Shineanthology’s Weblog

An anthology of optimistic, near future SF

The Elephant in the Room: a foreshadowing

Inevitably, when we are looking for root causes to address our current problems, we need to face the elephant in the room.


Many people seem to think it’s not such a problem anymore, because it’s not in the news. Think again: it is in the news, constantly, but that news refers to the effects of overpopulation (food & water scarcity, wars, climate change, and more). But if we don’t find ways (humane ways) to reduce population growth then most of our solutions will basically fight symptoms, and not address causes.

A graph:


(ganked from “Living with a Changing Water Environment” from the National Academy of Engineering)

It shows that even in the lowest estimate the world population will peak at 9 billion. That’s the best case scenario.

Therefore, “Climate Change is not the Story of Our Times” (New York Times article, via World Changing). And at World Changing itself: “Peak Population and Generation X“.

Two articles following on each other’s heels (one from November 28, the other from today). They mention the elephant in the room by name.

Writers (and readers, and basically everybody): pay attention. Absorb. Then think about solutions. Very hard.

(And yes: I will post in greater length about this, after I’ve finished a great amount of outstanding items. Hopefully before Christmas.)

UPDATE: Scientific American chimes in with a ’60 second science’ post on the same topic. It bears repeating, every time. And everyone, me certainly included, is in on it late in the game ever since the Club of Rome‘s The Limits to Growth.



  Pete Murphy wrote @

Great post! Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life. I’m not talking just about the obvious problems that we see in the news – growing dependence on foreign oil, carbon emissions, soaring commodity prices, environmental degradation, etc. I’m talking about the effect upon rising unemployment and poverty in America.

I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge implications for U.S. policy toward population management. Our policies that encourage high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight third world countries – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China – as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050.

If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit my web site at where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It’s also available at

Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph. I just don’t know how else to inject this new perspective into the overpopulation debate without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, “Five Short Blasts”

  shineanthology wrote @


Thanks for the interesting comments.

First off: I don’t mind a bit of self-promotion as long as it’s topical and illuminates a different angle (or provides extra insights). Furthermore, one of the main points of this site is to generate interest for an upcoming anthology, so prohibiting others from mentioning interesting and related books would be rather hypocritical.

I also welcome viewpoints from a wide variety of sources (not just those from the SF community), so do feel free to post.

Basically, I agree that the old economic models (growth at all costs) are unsustainable. And exactly that old style economic thinking — we need population growth to fuel an expanding economy — is one of the main arguments to do nothing about curbing population expansion.

If your book shows that maintaining the current population growth rates also makes no sense economically — apart from, indeed, the ‘obvious’ problems like limited resources, environmental degradation, climate change, etc — then that is another important argument to change public policy. Even if this goes against short-term corporation interests.

I’ll check out your website later tonight.

  Ron Friedman wrote @

I don’t get it. You guys talk about how “evil” it is to have a large population on this planet. You conspire to find ways to reduce the number of people by a few billion to fit your new economic theories. (How do you plan to do it? Mass killing? Sterilization program?) – I find it funny when planning genocide is described here as “an optimistic near future.”

Having more people on earth is NOT necessarily a bad thing! The solution to the side effects of what you call “over population” could be resolved by technology without reducing the number of people.

Take for example energy. Here is some information about solar energy:
“The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850 zettajoules (ZJ) per year.[12] In 2002, this was more energy in one hour than the world used in one year”

If technology will find economic ways to harvest only 1:10,000 of the solar energy hitting earth – you’ll solve all humanity energy needs using clean, virtually unlimited, resource.

Manufacturing abundant cheap food to feed a large population could also be settled by technology. (Biotechnology, genetic engineering). People can live in luxurious skyscrapers for all I care even before we start colonizing other planets. Having unlimited cheap energy, humanity can distil as much fresh waters as needed. As for wars, it’s human nature. There were wars when the global population was only a hundred million. (The Roman Empire rings a bell?)

In my opinion, an optimistic story is NOT one where a “good” scientist finds a “humane” way of killing 5 billion people. In my eyes, an optimistic story is where technology solves all the side effect of “over population”, including poverty, climate change, hunger, energy, clean water, health care, housing etc.

I hope I gave you something to think about.

  shineanthology wrote @

Thanks for the input, Ron.

First — most importantly — I am *most definitely* not promoting any way *at all* to kill off most of today’s world population (or even write stories about that). When I talk about a humane way to curb population growth I do mean humane ways to stop further population *expansion*, that is: birth control.

As Kim Stanley Robinson famously put it: “empowering women is the best climate change technology”.

That quote cuts to the heart of the matter in more ways than one: technology alone is only a temporary fix. If someone invents, say, easily reproducable and quick to mass-manufacture tabletop nuclear fusion, then our energy problems would be solved almost overnight(*). But we would still run into other problems as our *mentality* hasn’t changed, and we would keep increasing our per capita use of resources (not just energy, but food, minerals, [rare] metals, biodiversity, and more), which are limited on this Earth, any which way you cut it.

I can imagine that technological solutions like vertical farming would be a good transitory solution while we change our mindset and learn to live sustainably on our home planet, before we set off into our solar system. Otherwise we’d only be exporting out current problems to a larger scale: expanding at all costs will always, eventually, run against the brick wall of scarcity of resources.

I do think we should go into space, but only if we’re ready for it.

(*) And I fully agree that converting only a fraction of the sunlight thrown on this planet would solve our energy problems. However, that isn’t going to happen overnight.

  Blueprint for a Better World « Shineanthology’s Weblog wrote @

[…] problem: overpopulation.” Kill me, shoot me and throw me to the wolves, but please check out The Elephant in the Room: a Foreshadowing (from December 1, last year) […]

  Dylan Fox wrote @

I’ve been thinking about over-population. There’s only so many people the world can support, after all. The only solution I’ve come up with so far that doesn’t involve killing people is for the government to only provide benefits for the first two children of any relationship. Essentially, you get benefits for your replacement on Earth, but nothing above that. The savings would be ploughed into sex eduction (for the whole population) and family planning (free contraceptives etc). I’ve got no idea how viable it is and have yet to work out what to do with the children who are born, but the parents can’t support and aren’t eligible for government support (being third or forth children). We can’t tell other countries what do to, just lead by example.

I think over-population is a serious problem because there’s only so far technology can support us. Using technology to solve it is like giving a junkie another hit–sure, it’ll stop withdrawal, but only for so long. It’s enabling the problem, not solving it. Even if we get to other worlds, we’ll just, what? Do the same thing there? Spread throughout the universe like some virus with no sense of responsibility, consuming resources until the planet is dry and then moving on?

And, as Paul touches on, there are only so many jobs in the world, only so much work that needs doing. We’re in the situation now where, in my opinion, people in the West are inventing jobs because there simply isn’t enough real work to go around. I mean, celebrity culture? Consultants telling us how to file paper, health experts telling us how to cook cabbage? People are having the common sense beaten out of them so people can be employed to fill in the void. And don’t get me started about the creative industries’ middle men!

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