A systems perspective on population growth

September 8, 2013 by Joshua
in Nature

I keep reading about how some technology has or will save billions of lives from starvation or disease. A perfect example comes from the opening paragraph of Wikipedia’s page on the “Green Revolution.”

Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1970s, that increased agriculture production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s. The initiatives, led by Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution” credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.

I disagree with this perspective. I think it sounds nice, but doesn’t make sense and leads people to think and act irresponsibly, at least if they want to improve people’s lives.

Limits To Growth 30 Year Update


Before continuing, I know I’m walking into well-debated territory and let me remind you I post daily and sometimes choose to touch on issues I’d have to write a book to cover fully. I don’t mind if you disagree or find flaws. I know the limits of my medium. I hope it still gets you thinking and maybe looking up more, especially in the resources I mention at the end.

My goal today is to provoke thought, not to convince, among people who might not have thought along these lines.

I hope you also see the underlying beauty in nature I see that drives this perspective and got me into science in first place, as well as the hard-nosed business approach I learned starting and running companies. Sorry I couldn’t put it all in one post.

A different perspective

Either you think the planet can support an infinite number of people at once or not. If so, I don’t know what to say — people need resources and our resources are finite. That tells me the population has to level off.

If you think the population has some limit, any limit whatsoever, something has to limit it. If you remove that limit somehow, say through technology, the population will hit another limit. If the first was food, the next might be water. If you remove the next one you’ll hit another, maybe oil. And so on.

All these advances make society more efficient, but they also make it more fragile. Anyone who runs a factory knows not to run it at 100% efficiency. When it works it works best, but when something breaks, any problem anywhere stops everything and you lose more to little problems than you gain in efficiency. High efficiency leads little market fluctuations in far-off lands to affect global markets more than anyone expects. When everything is connected, problems ripple everywhere.

The more limits you remove, the more limits you are close to and the more efficient and fragile your system. A fragile factory system leads to the factory stopping all the time. A fragile economic system leads to shortages and poor distribution, disputes over poorly distributed resources, and people suffering, at least materially.

Living near limits leads to scarcity of the limited resource. If you remove that limit, you may save some lives, but you also enable the population to grow with people who never would have been born.

Do these people who wouldn’t have been born live better lives? Not necessarily. Either way, there are more of them. All removed limits don’t go away forever. Some just activate at increasingly higher population levels, maybe after overcoming other limits. Eventually the larger population hits the new limit. Suffering begins again, only now with more people and a more efficient and fragile system.

How do I change my behavior then?

If we take for granted that we can’t always just have more people living more lives, what do we focus on?

I think you have to conclude if you want to make the world a better place — if you’re considering where to donate resources, choose in what field to work, advise someone else, or something like that — you have to work not on increasing the quantity of lives on the planet but on the quality of lives. I wouldn’t suggest opposing increasing the quantity, but if I had to choose between improving people’s lives and increasing the population without improving the average quality of love, I’d choose the latter.

From this perspective, if the Green Revolution or whatever other technological advances, increased the population to new limits, it only improved the lives of some people while created new lives that will suffer when they face new limits.

I’m not sure how to improve people’s lives without increasing the population, since most improvements involve extending lives. Needless to say, I support extending people’s lives once they’re born as much as anyone. I don’t support increasing the population beyond what a family or society can support. That just creates suffering.

Nonetheless, supporting education almost always seems to work.

(I’d be interested in seeing if alternative ways of distributing resources could work, though I don’t know how to test them. For example, I’ve heard capitalism holds promise, but the only places I know that try it undermine it with subsidies, too many regulations in some places, and too few in others.)


This perspective raises two big challenges.

  1. We don’t know how close we are to what limits.
  2. We don’t know how to keep populations from growing if people don’t want to limit how many kids they have (though some populations do level off on their own without people suffering).

I’ll get to them in some future post.

More reading

This post glosses over many important details. I had to to cover this perspective at the highest level. I’ve written before that I found the book Limits to Growth (the thirty-year update) covered this perspective more effectively than anything else I’ve read or seen. I’ve also found it among the most misunderstood, at least among the criticisms I’ve read of it.

If you’ve read and understand the book, I’d love to talk to you. The people I know with the background to understand it don’t seem to care about it much. The people I know who care about it don’t seem to understand it that well.

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