Why population matters



Permaculture has always called for limits to growth, including population, but it’s often been rather coy about doing so. Hunt the literature and there it is, but telling people not to have children, or to have less children, invokes such passionate opposition from many about to do so that we often skirt around the edges of this very important issue.

Here’s why population matters:

Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It only changes form. (First law of thermodynamics). In natural systems, energy is continually cycled through all living things and the energies that support them. Humans are the first animals to take hugely inappropriate amounts of energy out of natural systems to convert to their own use, upsetting the dynamic equilibrium of the planet (everything in nature is changing all the time but remains in balance and humans have upset that). One of the main ways we consume too much energy is by increasing our numbers without any thought for the impact that will have on the natural world. Every single child born becomes another consumer, to a greater or lesser extend depending upon which part of the planet they inhabit.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Every human being ISN’T something else. Every human-made thing ISN’T a rainforest, or a white rhino, or a river, or a whale, or a wallaby. We have taken too much energy out of the natural world. It had to come from somewhere.

Our primary source of energy is the sun. Thanks to our atmosphere, this energy gets caught in a natural system that slows it down and cycles it around and around. A plant uses the sun’s energy to photosynthesise, turning sunlight into another form of energy. The plant gets eaten, both above and below ground, by other forms of life that convert it again. Other things eat those things. Plants die and their energy returns to the system as both gases and organic matter. Fungi are the system’s teeth and they break down cellulose and convert that energy into another kind of food, and healthy soil. Nitrogen cycles from gas to solid and back again. Water cycles from liquids, solids, and slushy things in between back to gases. We breathe in oxygen and convert it. So many kinds of energy cycling!

Eventually, energy leaves they system via the atmosphere and becomes part of the great universal energy cycles. Think of the earth as being like one of Peter Andrew’s famous leaky weirs. It’s a complex system that catches and stores energy, cycling it around and around, before releasing it. Too many humans means too much energy diverted from these cycles because we put a big concrete dam upstream and keep all the water for ourselves. 

There is a school of thought that human population will peak and level off some time in the next two decades. Improved education for women, better access to birth control and a growing number of people voluntarily deciding to remain childless are all contributing to this, but will this be enough? By some calculations we have already exceeded the ability of the planet to sustain us. Certainly, the planet would be better off with less of us.

Here is a thought exercise. (A thought exercise is a hypothetical scenario used to think about things. I am not proposing this scenario as a real option). Imagine that instead of living on a planet the only piece of land available to humans was an island, with the rest of the earth set aside for all other forms of life. The island is vegetated, has a fresh water spring and a range of indigenous food plants. There are also birds, reptiles and other mammals and an abundance of sea life. Your goal is to develop a sustainable human settlement on this island. 

This is a great thought exercise to use in training, or just with a group of people that like to think about the future of humanity. What usually comes up fairly early is the need to control population. Scaled down to the limits of an island, it becomes abundantly clear that we cannot just keep having children whenever it suits us or we will run out of resources. We need to be careful not to pollute our island with our own waste, or to take more energy out of the system than we are returning to it. A sustainable model of human existence operates within dynamic equilibrium. We return to living as part of the natural cycles rather than living as greedy over-consumers of limited resources.

This is not a new thought exercise and it has been played out in real life by many indigenous cultures throughout human history. Successful cultures always developed a way to limit their populations. Some of those methods would be unacceptable to us now, particularly with regard to abandoning the sick or elderly, but others are reasonable. First Nations Australians had patterns for who was allowed to marry, and who would care for children. 

Our problem is one of scale. Confine us to an island and we suddenly appreciate the limits we need to place upon our own behaviour if we’re going to survive. We willingly sacrifice convenience and personal preference for survival. But on a global scale we struggle to understand that this planet is an island. We are where we are because we have so consistently pulled more energy out of the system than we have returned. 

Our downfall has been a failure to recognise money as a form of embodied energy. It captures and stores the value of things. Storing wealth for it’s own sake, failing to redistribute that energy, makes you the person on the island that hoards all the food while others starve. Behaviour that would be unacceptable on a small scale becomes acceptable at a large scale, simple because we are all doing it. 

I don’t think the solution is to legislate population control. I think part of the solution is permaculture. Embedded within the model is a call to be limits aware, to start recognising that our natural instincts for collecting and storing food and water have been corrupted by corporations and their advertising agencies. We have become convinced that we cannot be happy without more stuff, and that we must cycle that stuff on a regular basis. The irony is that this cycling used to be part of our connection to the natural world. We know instinctively that we cannot take and take and take. We must give back. This is what Bill Mollison meant by “the user must pay” (more irony that this phrase has also been corporately co-opted).

We have been subject to successive governments that saw economic growth as the only viable model for human existence. Times are changing. A child can tell you that you can’t keep taking fish out of a dam and expect to keep eating forever. 

It is deeply encouraging to see New Zealand’s leader proposing an alternative to economic growth as a measure of success. She’s including the quality of life for all citizens and the impact on the environment as critical. Does it help that this country is a collection of small islands? 

I acknowledge the need for a sea change at government level. We also need to take more responsibility individually. Every human born becomes a consumer. Through no fault of their own they are, in many parts of the world, swamped with mountains of consumables, many of which have caused damage to the natural world in their production: Many of which will go on to cause damage to the natural world when they become unwanted. We all have too much stuff and we are taught to love stuff when we are babies. 

This is not just about greed. Our ravenous appetites for consumables and “experiences” are at the root of the widespread environmental devastation that we are now experiencing. We need to stop flying around the world to “enrich our lives”. We need to abandon the delusion that any amount of stuff will make us happy. We need to live more simply so that other forms of life can simply live. The energy we free up needs to go back into the natural system. Plant trees. Restore habitat. Rehabilitate this tiny blue island of a planet that provides, to the best of our knowledge, the only source of life in the universe.

Permaculture, if we let it, slowly brings us back to nature. We gradually start to recognise the foolishness of our aquisitionatl natures. We share more and buy less. We become more generous and more tolerant of difference. Our lives are more fulfilling. We are constantly gardening our own lives to bring them into close alignment with the core ethics. A values based life is a joyful antidote to consumerism. 

My concern is that this process, for most of us, involves small and slow changes over along period of time. As a trainer I see people at many different stages on their permaculture journeys, from beginners struggling to get their heads around the basics, to enthusiasts wielding the principles like a blunt object, to dedicated practitioners that can apply the design pattern of permaculture to everything. I can also trace my own journey and recognise my own (inumerable!) mistakes. Perhaps, instead of small and slow, this is a time for the least effort yielding the greatest return

I have been fascinated by the notion of leverage since my inspirational fifth class teacher, Ray Breakwell, took us all into the playground with a plank and a fulcrum and demonstrated how one person could lift many. We need to find the tipping points that provide the greatest benefit to the planet without causing harm to others. Inviting people to consider having one less child, or to be fine with being childless, seems to be part of that.

I am convinced that permaculture provides a pattern that could lead to a sustainable model of human existence. I hope we can get there before it’s too late. We can all do better. Spend some time today thinking about how much you need and what you can redistribute. Produce no waste but consider how repurposing, redistributing and repairing what you have might help to reduce the sum total of energy that we are pulling out of the natural world. Most importantly, give something back. Join a bushcare group, become an animal carer, start a produce share, let someone else live in your home. If there’s one thing our species has going for it, it’s that there are lots of us, so many of us making small changes can have a huge impact. 

And if you are considering children, or have children that are considering children, have the conversation. 


2 thoughts on “Why population matters

  1. You touch on such valid points here. Lately I’ve been greatly concerned about how greatly in balance earth was created – an amazingly rich and complex system that over centuries managed and balanced itself. But due to mankind not respecting it, through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, coupled with population explosion and unbridled development, we have mismanaged it totally out of balance – to catastrophic proportions. (And it’s IMO not only a population problem – there have been fairly populations in the past who managed to keep things in balance.)

    I do think greed has a lot to do with it. I’m not saying everyone is greedy though. A lot of the destruction and mismanagement of earth is driven by a fairly small bunch of big organisations intent on more profit. But what I agree 100% with is the collective “foolishness of our acquisition natures”. We get so easily brainwashed to want more and more – and whoever is making the more and more is continuously making it it worse and worse (in terms of quality, durability) so that is has to be replaced. And then we stupidly believe it when we get egged on through marketing campaigns that we need the newest, fastest, most, and so on.

    I relate slow and steady change is better (like with natural medicines too, but that’s another debate), but my concern is whether slow and steady would reach the scale required to avoid that catastrophic tipping point. But of course, we don’t need a handful of people to do it perfectly, rather we need billions of people to do it even if imperfectly.

    So onwards indeed!


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