Newport Beach Activist Allan Beek on Over-Population

My good friend and colleague, Newport Beach maverick activist Allan Beek, recently gave this talk to the League of Women Voters, on an issue dear to his heart:


Those of you who dabble in psychology have heard the parable of the fancy formal party where an elephant walks through the parlor, and NOBODY SAYS ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Overpopulation is just like that elephant. Did you see Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth? He told us about all the damage our excessive numbers are causing, but he never said anything like “too many people.”

Alan Tonelson’s “The Race to the Bottom” is a wonderfully perceptive book about world economics, production, and consumption. Repeatedly, paragraphs lead right up to the obvious summary: “There are too many people,” but he always leaves that punch line out, leaving the thought of the paragraph uncompleted.

The same thing happens in William Greider’s excellent expositions of what is happening to us. He never puts the last piece into the puzzle.

Our whole society, our leaders and our planners, share this blindness. We may say, “Our town is in terrible shape. We only have half enough housing, half enough parks and schools and hospital beds.” But we would never think of saying we have twice too many people. The number of people is thought of as a given, a statistic like altitude, not under conscious control. But the fact is that babies don’t just happen; they are caused. Population IS under conscious control. All we need is enough sense to connect the dots.

We all join Gore and Tonelson and Greider in their neurotic behavior. The Freudians and sociologists will have their explanations for this group neurosis. I will venture one contribution: People don’t want to see themselves as Guinea pigs. Anyone who had pet Guinea pigs knows how you have a few, and then several, and then many. As long as they have food, water, and space, they multiply exponentially. If you supply only a fixed amount of food, they multiply until they are all malnourished, or to put it brutally, starving.

But we ARE like Guinea pigs. A few examples will illustrate. Forty years ago, a collection of scientists set out to do something about the starvation that gripped most of the world. The result of their effort was known as “the green revolution.” With improved crops and methods they made the remarkable achievement of doubling food production in only twenty-five years. Starvation went down, mothers and babies no longer died in droves, and shortly after the twenty-five years, world population had doubled, too. So now there were twice as many people with the same amount of food per person as before. Instead of eliminating starvation, they had doubled it.

The same thing happened in miniature to a poverty-stricken region on the southern border of the Sahara desert. Families depended on their cattle, which grazed on the scanty grass that grew in the area. Then someone discovered that they could drill artesian wells and obtain enough water to irrigate the fields, produce a fine growth of grass, and the livestock could feed well. Soon every family had twice as many cattle and no longer felt poverty-stricken. But a visit twenty-five years later found twice as many people, with the same number of cattle per family as previously, all poverty-stricken.

The generalization that comes from all this, is that humans, just like Guinea pigs, increase until they are in equilibrium with their food supply. And here today’s theme of sustainability comes together with population dynamics. Ultimately, every population lives sustainably when they have exhausted their non-renewable resources. Rural China has lived sustainably for thousands of years. They had no oil or metals to use up. They just recycled their night soil and their dead and had many children, of whom only two, on the average, survived malnutrition long enough to become parents themselves.

The native Americans also lived sustainably for a long time. Their population was kept in check, not by starvation, but by the practice of killing off the members of other tribes. Starvation and murder, supported by epidemics, are the standard ways of achieving equilibrium and sustainability. They are all painful. If we have the sense to connect the dots, we can limit our population without the pain and suffering of starvation, epidemic, or murder. That is the main message of those who insist on talking about the overpopulation elephant. To put it in terms we can all feel personally right now: If there were only a tenth as many of us, then the oil would last for a thousand years, instead of a mere hundred years.

Although Paul and Anne Ehrlich have been writing books about overpopulation ever since “The Population Bomb” in the 1960’s, another elephant has been marching past that escaped even their attention. It was in 1956 that a petroleum geologist named Hubbert calculated the long-term trends of oil production, and pointed out that domestic U.S. oil production would peak in 1970 and then decline, and that world oil production would peak about 2010 and then decline. Of course, he was laughed at, especially in 1970, when domestic production was greater than ever. It was at its peak. And he was right; it did then decline.

At this juncture I have a number of points to make, some good and some bad… The first good point is that, although I want to be informative, I am NOT going to lay a lot of statistics on you. You can get them from the books if you want the sordid details.

  • BAD. Oil exhaustion is relevant to sustainability and population because it takes a lot of oil to run the tractors and combines and pump the water and make the pesticides that sustain our bountiful crop yields. Arable land has been described as a machine for converting oil into food. So as oil production declines after 2010, diminishing supply will run head-on into increasing demand from the growing population.
  • GOOD. (A rather sardonic “good,” from a macabre sense of humor.) When we reach peak oil production, we will already have pumped and burned more than half of the oil. So the CO2 we release in the future will be less than what we have already released. The damage is already more than half done.
  • BAD. Not only is the oil running out, so is the water. Much of the world’s irrigation comes from pumping water from vast underground lakes or “aquifers.” These are starting to run out. And on top of that, our arable soil is being washed away. So the collision between population and food is suffering a triple whammy.
  • GOOD. The price of oil is going to go on rising as the countries that own it realize what a legacy it is. Solar and wind energy now cost about 125 or 130 percent as much as energy from oil. The price of oil only has to rise another 25 to 30 percent, and solar and wind will become profitable. Capitalist economics, the law of supply and demand, the “invisible hand of the market,” will be on our side.
  • BAD. Efforts to change population habits and reduce family size are resisted by the Pope and by some fundamentalists, who regard birth control technology as immoral.
  • GOOD. The Catholic laity ignores the Pope’s ideas on this subject. In several societies, Catholics have SMALLER families than Protestants.
  • BAD. A productive organization takes a combination of capital and labor. Its income is divided between them in proportion to how hard they are to obtain. So the moneyed class, which controls public policy almost everywhere (particularly here) wants to maintain a large population desperate for employment. So it is no wonder that corrupt governments do not support family planning programs. The dynasties that control those governments WANT to have lots of willing workers for their plantations and factories. President Bush’s shutdown of family planning assistance is partly pandering to the fundamentalists, but it is primarily to satisfy the moneyed interests that control him.
  • GOOD. The world’s affluent populations – Western Europe, white America , and Japan – are already having small families; so small that these populations will eventually decline slowly. This has led some commentators to say, “Prosperity is the best birth control.” However, there are many other factors involved. Paul and Anne Ehrlich look into this exhaustively in their book“The Stork and the Plow.” But at least, the industrialized world is showing that overpopulation CAN be stopped and even reversed voluntarily. No government coercion is needed.
  • BAD. There is “momentum” in a growing population. The four-year-olds outnumber the five-year-olds, who outnumber the six-year-olds, etc. And they vastly outnumber the twenty-something-year-olds who are now having families. So in twenty years there will be a much larger number of women having families. Even if they have smaller families than their mothers did, the population will keep increasing.

It is interesting to calculate an actual numerical example. If on the average each woman has four children, and if on the average twenty percent of her daughters die as an infant, never marry, or are too ill to have children, then the population will double every thirty-five years. This assumes that the women are conservative: They don’t start until they are twenty years old, and they space their babies three years apart. If they were more radical in their behavior, the doubling time would be shorter.

Well, such conservative people will have a good life expectancy – say seventy years. That is twice the doubling time of thirty-five years. So the death rate is one quarter of the birth rate – the dying people are two doubles behind the babies being born.

Now suppose a charismatic leader convinces the women that they should all have just one baby. The birth rate drops to one quarter of what it would have been at four babies each. This makes it exactly equal to the death rate, which is also one quarter of the birth rate, remember? So births equal deaths for twenty years, and the population doesn’t change at all. A drastic change in behavior produces NO decrease for twenty years.

Then, after twenty years, the one-quarter-as-many-babies turns into one-quarter-as-many-new-mothers, the birth rate drops again, the death rate is still going up, so the population starts down. After another twenty years, the birth rate drops again, and the death rate is still going up. But if you put the numbers on a spread sheet and work it out, you find that it is SIXTY YEARS after the great conversion before the population is cut in half.

Sixty years is a long time to respond to a crisis. The oil crisis will play itself out in thirty years. The aquifers probably even less. So we need to think way ahead when setting population policy. And we aren’t doing it. That’s bad.

  • GOOD. The arguments on the other side are laughable. Oh, yes, there are people on the other side. And catchy titles, like Birth Dearth,” by Ben Wattenberg. This book is full of numbers and tables – it makes the case for population control while arguing against it. Ben’s chief concern is that our civilization will be overwhelmed because the industrial populations are declining while all those others are growing. Presumably he would approve of population control in the third world, but spends his time trying to talk our society out of it. He raises the terrifying specter that the home-building industry will vanish, become extinct, a lost art. He is wrong. In Newport Beach alone, there is fifty million dollars a year of remodeling and rebuilding. Carpentry, cabinetmaking, and construction are not going to become extinct. But won’t it be nice when young couples don’t have to mortgage themselves for thirty years just to get into a home? When the cost of a home is a minor matter compared to the maintenance expense? That will be heavenly.

Wattenberg also tells us that the elderly, who need care, will be the largest fraction of a declining population, and will put undue demands on the smaller working fraction. Now just think a moment. Let’s compare the demand on the working fraction in growth and in decline. In growth, the children are the huge fraction. And they need homes, schools, hospitals, waterworks, streets – the whole infrastructure. Terribly expensive. But old people just need to be fed, given their pills, and have their bedding changed. A vastly smaller burden than children. Decline is clearly a boon to the workingman, an even bigger boon to his wife, and the really good news is that during the years of transition from growth to decline, both the young and the old are minor fractions. It is the best of both worlds.

  • BAD. Facts and logic do not suffice. Community attitude, mores, accepted wisdom, attitudes acquired from parents, peer pressure – these things play a dominant role, and the benefit or damage to society as a whole doesn’t matter much. There are places in Africa where women have eight or nine children because childbearing is what gives a woman status. A childless woman is an outcast. Socially she doesn’t exist. The language does not have a word for an unmarried woman. What hope is there for change in such a society?
  • GOOD. In H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds,” the invaders are conquered and destroyed by the humblest creatures God has placed upon the Earth – the molds and bacteria. Likewise, the social attitudes that seem so invincible CAN be modified and reformed by one of the lowest of man’s creations – the soap opera. Soaps which have a significant plot, and entwine that plot with themes of women’s empowerment, family planning, and improvement through education, can capture and enthrall their audience with a message of hope.

And there exists an organization that creates and distributes soap operas with just such themes. They are popular in India, Africa, Mexico, Latin America, and are now in preparation for the Arab world. Family planning clinics report that as many as half of their clients were brought in by the soaps. I have checked this claim with Planned Parenthood, and they confirm that the soaps are effective; the claim is not just empty bragging.

The organization used to call itself “Population Communications International,” but has recently shortened it to “Media Impact.” I support it heavily, and I hope you will, too. If you take anything away from this essay, let it be this (please click on this link)

“Media Impact. Media Impact. Media Impact.”

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.