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Sustainable welfare and optimum population size


This paper is an attempt to estimate the level of sustainable welfare, namely a level of consumption that can be enjoyed by all future generations. Based on available measures of the ecological footprint and biocapacity and assuming an acceptable level of per capita consumption, we estimate the maximum level of world population, which will allow that level of consumption without damaging the natural productive capacity of the earth. Also based on a criterion of the ability of each country to feed its people, we estimate the maximum size of population for the fifty most populated countries. It turns out that a few countries are underpopulated (Argentina, Canada, Russia, etc.), but most are overpopulated (China, India, Japan, etc.). We conclude by emphasizing the need for an ecumenical effort to educate and inform people about the need to reduce world population.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. The growth rate regressions against time (t = 1, 2, …, 53) give the following results:

    $$\begin{array}{*{20}c} {{\text{GWP}}_{\text{gr}} = \mathop {5.068}\limits_{12.4} - \mathop {0.057}\limits_{4.47} t} & {\bar{R}^{2} = 0.28} & {{\text{obs}} = 53} \\ {{\text{POP}}_{\text{gr}} = \mathop {2.143}\limits_{53.1} - \mathop {0.019}\limits_{14.7} t} & {\bar{R}^{2} = 0.81} & {{\text{obs}} = 53} \\ \end{array}.$$

    The linear trends in Fig. 1 are based on these regressions. For the data used in these estimations, see Table 3.

    We have also estimated the same regressions using five year moving averages to avoid the effects of outlying observations. The resulting regression equations are practically the same, and the two growth rates will be equal (0.68) in 2038.

    $$\begin{array}{*{20}c} {{\text{GWP}}_{\text{gr}} = \mathop {5.089}\limits_{22.4} - \mathop {0.059}\limits_{8.12} t} & {\bar{R}^{2} = 0.57} & {{\text{obs}} = 49} \\ {{\text{POP}}_{\text{gr}} = \mathop {2.222}\limits_{96.4} - \mathop {0.021}\limits_{28.3} t} & {\bar{R}^{2} = 0.94} & {{\text{obs}} = 49} \\ \end{array}.$$
  2. Actually two series for L are given in Fig. 2. The first, L 1, is compiled by the Earth Policy Institute and the second, L 2, by the Global Footprint Network. The two series present some small differences in the yearly values, but they show a similar trend. For our regressions, we use the series given by the Earth Policy Institute.

  3. Similar results are received if L 2 is used instead of L 1. The relation between L 1 and L 2 is given by L 1 = 0.94 L 2 with R 2 = 0.997, see Fig. 2.

  4. Worldometers (2015).

  5. For a review and a categorization of ideas on population, see Panayotou (2000).

  6. Grounds for concern on overpopulation are raised by many researchers in the field of ecological economics. For an overview, see Alcott (2012), who argues that curbing population growth should be actively included in policy agendas of all countries.

  7. This is already evident in many regions of the world. The same is true for wild animals whose habitat is continuously shrinking, see, e.g., Stein, Adams and Kutner (2000).

  8. It is reported that nearly 40 % (80 million) of pregnancies every year are unintended, see Singh et al. (2009, p. 52), and Engelman (2010).

  9. Most organized churches seem to share a myopic view on this matter. For example, in his May 2015 Encyclical letter (Vatican 2015), Pope Francis writes “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” and “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development; to blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

  10. This program was called “Protein Foods, Environment, Technology and Society” (PROFETAS). Its aim was to develop meat alternatives with low energy, land, and other input requirements.


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The authors are grateful to unknown reviewers for valuable comments and suggestions, to colleagues for useful discussions, and to Ms Genevieve Gorgos for discussion and linguistic improvements. Also, thanks are due to the Earth Policy Institute and the Global Footprint Network for providing the data used in this study.

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Correspondence to Anastasia Pseiridis.



See Table 3.

Table 3 Population growth, GWP growth, ecological footprint to biocapacity (L), 1960–2013

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Lianos, T.P., Pseiridis, A. Sustainable welfare and optimum population size. Environ Dev Sustain 18, 1679–1699 (2016).

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  • Population
  • Sustainable welfare
  • Ecological footprint
  • Biocapacity