A Question Of Sustainability

…For A Sustainable Future

I write this piece to highlight a very important piece of information about the world population which can be found on the Population Matters website titled: for a sustainable future.

It is the population counter which you can watch ticking over second by second on that web page and if you are concerned about such matters it is a very sobering pass-time to sit and watch it for a while.

I noticed that this site, which I think does some admirable work by the way, along with many others tends to rather liberally use the word sustainable or sustainability in its releases. This is not necessarily a good thing and, when people and organisations do this, I am not sure if they really have any clear grasp or understanding of just what that term means.

There is no way that we can expect to operate in a sustainable way with a constantly growing population or even one that is stabilised at any where near current levels.

There are over seven and a quarter billion people in the world today  …and counting. Three people for every one that was alive when I was born.

At my birth the population stood at around two and a quarter billion persons.

It had taken many tens of thousands of years to get to that point, having maintained a stable level of under 1 billion from the time that homo-sapiens first appeared until the start of the Industrial Revolution and the later Oil Age.

The growth from 1 to 2 billion took 123 years as a result of what we can loosely refer to as the period of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1960 the world population reached 3 billion, having taken 33 years to get there from the 2 billion level as the age of Oil was gaining momentum.

From 1960 it took 14 years to add the next billion in 1974. That was 4 billion.
From 1974 it took 13 years to add the next billion in 1987. That was 5 billion.
From 1988 it took 12 years to add the next billion in 2000. That was 6 billion.
From 2000 it took 11 years to add the next billion in 2011. That was 7 billion.

At a quarter of a billion added in just over 2.5 years since the end of 2011 we are on track to reach the next billion in just another 7.5 years (a total of 10 years) ie. 2021. That will be 8 billion.  At this rate of increase the next level will be reached around 2030. That will be 9 billion.  So sometime in the mid ’30s, when I am turning ninety (if I am so lucky) another billion will have been added. That will be ten billion.

The world population will have quadrupled in my lifetime. 

This sudden rate of increase in human presence on this planet can only be attributed to both the Industrial Revolution and especially the age of Oil.  Without those two events we would still be looking at around one and a half billion living souls.  The success of both of these modern periods in raising population levels is based totally on the energy lift provided by utilising and consuming the Earth’s store of fossil fuels, coal, gas, and oil.  We are now reaching the point when we can no longer expect or afford to maintain the energy production levels that we have become used to enjoying throughout the last century or so.  Consequently we can not expect or afford to maintain population at levels seen in that same period.  Logically, with declining energy availability, population level will fall to roughly pre-industrial levels.  Whether that is achieved smoothly by natural means or rather rudely by some catastrophic event or events arising directly or indirectly from the current situation of resource usage or over-population, remains to be seen.

Of course if you know how I think, you will also know that I don’t believe that population can possibly increase to the levels that I have suggested above.  Within the next six or seven years I expect the population to begin to crash for one reason or another, ultimately down to somewhere between its pre-industrial sustainable level of around 1.5 billion persons and its pre-oil level of around 2 billion.  How long that downturn will take is anybody’s guess.  It could be a century or so.  It could equally be sudden and cataclysmic.  And it could be soon.

That, if looked at with unbiased expectations is what sustainability is all about.  Anything else is just pie-in-the-sky illusion.

This is the only way that any of us can possibly survive on this beautiful planet.

Personally I don’t think any of us can plan to be one of the survivors who make it through that downturn but we can plan to be as knowledgeable and equipped to take care of ourselves, as we are able to do, in a cleaner, simpler, leaner, less organised world, where those who are able to operate in a level of self-reliance will best prosper.

My best wishes to anyone who reads this, in their endeavours to get there.

Note added after publication

Please don’t think that I am preaching here when I mention such things.  I am not a person who is in any position to do that as I have been responsible for bringing six children into this world with two separate women.  I have therefore doubled my personal presence on the planet rather than simply doing what could be taken, if the circumstances were different ie. as in times past, as continuing only sustainable reproduction at a level of replacement for myself and partners, or less.

So, I am not preaching  …just stating the inescapable facts.

Unless we can look at this issue objectively and without emotion, we are headed for destruction and doom.  If you and I cannot see that, then we are lost, because our governments will never act on, or even agree with, that position.  Our blinkered leaders can only see the way forward as one in which they must encourage and indeed ensure continued economic growth, even when they must be able to see that such a course is ultimately impossible to achieve and will certainly fail.  And what does continued growth mean?  It means more and more people.  More working units (sorry, people) to produce more stuff.  More consuming units (sorry, people) to keep buying stuff.  More reproducing units (sorry, people) to keep generating more of the above units (sorry, people).

We are mice trapped inside a treadmill and we need to get off.  We must get off.



“Humans are a plague on the Earth”

“Humans are a plague on the Earth”

Who said that?  ‘Twasn’t me, although I have recently and independently come to the same conclusion myself.

No, it was (at least for the most recent utterance) none other than that internationally known and revered, highly honoured and decorated naturalist, named among the 100 Greatest Britons, Sir David Attenborough.  Sir David Attenborough

Sir David made the statement in an article for the current edition of Radio Times magazine as reported by Population Matters.  So we should, merely by dint of whose words they were, approach and contemplate the matter with a serious degree of thoughtfulness and not dismiss the warning outright.

Possibly less seriously, but proving that the concept is not unprecedented, you may remember that this was also the opinion of Agent Smith in The Matrix movies.  Please don’t let this little ‘aside’ diminish or divert your thinking on the important issue raised here. I just thought it a little ‘amusing’ and something that may have been missed by viewers of the movie.

In his statement Attenborough warns that this (over-population) is a problem which is coming home to roost in the next 50 years or so and even now is seen to be in operation in places like Ethiopia where there are just too many people for the land to support.  To which I would add that the situation in Ethiopia is likely to be repeated in many other places around the world as climate forces increasingly continue to wreak havoc on food production.  Places like North America, Europe and China.

I don’t see any equitable solution to the issue.  There is not, nor will be, enough food to go around to sustain a population at current levels let alone future projected levels, even though this has often been mooted to be just a problem with distribution.  Globalisation, the Green Revolution and ceding control of production to Big Agriculture, is and will continue to be seen as having been a monumental failure.

All things considered (climate change, resource limits, Earth capacity to renew itself, systemic collapse), the safe global carrying capacity before too long will fall to something less than 1 billion human lives.  Perhaps considerably less.  The future does not look too rosy for at least six out of seven folk now alive at this present time.  I expect that conditions will be less than ideal for everyone now living as we progress through the next few decades and perhaps for considerably longer than that.

I despair for what the current younger generations, those who have known nothing other than the greed and avarice of ‘the consumer society’, are about to face and would urge young women everywhere not to have (more) children until a safe future can be assured for those unfortunate to be born into the world in these troubled days.  At this time, the future is anything but certain.

The people of the world will not lay down, perish, starve and die quietly.  There is much turmoil, movement and conflict ahead.  Immigration policies will not stand in the way of mass migrations of hungry, desperate peoples.  National borders will very soon count for nothing.

Pre-knowledge of such events is why I have personally, in the twilight years of my life (may they still be many, healthy and fruitful) moved away from centres of population, why I have learned the principles of permaculture, why I am learning how to grow, cook and prepare food and why I have shed all ownership of property/debt and why I am continuing to gather resources around me in preparation for basic survival living which will hopefully equip me to see better times.

Take some time to consider these things for yourself.  Beware the crowd mentality.  Don’t dismiss David Attenborough’s warning lightly.

Humans are an introduced virus on this planet.  You know what happens to viruses within the confines of a limited environment such as a laboratory Petrie dish or a ball of rock floating in space.  They consume all available resources (the food medium in the Petrie dish example) and then die off completely.  On a planet that is continually renewing itself we don’t have to suffer the same fate.  We just have to learn to live for as long as we are able to within the renewable limits of the planet.  That means a lot of us living very simply (few comforts, basic low technology, simple tastes) in a steady-state (zero growth) economy, or a relatively small number of us leading basic but fairly comfortable lives in a truly long term sustainable (zero growth) way.  That is the best we can hope for.

Eventually of course, we will inevitably go the way of all species.  But life, in some form, will go on.