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'Too Many People'

February 25, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 8

I agree with Rudy Baum's Jan. 14 editorial, which stands in direct contradiction to extensive excellent research being done in most of the world, especially the U.S. Hundreds of billions of dollars (or euros, yen, etc.) are spent annually on spectacular research that is aimed, rather successfully as noted, at extending life. Why spend so much on such spectacular research if we cannot enjoy these extra years in reasonable physical, mental, and financial health?

Economists tell us that in the U.S., Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will bring us to bankruptcy relatively soon. As a retiree who has been a beneficiary of Social Security and Medicare for more than 12 years, I believe that will be the case unless we adopt a new economic paradigm. Some economists and elected officials say the only way to go is to cut "entitlements."

I object to having benefits cut after being on full-time payroll to age 68 and a half, and then consulting for about 10 years. Letters to elected officials and newspapers have produced little response, none of it useful. I have a few suggestions that might make a minuscule dent in the problem, but can do nothing where there is no response.

Perhaps the editors of C&EN have some thoughts on how to alleviate this dilemma, which will only be the first of many. As noted, environmental problems are already here and will undoubtedly become worse as population increases. Garry Kasparov, a world chess champion, is involved in a quixotic effort to become president of Russia. Obviously, he will not make it, but he probably would be good because world-class chess players must consider the consequences of any moves. They must consider the consequences many moves ahead. It would be good if political, scientific, academic, and economic leaders thought like chess players.

William A. Swarts
Denville, N.J.

I am chair of Optimum Population Trust and my husband is a U.K. subscriber to your magazine. He drew my attention to your superb editorial.

We couldn't have put it better ourselves! But what an uphill struggle it is to get this subject discussed. A political taboo has existed for some 15 to 20 years and, if it is now being broken, it is the result of our tireless campaigning and media work, at least in the U.K. We base all our arguments on robust evidence that can be viewed on our website,

Nearly all governments call for endless economic growth, which requires growth in markets as well as per capita consumption, and thus they are scared witless by the thought of a nongrowing—let alone reducing—population. Meanwhile, even environmental groups, although they continually alert us to the devastating impact humans are having on the planet, deny that growth in human numbers is a factor to be tackled.

Valerie Stevens
Leicestershire, England

At last your editorials are starting to broach the real problem facing humanity: overpopulation. Earth's carrying capacity is a function of both the number of people and the target standard of living. No one dares to propose values for both of these-the resulting debate would be too violent. Without this debate, however, there will be no planning for the inevitable.

Growth curves for organisms in fixed systems all follow the same path. For humans, the magnitude of the overshoot prior to leveling off will be determined by our use of stored energy (fossil fuels).

Concerning climate change, think about this hypothesis: Humanity will eventually burn all the fossil fuels it can lay its hands on. Slowing down is just an illusion. We will still burn it all within 1,000 years—a short time on the geological timescale. Our carbon dioxide contribution is fixed. Sequestration is not an option because it will make the energy required to extract fossil fuels (combined with sequestration) greater than the energy released by them.

The most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is not carbon dioxide but water. To date, no one knows what will happen to the water content of the atmosphere as the global temperature increases. Everyone has theories, but there is no clear conclusion. "Elementary Climate Physics" by F. W. Taylor is a must-read.

Furthermore, there is a clear link between economic prosperity (aggregate global gross domestic product) and energy (joules). It is as clear as the correlation between CO2 concentration and temperature. Decreasing our energy use will necessitate a global recession of unprecedented proportions, leading to declining standards of living. Our economic system must change, you are right. We must abandon the concept of "interest." It is impossible to have ever-increasing wealth on a finite planet. "Time is money" is a fallacy. Money represents energy. These ideas need to be discussed within our communities.

Finally, please read R. Knox's paper that appeared in the American Journal of Physics (1999, 67, 1227). Please let me know the flaw in that work if you find it.

Jeff Meth
Landenberg, Pa

Your editorial is one of the most important pieces I've read anywhere lately. I would not restrict anyone's freedom. Let people have as many kids as they can afford. But how many we can afford is something that should at least be talked about, and I hope this piece breaks some of the ice. It could do more for the environment and energy than a reasoned look at how many people.

Dale Schruben
Manhattan, Kan.



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