Friday Flashback: Population: A Systems Approach

Four years ago I reproduced a synopsis of two of the critical arguments from Daniel Quinn’s book Story of B, written by David Sheen, along with my own narrative. The first argument, The Boiling Frog, is that the population explosion depicted in the curve below is creeping up on us so slowly (and we have been lulled by dubious arguments that it will peak at ‘only’ 9-11 billion) that we won’t be able to cope with it until it overwhelms us. The second argument, Population: A Systems Approach, is that, contrary to conventional wisdom and intuition, the most humane and effective way to bring this explosion under control is to cut food production.  (And yes, I know that a frog heated slowly in water is actually smart enough to jump out before it boils, but that doesn’t invalidate Quinn’s argument.) I think it’s worth re-reading, since four years later nothing has changed.
population chart
Red lines indicate sustainable population and sustainable footprint at forecast levels of consumption and allowing for improvements in food technology, but with no provision for non-human species on the planet. Green lines include a provision for non-humans to inhabit half the world’s habitable area.
Of all the radical ideas I have espoused in How to Save the World, none has proven to be as controversial as my belief that substantial human population reduction is a necessary condition (I am not sure whether it is a sufficient condition) to prevent ecological catastrophe in this century. The chart above, which I explained in this post, shows the impact of our continued population explosion, far beyond the levels of sustainability represented by the green and red lines on the chart (the green line allows for coexistence with other creatures, the red line hogs all resources on earth for humans).

The chart below right shows the vicious cycle that Daniel Quinn argues, in The Story of B, has led us to this point. The argument is that (a) the exponential curve shown above is creeping up on us so quietly and quickly that if we wait for the first undeniable evidence of cataclysm, it will be too late, and (b) the root cause of the population explosion is excessive and ever-increasing food production, and the paradoxical and counter-intuitive solution to human misery caused by overpopulation and starvation is to cut food production.
pop system
It is this second argument that causes the strongest reaction, and I have been unable to briefly articulate Quinn’s line of thinking (and there’s no room in this blog for a 40-page treatise). But I’ve just discovered a brilliant prÈcis of both arguments (a) and (b) above, on David Sheen’s Anarchitecture site. I’ve reproduced David’s prÈcis of both arguments in their entirety below, and thank David for his diligence in putting this online. I would encourage readers to buy the extraordinary Story of B so they can read these arguments in their entirety.


Read the whole article, including the David Sheen synopses.

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3 Responses to Friday Flashback: Population: A Systems Approach

  1. Bob Watson says:

    I understand this thesis reasonably well, I hope. I’m clear that almost by definition–peace to “system theory”–a population cannot outgrow its food supply. But two examples are mentioned in which a population remained well below its (potential) food supply: hunter-gatherers of prehistory and the developed economies of modernity. Most modern economies would have no population growth at all without immigration, despite abundant availability of food.How can these two well-documented contradictions to Quinn/Sheen be accounted for? I think it must be that most of them saw no need to have large numbers of children for personal safety in case of sickness, infirmity, or old age. Hunter-gatherers lived amidst natural abundance and within a tribe in which it must have been easy to share with the infirm. The citizen in a modern economy sees abundant food, a social safety net, many ways to earn a living, gain property and savings. He too has no need to have many children to take care of him in old age, and so by and large he doesn’t have them.But the poor in the modern world have only one alternative for their old age, the hope that their children will care for them. And even when they live in conditions of semi-starvation, they have large families, as the peasants, serfs, and small farmers of all of history have also done whenever they could.Unlike those cute little mice in their expanding food cage, humans do not live like rats and roaches under system theory and survival of the fittest neo-Darwinisms. We live, I hope, in the light of justice and mercy.If those who fear for their future have too many children, we must help them to see a different future. Permaculturists in India who showed small farmers better ways to abundant futures heard those farmers say, “Trees are better than sons.”The fact that growth in food production parallels human population growth,just like increases in food supplies increase population in all living things, proves nothing. Correlation is not causation.People in good circumstances have smaller families; people in poor circumstances have larger families.

  2. vera says:

    Often, people who are opposed to examining the more food/more people argument say that it’s nonsense, as developed nations have lots of food available and yet do not overbreed. I think the argument of more food/more people needs a ceteris paribus attached. Whether in deer or humans, out of the ordinary developments will alter the pattern. For example, no matter how much food a deer population has available, if you castrate most of the bucks the population will crash regardless. Similarly, no matter how much food is available in Austria, since having children is socially and economically punitive (as people want to be able to afford other goodies of life, and women want to take advantage of other opportunities) so Austrians keep their families small regardless. It’s a no-brainer.Populations are a function of the food supply, but other factors must be looked at also.I don’t buy the argument of “humans are not like rats.” We’ve pretended way too long we are somehow not subject to nature’s laws, to the detriment of life on earth. We are like rats: less food, less humans. We are not talking famines here. We are talking about gradual reduction in the food production so that a gradual decrease of the population follows, without anyone starving.This would, however, require the retooling of our economic system to one that does not need cranking out humans to buy endless crap for its reckless expansion. It has nothing to do with lack of mercy. It has to do a lot with the fact that all of us who read this depend on a ratcheting economic system that is bent on infinite plunder. Bah humbug.

  3. Dean Adkins says:

    I too believe the only way to save the world is population reduction. Get teenege males to “bank” reproductive material, have a vasectomy, and procreate by choice. Granted, this will lead to sexually irresponsible behavior at first, but as the population grows older, the procreators will see the need to pass along the ideas of abstinence as it applies to not dying of STD related conditions.

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