14 June 2008

Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way, aided, assisted, or advanced, by having continued population growth at the local level, the state level, the national level, or globally? ---Albert Bartlett
If you have been following the news, you should be aware that Singapore ministers keep harping on the fact that our birth rates are too low, and that our population needs to keep growing for us to prosper economically. I wonder, do they have any understanding of the term "carrying capacity"? If we need more people to maintain economic growth, what happens when we hit 6.5 million people in 20-30 years? Do we aim for 10 million next? And when we reach 10 million, do we target 20 million? Our government's blind and relentless pursuit of growth is shortsighted; Nature is not going to accommodate all of us.

Singapore's ruling party, the PAP, prides itself on being far-sighted:
We operate with a very long-term horizon. No problem is too remote just because its effects may only be evident in the future. We CAN SEE AHEAD to guide our people along the best way forward.

This statement is laughable. How can they operate with a "very long-term horizon" when the subjects of peak oil, energy depletion, carrying capacity and limits to growth are absent from their publications and speeches? The word "sustainable" may be used quite often in the government's publications, but they are merely paying lip service to true sustainability as their policies betray their line of thought. Our ministers’ lack of understanding of sustainability is a serious problem.

What is carrying capacity?
Ecologists define 'carrying capacity' as the population of a given species that can be supported indefinitely in a defined habitat without permanently damaging the ecosystem upon which it is dependent.

Due to peak oil production, our foreign food sources will become increasingly unreliable in years to come. Industrial farming will peak and their outputs will be greatly reduced. Our food transport systems will be disrupted by soaring fuel prices, protests and strikes. What do we do? We need to grow more food here at home. But the question is, how many people can we feed on our own?

Here is my feeble attempt to calculate the carrying capacity of Singapore. As there are many complex variables (water, food, pollution, sanitation, soil fertility, etc.) which affect the carrying capacity of a habitat, I have greatly simplified my calculations and will only touch on the food production/consumption aspect of it. My method is simple: divide Singapore's land area by the minimum land area required to feed a person.

Singapore land area: 682.7 sq km = 168,698 acres

Acres per person needed for a standard American diet: 1.2 acres to 2.11 acres

Acres per person needed for a largely vegetarian diet: 0.3 acres to 0.6 acres

If Singapore adopts a standard American diet, our carrying capacity would therefore be between 80,000 and 140,000.

If we adopt a largely vegetarian diet, then our carrying capacity would be somewhere between 280,000 and 560,000.

In reality, if we attempt to pursue self-sufficiency, our true carrying capacity is probably much lower than the numbers given above since most of the land in Singapore is not fit for crop cultivation because of our tropical soil and high degree of urbanization.

The possibility of Singapore's population plunging by more than 90% in the years ahead is not out of the question. Rome, the largest city of the ancient world, had a population of one million at the height of the Roman empire and dropped to 20,000 by the 14th century - a plunge of 98%. Thomas Homer Dixon argued in his book, The Upside of Down (available at the National Library), that the ultimate cause of the Roman Empire's collapse was due to diminishing energy returns on investment, or as Joseph Tainter put it: diminishing returns on investments in social complexity.

Likewise today, Singapore is disregarding the axioms of sustainability outlined by Bartlett and others by exhausting critical resources foolishly in our pursuit of economic and population growth to keep Singapore "dynamic, vibrant, and beating" - all of which are unsustainable in the coming decades.
(Tainter’s Axiom): Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.

(Bartlett’s Axiom): Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

To be sustainable, the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion.
In 1989, Isaac Asimov, when asked about the population problem, said it well:
Moyers: What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if population growth continues at its present rate?
Asimov: It will be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to stay as long as you want for whatever you need. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution.

But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in the freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, "Aren't you through yet?" and so on.

The same way democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies. The more people there are the less one individual matters.
Issac Asimov, quoted in A World of Ideas by Bill Moyers (1989)
We have to accept the fact that we are entering a phase of economic and societal contraction. The sensible question to ask is, do we contract in orderly fashion or in anarchy? Judging from the daily news and our ill-preparedness, my hunch is that it will be chaotic and ugly.