“It’s not politics. It’s not racism. It’s not green or neo-liberal ideology that is leading us to this bounded population future. It’s maths.”

I have been doing sustainability for what I think officially counts as a “long time”. Twelve years of near-constantly thinking, assessing, measuring, analysing, and researching sustainability.

It’s hard. It’s madly holistic. It’s complex. Being a good sustainability thinker means leaving little knowledge completely untouched. It covers multiple disciplines of physical and social science, technology, economics and finance. Local planning decisions matter, and so does global trade. To make matters worse, the world is not standing still for one damn second in any of these areas.

Sustainability can, quite frankly, do your bloody head in. If you let it, it will burn you out and leave you jaded and ineffectual. But one of the best defences against the burn out, which by extension makes for more effective sustainability thinking, is to do a little bit of what I call “bounding the future”.

Recently I wrote of an excellent explanation of scientific uncertainty: it does not mean we do not know what the truth is, it means we are putting some bounds around the truth. Now, I am on the record saying that the future is something we have to create. I stand by it. But the fact is there are some parameters we need to work within to ensure we are not delusional in that work. Bounding the future helps set these parameters. It lets us off the hook for just a bit of the challenge, all the better to focus our energy where it can do some good. Just a little bit of bounding gives a lot of freedom and power. Probably the most important area where our collective sustainability thinking requires bounding is in human population.

The subject of population gets raised a hell of a lot. It positively dogs my work in nuclear power advocacy with the suggestion that it is “the elephant in the room” that no one wants to talk about, and no one has an answer for. This is all complete, utter, total hogwash. Population demographics is an area of huge knowledge and understanding, and what is known is applied aggressively. It is not just working; it has been working since 1972. That was the year the rate of global population growth peaked and began a now forty-year decline.


Global Population Growth Rate. Tool is Google Data, data is World Bank
Global Population Growth Rate. Tool is Google Data, data is World Bank

Yes, population is still growing. But the rate of the growth is slowing, and is now at less than 1.2% per year globally as shown above. Naturally, there is regional variance, shown for all major regions against this global average in the figure below.

Global and major regions population growth rates. Google Data with data from World Bank
Global and major regions population growth rates. Google Data with data from World Bank

The simple curve of global population that we have been used to conceptualising as a never ending rise is actually s-shaped, and we are moving to the top of the S. We will be there in around 2050 and most startling of all the determinants of this outcome have already happened. The two child family is the new global norm in all but the hold out areas, and even these are changing fast.

Today, 42 per cent of the world population lives in low-fertility countries, that is, countries where women are not having enough children to ensure that, on average, each woman is replaced by a daughter who survives to the age of procreation (i.e., their fertility is below replacement level). Another 40 per cent lives in intermediate-fertility countries where each woman is having, on average, between 1 and 1.5 daughters, and the remaining 18 per cent lives in high-fertility countries where the average woman has more than 1.5 daughters.

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2011)

Unless you are on the policy coal face, the population issue is a simple numbers game, neatly illustrated by the imperfect, but useful, demographic transition model. We are entering the final stages on a global level. This is beautifully illustrated by Hans Rosling in this video.

For a sustainability thinker, this is essential bounding. We are going to have a world of 9-10 billion people in 2050, but that’s where it roughly tops out. That is the range of possibilities. If we want sustainability, that’s critical bounding for the challenge. We have no choice, so we should accept it, internalise it, and let it guide the rest of our sustainability thinking. Only once we have bounded this aspect of the future can meaningful consideration of issues like energy, water and food take place.

Those who cannot conceptualise sustainability within this bounding should get out of the game. Because the only alternative is a mega human catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.

We don’t want that. At least, I don’t. Some others may need to actually take a moment and clarify with themselves.

But if we want this population game to conclude at the lower, not higher end of the potential range there is more good news. The way to that outcome, the future we can create, lies through rapid improvement in standards of living with a particular focus on the education, empowerment, heath care and provision of opportunities to women where it remains lacking in the world. The data is very clear. Great wealth and material consumption is not required for birth rates to plummet, merely a shift in the basic fortunes of people, especially women, so that the future becomes one of greater hope, opportunity and empowerment. Conversely, there are hold-outs in the world where the wealth is not a problem but birth rates remain high. It’s likely to come down to the women-specific issues and yes, I’m looking at you Middle-East. But don’t be fooled. There may be an envelope of possibilities, but they all finish around 9-10 billion mark, excluding a Children of Men fertility scenario. This was discussed a little while ago at Brave New Climate. The UN says this:

According to the medium variant of the 2010 Revision of World Population Prospects, the world population is expected to increase from 6.9 billion in mid-2011 to 9.3 billion in 2050 and to reach 10.1 billion by 2100… Even if the fertility of each country would reach replacement level in 2010-2015, the world population would continue to increase over the rest of the century, reaching 9.1 billion in 2050 and 9.9 billion in 2100

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2011)

It’s not politics. It’s not racism. It’s not green or neo-liberal ideology that is leading us to this bounded population future. It’s maths. We cannot, must not fear this outcome. We need to respond with love and compassion to our fellow humans, and in doing so work for a sustainability future that is within the bounds of reality. We should be preparing to celebrate something amazing. A human population that is restabilising, and a global civilisation that is putting right the ecological wrongs and restoring the systems on which we depend.

That very last bit? That’s the future we can yet create. Are you in?


  1. So it’s accept the population rate is declining but ultimately going to grow and top out at 9bn and adapt to it, or lower the real population figure through instituting aggressive policies on birth restrictions and eugenics.

    I think we saw in the early to mid 20th century how the second option played out.

    How can groups that have their root ideologies on equality, compassion, and fairness for fellow human beings come around to dictating how a family should be…boggles the mind.

  2. i imagine Heard’s regular Australianoid expletives on his own blog (“dog’s bollocks on a wedding cake”; “bloody”, et ad naseam) are calculated to lend him street cred among a certain section of his desired audience?

    Be that as it may, is it not striking that Heard, who writes from a Federal Aust. state with significant tax revenue from US armaments firms (Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are both represented in Adelaide SA), cultivates the glass-ceiling feminism,of Hitlary Clinton by targeting “women-specific issues” in the Middle East? Inasmuch as Muslim countries with high birthrates just happen, just happen to be replete in crude oil and natgas? And just happen to export that natgas and oil to No. 1 US rival and holder of US Treasuries China, the destruction of which was recommended by Aust. Prime Minister Rudd to H. Clinton as revealed by a Wikileaked cable? .

    Good heavens Heard, one could even think that you and your Amerikanoid crony Prof Brook on the Mark Lynas-Stuart Brand axis are looking for a spot of Middle- East regime change in the interests of your star-spangled love and compassion for girls and women,. Now how does that play out, Heard? USAF drone flights from your Edinburgh air base near Adelaide such as have already occurred?

    Tell me Heard, have you had a word in advance to any of the Muslim women you are so anxious to liberate with your white phosphorus? After all, you are good friends with the ex-US navy atomic submariner Rod Adams of “Atomic Insights”, who thought nothing of joking on Brook’s blog about one of the more egregious US war crimes in most recent memory, that of Fallujah/Iraq (or do you pronounce it as “Eye-Rakk” now in SA, Heard? You wouldn’t want to be thought anti-American, after all)

    Keep on with your (entirely unrequested) “Responsibility to Protect” women and girls, Heard:, you are a national of the country whose Foreign Minister Evans coined the fraud after all, around the time he was conniving with the Suharto dictatorship around Indonesian mass murder on East Timor. But then there is oil and natgas under that nearby ocean bed, is there not? The Sunrise field, as I recall. Funny how it all comes back to denying the Chicoms fossil fuel, when all is said and done, wouldn’t you say, Heard?,

    1. I’ve never used the words “dog’s bollocks” together before, but I will here. Not for street cred, but to describe what I just read in that comment.

      1. I’m confused. Do I need to take some sort of psychedelic substance for the words to unravel a-la beautiful mind style and the grand argument will reveal itself?

        From what I can see, Anti-US? Check. Anti-War? Check. Pro-Feminist-non-feminist? Check. Everyone else is a red-neck? Check. Chomsky international relations rant? Check. I’d say the far-far-left has spring a leak. Metropolitan plumbing? They are good at fixing drips.

  3. Haven’t we seen such S-curves in the past. I agree that there are fundamental constraints upon our society. In the past it was access to food, we invented farming, next was the chocking of the ox so we invented a new yoke, at each step here we increased the overall food supply. Then we had something different happen, the industrial revolution, where we for the first time decoupled our access to useful work from the land, well mostly decoupled. Then we proceeded along swimmingly urbanizing the OECD world.

    For the most part we saw an increased tapping out of the ability to access fossil fuels. We can make things more efficient but this increase in efficiency cost significantly more and comes with significantly less benefit. There are two things that occurred last century that affect the fundamental constraints on the system (food and energy) GMO and nuclear power. GMO is starting to plateau, however when coupled with the potential of desalinization from nuclear reactors we can make arable land at will. Nuclear power has the potential to deliver enough energy that there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

    Little bit of a futurist here, but as an engineer as I start to pull on the low lying fruit I see an immense and untouched potential. Something to really make the Luddites/Greens crap their pants. Outside of the mere physical improvements we make to technology, we have so much to learn, these technological changes will challenge our political system in ways we have not envisaged. There has been a long term historic trend to increasing the sovereignty of the individual within the context of society (think Locke/Hume/Smith). This I think is more than just mere casual observation. Systems, biological, physical tend to a state of maximum entropy. Tautologically they achieve the most possible combinations based upon the constraints of the society. In physics we call this degeneracy, in the supermarket it is called being able to buy what you want when you want it.

    We cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle this one is out and will fundamentally change our society. It allows power, our conception of it right now is an infinite power because it is so darned big. We have more power with nuclear energy than we can comprehend. I’ve studied nuclear engineering for the last 17-years and am still in awe. Mouth open wiping up the drool. This access to what we conceive as unlimited power will increase the allowed degeneracy of the system. Individuals will become as powerful as nations are today. This scares politicians and our society as a whole. 9-11 in the US is an expression of this and our infantile reaction to it shows how scared we are. This growth in individual power cannot occur in a lopsided manner. Initial growth spurts will happen, but their influence and affluence will diffuse into the society as the knowledge spreads on how to achieve such power. We then have a race that can raise society past our dependance on fossil fuels and past our need to destroy our planet to survive. Hayek and the now Late James Buchanan described how societies become self ordered. Under Game Theory we call this self ordering tit for tat and it results in the rule of law.

    For those readers who think this post is kooky, do some thought experiments. Look to understand why things happen, what causes action, where does action come from, who possesses action?

    By removing constraints on our society, energy and food, we change what is possible for an individual to achieve. We change the individual because they realize their sovereignty, and their responsibility (remember the rule of law) to society. I think this is why Greens and leftists (I use Hollande as exhibit A) tend to oppose nuclear and GMO. It goes back to Luddism, the philosophy I think is no different. We are at the cusp of a phase transition in our society, past what I think is best described as a critical point in our social evolution. The Greens want to prevent that from happening so they target the fundamental constraints, trying to damn us all to unnecessary suffering. The transition will have significant impact on the population this planet will support, perhaps an order of magnitude? I don’t think we will have to worry about that as I doubt we will be constrained here much longer. Nuclear energy really is that powerful, we, including me, just can’t comprehend it quite yet.

    One thing I don’t know is how the phase transition will pan out. I don’t have – no one has the insight and understanding to predict it. I think we feel it happening, we just can’t name it. So here is my attempt at describing it.

    Here is one reason “Why I Still Believe in the Future”:

  4. Hi Cal,
    far from kooky I would say. I disagree with you on your thoughts attributing to the Greens / far Left as a Luddism though. The Luddites saw the new technologies as potentially destroying the labor market leaving them to starve. Probably a fair call in the days prior the Welfare State.
    The Greens however are more like a doomsday cult where vast heaving mass of humanity will be destroyed for violating an imaginary Balance of Nature. Think Sodom and Gomorrah.

    I have only begun to study nuclear engineering this last year. I was very pessimistic about the future of humanity prior that. I kept seeing the odd post about Thorium Reactors and noting that there was a level of zealotry surrounding the anti nuclear cause that should arouse suspicion. I started a post grad in Geology. After Fukushima I could really smell the rat. I took the opportunity afforded by a essay on Energy Geology to compare the Cooper Basin resource geothermal endowment with the corresponding Uranium resource in Olympic Dam. Since I have a feel for rocks and drilling I could see just how precarious the Geothermal technology was. I have been peeling the onion since then.

    This “phase transition” you speak of is the really cool thing. I am ashamed of my generation’s uncritical acceptance of the whole anti industrial agenda. Banging our heads on the wind chimes whilst the biosphere unravels and the developing world starves. I am delighted to see the Asians are fighting to survive where we in the West have allowed ourselves to be paralyzed by the religiosity of the Greens.

    Adopting nuclear power is the key to unraveling this whole horrible Gordian knot of poverty and environmental degradation.

    1. My comparison between the Greens and the leftist (to be fair I’ll include the far right too) and Luddites is the consequence of their policy. I see it as striving to preserve some “good” social order. They share a reaction to change. What they seek to promote is a social order in which their interests/values are preserved. This is the important point.

      Because they seek the same basis of an outcome, there has to be similarities in their logic/philosophy. Like in math there are many different ways to do the same thing. Because of their equivalent outcomes they have to share similar fundamental constraints. Part of what mathematicians do is to explore those relationships, often deriving some incredible insight. I think in the political arena a similar case can be made. In fact, the word for this is collectivism. It is the opposite of individualism.

      Why is coal bad? Does it not provide an overall net benefit to our society? I think it does, and I can see Ben giving me an evil eye. Instead of specifying policy that targets or promotes specific industries, even nuclear, why not try a Pigovian tax on carbon? Australia has that, but it also has a bunch of specifications of the winners and losers. This is why you have wind and solar, in fact it is why anyone has wind and solar. They cannot compete on their own merits.

      Why not nuclear? Nuclear has more policy stacked against it for many of the reasons I listed above. The failure of nuclear energy comes down fundamentally to the acceptance of the Linear-no-Threshold model. Ed Calabrese has done a tremendous amount of work uncovering how LNT got forced into policy. He has a number of papers that are well worth reading. Here is his latest:

      Here is my thesis, remove LNT and there becomes a safe level for exposure. It is a level that has a defined economic cost. By defining that cost it undermines the entire footing of any anti nuclear legislation, of which I think all in almost every country is fundamentally anti-nuclear. In this scenario, fossil fuels would not be able to compete against nuclear. LNT serves in effect to keep us consuming fossil fuels. Get rid of the dead dinosaur of LNT and unleash nuclear power.

      Under a threshold Fukushima’s tragedy would be the death of 20,000 people from the tsunami not a reactor accident that has yet to kill someone from radiation. There would be no protracted evacuations, no shutdowns of any undamaged reactors, and a lot less cleanup. TEPCO would pay penance to their share holders for loosing probably about $20 billion in generating assets, assets owned by the shareholders who now have to pay for cleaning up those assets. No need for any regulatory changes, TEPCO would be out of business. Much more effective to let the share holders hang ’em high. We’d get much better plant operations as a result. It’s the Japanese government’s protection of TEPCO that is bad. Incompetence should be punished, if not you get more incompetence because there is not incentive for competence. I think the Japanese public would be much less slighted if the government allowed the lynching of TEPCO.

      Even here, without containing the liability there would no nuclear plants in operation, which if people want the benefit of nuclear power, need the intervention of government to limit the liability. In Japan, the nuclear industry funds the politicians. Effectively paying for protection. The protection that they pay for is to make barriers for entry into their market so high that they are secure in their positions. In the US, little different, because there is no nuclear industry, every nuclear operator has more fossil generation by far than nuclear and we have the Price Anderson Act which is an insurance pool that would pay for a major accident. Additionally, utilities would not be protected (TVA and BPA are exceptions as they are government agencies). All of this is entirely unnecessary if the liability is defined by a threshold. I would be surprised if Japan adopted it, their government uses LNT to extort money from nuclear operators and the nuclear operators pay the money to prevent competition. US political process would likely adopt it or make it happen after the 2016 election, we are fast coming to a day of reckoning and when our interest rates go up, we will be in a pickle with almost 26 trillion in debt plus our unfunded liabilities of social security and healthcare. We will have no choice but to act as we’ve exhausted every alternative… I just hope Churchill was right about us.

      I think Australia is in a much different place. You have very little legislation on nuclear power. I think a much more concerted effort to implement threshold based regulations, effectively anything less than a certain value is unregulated. With this as a regulatory basis, the need for coercive legislation (which almost always serves the interests of the regulated) is entirely unnecessary and you would save yourselves a lot of heartache and better serve your citizens. The problem will be taking the leap of faith in trusting that your citizens will be good citizens. As based off of the level of economic freedom in Australia, that may not be a hard sell.

      Sorry about the rambling nature of this post. Your statement is a big topic with many fundamental implications. What I laid out here is only a small faction of those impacts.

      1. Cheers Cal,
        so what you are saying is that the Greens / Left / Far Right philosophies can be characterized as reactionary? I would go along with that viewpoint.

        The Linear No Threshold thing is puzzling. Thanks for the background link. I had always assumed it came into existence as part of some status quo. Intuitively I would say nothing in nature is linear. Asteroid impacts killing the population of the planet every half a million years. There would have to be a velocity below which a motor vehicle accident could never be fatal. Homeopaths committing suicide by taking an under-dose. Electric current below which electrocution cannot occur. You get my drift.

        You often see the LNT estimate of the death toll defended as “conservative” as if to be totally wrong is justifiable if it serves the interests of a protagonist characterizing themselves as occupying some moral high ground. It seems profoundly wrong headed when the consequences of the “conservative” course of action also carries a risk.

        I have always seen rebelliousness in the younger generation as a profoundly healthy trait. Always question authority. Listen to the Devil’s Advocate. Make up your own mind. That is probably why I find the younger Greens so disappointing, blindly following reactionary old farts.

          1. This is where I reckon we must be careful not to fall into the lazy outmoded partisan clannishness of post Cold War rhetoric. Conservatives calling Greenies Watermelons. Lefties characterizing Pro-nuke with Conservatism. It was always bullshit but now has gone beyond it’s “used by”.
            The nuclear conversation deals with the topic of engineering. There is no sensible extension into cultural dynamics. I can see a generation not too far away, confused about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the war in Vietnam as being something to do with Progressive VS Regressive Taxation, their eyes glazing over in history classes and them not really caring either way.
            It’s gonna be their planet and the tools and levers they will need to deploy to gain sustenance will derive from the formative scientific work our generation has done. Let us hope we don’t continue to revivify our arcane political paradigms like some appalling spider web draped Miss Haversham.

            Cheers Ben ..

          1. “clear direction”?

            Jesus. That just shows how low the expectations are set.

            OK. That wasn’t an “you’re all gonna die” statement. But in no way did that represent a rational, informative statement of policy based on the evidence.

            Expletives omitted; my first (mental) draft was probably unpublishable.

            1. Well, I was glad of this passage:
              “Because of the great uncertainties in risk estimates at very low doses, UNSCEAR does not recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels quivalent to or lower than natural background levels. Those organizations performing activities related to the Fukushima accident might benefit from the findings of these reports.”

              1. Yesss… the gentlest of nudges in the right direction, dressed up in enough language to offend no-one.

                My correspondingly clear response would be: The possibility of extracting useful information and direction from this passage is greater than zero, although the uncertainty attached to the qualifiers and conditional verb choices would tend to dilute the resultant action-oriented provision to an optional and likely negligible status.

  5. The Cooper Basin is a good example of how we are increasingly clutching at straws. From say 1970 to 1990 it produced a lot of oil and gas. Then in the mid 90s if I recall there was plan to pump CO2 captured in Hunter Valley NSW coal burning power stations then store it in depleted gas wells in the Cooper Basin. That went quiet. Around year 2000 somebody reckoned hot granite under the sandstone would provide huge amounts of geothermal energy. The SASDO2011 report even suggested a 525 MW geothermal baseload plant near Innamincka yet famously failed to mention any uranium connection. So far zero MW of dry geothermal on the grid.

    Now post 2010 the great white hope is horizontal drilling and fracking of the Cooper Basin which will magically ease all fears of gas depletion. Must be why SA thinks it can host half of Australia’s wind capacity. To my knowledge fracking has only shown to be commercially viable in one corner of the Cooper Basin.

    The population connection is there are clearly major problems with our current energy sources yet we indulge in way out fantasies about alternatives. If the first fantasy doesn’t work out try another then another.

    1. With regards to the shale in the cooper basin I’d thought I’ll add a bit more context to it.

      The shale production will mainly come from the Nappamerri trough region (https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CDsQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.pir.sa.gov.au%2F__data%2Fassets%2Fpdf_file%2F0017%2F171413%2F204253-027.pdf&ei=O1jyUPPZIsSQiAfN84CABQ&usg=AFQjCNHmOe3jyBsmfOVUTmT19Zrrgjrr_A&sig2=pLphjk9FRU1HEZ1roijSgw&bvm=bv.1357700187,d.aGc) [PDF]

      The historic production of gas and condensate has been around the trough in a pincer shape. The Nappamerri trough has hardly any production licences in it compared to the development around the trough. They have just begun down at the bottom left of the trough, however what was intersected at the Moomba-191 wasn’t the deep basin shale. The deeper shale has 1000ft of saturated hydrocarbons in it. True the flow rates will need to be seen before it can be deemed a commercial success, but at this juncture it looks likely it will be.

      1. Will this shale gas be enough to back up the planned 2 GW of SA windpower until the year dot? Also a lot of any new gas will head east to Gladstone to earn top dollar as LNG for the energy starved Japanese. I note air temps hit 49.6C at Moomba a few days back.

        1. 1) Any finite resource will be depleted by year dot. The exact same argument could be said for any generation technology that relies on a natural resource. I’ve seen it when it comes to Uranium.
          2) Supply contracts have not been negotiated so no one will know until then. A guess can be made to the likely locations but that is all it is, speculation.
          3) I hear the Japanese are going back to Nuclear so those LNG imports will drop to a degree.
          4) It does get hot in the outback.

          The whole point of my reply was to add in some factual information rather than anecdotal quips with no context. Which is the very thing sites like DSA and others are trying to do when it comes to Nuclear Power. It makes no sense to me how on the one hand advocating for more rational evidence and discussion for Nuclear Power but when it comes to Gas, Coal, and Oil that same principle disappears. Even look at how Prof. Lowe presented his argument, anecdotal joyous quips, in the debate Ben was in and how easily Michael Angwin demolished it.
          While your comment was on the low end of this behaviour, it needs to be nipped in the butt before it gets out of hand. I see it all to often with those advocating head long (i.e. too much passion) into Thorium when it comes to Uranium. It does no benefit to anyone.
          I mean no malice towards you John, and I apologise if I have upset you. I hope you understand where I am coming from.

          1. The danger in being too pedantic is what Big Gav in Peak Energy calls MEGO = my eyes glaze over. That is the casual reader disengages. They want one liners to help debate others. As a precaution I have hard data or estimates for almost everything I say in case of challenges.

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