This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Is the Number of People the Earth Can Support Not Really a Numbers Problem?

Later this month, the United Nations will be convening a High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development.
The High-level Political Forum is a young institution that was created at the Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development in 2012. It provides political leadership, guidance and recommendations. It follows up and reviews the implementation of sustainable development commitments and it addresses new and emerging challenges. It also enhances the integration of economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
Ahead of this, a number of people (including me, obviously) are weighing in with ideas about the demographic future of our species. My thanks to @PRBdata for pointing me to an OpEd in yesterday's NYTimes by Laurie Mazur, an author of books on population related issues, who seems to be suggesting that numbers are the not the problem
Start with the term "overpopulation." It implies that there are too many people in relation to the planet’s resources, a concept that has fallen out of favor. We now know that resources are distributed so inequitably, and used so wastefully, that it is virtually impossible to determine how many people the planet can sustain.
Well, it turns out that is not a correct assessment of reality, as she herself points out two paragraphs later:
Does that mean that human numbers are irrelevant to environmental sustainability? Not exactly. Current inequities are not — and must not be — set for all time. Yet the planet could not support today’s 7 billion people living as Americans now do, much less a future world population of up to 11 billion.
What she really wants us remember--and on this I think we can all agree--is that we do not want coercive population control measures (whether it be a one-child policy or genocide). Rather, we need softer inducements to slowing down the increase of population and simultenously raising the standard of living in less developed nations. In particular, we need to raise the status of women. However, it is unlikely that this can be done without some "coercion" in the form of legislation that gives women legal rights equivalent to those of men. The resources issue also needs some coercion. Inequality is getting worse, not better. This is not the kind of "sustainability" that most of us are thinking of and changing it will also require some coercion, as a very useful Salon article discussed a few months ago.


  1. Of interest:

  2. Neat video on marriage and fertility in the usa.

  3. INDDED ... inequality is getting worse. Professor, much though we would love to dream of a Utopian solution for Planet Earth - we seem to be moving towards a new type of Feudal Society. A few rich Oligarchs, and a huge number of Serfs. The Serfs will be hungry, drink polluted water and breathe smoggy air. The Oligarchs will drive expensive cars (with air purifiers), and live under glass domes (well probably some sophisticated plastic). But the entire existence of the Oligarchs will be under an "artificial roof" that removes pollution and erects high security barriers. This is the direction of our society at the current time. And yes, mortality rates in that new society will be much higher. A lot like Matt Daemon on the movie "Elysium".

    Do we want this? Because this IS where we are headed!

    Pete, Redondo Beach