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How Many People Can the Earth Support? Paperback – September 17, 1996

3.7 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The best thing about this book is that it doesn't answer the question asked in its title. At least not directly. Joel Cohen understands that nobody really knows how many people can fit on our planet, thanks to constant technological advances in areas like crop yield. He is rightly skeptical of the Malthusian doomsayers who constantly predict catastrophe, but also shows that current rates of population growth cannot continue forever. A more extended discussion of politics might have helped--China's horrific one-child rule barely comes up--but for an honest treatment of human population dynamics, this is a very good source.

From Publishers Weekly

Biologist Cohen investigates the Earth's human carrying capacity.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Revised ed. edition (September 17, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393314952
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393314953
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #198,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Obviously, the population of the world has been growing dramatically for the past few centuries. How high can it go? At how high a level can it be maintained? What restrictions are placed by the available resources, such as food and water?

This book asks many of the right questions. And it admits that we don't have all the answers. But it does give some clues about where we may be headed.

Cohen shows that basically, if we want to support people indefinitely on 3500 kilocalories per day from wheat energy, with 9000 cubic kilometers of annual fresh water supply, well, we can support only 5 billion people. We're already beyond that. Right now, we're using up resources at an incredible rate. And while the Earth could support 10 billion people in theory, it is hard to see how it could do that for long in practice.

The author thinks that we'll never get to the absolute maximum that the Earth can support. Most people would all be right on the edge of starvation, and we'd simply be unable and unwilling to stay in that state indefinitely. But I did realize after reading this book that we could stay at about 5 billion people for a very long time if we put our minds to it. Standards of living would not be high, but they would be tolerable for the majority, and the ones who found such a life acceptable would keep having children who found it acceptable.

Those of us who have political views ought to wonder if time is on our side or not. And that is why I think it makes sense to try to imagine what options are available for our mutual future. That's why I think this book is worth reading.
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By A Customer on April 23, 1999
Format: Paperback
I thought that this book was a very refreshing change from the many other books I have read on the subject of overpopulation. Joel Cohen is very fair and writes without a political agenda. He helped me understand the issues and variables much better than any other author on the subject. However, I sometimes got lost in the statistics and mathematics and found some parts hard to wade through.
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Format: Paperback
Definitive, yet almost breezy. Should be required reading for anyone thinking seriously about the future, be they science fiction writers, futurologists, policy analysts, strategic planners, portfolio managers or concerned citizens.
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Format: Paperback
I first read Joel Cohen's "How Many People Can the Earth Support?" shortly after it came out in the 1990s. Having been fascinated by this issue for some time and having read other books across the spectrum (from "The Birth Dearth" and "The Ultimate Resource" on the one hand to "The Population Bomb" on the other), I can safely say that this is about as middle-of-the-road, scholarly, well-reasoned, and unsensational a book as there is. It is clear that Cohen does not come at this issue with a bias that prevents his looking at the data objectively. Moreover, the book contains a tremendous amount of data, from which Cohen resists the temptation to draw unwarranted conclusions.

Having said this by way of praise, I would also like to note a couple weaknesses. The most obvious one is something that Cohen simply can't help. Eighteen years after publication some of the data is out of date. Therefore, the careful reader ought to find more recent sources for the data that Cohen cites.

Cohen also seems to underestimate the ability of human beings to find new resources and new ways of economically abstracting existing resources. As some have pointed out, there are no resources per se. Something becomes a resource only when someone finds a use for it. (Case in point: For most of human history petroleum was not a resource.) Moreover, many resources are available in far greater abundance than the official calculations would lead one to believe. Such calculations are generally based on known supplies that can be economically extracted. As we know from the huge reserves of oil that are currently being extracted from shale through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), past estimates of oil reserves seriously underestimated the amount of oil that is now available to us.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The question How Many People Can Earth Support? has, of course, no “right” answer. There is an endless array of parameters to be assumed by anyone who tries to engage in such exercise: which standard of living should be assumed? Are we willing to become vegetarians, so as to accommodate a bigger population? How will technological advance affect the demand for current raw materials? And so on. Depending on the parameters adopted, estimates vary wildly.

Mr. Cohen, when discussing these difficulties, assumes often a quite sarcastic view about the myriad of (often precise) estimates about future populations and Earth's carrying capacity presented in the book. The fact is that since the 19th century, with a marked improvement in health conditions, we've been going through a period of very rapid populational expansion, the greatest growth rate (about 2.1%) being observed during the 1960s. The problem is that any positive rate is not sustainable in the long run; either birth rates must fall or death rates increase. How and when places like India and Africa, for example, do experience the so called demographic transition shall determine the maximum population the planet will have to support.

The book is organized in (i) estimates for past human populations, (ii) estimates for future populational growth, (iii) estimates for the Earth’s human carrying capacity, and (iv) a conclusion.

The author builds only one numerical exercise to evaluate the Earth’s carrying capacity, based on the availability of fresh water. The figures vary by a factor greater than 20 depending on assumptions about how much fresh water is sustainably retrievable and the meat content in diets.

My only complain about this book is its age: the latest numbers presented are from 1995, and a lot has changed since then. More than 10 pages, for example, are dedicated to discuss whether AIDS will or not cause a significant dent in human growth rate.
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