Human population growth, refugees & environmental degradation

7 07 2017

refugeesThe global human population is now over 7.5 billion, and increasing by about 90 million each year. This means that we are predicted to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, with no peak in site this century and a world population of up to 12 billion by 2100. These staggering numbers are the result of being within the exponential phase of population growth since last century, such that some 14% of all human beings that have ever lived on the planet are still alive today. That is taking into account about the past 200,000 years, or 10,000 generations.

Of course just like the Earth’s resources, human beings are not distributed equally around the globe, nor are the population trends consistent among regions or nations. In fact, developing nations are contributing to the bulk of the global annual increase (around 89 million per year), whereas developed nations are contributing a growth of only about 1 million each year. Another demonstration of the disparity in human population distributon is that about half of all human beings live in just seven countries (China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh), representing just one quarter of the world’s total land area. Read the rest of this entry »

In conversation with Current Conservation

30 11 2016

bradshaw-tinkering-with-warIn August I had the pleasure of visiting the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, India, and while there I was interviewed by Hari Sridhar of Current Conservation. I admit that I haven’t always fully appreciated the excellent conservation reporting done by Current Conservation, and now after having been interviewed by them, I’m becoming more aware of their value (and not just because I appear in their latest issue). I really encourage readers to check it out.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2014, Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook argued that, given the current momentum of human population growth, no demographic “quick fixes” will be enough to change its trajectory in the near future. Therefore, environmental policy will be served better by prioritising measures such as technological and social innovation and reductions in consumption, while treating population reduction as a long-term goal. On his recent visit to Bengaluru, I spoke to Corey Bradshaw about the genesis of this study and its implications.

Hari Sridhar: You say “our models clearly demonstrate that the current momentum of the global human population precludes any demographic “quick fixes.” If that is the case, what do you suggest should be done instead?

Corey Bradshaw: I’ll back up a little bit and give you some of the context for writing the paper, which will sort of explain the title and that particular conclusion. Often when I gave public seminars, where I would talk about some environmental problem and future predictions of its worsening, some member of the audience would stand up at the end and say: “Well, the problem is humans. There are just too many of us. So all we need to do is focus on reducing the human population and we will fix all of these other problems.” That came up so often that I began to think: “Well, how quickly could we fix the overpopulation problem?”

Being, among other things, a population dynamics modeller, I decided I could model the human population just as well to look at that question. What would it take and how long for human population to start to decline, either from interventions or catastrophes? Human demographers don’t typically consider catastrophe scenarios when they project human populations. It’s instead done under very strict policy criteria, typically under the expected status quo, with some slight variation in things like family planning and structural change, you know, things like age structure. But we decided to try out more extreme scenarios as well to address that question. So first we said “let’s just see what happens when we only adjust fertility”. We did that and the population trajectory was more or less insensitive.

Then we said “let’s see what happens if we impose mass mortality events of various types — a third world war, pandemics, nuclear warfare” — and still the population was fairly resistant, even to these big changes. What we took away from these results was this: yes, population size must be addressed and we should have started looking into this seriously, probably post World War 2 when we were just under two billion people. We need to address overpopulation, but it’s not going to be something that can be fixed suddenly or be reduced anytime in the next few decades. It’s a century-scale issue. Should we be aiming to reduce the total human population? Yes. Should we be encouraging fertility reduction and family planning? Yes. It’s just that these will have positive outcomes at the century scale. Now most of our environmental problems are not things that we can ignore for a century. They have to be dealt with now. So our argument basically was that if we can’t address the human population problem, in the sense of reducing its size quickly, then we need to turn our attention to more immediate fixes, such as addressing consumption and various environmental mitigation policies. That was our main message. But in so doing we managed to anger both sides of the ideological position on the human population debate. In saying that something must be done but it can’t be done quickly, we upset the low-growth proponents. And by saying that we should nevertheless aim for long-term population reduction, we upset the people who are utterly opposed to any sort of fertility reduction or any action on human population growth.

HS: That’s something I want to ask you about — tell us about the attention this paper got within academia and in the media.

CB: Yeah, in the academic setting it was interesting. There were only a few critiques written about the paper and they were fairly weak. As the saying goes “All models are wrong but some are useful”, but what our model said was defensible. I suppose some of the terminology and the interpretation were points of contention with some people, but by and large the scientific community was satisfied with the result. But in the media it was completely different. Almost every single journalist I talked to put a particular slant on the results. Because of those two diametrically opposite opinions, people appeared to read anything they wanted to into it. Most people in the media didn’t of course read the paper. They read the title and maybe the abstract and the odd sentence here and there, and took from that whatever their ideological position dictated. There was right-wing media, there was left-wing media, and each had its own bias. I think only a handful of interviewers seemed to grasp the concept, which I didn’t think was that difficult. It also got a lot of responses on these comment streams. I don’t read those most of the time, but there are a lot of crazy people on the internet now. I got all sorts of hate mail, and even indirect death threats. Not serious ones. Just some random person telling me I should be removed from the face of the planet, and things like that. That happens from time to time when you deal with controversial topics.

HS: In the paper, you come up with some figures for what the population will be in 2100, under different scenarios. Could you tell us how much uncertainty there was around these figures?

CB: There was probably much less uncertainty than for most other species that are modelled. Humans tend to census themselves fairly well and we have a reasonable understanding of how many of us there are right now. While demographic data like age-specific survival rates are missing from some parts of the world, generally speaking at the scale of regions it’s well-known. So in terms of measurement error, the current and even the trends in those demographic rates are robust. Some of the assumptions, such as how much longer we’ll live given future medical innovations, are somewhat uncertain. But as it turns out, we are living so long now that even slight adjustments to longevity don’t make much difference in the long-term to total population size. And even large assumptions about, say, juvenile mortality, don’t make a huge difference because for a long-lived mammal the most important parameter that modifies population growth generally is the survival of breeding females. And breeding-age woman around the world tend to have the highest survival rates, so all the other parameters have smaller effects on population size. So while environmental variability has a large effect on small populations, it has a comparatively small effect on large populations. And we are a very large population. Incorporating a lot of uncertainty didn’t really make much of a difference. But the future scenarios were uncertain – will there be a war, will there be climate change reductions in food availability that will lead to higher juvenile mortality, etc.? We know little about the probability these things will occur and how important they’ll be. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXVIII

25 08 2016

Another six biodiversity cartoons for your midday chuckle & groan. There’s even one in there that takes the mickey out of some of my own research (see if you can figure out which one). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXVII

18 05 2016

Another six biodiversity cartoons because I have a full-on month of lecturing. I’ll call this one the ‘over-population’ issue. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXVI

13 04 2016

Another six biodiversity cartoons because it’s shaping up to be a crazy week. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie

19 10 2015


Man and the environment are meant for each other” — Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister of Australia (2014)

I know the human being and the fish can co-exist peacefully” — George W. Bush, former President of the USA (2000)

It. Has. Finally. Been. Published.

Yes, my new book with Paul Ehrlich, published by University of Chicago Press, is now available to purchase in book shops and online distributors around the world. The blog post today is a little explanatory synopsis of why we wrote the book and what it contains, but of course the real ‘meat’ is in the book. I hope you enjoy it.

In Australia, you can purchase the hard copy through Footprint Books, and the Kindle version at Amazon Australia. I also suggest that Australians might find the best deals through Booko. Electronic versions are also available through Kobo and Google Play. In the US you can order directly from University of Chicago Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other book sellers. In the UK and Europe, the book is available from your country’s Amazon distributor. I imagine many chain and independent book sellers will be carrying the book by now, or will be soon.

My deepest thanks to all those who made it possible.

Our chance meeting in 2009 at Stanford University turned out to be auspicious, not least of which because of the publication this week of our co-authored book, Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie. Australia, America and the Environment by University of Chicago Press. As a mid-career ecologist (Bradshaw) based at the University of Adelaide, it was indeed an honour to meet one of the most famous scientists (Ehrlich) in my field. With a list of books and hundreds of scientific papers under his belt, Ehrlich has been tackling major environmental issues since the 1960s. Ehrlich also has a long-time interest in Australia, having visited nearly every year during the last four decades and experienced more of the country than most Australians. Together we have observed firsthand the similarities and differences of Australia and the US, and the eyes we see through are trained as those of environmental scientists and evolutionary biologists.

So why write a book about the environmental tragedies currently unfolding in two completely different countries at opposite ends of the Earth? As it turns out, Australia and the US have much more in common environmentally than one might think, and not necessarily in a good way. Despite our vastly different floras and faunas, population densities, histories of human colonisation and soil productivities, there is an almost spooky similarity in the environmental and political problems both our countries are now experiencing. As such, we have a lot to learn about avoiding each other’s mistakes.


Australia and the contiguous US are roughly equivalent in land area, both cultures are derived originally and principally from what is now the United Kingdom, and both are examples of super-consuming, super-wasting, wealthy, literate countries. Both countries also have environmental footprints that exceed most other countries on Earth, with some of the world’s highest per capita rates of greenhouse-gas emissions, water consumption, species extinctions and deforestation.  Read the rest of this entry »

When human society breaks down, wildlife suffers

22 01 2015

bearGlobal human society is a massive, consumptive beast that on average degrades its life-support system. As we’ve recently reported, this will only continue to get worse in the decades to centuries to come. Some have argued that as long as we can develop our societies enough, the impact of this massive demographic force can be lessened – a concept described by the environmental Kuznets curve. However, there is little evidence that negative societal impact on the environment is lessened as per capita wealth exceeds some threshold; unfortunately environmental damage tends to, on average, increase as a nation’s net wealth increases. That’s not to say that short-term improvements cannot be achieved through technological innovation – in fact, they will be essential to offset the inexorable growth of the global human population.

So poor nations as well as the wealthy ones are responsible for environmental damage. Poorer nations often have ineffective governance systems so they fail to enforce compliance in environmental regulations, but wealthier nations often exploit a high proportion of their natural resources, with the inevitable environmental damage this entails. In some cases however, biodiversity can temporarily escape some of the ravages of society because humans either perceive the area to be too dangerous, or otherwise have no incentive to go there. There are some good examples of the latter, such as the vicinity around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, or the Korean demilitarised zone.

In this vein, I just stumbled across an extremely interesting paper today published online early in Conservation Biology that describes trends in charismatic wildlife (i.e., big mammals) as the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and societal breakdown ensued. The authors had access to an amazing dataset that spanned the decade prior to the collapse, the decade immediately following, and a subsequent decade of societal renewal. What they found was fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »