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Ecological Handprints: Population and the Limits of Possibility
Alex Steffen, 30 May 06

Population, in some ways, is the critical wild card in our efforts to win the Great Wager, stave off ecological collapse and build a bright green future.

On the one hand, its clear as day that building individual livelihoods that provide prosperity and a high quality of life yet whose ecological footprints are small enough to be globally sustainable is possible. Only a very few yet live those lives, and much work remains to be done before they can be available to all, but there is no doubt that one planet living is within our abilities.

On the other hand, population growth makes one-planet living a moving target: the more people there are, the more our share of the planet shrinks, after all, and the harder it becomes to distribute those sustainable technologies and practices to everyone.

This is part of what has lead some to conclude that we cannot achieve sustainability without drastic reductions in human populations (and the means of such "reductions" are rarely addressed, which tends to leave a sour taste in the mouth before the discussion's even begun, suffering as we are from the hangover of a century where genocide and ethnic cleansing were appallingly common):

Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental "footprint", the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.
Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.

Of course, this begs the question of exactly which indviduals are supposed to disappear and who gets to make that decision.

But it also should have us asking another critical question: Whether or not the planet needs us to have footprints smaller than "one planet"? And are such lives possible?

Why not? If we can imagine going climate negative, why can't we imagine shrinking our ecological footprint until we zip past having any negative net ecological impact at all, until the operation of our daily lives heals the planet instead of hurts it? Until we transform, as I've said before, our ecological footprints into ecological handprints?

Designing such a world would be more challenging, that's for sure. But challenging does not equal impossible. Indeed, no law of physics declares that the operation of our lives must degrade the environment. With an armada of new technologies coming our way -- from carbon nanotubes to neobiological energy sources and more -- and an array of new design approaches (like product service systems) being developed, however counter-intuitive it may seem, I believe that it is increasingly possible to imagine lives which have no net negative ecological impact at all, which, instead, heal the living systems around us.

That's worth thinking on. What if one morning we will wake up and feel not eco-guilt but satisfaction that our lives are part of a fabric of systems which are actually healing the planet? Should that not be the world we're aiming to build?

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Referring to the population problem, The World women's conference in Cairo in late nineties officially stated and it is confirmed in known circles that "the only and most effective birth control is education for the girl child and adult woman". By education they don't just mean "sex education" or "reproductive cycles power point slides" but primary and secondary comprehensive education. I add that we should further empower the BOP (bottom of the pyramid) women with microfinancing and micropatronage (a lovely new word I discovered from this website). This will have a dramatic effect within ONE generation because the mother will nurture both her daughter and son with enlightened values. No such benefits accrue by educating just the men by men as in patriachical societies. As an aside, an interesting quote by Margaret Mead is "mothers are a biological necessity, but fathers are a social invention".

Sustainability and small foot print living can be built into the education and the BOP segment will be the very receptive inherently to such ideas.

The population problem will vanish (proof is that every society that educates its women has a negative population growth TODAY) if we focus on educating the girl child and adult women in the BOP segment. And I say that this effort should be done for profit such as in "development through enterprise"

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 30 May 06

That is exactly what we should be striving for. Leave not footprints but flowers.

It seems to be that almost all participants in natural systems, when in balance, increase the health of their ecosystem. Ants, worms, birds, tigers etc. contribute something vital to the whole that improves the lot for every other part. Why should we be different?

In the ideal, we should be increasing the depth of interactions, the density of connections, the health of the system.

We are a part of, not a part from, nature.

Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 30 May 06


I couldn't agree more.... that is the goal we should be striving for and I firmly believe we can get there.

The world's population will stabilize this century so that should make things a lot easier. It will be interesting to see how things start playing out in Japan as well as some European countries like Germany over the next couple of decades.

These countries are "developed" and already have declining populations. With increasing efficiencies they should start to have a smaller "footprint" from decreases in energy usage, CO2 emissions and so forth. A modern country with a stable or declining population should have no problem in continually lowering its footprint and I think eventually reaching a "negative" impact.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 30 May 06

Let's see:
We're at 6.9 BB population now.
Projected to stabilize at 9.8 BB.
John Holtzclaw of the Sierra Club suggests 4 BB is sustainable.
James Howard Kunstler suggests 2 BB is sustainable.

But it's really an algebra problem. Sum up all the ecological footprints (in acres) of the world population. If this sum is less than the total number of worldwise biologically productive acres, then we're sustainable. BUT, every year, the number of productive acres declines, so we have a shrinking supply of acreage too.

Posted by: steve raney on 30 May 06

Population control solution: 1). Engineer a snippet of DNA that gives individuals direct, conscious control over sperm/egg release.
2). Engineer another DNA snippet that makes our Bellybuttons, or some other appropriate body part, bioluminesce when we are fertile. 3). Insert these snippeets into the common cold virus. 4). Turn loose in 50 places, worldwide. 5). Start the relevant education program.

Let the humans re-engineer their own fate but give them a running start on the probem!!!

Posted by: Richard Wheeler on 30 May 06

Only by choosing to control our own breeding and consumption habits can we make a significant contribution to saving our world's natural habitats.

Please be aware that having any more than an average of One child per couple at age 30 (with an average life span of 80 years) will result in excessive populations. Mortality rates in our "advanced" western cultures has dropped significantly in the past 4 decades, adding to the population "boom"

I am an activist for the breeding and preservation of endangered species. I believe in zero polulation growth and sustainable economies which are "cyclic" in nature. I know there is a middle ground between "greenies" and "big business"

I believe natural systems offer health and beauty to our living environments and am very saddened by its continued destruction for the sake of "business" GREED.

Defeating my own greed was where I started my new life.

Please try to balance your life ...enjoy nature by not destroying it.

Posted by: adam sleath on 30 May 06

Adam ... you said.
"I believe in zero polulation growth"

Actually, what you describe - having an average of only one child per couple is negative population growth and would result in a world population of under 100 million people in six generations.

Is that really what you want?

Posted by: Joe Deely on 30 May 06

It's also important to consider the age structure. In a society that is growing, you will have a large number of people of working age, but in a population with negative growth, you end up with a small number of people working and a large number of people over the age of 65. Meaning that a small working-age population has to support a large number of retired people.

Posted by: Jens Wilkinson on 31 May 06

Your post was very thought provoking. Major wars, famines, and plagues have been effective in population control in the past, but this is not so much the case now. It does not look like the population is going to get much smaller (no, I do not believe that the bird flu [good smoke screen] is going to wipe out the population), so we will have to find better ways to reduce energy usage. Even small steps like riding your bike to work or carpooling can reduce green house gases immensely. We have to change the ways we do things, not rely on the government to do it for us. By the time they get a clue we will be in huge trouble.

Posted by: Cindy on 31 May 06

Good point Subbarao. Yes Alex, that should be our ultimate goal. Are we ready to look that far ahead? I mean that in terms of technology, not necessarily timeline. Well, why not? Can't get to the moon without first envisioning a trip to the moon.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 31 May 06

Killing people is not an option. We need sustainable tech that will work no matter how many people are on the planet. There is enough solar power hitting each sq. meter of earth to provide power for 1 person even with large inefficacies.

It makes me sick when the only solution people come up with is to kill.

Posted by: Joe on 31 May 06

Who said kill?

Posted by: Gyrus on 31 May 06

You pose the question "which indviduals are supposed to disappear and who gets to make that decision".

Well I don't claim to have any authority to make that decision but I would suggest that those with the largest ecological foot prints need to reduce their numbers first. In other words we in the "developed" world should take the initiative.

In some countries there is already a significant greying of the population and one other writer has expressed concerns about pensions. Given that the alternative is growing the very nations that do the most damage per head of population I think we have to regard the greying as a good thing on balance. I for one am quite prepared to work for more years to handle the pension gap.

Remember too that pensions are a fairly recent product of our affluent societies. Most people on the planet do not have recourse to any such buffer. We should simply be grateful if any ammount of pension can be maintained at all.

In the meantime I'd suggest the following: take personal action ensure that your work is as enjoyable and chanllenging as possible. Seek out opportunities to learn and develop new skills. Chances are, that if you live in on of the greying nations, you'll need those work skills for longer than you now expect.

Posted by: Brianthesmurf on 31 May 06

This is a repulsive argument. It's a classic example of "There's No One So Green As the Dead."

To think that the human "footprint" on the planet is inherently poisonous is a crunchy-green Original Sin notion. It's framed like this: Evil People X Environmental Sin = Amount of Damnation.

What if people start actively countering climate change by sucking CO2 out of the air? What if they add to the productive capacity of the planet by farming skyscrapers? What if they, in short, stop handwringing and take positive steps that only living and energetic people can accomplish?

We're never, ever going to support 9 billion people on the planet's surface by having everybody edge as close to death as possible. This is like an argument that we should breathe shallowly in a sinking submarine. This attitude is just unacceptable. Do you WANT a Kunstler Mad Max planet with a carrying capacity of 2 billion?

Any Worldchanging algebra fan ought to be able to figure how many human beings the planet Mars can support. The answer is obviously zero. For now. So, then ask how many people Mars could *potentially* support.

Through what means? Oh, the usual blue-skying, everybody's heard it: fusion reactors, baking oxygen out of the rust, giant Zubrin tanks of algae, smart self-assembling bricks, handwaving nano-whatever... The subject gets all interesting, suddenly. Nobody leaps up to give us a ringing apocaphile argument that the carrying-capacity of Mars has been wrung out. Or that we've only got one Mars and to live on Mars would require four Marses. This angle of discussion simply does not appear at all. Human activity on Mars is framed entirely in the form of positive interventions. And that's in a place that's entirely dead.

If we can imagine Mars in that way, why can't we think of Earth in that way? Is it because Mars is a distant ball of sci-fi rock and the Earth is our fantasy Sacred Mom? Look, people: even a Sacred Mom would want her kids to show a little adult initiative instead of constantly whining that they're eating her out of house and home.

Either that, or start applauding Al Qaeda for their healthy attitude in blowing themselves up.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 1 Jun 06

I'm still undecided about whether the Earth can support a present-or-higher population without current supplies of fossil fuels, i.e. whether the embryonic tech we have for renewables will do what it needs to do, etc. Or whether we should try to control growth voluntarily as opposed to facing it being done against our wishes. We all know the sides in the debate.

I just wonder why discussion of population reduction is immediately decried as some sort of death-wish apocaphilia. Joe mentioned being sick at the mention of killing people above, and I can't find any reference to this here. Then Brianthesmurf makes references to what clearly seems to be birth control, in an apparently innocuous fashion, and Bruce Sterling (correct me if you're referring to something else) shouts it down as some sort of pseudo-religious call for mass murder.

I really haven't got the knowledge to work out the complexities of civilizations' current course - let's face it, who has? I'm just eager to inform myself about the issues by following the debates between people much more versed than me in engineering, ecology, economics, alternative technology, etc. But even from my position this debate looks horrendously skewed.

Is the anti-population-control position here that it's just not practically feasible, that people in general won't go along with it, and that authoritarian enforcement would be unthinkable? Or is it that it's actually preferable to keep it growing? Facing resource depletion, the latter strikes me as counter-intuitive at best, but I know there's some (to me slightly specious) economic arguments for this.

And why even discussion of population control gets swept aside with "apocaphilia". Isn't this making the same sort of mistake as damning Palestinian solidarity as anti-semitism?

It's really difficult to follow the arguments in this debate. Obviously reproduction is an emotive issue for us DNA-based beings, but all this knee-jerk association of population control with murder and thanatophilia sometimes gets a bit too "Pro-life" for me!

Posted by: Gyrus on 1 Jun 06

Bypassing this population control argument...

Alex - what you are describing has a name: regenerative design.
To my knowledge, the only place in the US investigating it in any formalized way is (oddly) CalPoly at Pomona: the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Design.
They even offer an MS in RD!
I'm thinking of getting me one...

Posted by: justus on 5 Jun 06

Jens Wilkinson: negative growth and therefore a shrinking fraction of working people in the society should not be a problem: the productivity grows fasster than the working fraction shrinks in all countries I checked (unsure about china in 30 yearas). The working fraction in Germany for example shrinks by about 0.5%, but the productivity grows about 1.33% per year. The only problem is IMHO that the generated wealth has to be distributed differently than before, but that would mean more taxes for the industry. That seems to be the reason why such a drama is made about this topic in the media (in Germany).

Posted by: Mattes on 6 Jun 06



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