Candidates’ Advisors Duck Question on Overpopulation

The above is a link to a transcript of a forum conducted by the Society of Environmental Journalists.  Panel members included Jason Grumet, environmental adviser for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Todd Stern, adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and James Woolsey, environmental adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

One of the journalists in attendance, Constance Holden of Science Magazine finally asked one of the most important questions of the political campaign thus far and, predictably, the candidates’ advisors ducked for cover!  Notice that each candidate’s advisor immediately turned the answer away from the original question and sought refuge in technological solutions.  If only the journalists had more time to probe deeper.

The critical exchange occurs about two thirds of the way through the transcript.  I’ve excerpted it below for your convenience:

Constance Holden: Constance Holden, Science magazine. As we all know, the driving force behind all these problems, environment, food, energy, is population growth. I know that’s not something anybody wants to directly address, but I thought it might help illuminate differences among the candidates if we could find out how your candidate thinks about this problem and whether they have any ideas about addressing it.

Jason Grumet: Sure and, as you point out rightly, I think that is fundamental when it comes to a question of global resources, the fundamental challenge. And it’s not just a question of population growth, but it’s also a question of the rest of the world beginning to aspire to the comforts that we have come to take for granted here.Sure and, as you point out rightly, I think that is fundamental when it comes to a question of global resources, the fundamental challenge. And it’s not just a question of population growth, but it’s also a question of the rest of the world beginning to aspire to the comforts that we have come to take for granted here.When people achieve an annual income of about $5,000 a year they start to buy cars and you are going to see somewhere between 3 and 500 million people in China find themselves in that position in the next decade. And so, I think, Senator Obama is very attentive to the fact that we’re not going to be able to fix this problem just around the edges, nor are we going to be able to go pat the rest of the world on the head and say, you know, we realize that refrigeration thing was really overrated. Why don’t you all just sweat it out?


So, fundamentally, it is going to be about profound changes in technology. The U.S. has not taken the kind of global leadership that I think we can in doing that.

One of the reasons why Senator Obama is committed to investing here in technologies which are controversial, like clean coal and like advanced nuclear, is based on the view that not only must we have those technologies here, but that it’s hard to imagine China deciding not to use their coal. And if we don’t play a role in developing what is truly zero carbon coal by making sequestration real, there’s not much we’re going to be able to do here. This isn’t American warming. It’s global warming.

And so I think I’m speaking somewhat maybe elliptically to your question, but fundamentally there is a recognition that we have to invent solutions that enable the rest of the world to prosper while not causing the whole place to cook.

Susan Feeney: Todd?Todd?Todd Stern: I don’t have an absolute direct answer on the population question, but let me make a point that’s perhaps relevant, which is that the controlling of CO2 and greenhouse gases in developing countries is going to be increasingly critical.I don’t have an absolute direct answer on the population question, but let me make a point that’s perhaps relevant, which is that the controlling of CO2 and greenhouse gases in developing countries is going to be increasingly critical.I think 75 percent of emissions growth in the next 25 years is expected to come from developing countries and China is, far and away, the lead among them. And 40 percent is coming from China and India and China together is 55 percent.



Now, what is going to be critical I think both from a political point of view and from a substantive point of view, and perhaps even in ways that relate to population, is that ways are going to need to be found in which developing countries can control the release of carbon in ways that do not require them to sacrifice their underlying development goals.

So, for example, if you think of China as an example, China is facing an environmental debacle right now. It’s not climate change, just ordinary pollution. The same kinds of policies that would help to control that would also greatly limit their greenhouse gases.

Now, again, the point is, as countries develop more, generally, I think it’s the case that population growth levels off to some degree. And so the nexus is we’ve got to find ways in which developing countries continue to develop, but develop in a way that leapfrogs in essence the high carbon base of the economy that developed countries rely upon.

Jim Woolsey: I’d like to pick up on that.I’d like to pick up on that.Susan Feeney: OK, one minute to follow please.OK, one minute to follow please.Jim Woolsey: I’m somewhat jaundiced on this because I drive two-thirds of the way to my office every day on sunlight. I have photovoltaics on the roof, batteries in the basement, and A-123 just converted my Prius to be a plug-in.I’m somewhat jaundiced on this because I drive two-thirds of the way to my office every day on sunlight. I have photovoltaics on the roof, batteries in the basement, and A-123 just converted my Prius to be a plug-in.It gets about 20 miles, essentially all electric. It’s not pie in the sky. These technologies are coming. The photovoltaics are radically improving in efficiency and dropping in cost. The batteries are getting better and better. And we shouldn’t assume that just because the Chinese young couple who have finally kind of made it into the middle class want to buy an automobile, that for the foreseeable future it’s always going to be an automobile propelled by carbon emitting sources of one kind or another.




The technology is changing. It’s changing partly because of things the U.S. government is doing, partially for market pressures, partly for a lot of reasons. But I think we should keep our eye on the possibility that with some of these technologies, particularly with respect to solar and particularly with respect to photovoltaics and batteries, we may be moving into an era in which we are going to be able to do to oil and to some extent to coal, what refrigeration did at the end of 19th-century to salt.

Salt was the only way to preserve meat at the end at the late 19th century. Countries fought wars over salt mines. It was a big deal. Within a relatively few years refrigeration destroyed salt’s monopoly. If you had some on the table today, where you use salt independent, where did it come from? You don’t care. I don’t care. It’s just a commodity. We need to do that to oil.”

Is it any wonder that we’re making no progress toward a national population policy?  None of the candidates’ advisors has the courage to address the issue or enough knowledge of the issue to discuss it intelligently.  Kudos to Constance Holden of Science Magazine for asking the most important question of our time. 



8 Responses to Candidates’ Advisors Duck Question on Overpopulation

  1. goodtimepolitics says:

    Its people like this that Obama is friends with that has him in trouble today! As I have found out now why Obama is against off shore drilling!

  2. Pete Murphy says:

    With whom is he in trouble over this?

  3. Non of the above says:

    The advanced nations have negative population growth so it must be the non-advanced peoples that are the problem. Not that the elite people use disproportionately more resources than people with modest lifestyles. If other people didn’t get in the way of elite’s obtaining their stategic resources more of us would be able to send our female children to school and as a result also have negative population growth. If economics requires growth how can the economy avoid out stripping the earth’s resources. It is a good thing that we make up the terms of the economy story and don’t believe in non-negotable laws of economics.

  4. Pete Murphy says:

    Non, there are some “advanced nations,” mostly western European nations, that have below-replacement-level birth rates. That’s certainly not the case with the U.S. And citizens of developed nations clearly use more resources that less developed nations.

    Making education more available to females in less developed countries is a good way to help reduce the very high birth rates in those countries, just as you said.

    You stated that “economics requires growth.” I disagree. As Webster’s puts it, “economics” is “the science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth, and with the various related problems of labor, finance, taxation, etc.” Economics can have a stable, rising or declining population. Each simply presents a different set of issues to be dealt with. However, it is true that most modern “economists” rely upon population growth as a source of “economic growth.” Anyone who believes such theories is in denial of the indisputable fact that human population growth cannot continue forever. They haven’t come to grips with the fact that their theories are ultimately doomed to failure. I think that’s what you’re saying in your last sentence and I certainly agree! If you read my book, you’ll find a new economic theory that actually requires a stable, sustainable population as the path to maximum individual wealth.

  5. Non of the above says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response Pete. I see population control as a popular scapegoat. As far as I can determine the USA ‘does’ have below-replacement-level ‘birth’ rates. I think you are including immigration and citing USA population growth.
    I am sorry if I mislead you, I don’t think economists cite the need for population growth. I was referring to the imperative for economic growth. The last time I recall a steady state, no growth economic model being considered was in the 1970’s. I think it is wonderful that the growth rate of greenhouse gasses in being questioned. It is of great concern that economic growth is religion. I am encouraged if your book debunks that religion.
    I consider population control a scapegoat because it is used to cast our focus away from the disparities of economic wealth and the wealthy peoples overwhelming responsibility for environmental and social violence that is clearly unsustainable. The non-economically wealthy people of the world are not stupid and should not be deprived of their dignity. It is the wealthy people that tend to be short sighted and blame others for problems that they disproportionately contibute to. There is much hope in the cause and effect evidence from neuroeconomics. I hope you have included that evidence in your book and count on humans to understand your evidence and select it as a guide to conduct their individual lives rather than having the economics imposed upon them by manufactured consent.

  6. Pete Murphy says:

    Non, does my book debunk the “religion” of economic growth? Absolutely! The whole point of my book is that once an optimum population density has been breached, further growth becomes cancerous and erodes our standard of living and quality of life. Interestingly, while further population growth can indeed expand the macroeconomy and thus sales volumes and profits, such growth becomes slower than population growth, thus eroding the per capita standard of living. Isn’t that exactly what we’ve seen in recent years? While the macroeconomy grew, individual incomes have been declining.

    Thus, once an optimum population density is breached, there is a divergence of interests. While it is in the best interest of the common good to halt population growth and return to an optimum density, it is still in the best interest of corporations and economists focused on macroeconomic growth to keep growing the population. Unfortunately, it is these economists and corporations who currently hold sway in setting public policy.

    I agree that the poor people of the undeveloped world are not stupid and have just as much right to a decent standard of living as the developed world. Unfortunately, in many cases, extreme overpopulation will preclude that. Even much of the developed world is overpopulated and thus preys upon the resources of the rest of the world. But, just as we have no right to prey upon their resources, they have no right to prey upon our markets, shunting the consequences of their overpopulation onto our own people. The solution is for all nations to steadily return to a sustainable population level.

    I’m afraid I don’t know that much about neuroeconomics, so the inclusion of any of its precepts in my book would be purely accidental.

  7. Non of the above says:

    Pete I was delighted to read Constance Holden poking fun at the genetic determinism of sociobiology and behavioral genetics in the 7 November 2008 issue of Science magazine. Seeking more I was dismayed to see her and you raising the boogey man of population growth rather than understanding that the decent standard of living of the developed world is negotiable and not a given. They are not preying on anyone, they are our own people. That the human population will continue to increase then peek and decrease is the common prediction if we freely set aside educational time for all female children. I prefer that as a given. Fairness is negotiable. I truly appreciate the correlational knowledge provided by the social sciences as a starting point. I think it is important that although our cause and effect knowledge of the physiology of the human brain will never be complete that we begin to displace correlation knowledge with cause and effect knowledge when possible. It took the Vatican several hundred years to accept evolution. It has been almost 150 years since Darwin urged us to not set conscious man apart from other animals yet many in the evolutionary sciences can’t fathom themselves as physiological beings rather than conscious beings. The supremacy of western consciousness is a myth. “What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea!”, Gandhi. Neuroeconomics and evolutionary development may help get us there.

  8. Pete Murphy says:

    When I speak of other nations preying upon the market of the U.S., I am talking about nations where overpopulation has run amok. The best example is Japan, a nation ten times as densely populated as the U.S. Their over-crowding has driven down per capita consumption, leaving them with a gross over-supply of labor. It is not fair to American workers to allow them free access to our market, effectively shunting the effects of their overpopulation onto Americans, relieving them of the unemployment they would otherwise experience and thus enabling further population growth in an already badly overpopulated nation. Those nations who allow themselves to become so badly overpopulated should have to deal with the consequences themselves.

    In the meantime, America exacerbates its own overpopulation problem through a very high rate of immigration and through a high rate of growth in the native population as well. Our current fertility rate is about 2.1 births per female. While that’s close to the “replacement level,” it’s still too high to attain a stable population because of the steady increase in life expectancy. A rate of 1.79 is need to attain a stable population.

    The human population will indeed level off at some point. But, if it doesn’t happen as the result of a concerted effort to reduce the birth rate, it will happen as the result of a higher death rate. That higher death rate will likely be the result of rising unemployment and poverty, as overcrowding reduces per capita consumption in the face of rising productivity. It’s that collision of economic forces that my theory addresses.

    Good discussion, non. I enjoy it!

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