally only be preserved for reuse by recycling. In order to guarantee the continued existence of ecosystems, however, according to Paul Ehrlich, biologist at Stanford University, global energy consumption should be limited to no more than 6 TWh a year.
Energy consumption of 3 kWh per person would mean a population of no more than two billion people, which means a drastic reduction in the world population and/or its energy consumption. According to this line of reasoning, only a third of the current world population could be supplied in its need for energy, assuming that energy consumption is equal for each world citizen in the future. In this scenario the Netherlands would demand a proportional part of the world’s supply of energy if it had a population of 5 million, unless we were to content ourselves with an even lower consumption of energy per inhabitant.
The availability of fresh water is one of the most important factors for population growth on earth. Almost 10% of all evaporated water, that is about 49,000 km3, falls back onto the land as rain or snow. Almost two-thirds of rainfall runs directly into the sea via rivers. The total amount of fallen water available to man is estimated at 9,000 to 14,000 km3 a year. (1 km3= 1 billion cubic metres)
Mainly because of population growth, the available amount of water per head of the population has decreased from 16,000 m3 per person a year in 1950 to 7,400 m3 a year in 1990. Water is distributed between different countries in an extremely unequal manner. In Iceland, for example, each head of the population currently has more than 600,000 m3 water available per year while in Kuwait the figure is just 75 m3. China and Canada receive the same amount of rainfall per hectare, but the average Canadian has 50 times more water available to him than the average Chinese.
In the US the average water consumption per person per day is more than 700 litres; in Senegal it is not even 30 litres. The personal use of water rises as prosperity increases. The Swedish authority on water, Malin Falkenmark, has drawn up certain criteria for water use. He states, for instance, that 100 litres of water per person per day is the minimum amount for a healthy existence. He states further that an average of 2000 m3 of water per head of the population per year is the necessary amount for humans. This includes use for agriculture and industry. If the amount decreases to around 1700 m3 a head, warning signals should sound. If supplies continue to decrease to below 1000 m3 people’s health and the country’s economic development will be damaged. This Falkenmark norm of 1000 m3 is used by the World Bank, which subsidises irrigation projects. If the available amount sinks below the 500 m3 mark then there is an acute shortage.
Water shortage can lead to conflicts between countries if, for instance, both take their water from the same river. Some countries are fully, or to a large extent, dependent on water from rivers. Egypt is dependent on the Nile as a source of 97% of its water; the Netherlands obtains 89% of its drinking water from rivers and Cambodia is dependent on river water for 82% of its supply. These countries are clearly vulnerable.
The alternative to rainwater is groundwater. This too is a limited resource. In America large amounts of groundwater are used for all manner of purposes. Increasingly powerful pumps will have to be used until the operation is eventually no longer cost-effective. The availability of good quality water is also already becoming a problem in the Netherlands. Surface infiltration alone can no longer keep up with demand. Three examples that indicate that neither money nor effort is being spared to get hold of water: water is being extracted through in-depth infiltration in the dunes; in the province of Twente groundwater is pumped up from a depth of 20 metres and in Barneveld water that fell as rain 5000 years ago is being extracted.
It should be noted that the quality of water is incredibly important. A wider availability of water, expressed in cubic meters, might well entail a worsening of the quality of the water. We know how easily many illnesses are spread through contaminated water. As we have seen, the estimated amount of water available globally is around 10,000 billion m3 or 10,000 km3. Based on the supply of 2000 m3 per person, a world population of five billion would have optimum quality of life. If the water available were 1700 m3 per person, which is the warning mark, 6 billion people could be supported in total, but this would by no means be an optimum situation.
As the availability of water varies so much from place to place, an optimum population can only be determined on a regional or national scale. For instance, in order to have its inhabitants live optimally, Egypt would have to reduce its population from 70 to 30 million. Morocco’s population would have to shrink from 30 to 14 million, that of Poland from 39 to 28 million and that of Rwanda from 8 to 3 million. The population of the Netherlands would have to decrease from 16 to 10 million. Another aspect, signalled by Madeline Weld, is that, in some developing countries, where there is a scarcity of water and food, water that could have been used in agriculture is instead utilised by industry.
It is worth noting that, according to Sandra Postel, at least 1000 tons of water is needed to harvest one ton of grain from irrigated farmland. Of all farmland in the world 16% is irrigated and that 16% produces 40% of the world grain crop. In 1995 the whole world consumed indirectly (through meat consumption) or directly 300 kg of grain per head. That number will at best remain constant, but the population is growing from 5 to 6 billion people. For the yearly growth of 90 billion people alone, 27 million tons of grain is needed. In order to produce this extra amount 27 billion m3 of water (27 km3) is required.
9. Available farmland
Various attempts have been made to quantify the issues surrounding agriculture. Generally speaking, we can state that there are few current figures in the literature. Here are some of the figures that do exist. Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, for instance, has calculated that for a predominantly vegetarian diet 0.07 hectares of land is needed per person. David Pimentel arrived at a figure of 0.5 hectares, based on a varied diet and without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides. (1 km2 = 100 hectares)
The FAO regards nearly all land as suitable for agriculture, without considering issues such as climate and soil quality. Marginal land can, of course, be used to grow crops but not in a sustainable way. Erosion and dust storms soon force farmers to move on. Similarly, the cutting down of rainforest in order to use the land temporarily – for grazing, for example – is not a sustainable solution.
Within the decision-making process of United Nations organisations, any opinion on agricultural issues that happens to diverge from the commonly held view will, unfortunately, in most cases be floored by a noncommittal compromise reached by the 150 allied governments. According to the FAO then, which uses other norms than the countries concerned, Australia has 49 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture and Canada 46 million hectares. With these FAO figures, 98 million people could be fed in Australia and 92 million in Canada – according to the Pimentel formula.
On the other hand, organisations in Canada itself, which have divided farmland into the categories good, mediocre and bad, have concluded that, in fact, only 4.1 million hectares of land is suitable for farming. In Australia land has been categorized using five gradations of quality and it has been calculated that just 2.3 million hectares of land is available there.
According to Pimentel’s formula, these last figures would mean there is room for only 4.6 million people in Australia. One could almost be forgiven for holding the view that countries such as Canada and Australia, which export huge amounts of grain, have a kind of moral responsibility to keep their populations small. Where else, after all, could starving countries turn to?
If we were to apply David Pimentel’s norm to the Netherlands, that of 0.5 hectares of fertile land per person, it would only be necessary to establish the amount of fertile land available in the Netherlands for its own food supply in order to calculate how many people could be supported in this way. What needs to be taken into account, however, is how much fertile ground is needed for recreational purposes, as areas of natural beauty, for the raising of crops for export and for the production of dairy products for export.
10. Food estimates
Opinions vary widely about the future demand for food. Gretchen Daily, of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford, has studied this phenomenon. Tragically, it seems that the huge divergence in opinion within the literature on agriculture is contributing to a state of paralysis in the political sphere. No single analyst can grasp every aspect of the complex socio-economic system in which farming is embedded. We are dealing with aspects such as climate, soil, hydrology, energy, international trade, agricultural politics, social and economic politics in general, technology and culture. It is even more difficult to formulate an integrated, holistic point of view of such a complicated system as that of food production.
A recent study by the FAO projects a growth in food production of 1.8% a year over the coming 20 years, a fall in the number of chronically malnourished people in South Asia from 24% to 12% and an increase in the daily diet from 2500 to 3000 calories in South-East Asia, the near East, North Africa and Latin America by 2010. It is also expected that 650 million people will be malnourished in 2020 in contrast to the 800 million now. The population of sub-Saharan Africa will, at that time, contain 300 million malnourished people over against 180 million now. The increasing problem of erosion is hardly mentioned. Prof. Tim Dyson, of the London School of Economics, represents the moderate and cynical optimism of the FAO in his article Population and Food. Despite the increase in food consumption per person in most regions, however, the average consumption per person over the whole globe will, according to him, continue to fall, because the population is growing in the very countries that are in the worst situation where food is concerned.
According to Lester Brown, of the Worldwatch Institute, global food production is stagnating as a result of three main causes. First, there is a decrease in available farmland due to erosion and urbanisation. Eighty percent of deforestation is due to man’s search for new farmland.
Second, the use of chemical fertilisers is decreasing as more and more of their harmful effects become known. Intensive farming is highly dependent on agents such as fertiliser, which are largely fabricated from finite fossil fuels and will therefore, at some stage, run out.
Third, stagnation has been observed in the water supply for irrigation. These factors have caused agricultural production to pass its peak and move into a downward trend.
In his book (Who Will Feed China: Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, 1995) Lester Brown calls China an important test case. Even if the Chinese food range increases minimally, by one small fish a week for every person, for instance, that still means 1.2 billion fish extra per week. Such a small change in the food range has gigantic consequences. If the Chinese were to start eating as much fish per person as the Japanese, then the all the fish caught throughout the world put together would hardly be enough to supply China with fish. The Chinese demand for grain has already led to a steep rise in the world grain price. The standard of living in China is on the rise. In economic terms there are now four China’s where, 17 years ago, there was only one.
In determining criteria for an optimum population size, the following considerations are of importance.
- For each person’s daily diet, no matter how constituted, there should be 3000 calories available per person.
- Most foodstuffs should be produced locally.
- There should be sufficient food supplies for a population to be able to bridge periods of scarcity – because of drought, for example – and to counterbalance miscalculations.
- Agriculture should not be dependent on finite energy sources.
Taking these limitations into account, it seems unlikely that an optimum world population could consist of any more than 3 billion people.
11. Biodiversity and optimum distribution density
In the last three centuries man has contributed to the decrease in the number of animal species. Of the tens of millions of species, 1.4 million have been classified. Hundreds of species die out each year.
The biodiversity of ecosystems is necessary for the regulation of essential chemical-physical processes such as the climate, waste processing, the recycling of essential nutrients, the pollination of plants and protection against diseases. The biodiversity of ecosystems is also essential to resources such as fresh water, soil and the atmosphere.
Edward Wilson has proposed a depressing hypothesis: “If insects and other land-based arthropodal animals were to die out because of a disaster, man, along with all other mammals, birds and amphibians, would die out within a matter of months!”
Optimum distribution density
On rather arbitrary grounds Joel Cohen arrives at a desired proportion of one African elephant to every 1000 people and one blue whale to every 8000 people. It is an interesting attempt at standing up for animals but the consequences of creating sufficient living space for animals such as elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses in tropical areas could be that people from these areas would have to go somewhere else to make room. Similarly – to take but one example – in order to guarantee the survival of the Siberian tiger, taking action to preserve a single nature reserve is simply not enough. Moreover, when populations are isolated in this way, inbreeding occurs through a lack of genetic exchange, even setting aside the fact that an isolated population can be wiped out in one fell swoop, by some calamity or other. What is true for larger animals, though, is also true for smaller animals and even insects. Some types of beetle, for instance, need to make long, connecting trails in order to survive. Viaducts made especially for deer or tunnels for badgers are solutions that contribute to the preservation of the animal world, but are, unfortunately, merely a drop in the ocean. We cannot trust that seabirds will, of their own accord, avoid those parts of the sea contaminated with oil to save their skin. What percentage of the land do we reserve for nature here in the Netherlands? To put it in another way, how many square kilometres would be necessary to maintain a healthy flora and fauna? Moreover, what part are we prepared to give back to nature of the land we have already grabbed for housing and infrastructure? It is a challenge to us to start doing these sums.
12. Ecologically productive land
Rees and Wackernagel discuss the concept of “ecologically productive land” in detail in Our Ecological Footprint. It refers to the natural stream of “goods and services” that are needed to sustain human and animal life on the planet. This stream of goods and services can be seen as the “natural capital income”. Each ecosystem provides, through its own structure and diversity, a sustainable stream of natural capital, which determines life within such an ecosystem.
The amount of land a human being needs in order to provide for his or her needs in a biological and sustainable way, is determined by man’s consumer needs. These consumer needs can be divided into the following categories: food, energie, housing, transport, durable goods or commodities and services for development and healthcare. In order to provide for all these needs, land is needed. The land that is needed to reproduce the used resources and to assimilate the waste products that arise, all on the basis of continuity, is what we call ecologically productive land. The amount of ecologically productive land a certain human society needs is defined as its “ecological footprint” and can be further distinguished by its type of cover (e.g. forest, savannah, desert etc.) and its capacity for storing or breaking down the waste produced by that society.
Thanks to technical progress we have created more room for ourselves and we are now in the process of filling that space up. What is happening in the Netherlands is a prime example of this.
This planet has 14.5 billion hectares of land and 36 billion hectares of sea. After subtracting the polar ice caps, deserts, semi-arid zones and fallow or barren land, what remains is 8.9 billion hectares of land suitable for human use. If we divide this by the current number of 6 billion people on earth, we arrive at around 1.5 hectares of land available per inhabitant. People’s need for land can vary significantly per person and per type of society but there is an unmistakable rising trend in the demand for “living space” per individual in proportion to the rise in incomes.
Man often makes a larger claim on the Earth and its many resources than is strictly justified. If such harmful claim is made for too long a period, then we can speak of exhaustion: the land becomes less productive. Instead of taking this course, humanity should maintain its natural capital in order to live on the interest it produces. The reality is that a country such as the Netherlands lives largely on capital belonging to others. The country “uses” a land surface that is many times larger than its own. In actual fact, most Western countries live with such an oversized “footprint”, with the exception of Norway, Sweden and Canada.
Rees and Wackernagel conclude that man needs around one hectare of land (per person) for the ecological generation of energy from hydropower, wind and solar energy or for the growing of crops that can replace fossil fuels. Ethanol is mentioned as an example of the latter type of fuel. One hectare of land could produce enough ethanol for an energy production of 100 GJ per year. One hectare, generating 3kWh, could provide for one person’s energy needs. Production per hectare could be greater in the case of hydro-electricity and wind energy and more economical where the use of land is concerned. We propose to reserve one hectare per person for the ecological winning of energy.
David Willey ascertains that one hectare of (rain)forest is needed for the absorption of the CO2 produced by the generation of energy through combustion, at a level of 100 GJ a year. Apart from this, there is the absorption of CO2 by plankton and algae in the oceans, which form another important “CO2 sink”. In conclusion Willey states that one or two hectares of land are needed per person for the provision of food and all other needs pertaining to human life. According to this general reasoning, the Netherlands would only have room for around 5 to 7 million people.
If, in a better world, we were concerned with ecology – that is, with the preservation of the earth and the welfare of people, animals and plants – then the ecological footprint should be at least 3 hectares per person. Of course a number of vague aspects remain connected to this line of reasoning but, as a whole, these considerations do suggest a clear course. When we project these figures onto the situation in the Netherlands, we note that the current population lays claim to a land surface 15 to 20 times larger than that of the Netherlands itself. According to Rees and Wackernagel, the current demands of the world’s population on raw materials and on nature surpass this planet’s capacity to sustain them.
13. Food transportation
Distances between the producers and consumers of food are becoming steadily greater. Apples from New Zealand transported to the UK, for instance, travel a distance of 22,000 km, and beans from Kenya 6,400 km. Since 1978 the distances travelled by goods from producer to consumer have increased by 50% within the UK itself. The increase in the transport by road of food, drink and tobacco has increased by 33%. Similar developments have occurred in most other EU countries.
But it costs less to ship cargoes of fruit from New Zealand to the Belgian port of Antwerp than to transport the same cargo by road from Antwerp to Cologne. Though the long-distance transportation of food uses up a great deal of energy, this form of transport is only made possible by the fact that the cost of the fossil fuels used by boats and aeroplanes is very low and is not representative of the actual cost of the fuels consumed, something which, to a greater extent, is the case for short-distance road transport.
The long-distance transportation of food demands a lot more packaging than transporting food produced for local or regional consumption. About two-thirds of all food packaging for long-distance transportation is necessary for the protection and conservation of food and drink. Further costs, not included in food prices, are those of the contamination of the soil, water and air in the exporting country.
We can take Brazilian orange juice as an example. For every ton of juice from Brazil consumed in Germany, at least 25 tons of materials are used, including 22 tons of water and 0.1 tons of fuel. If the German level of consumption were to be adopted by the world’s population as a whole, 130,000 km2 would be needed for the propagation of all these oranges. Blackcurrant juice produced in Germany contains just as many vitamins as the orange juice from Brazil, but its production uses up far fewer resources because it involves few – if any – harmful substances. Irrigation is not needed to grow blackcurrants in Germany and, in the case of local consumption, it also requires a lot less transportation than does the juice from Brazil.
In order to limit the transportation of food, food production should take place in the same country or in the same region of consumption in so far as this is possible. Which means that a country or region would need many more acres of farmland than when lots of crops are imported. In other words: if the Netherlands were to stop importing products such as oranges and kiwi fruit, the necessity of having an average 0.5 hectares per person would become more pressing. On the other hand, important savings could be made on the packaging and energy used for food transport. It would be interesting, although unfeasible for the time being, to measure how much less packaging and energy per person the average Dutch person could use now. It would be a revelation to see how much more energy would become available because of this in the poorer countries of the world, and how many fewer trees would have to be cut down.
14. Special criteria
This category of criteria could, in theory, contain a virtually endless list of subjects, especially anything that can be considered to influence the quality of human life. The subjects discussed below are, therefore, merely a selection from a multitude of possibilities.
The aim in listing these topics is to show that people are, through their large numbers, limiting their own and others’ possibilities for choice.
The discussion on freedom that follows is heavily dependent on the work of Jack Parsons (www.popolpress.com), one of those who argued that population growth is more likely to result in a decrease in individual freedom than an increase. Every individual’s freedom consists of partial or sub-freedoms, which compete with each other to some extent. Apart from this, everyone’s personal freedom(s) is limited by the freedom(s) of others. If more freedom is allotted to or appropriated by a single individual this could mean less freedom for others. Freedom is also a question of judgement, balance and mutuality and can only be developed and practised within a social context. According to John Stuart Mill, society has jurisdiction over individual freedom(s). The crucial question arising in this context is whether general prosperity is promoted or not when society starts interfering with personal freedom(s).
One of the “partial” freedoms, in itself a rather delicate subject, is people’s freedom to reproduce. But population growth can be detrimental to many other partial freedoms and can increasingly encroach on the most fundamental freedoms. In this context, population planning does not so much signify an encroachment on the freedom of reproduction, but – more importantly – means a safeguarding of other freedoms. Nowadays the right to have children is universal. One consequence is that a modern society can suddenly find itself needing tens of thousands of homes. Having children is often also a question of economic necessity, of religious belief, of a need for financial support in old age or of ideological pressures. It should be possible to direct the bearing of children in a fair way. Birth control is, in any case, dependent on public opinion on the subject. There were times in the Netherlands when the subject of birth control was discussed more openly than now. This was the case at the time of the Muntendam report in the mid-1970s. The conclusions reached in that report were never converted into policy because it was around the same time that the effects of the contraceptive pill were becoming more evident. Moreover it was the fear, on the part of religious groups, of legalised abortion that increased the resistance to the Muntendam report. When the multicultural society started to develop, the subject of birth control was pushed aside in a political climate dominated by short-term visions.
Modern man derives a sense of freedom from being able to travel comfortably and at speed, with or without luggage. Mobility is, however, limited by the growth of the economy, the size of the population and the number of cars on the road. The road system can no longer accommodate the increasing volume of traffic. World-wide the number grows by about 40 million cars a year, reaching a current level of 700 million vehicles. The speed at which people travelled by horse and carriage in New York in 1900 was, incredibly enough probably higher than the speed of cars today. In Dutch towns one is often better off going by bike than by car when one is in a hurry. The growth in the number of cars in the cities often has the effect of decreasing rather than increasing our mobility.
It has proved impossible to get people out of their cars. Making communities more compact, with better connections between homes, places of work and services, is more effective. The focus here is not on mobility in itself but rather on accessibility.
The freedom represented by having your own car disappears when traffic grinds to a halt on overburdened roads in an overpopulated country. How large does a population have to be, or should it be allowed to be, if reasonable mobility is to be maintained?
We can work out how many cars the road system can bear, moving at a certain, reasonable speed. Based on two people for every car, the intended optimum can be determined. In any case the rule will be: fewer people equals greater mobility.
Another question is: what is the maximum number of kilometres of road acceptable in any particular country? To put it in another way: what percentage of the land can be reasonably used for traffic, in such a way that there is sufficient space left for nature, housing, work and leisure? Outside the cities there used to be space, nature and peace and quiet. The loss of these immaterial qualities is not, of course, reversed by drawing up criteria. It is only if and when the Dutch public say “no” en masse, that the growth – to take one example – of Schiphol Airport will cease. However we will only reach that stage once people’s awareness has been sufficiently raised.
In total there are 24,000 playing fields (football, rugby, hockey, cricket etc.) in England, covering 61,000 hectares, which comes down to around 0.5% of England’s land surface. Similar figures apply to the Netherlands and other European countries. The demand for golf courses is taking up more and more land. An average golf club needs between 50 to 100 hectares along with the desired pools. What applies to golf also applies – mutatis mutandis – to other sports.
In the US there was a 70% increase in the number of golf clubs between 1980 and 1990. In 1990 there were 25 million members, playing at 15,000 clubs. By the year 2000 there are expected to be 4,000 more clubs. In England there are 2,500 golf clubs with 2 million members. In Japan 12 million people play golf. How many will there be in China in the near future?
If we reckon on 10% of the world’s population playing golf in the future, and on each club with 2,000 members needing 100 hectares of land, then we arrive at the figures of 300,000 golf clubs taking up 30 million hectares. This comes down to 0.4% of all ecologically productive land. With such a demand, the planet would only support a population of 2 billion.
Hiking in mountainous areas can have harmful effects on the environment. A great deal of damage is done by people following popular trails in the Himalayas, the Andes and in Africa. It is especially the felling of trees for fuel – something that not everyone takes with them on these hikes – that aggravates the process of erosion. More and more people want to hike the famous trails to Mount Everest: the number is estimated at 25,000 people a year. Over a period of 80 years, then, we could see 2 million people climbing Mount Everest.
If we estimate, on the basis of income, capacity and personal interests, that one in every 500 people will want to make this trip to Mount Everest and if we think that a responsible number of visitors per year is 25,000, then this would only be possible in the case of an optimum population of one billion people.
Perhaps a little less harmful, but all the more popular, is skiing. Damage is caused by the felling of trees to create pistes, a process that causes erosion; by the mass transportation by car and by plane to the ski resorts; by the use of snow cannons, which cause changes in the vegetation due to the use of huge amounts of water, and, above all, by the extension of infrastructure to accommodate the building of roads and hotels. The current ski capacity of the Alps is roughly equal to European demand. The question is whether or not the Alps have already reached the peak of their capacity. There are around 8 million Japanese skiers who cannot be accommodated in their own country and it is not known how many Chinese, Americans and Indians will set their sights on Europe as a future skiing destination.
Setting the percentage of skiers that Europe can support against the increasing demand in Europe alone, the optimum population for Europe would be no more than 100 million.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council in Brussels, tourism is the biggest industry in the world and is growing at a rate 23% faster than the global economy in general. In 1995, 530 million people went on holiday abroad and spent a total sum of 321 billion dollars there. It is expected that in 2000 more than 20 million Japanese people will take a foreign trip. One Japanese company (Shimizu) has plans to build a hotel on the moon, as well as a space-hotel orbiting the earth.
Will there be another Dutch airport the size of Schiphol in the North Sea? The impact of hotels, roads and company facilities on the environment is unimaginable. And the simple fact that these facilities are there only encourages more activity.
Some holiday destinations and tourist attractions have already had to limit the influx of visitors because of the damage done by tourism. Examples are Stonehenge, Lascaux, Athens, Venice and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. National parks are having trouble coping with the influx of tourists. The Grand Canyon receives around 4.7 million visitors each year. The waiting time for a raft trip down the Colorado River is 9 years. British national parks are being forced to stop advertising. The point is: how do you calculate the maximum or optimum number of visitors for all of these different places and/or events?
When population density and consumption per head of the population are both low, the effects of human actions on the environment can be said to be minimum. As long as the environmental effects of human action remain relatively minor they can easily be absorbed by natural processes without a long-term imbalance occurring. This is what we could call a sustainable human society, which does not go beyond the bearing capacity of the natural system and does not damage the environment.
If we multiply the consumption per head of the population [C] in any particular country or area by the degree of stress on the environment [T] and then multiply the result by the number of consumers in that country or area [P], then we derive the total stress on the environment in that particular area, the impact [I], the formula being P x C x T = I.
Limiting consumption per head of the population does not seem realistic in view of people’s expectations regarding consumption. In all decency, it cannot be demanded of the poor that they tighten their belts even further. The large groups of people moving into the middle classes – as seen in China, for example – naturally want their refrigerators, cars and washing machines. Wealthy people in the West are loath to take a step back: on the contrary, they are focused on economic growth and on increasing their spending power. According to Norman Myers, a decrease in consumption will only be accepted if it is coupled by technological innovations and a more efficient use of energy. In Myers’ view we will be forced to take that direction.
In the Netherlands the organisation “Milieudefensie” (Environmental Defence) has calculated that wealthy countries should lower their consumption in order to maintain their economies without making lasting use of space in poorer countries. Generally speaking, the reduction advised would be 70%. For the Netherlands, with a population of 17 million, a reduction in energy consumption of 60% per head of the population would be needed. Further desirable reductions would be 38% for drinking water, 80% for aluminium, 45% for farmland and 65% for wood. Each individual should be allowed one litre of petrol (gasoline) per day for transport purposes, including holiday flights. In the case of an average reduction of 50% over the above consumption levels, the Netherlands would be able to accommodate around 16 million inhabitants but, if current levels of consumption were to be maintained, the number would be about 8 million.
The latest technological possibilities for making human consumption less of a strain on the environment are not encouraging. A growing number of environmental experts hope to lessen human impact on the environment by way of technology. One example is that of the biotechnologists: they think there is a chance of being able to synthesise cellulose. This could form a basis for the production of paper and cotton.
Then there are scientists who want to seed the oceans with iron sulphate. This process would decrease concentrations of carbon dioxide by 10% or more. One recent test in the Pacific resulted in a dramatic growth in algae. These algae do indeed take up carbon dioxide on a large scale.
As a third example, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute of Colorado it will soon be possible to produce large amounts of energy by using new polymeric fuel cells. With these, a car can drive 320 km on 4.5 litres of fuel while stationary cars can feed the ongoing electricity production into the public electricity grid.
The pessimists claim, however, that the continuous growth in consumption will come to negate the benefits of heightened efficiency. In the same way, it is because of – or rather despite – the creation of more efficient engines that fuel consumption in the USA has continued to grow.
They also predict that improvements will lead to a 75% growth in the gross national product.
Despite all the technical inventions and facilities, in 1968 there were 1 billion people living in prosperity and 2.5 billion people living in poverty. In 1990 the number of people living in prosperity had risen to 1.2 billion and no technical innovations or facilities had been able to change the fact that almost 4.1 billion people were living in poverty at that time.
The limiting of populations is, of course, most effective in those places where consumption per person is highest, that is, in the West. Whether Western societies will be prepared to pursue a policy of birth control on the scale of the population as a whole perhaps depends on whether or not any such birth control will be neutralised by migration streams.
One of the questions arising here is how to ensure that acquired social services are maintained when there are fewer people supporting the services through taxes. The contrary question, which arises simultaneously, is whether these services could be maintained should population growth be unrestricted if a large part of the new population cannot contribute to the maintenance of those services.
If there is an evenly distributed decrease in all parts of the population, it seems safe to assume there will also be an even reduction in tax proceeds but, equally, a proportional decrease in the demand for social services. Possibly a decrease in tax proceeds could be met, but the other scenario – that of maintaining the current infrastructure – will perhaps result in relatively high taxes per inhabitant. What the scenario will look like for a transition to a society with fewer people is beyond the scope of this work.
References to Literature
- For this work we have made extensive use of the study “Optimum Population for Europe”, presented by David Willey at the International Workshop on Population and Environment in Rome, 28th and 29th October 1996.
- Another source is the lecture by Dr. Madeline Weld, titled “Confronting the Population Crisis, Responses to the Twenty-one Most Commonly Used Arguments to Confound the Issue”, published by the Global Population Concerns organisation in Ottawa, April 1996.
Other works consulted:
- De Draagkracht van Nederland, (What the Netherlands Can Take) an opinion piece by Milieudefensie Nederland (Environmental Defence of the Netherlands), Amsterdam 1994.
- Our Ecological Footprint by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia 1996.
- “Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy” by David Pimentel en Mario Giampietro in Clearing House Bulletin, Washington 1994.
- Population and Food by Tim Dyson, Routledge, London 1996.
- Renewable Energy: Economic and Environmental Issues, a report by David Pimentel, Cornell University, 1994.
- The Population Explosion by Paul en Anne Ehrlich, Arrow Books, London 1991.
- “Natural Resources and an Optimum Human Population” by David Pimentel in Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Cornell University, 1994.
- “Forging a Sustainable Water Strategy” in State of the World by Sandra Postel, 1996, Earthscan, London 1996.
- “Population and Water Resources: A Delicate Balance” in Population Bulletin by Malin Falkenmark and Carl Widstrand, Population Reference Bureau, 1992.
- International Monetary Statistics Yearbook, IMF 1994.