from factor 20 reduction to factor 20 more impact…

I just read a book, that made me aware again, of one of the drivers of increased consumption, and therefore of resource depletion: ‘Count down’, by Alan Weisman. And the Topic? Population growth, or: Overpopulation. The topic was first put on the table by Malthus, who knew long ago that growth can not be eternal on a finite planet. He was not talking consumption growth, but population growth that would outgrow food production. His predictions were delayed due to improvements in food production, mainly driven by technology and fossil fuels (-depletion) .

Then there was Ehrlich family, with their famous book “the population bomb”. And a similar message was given. However, just after the publication of his book , the agriculture industry found ways to make serious improvement in yields, and the moment of food shortage was delayed again. I say delayed, since there is a maximum anyway. While population keeps growing, from 7 now to 10 and maybe even hit 12 billion end of the century. [1]

One of the central themes in Weisman’s book is : Can agriculture make another leap forward in yields? And here is the point: There is no sign whatsoever that harvests can be increased significantly: now and then a innovation could lead to a 1% improvement, but that’s all. While on the other hand, land qualities are decreasing, so its even more likely that yields will go down.

Besides the food problem, more and more people consume more and more of anything. Maybe for food there is a certain limit in consumption ( What a man can eat during a day, for consumer goods there is no limit. But you can have 2 toilets in the house , 2 refrigerators, have 3 cars, and 80 lightings points, and go flying on holiday 4 times a year, to name a few achievements of society.

The same Ehrlich, with some colleagues , introduced an equation that shows the effects:

I = P × A × T

In words: : Human Impact on the environment equals the product of Population, Affluence, and Technology. Which implies that if one of the items on the right increases, the other two have to decrease in order to balance environmental impact. The equation combines population, consumption and technological progress. And led to the strategy introduced in the nineties, of a required factor 10 improvement in resource efficiency ( T), since its is impossible to decrease the population, as well as to reduce their affluence, their welfare level. [2] And factor 10 was the global average, in the industrialized world it should be a factor 20. And this was 25 years ago. Since then, all three issue on the right have gone up, in stead of down. Which they still do, and unless drastic measures are applied as a result of the Paris agreement on climate change, they will continue to rise. Lets have a look at some of the trends.

As mentioned population goes up to 10 Billion, and more: for 2100 that will be twice as much people as when the first climate measures where agreed in Kyoto with reference to 1990. After which we discussed the factor 20 required. If the newcomers are globally spread, this is a doubling of people, and their consumption patterns. [its around 75 million a year extra , follow the clock on [3]

Now there is another thing, which is the increasing medical knowledge: It has already been predicted , seriously, that there is a 50% chance that the first person to become 1000 years is already among us…! In any case medical science predicts major achievements, and the average life will rise to 120 years by the end of the century. In other words, from 80 now, that a 50% increase in environmental burden, since more years of consumption. This level effect is not included in most predictions.

Even Europe, from which could be expected that the environmental burden would not rise much, since everyone is already rich and hardly requires to invest in a modern welfare level, and with a relative stable population ( not counting immigration) , will go the wrong direction: Banks are printing enormous amounts of money to pump into society: And money must roll, is spent, and invested in environmental damaging activities. (A) By definition. Its a lot of materials that have to be produced, and a such kill the decoupling of materialization and economy.(T)

How much in fact is pumped in the economy currently? The past year around 1440 Billion Euro’s have been created extra, by buying loans and obligations . Total money in loop is 14000 billion euro, so that makes 1 %. That does not seem much, however 1 % a year until 2050, makes another 50% increase.

Besides, industrialized countries have started to replace all available technology: not only building a Renewable energy structure to replace the fossil driven infrastructure, but a new transport system as well: electrical cars, a 0-energy retrofit/make over of all houses, etc etc. The environmental load from materials could easily double here as well, if in fact there will be enough resources available anyhow, {see previous blogs on this issue) Part of a “circular economy”, as it is promoted, increasing the environmental load. Now part of the extra printed money will be spend here I suppose so there is some overlap, But not completely since its all intended to make economy grow. Not resource economy of course, but financial economy. That’s at least what the supporters of a alleged financial economical reality think., which in fact does not exist . It’s a late medieval construct, which makes rich people more rich and keeps poor people poor. But that’s another story.

Above is all about the rich and industrialized side of the world, There is also a side that has been plundered and kept poor so far, Which , against all odds, is developing in more and more areas. They all want to strive for the industrialized standard of living, and who can blame them for that. Since around 1/3 of population live sin the rich countries, 2/3 will increase welfare, increasing environmental load with a factor 3. As example: there are now not even 1 billion cars driving around. Which can easily become 3 billion, when 10 billion people are around.

One more thing about food: before I assumed a general increase due to population increase. But the diet will become more impacted as well, as people start eating differently and especially increase meat consumption: See how the meat consumption in China exploded from 13 kilo in 1982 to 63 kilo per year today. For more then a billion people! On global level that implies a doubling of the environmental impact. ( it should be mentioned that China announced a policy to reduce eat consumption by 50%. [4]

So adding up these figures , in stead of developing towards a factor 20 more efficient, we are heading for a factor 20 increase of environmental load. For sure if we take the 1990 year as a reference, like the Kyoto agreements did, and around the time when factor 20 was launched ( for the industrialized counties) .

Now to keep that ambition in sight, its now a factor 20 times a factor 20 , or a factor 400 more efficient that we should become, in the industrialized countries. Which is sheer impossible, just think of convincing billions of people of that and make them act upon that. People will fight for every car, for every piece of meat, and all other things they dream of.

We are already nearly 1 year after Paris, and at the moment of writing the agreement is not yet legally binding, not enough countries have ratified is. There has been made little progress in the past year, and little new policies and initiatives have been launched, on top of the old promised policies. Which implies that the world population has been growing by another 75 million, that consumption has grown, the economy is growing again. With every day passed it becomes more difficult if not more impossible to reach 2 degrees targets and other environmental ambitions. Since its impossible to meet those targets with current and even growing affluence levels, , with ever more people on the planet, with more and more technology to solve problems technology has created [x] and with ever growing in inequality.

Malthus, Ehrlich, Weisman show us reality, which we have been able to delay a few times, by introducing other resources with a environmental burden. And yes, the population will decrease at some point after 2100, if calculations are correct. But delaying the problems another 100 years is not realistic . The combination of population growth and limits in food supply will have already have hit long before, if its not already happening, today, in certain areas of the world.


2 F. Schmidt-Bleek (with W. Bierter):Das MIPS Konzept – Faktor 10 ,Droemer Knaur, Muenchen, 1998 . See also:

3 follow the growth live on:


Author: ronald rovers