raised eyebrow Regular readers of How to Save the World have noticed — and expressed some dismay — that I’ve proffered some fairly controversial opinions here in recent weeks, and also that I’ve blogged more about environmental philosophy and less about business innovation, technology and metablogging (the subjects that attract the most hits to this site).

bookThe honeymoon for this blog is clearly over, and the number of blogs inbound to How to Save the World has dropped this month for the first time.

With a great sigh, I remain unrepentant. The controversial opinions were deliberate trial balloons to see whether some of the ideas in my work-in-process novel The World That Could Be are going to turn off readers and defeat the second objective of the book (presenting a prescription for creating a new, utopian world). And time does not permit me to write more than what I’m producing now on this blog without seriously diluting its quality and originality.

The three (somewhat interrelated) premises that have upset my readers the most are:

  1. That significant improvement to our planet’s health, and human quality of life, is only possible with a significant reduction in human population;
  2. That humans are not meant to live in cities or other crowded habitats, and that any utopian society must allow and encourage people to spread out and live in close contact with the rest of nature;
  3. That part of the problem with this world is that we are producing too much human food (there’s enough today, if distributed efficiently, to generously feed 10 billion humans, and Worldwatch reports there are now more overweight humans on Earth than underweight ones, a consequence of which is that millions of acres are being converted to agriculture, and overharvested, needlessly).

These are not arguments, alas, that can be made effectively in a simple 300-500 word blog post. So I need to know, dear reader: (a) do you find these three premises as intuitively obvious as I do, or not? and (b) if not, if you picked my book up in a bookstore, would you suspend disbelief in these premises long enough to read the book, or drop the book like a hot potato?

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  1. Paul Kelly says:

    I strongly disagree with 1 and 2 and somewhat disagree with 3. But your arguments are still very thought-provoking and I would certainly give your book a read. I also like the way you blog: open research with a fairly tight thesis. Focus is good.

  2. I strongly agree with all three arguments.

  3. O RLY YA RLY says:

    a.1. A bit too pessimistic, to my taste. There are more people that advocate a reduction in population size. But they’re not really getting anywhere. My intuition says you can try to influence population growth, but not control it.2. “are not meant” Do humans have meaning? Cities have not existed for that long yet. On an evolutionary scale, that is. Maybe we’re still busy adapting. Being a city person myself this goes very much against my intuition. But I think I’m part of a minority in this. The idea of paradise is still a garden.3. Fat is a problem. Though I don’t know if the availability of too much food has that much to do with it. It helps, of course. But I don’t think that’s the thing that drives people over the edge.b.I think there has to be a balance between a subject being counterintuitive enough to spark interest and credibility. I’m not a big book buyer, but if it looks good (hey, I’m a design freak) I might be interested.

  4. Harald says:

    Hmm. I’m not sure about 1. population reduction is _one_ way, but I’m not convinced it’s the only way.2 & 3 are not “intuitively obvious”, but they are plausible, and I’d be interested in reading more about them. So no, I wouldn’t run screaming in terror from your book…

  5. Jon Husband says:

    I agree with a, b and c on an intellectual level.I also believe that most of us perceive, dimly, that things *could* be arranged differently (those things being the way our major sets of human activities have taken shape under systems that have in one way or another facilitated the growth and development of ….housing, education, being clothed, heating, moving around to get to where we do whatever we do in those systems, etc.), BUT…that it seems so very daunting, so demanding of personal sacrifice or swimming upstream against a dominant mindset, to begin initiatives for change, and then to somehow sustain them, that we *back off*, we withdraw, we look for somewhere where the best we can do is *right livelihood* of some sort and be a good person (with frinds, family, and associates). This is (my opinion, that’s all) so that we can approach some degree of inner peace, when we have a dim awareness that to participate in these systems consciously is somehow contibuting to making the whole mess even worse. And of course if we have some consciousness of that, then it feels not-so-good to not try to do something about it.And yet, it appears to us to be so overwhelming, to get the streams of daily activities of so many people to take one of the next exits, and then start travelling down another road. And yes, I know of that famous Margaret Mead quote…”Never doubt…”And I have just a faint sense that this is where history comes in….every once in a while there are major, cataclysmic social changes, that probably come about from unseen and only faintly-felt forces at work in the unknowable collective intelligence of the human system ??

  6. Jon Husband says:

    Have you ever run across the book “The Fourth Turning – What History Tells Us About America’s Next Rendez-Vous With Destiny”.Pretty interesting – traces back (to the 13th Century) major changes in societal directions (which the authors Strauss and Howe call *saeculums*), and attributes the workings of archetypes in generations to the causes and responses related to these saeculums.The book offers a forecast of a *fourth turning* in the middle 2000’s (that is to say, soon). Having read it a couple of years ago, I can see many elements of their forecast appearing in the daily , weekly and monthly events that are unfolding in front of us.There is a website, at

  7. Stentor says:

    1. No2. A weaker version of this point has merit (contra the “Buffalo Commons” idea)3. I don’t know enough about agricultural economics to say — it’s plausible, but not “intuitively obvious”Anyway, I’ve recently linked to you because of the environmental philosophy posts, so I hope you’ll keep it up.

  8. Rob Paterson says:

    I completely agree with all three points Dave.Paul Hawken came to stay a couple of weeks ago. As he prepared to talk to Islanders he spoke to me about the risks of needing applause. What if the message is what is needed but which is threatening and unpopular? Do you work the room for applause or do you speak your truth?Should you worry about being less popular? I don’t hink so.Here’s to your point – Paul was asked in the public meeting to comment about biomymicry. He gave us the example of a new product that he is backing. An inventor noted in an Archimedian moment that the water always goes down the plug in the same way. The same way as the galaxies turn and the same way that hurricanes spin. His aha was that there is a natural way for stuff to move. So using the new tool of CAD he reversed engineered the design for a fan/ turbine etc to produce the natural flow. Such a design cuts out nearly all the cavitation, turbulence, noise and friction that we find in fans/pumps/turbines that are designed from a construct out. MY POINT?Most of our social designs are not fitted to our nature. Human development has not designed us to live and work outside the framework of our natural social/work and food design. This does not mean that we all have to put on skins and live in caves but it does mean that we have to think about:1. Using magic numbers to organize our smaller units as we see in most armies but not anywhere else2. That leadership relationhips should be tribal where the leader shares the life and the risks of the rest – the Southwest model2. that there must be a maximum social limit where societies can no longer police themselves. Units of 500 or so. This is an area we know nothing about but I have sensed a persoanl reaction. You note this when walking down a street. In my village in England pop 40 if you walked down the road and met someone you would stop and chat. You had to. In Charlottetown when you see someone you know – all the time – you wave if in the car or on the other side of the street. You stop if you are on the same side. In Toronto you don’t see anyone you know and you ignore everyone. What is ahppening? I think that we have a radar for scale and there is a scle where we don’t fit anymore.4. That eating grains – ie sugar – is not suited. Ever wonder why aboriginal people are so fat and prone to diabetes and alcohol. They have not had the 10,000 year start that we have had. Ever wondered why most non Europeans are lactose intolerant? They have not had a cow milk diet for long. Farming and domestication has been a catastrophe that is destroying the ability of the planet to support life. I say this as a so called expert in Ag. In domesticating animals we have domesticated ourselves and like all domestic animals have taken off our normal limiting behaviour on eating and breeding = 6.5 billion folks a factor above the carrying capacity of th planet.Whether people like what you say or not – we will pay the piper. In our lifetime. I think that our only hope is to start to understand our predicament and the forces in play as you suggest Dave. Keep on trucking Davebest wishes Rob

  9. Jon Husband says:

    Who you gonna call – Adbusters ?I wish I could get your post out of my head – in my opinion, tons and tons and tons of people want to support, participate in, and see significant change. What prevents it ?There are some high-profile people alongside whom your message(s) would be placed – Paul Hawken, Hazel Henderson, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Elisabet Sahtouris, Herman Daly, David Korten, Amory Lovins, Bucky Fuller, Karl-Henrik Robert, Margaret Wheatley (no doubt you know more of these names than do I).And there is, I would suggest, reasonable awareness in the general population that the path we are on is clearly unsustainable. Margaret Wheatley recently, for example, at has written a piece about giving up hope, and becoming *hopeless*, in the Buddhist sense of givining up attachment to the imagined outcomes of hope.My sense is that we have the modern version of a feudal relationship between the hierarchs of corporations, aided and abetted by propaganda-driven-and-reinforced mindsets of Madison Avenue and the heads of governments that are essentially *purchased* by those interests, and the worker bees/consumers that stream the cash into the coffers of the corporations.How is that going to be re-oriented? Big job ? I wonder what the twenty and thirty-somethings of today, who are hip, smart, connected and rejecting (??) of boomer values will be like when they are in their mid-forties? I certainly remember what I was like at 22 in 1975 – unfortunately, I still have some of the ideals and values I had then, which more often than not cause me more frustration than fulfillment these days. However, not ready to give them up yet.Do we condone all this by working for corporations so that we can pay our mortgages, have cars, enjoy the place we live ? I think so.Re: your last post on “Be the Change” – how much can you engage your boss, your co-workers in meaningful conversations about this? Is that enough to cause the entity you workfor to deeply re-examine its purpose, and orient its vision and mission towards the (eventual) creation of a better human system – or after a couple of those conversations, especially if – *You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.*would you become that pesky and weird Dave Pollard guy, and seriously endanger the credibility and acceptance you have, which allows you to continue, at *their* pleasure, to draw a paycheque, pay the mortgage, eat well, enjoy a decent bottle of wine with friends and family, and so on…I wonder – and I regularly wonder about that for myself, and for so many of all of us who *know* somehow that things are busted, and the repair crews are working for someone other than us.Do you know the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows…” ?

  10. David Jones says:

    I am not pessimistic as a rule, but on this occasion I must be. I am not going to take issue with your issues which are at a high level. But I will argue that if they are to be dealt with appropriately, require high level, coherent and cooperative activity. (For one thing, I am absolutely certain you are not suggesting that it is only the less developed countries that need to get their act in order!)Yet we have scant evidence in this (Western) society of success at even a tactical level. Toronto remains the corporate pot of gold in Canada. Firms rush to be part of it (to my utter wonder, confusion and dismay). Why do firms need to cluster at Yonge and Bloor etc.? Yes I agree there are more suitable balances between people and the land – but we have achieved very little in delivering that. Why do firms not establish their head offices at Sylvan Lake, Cape Breton Highlands or in Les Laurentides? More suitable balances between people and the land and desirable and possible – but we have achieved very little in delivering that. I recall the amazement on the face of a senior official (ADM level) of Alberta Transportation when I suggested to him – 25 years ago – that his continuing enhancement of the Edmonton-Calgary corridor did not serve the needs and interests of Alberta – but only those two cities. I told him if the Province wanted economic development and balanced growth it should stop improving that freeway. I am quite sure he wrote me off as a nutcase.I would argue that until we start at least driving tactical changes and winning small successes we will not change the general perception that only things in the big cities and big countries are important.

  11. Evan says:

    Taking the premises one at a time:1) I take issue with the word “only”. I believe significant improvements in quality of life and planetary health *are* possible without reducing population, and further, that reductions in population are only likely to occur when improvements in quality of life and planetary health have been taken care of.Government policies that force people to have fewer children will only survive as long as the governments in question do–and that won’t be long, if people still *want* to have lots of children. But it seems pretty clear that when the standard of living improves, and the average level of education improves (especially for women), the birth rate declines naturally. No government compulsion is necessary.Trying to fix population is wagging the dog. Work on resource efficiency instead.2) I do *not* agree. If humans were evolutionarily unsuited to life in cities, cities would not have come into existence, much less become the dominant form of human self-organization in the world. But they’ve existed for millennia, most humans live in them now, and many people find them highly stimulating, enriching environments to live in. Others find them overstimulating or isolating or boring, and would be better suited to a smaller town or a rural setting, but don’t make the mistake of assuming people are homogenous. Also don’t assume that city people have no access to nature, nor that all cities are the same. I grew up in San Francisco, and loved it–the museums, the art community, the music, the libraries, the street life–and though I could not drive, I still visited quiet woodland places almost daily.3) I don’t disagree with this, but it strikes me as more a symptom than a cause. We overproduce food because our economy perversely rewards us for doing it; we overconsume food because we’re bored or stressed or out of touch with our own needs, all of which may *also* be caused by a rather perverse economic environment thatdrives us to disconnect from our lives in favor of work.As to your last question, I not only would read your book, I eagerly look forward to doing so. I *love* utopian novels, even the ones whose premises I don’t agree with. Maybe especially those.

  12. Myke says:

    1. I agree that humans are overpopulating the earth. Historically, disease and wars have reduced the excesses.2. Living in close contact with nature is too much of a sacrifice for most people. I much prefer living near nature, but most people prefer convenience and comfort.3. The larger problem is that these producers don’t have to pay the real costs of production, such as water and air pollution, whether the product is food, energy, or personal computers.

  13. Amanda says:

    life is all about being original, but then again, you know that already. Nothing about mankind’s existance totally udnerstood. Since as far back as we know, speices on the earth flourish… and die. Maybe we are the most advanced, maybe we are not. What happens happens… nothing I can do about it. I care about the world, but I care more about the people I love and living my life. When I die, I die. I won’t be rewarded for my actions, or punished, so why not live a good life and make every minute worth living? I want to make a lot of money, have a lot of sex, and do whatever it is that we humans do. The human race isn’t so great. We are just bald animals that have the ability to communicate and collect shit and make more shit.

  14. Amanda says:

    Oh, and like Dolphins it feels good when we have sex, so we breed way too much.

  15. kara says:

    I agree on all three accounts. And I am ashamed…Mankind has failed. Try as we might, things only get worse.BTW “A man never tells you anything until you contradict him.” -George Bernard Shaw

  16. natasha says:

    I pretty much agree with Evan, and though I’d read such a book *written by you*, I probably wouldn’t even bother if it were written by anyone else.Additionally, on point number 2, some cultures have developed far more extensive social networks than western society, of which the US (and to some extent Canada) represents the loneliest. It isn’t the same, as I’ve been told, living in a city with a bunch of lonely crowd types as it is living with people whose social system is actively and diligently interconnected.I think that saying as a blanket statement that we need to reduce our numbers gives us insufficient credit for being able to think our way out of our problems. I don’t really want to go live out in the sticks, grow all my own food, and never see another Barnes & Noble, or live without the joys of indoor plumbing.Civilization is awesome, we just need to finesse the system.

  17. Dave Pollard says:

    Wow! First of all, to all of you, thank you, thank you, for your thoughtful responses, your encouragement, and your wisdom. You have been enormously helpful, and I will acknowledge each of you when the book is written.François, merci de m’avoir donné l’opportunité de lire quelque chose d’intéressante (et pas trop longue) en français chaque journée, sur votre blog. Pour comprendre notre culture il faut connaître au moins deux langues, je crois.Jon: I’ve added ‘Fourth Turning’ to my next book order. Thanks for the referral. As for getting traction on change ideas at work, I have a following but not among senior management; while I await a changing of the guard I’m working with three consortia of business execs who are more adaptable than my employer. My employer, to their credit, does respect my ideas and sees value in having a ‘shit disturber’ on the payroll who keeps forcing them to look at new things in new ways.Stentor: Great blog you have! I’ve added you to my list of daily reads.Rob: As always we seem to be startlingly in sync. We really ought to meet. Any travel plans for a swing West?

  18. Dave Pollard says:

    Oh, and Myke/Natasha, thanks for showing that I need to explain that living a natural life does not entail discomfort, sacrifice, and giving up all the trappings of civilization (merely its excesses and the elements of it that preclude living harmoniously with other creatures). I’m not a ‘back to the land’ advocate nor a believer in the ‘noble savage’ concept. Our culture has brainwashed us into believing the only alternative to civilization is a nasty, brutish existence, which is absolutely untrue. A critical requirement of the book will be to paint a picture of a natural, harmonious lifestyle that sacrifices absolutely none of the important creature comforts or artistic, scientific and intellectual pleasures of our ‘civilized’ culture.

  19. Evan says:

    You’re right, living a natural life does not entail discomfort or sacrifice (rather the contrary, I suspect)–but you didn’t speak simply of living a natural life; you said we needed to abandon cities and other crowded habitats and spread out. I don’t agree; I think many people thrive in crowds. I see proof in the vibrancy and creativity of many cities (not to mention transient crowds like Burning Man). “Spreading out” can *kill* creativity and community, and does, in many suburbs. I’m not saying it has to, of course; just that “crowded vs. sparse” is not the difference between a good place to live and a bad one.BTW, I’d like to clarify something I said in my earlier post: Where I said “I believe significant improvements in quality of life and planetary health *are* possible without reducing population”, please add the word “first”. I agree we can’t keep growing indefinitely–but the way you phrased your premise suggests that reducing population is on the critical path to getting everyone a high (and sustainable) standard of living, whereas I believe it’s actually the other way around.

  20. natasha says:

    If you’re looking for things to add to your reading list, you might look at Buckminster Fuller’s “Critical Path.” It’s the source of my unabated insistence that we don’t need to reduce our population, give up living in cities, or any of that.It’s also the source of one of my greatest pet peeves. People just shouldn’t get to use the word synergy unless they read Bucky.

  21. andy says:

    On 1, I don’t have enough information to judge. Looked at simplistically, there are a number of posible reasons why it may be so:- not enough food. But if 3 is correct then food needn’t be a problem.- too much poluting waste, which unbalances the ecosystem. But this could be managed in ways other than population reduction.- overuse of non-replenishable resources, or upset of the balance of resource regeneration. Population reduction addresses the symptom, not the disease.So all in all, for me the case for point 1 is not yet proven.Re point 2, much as I personally favour living closer to nature (I love camping for that very reason)I can’t agree that we’re not *meant* to live in cities. *Meant* implies some design purpose – but whose purpose? Mind you, I do believe cities could be better designed. I sometimes think we give more care to the living environment of animals in zoos than we do to the living environment of the human animal.3. I’ll take your word on this one. Intuitively it seems reasonable.So it seems I disagree – or at any rate don’t yet agree – with 1 and 2, but accept 3. Don’t take that as disagreement with the philosophy though (which in my case I’d perhaps phrase as How to Care for the World), its just that I’m a great believer in knowing what problem it is that you’re solving before you look for a solution. Oh, and yes I’d probably read the book provided its not fanatically evangelical.

  22. Rob Paterson says:

    What great series of posts – thanks Dave for being so stimulating. Going to be in the TO area Sept 14-17th. Any possibility of a Sunday meeting?R

  23. Kevin Hayden says:

    1)That significant improvement to our planet’s health, and human quality of life, is only possible with a significant reduction in human population;I’d modify that to ‘a halt in the growth of’.2) That humans are not meant to live in cities or other crowded habitats, and that any utopian society must allow and encourage people to spread out and live in close contact with the rest of nature;Oh, so it’s a science fiction book? Joking aside, the word ‘utopian’ means ‘fantasy’ to me. I do not think crowded habitats are healthy, but I don’t think society, in any practical non-authoritarian way, can do any more than allow free movement, which this society does. 3) That part of the problem with this world is that we are producing too much human food (there’s enough today, if distributed efficiently, to generously feed 10 billion humansAgain, I can’t foresee the problem of excess food resolved by non-authoritarian means. And I’d say it’s too much processed foods and too much carbs that cause the overweight problem.

  24. Bill Seitz says:

    I’m not convinced of any of your absolutes (“only”, “meant to”).But a novel that creates a scenario that’s plausible both in its viability, and in a transition path to get from here to there (not based on horrible events forcing it), would be very interesting. (Daniel Quinn’s books, as a counter-example, don’t really count as novels – they’re just polemics spoken by fictional characters. Nor do they provide compellingly detailed (to me) alternatives.)

  25. Dave Pollard says:

    Kahlil: I concur that change of this magnitude cannot be brought about by edict (democratic or totalitarian). My book will provide a credible alternative solution to all the other problems of our current state except overpopulation. These alternatives are all Margaret Mead/Bucky Fuller type changes — build something better and watch the old system just wither away. But for overpopulation the best solution I can come up with is a deus ex machina and that’s troubling me, because it could get in the way of critical acceptance of the whole book and undermine its entire purpose.Bill: I agree with you on Quinn — I think the guy’s brilliant, and a credible (pre-)historian and cultural analyst, BUT I find his ‘fiction’ a bit fraudulent, and am disappointed that it only serves as a canvas for his argument, rather than painting a picture of what could be. Maybe that’s my ‘future state story is more compelling than a present state critique’ management consultant background talking. But it’s why I’m writing the book.

  26. mrG says:

    I disagree with 1 and 2 as well, but that doesn’t matter, I disagree with lots of books I read, and my favourite books are those that can change</me> … nothing is more boring than reading a book that I could have written myself ;)Well, maybe there is one thing more boring than that (but only marginally) and that’s books that lay out arguments and theses and reasons and suppositions that cannot be checked by empirical results. How would you distribute all that food? That’s a more interesting issue; I’m pragmatic: I don’t need to know that the world needs change, and I see only debate on what it is that needs changing, but what really engages me are people who are actually doing something, whatever it is, even absurd things because we can only learn by direct manipulation of the world around us, through empirical results.Show me a workable plan to migrate our world to your utopia and maybe I’m interested, but like William Burroughs, show me the actual stories from that Madagascar community who were persecuted because they tried to live their utopia, and I’m much more likely to pick it up and wave it in the face of some theoretics-based naysayer :)

  27. mrG says:

    gotta learn to close my em-tags ;)

  28. natasha says:

    “But for overpopulation the best solution I can come up with is a deus ex machina and that’s troubling me”What if they lived in floating cities? Or had a massive off-planet migration due to the partial terraforming of Mars paid for by asteroid mining, sort of a latter day gold rush? (“Mining the Sky” – John S. Lewis)

  29. Rebecca says:

    All three premises are right on the nose. I’m so glad you are around, with the energy you have to inspire and motivate the rest of us who think similarly but aren’t such good leaders or initiators of change. Keep on.

  30. mark says:

    I am very late in commenting on this, but I would have to say that everything depends on the tone of the book. Utopia is in the eye of the beholder, and to some, the world as envisioned by Ayn Rand could easily fill that bill. Knowing you just a little bit, I think that what you don’t want to do is preach to the choir. (In other words, if everything you said was intuitively obvious to me, I would have no reason to read). Keep it up. -m

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