As of 2008 there are about 6.7 billion people on the Earth, with a current net gain of 75 million annually. That's equivalent to a staggering 1,000 football stadiums or 1.5 million busloads of people who require a lot more room than those venues. America's population grows by roughly 3 million per year and the impact is magnified by heavy resource consumption. The entire world has a population problem, but it's also an ideological problem. If any other species procreated, grabbed land and consumed resources like Mankind, we'd call it a plague. But many of us choose to call it "progress."
People clamor for economic growth, yet they also complain about the side-effects of population growth. Unfortunately, most take the intellectually lazy path of siding with growth because it's all they know and it pays the bills. The artificial value of money causes much of this complacency.
Economic growth, as defined by a constant rise in the GNP, is largely dependent on population growth. More people are consuming more resources each year in almost every category. This growing consumption is a pyramid scheme that could collapse as the Earth's finite resources dwindle. Potentially renewable resources like water, timber and fisheries will become finite unless growth stops and demand stabilizes, but many people cling to false economic theories which claim that we'll "never run out" of resources because there will always be "substitutes." The concept of "managed growth" is like asking cancer to only grow between vital organs; fatal in the long run anyway. These growth delusions are sustained because we haven't reached a global breaking-point yet.
There is an important distinction between economic development and economic growth. Development generally refers to the process of modernizing an archaic economy, which may or may not involve increasing its scale. But growth (in already developed nations) is mostly fueled by consumption, i.e. more people consuming. When economies of scale are well established, further economic growth is mostly a result of rising demand for products and the need for more workers to produce them. The global economy allows population growth to be tapped anywhere in the world to suit these needs.
The creation of new and innovative products like computers (which some call growth) is different from the gross output of things like food, oil, timber, cars and appliances. The fact that we must constantly "create" jobs should tell us that population growth has no logical purpose. Many people find themselves with nothing to do, and make-work jobs just increase government debt. The main reason we "need" more and more jobs, goods and services is to accommodate the needs of more people. There's no intrinsic purpose to this, unless one enjoys watching the world become a more crowded, complicated and polluted place.
The cycle of growth for growth's sake must be broken before resources get too scarce to provide a safety net. The GNP cannot grow indefinitely in a finite world. This needs to be understood on a gut level by everyone before the gradual actions needed to break the cycle can take place. As long as people believe that perpetual economic growth is a means to an end there will be an underlying resistance to population stabilization. That's because population growth is a key ingredient in the expansion of many industries. For example, the building industry is dependent on a steady increase in human numbers and we call it a "leading economic indicator." Many other industries thrive on rising consumption and it's ingrained in our economic thinking.
Chronic problems like pollution, wilderness destruction, water shortages, loss of farmland, urban congestion, welfare dependency, crime, inflation and hunger are exacerbated as the population expands, yet many people refuse to make the connection because their political or religious backgrounds have blinded them to the limits of the natural world.
Man's impact on the Earth's surface is greatly underestimated. Eleven percent of the world's land is used for agriculture, 25% serves as livestock pasture and roughly 2% is paved or covered by buildings (actual land acreage needed to support people is far greater than 2%). Much of the 30% that's still forested has been converted to tree farms or is under serious pressure from population expansion. Only 5% of America's forests remain completely untouched by logging and development. The remaining third of the world's land is largely uninhabitable because of harsh climate and terrain. Those who drive through Nevada and see "plenty of land" need to realize that lack of water prevents millions of acres from ever being utilized, presuming that's even desirable in the first place. Crude acreage calculations do not give an accurate picture of practical land use. The true frontier is mostly gone but some people are living in the past and will always pretend otherwise. Denialists are so keen on accommodating growth, they would rather colonize the harshest regions (even the oceans) before daring to suggest that growth needs to cease.
The much sought after "balance" between human activity and conservation is impossible with 75 million more people demanding their share of the planet's resources each year. Agricultural production and fishery harvests have peaked in many regions and are unable to keep pace with population growth, despite improvements in food-distribution. Over 10 million people die each year from hunger-related illnesses and a billion are barely making it, yet some people blindly insist that we can feed billions more! What could possibly inspire this naive vision of the future? Well meaning organizations have ignored the population problem for decades with shortsighted famine-relief efforts and environmental policies that focus on cleaning up the mess rather than preventing it in the first place. It's always far less costly to solve problems at the source. There's a famous analogy that asks: if you were confronted with an overflowing sink, which would you reach for first, a mop, or the faucet?
The media, which some accuse of excessive eco-coverage, is guilty of dancing around the real issue and making people think they only have to recycle cans to protect nature. Magazines and TV programs like National Geographic, Nova and Nature are always reminding us of growth-related threats but they rarely get to the bottom line. Instead of openly discussing overpopulation they refer to it in a sidelong way, calling it "urban sprawl" or "human expansion." This has created a great deal of interest in ecology (especially among younger people) but children are frequently steered away from the population connection because their teachers want to avoid "offending" prolific ethnic groups. We see lists of "50 things you can do to save the Earth," but they almost never mention limiting one's family size. This type of environmentalism is not honest. There's a utopian notion that everything will be fine if we just change our surface actions, rather than our childbearing habits, but this ignores a fundamental aspect of life on Earth. Man is limited by the same factors that have kept animal populations stable and sustainable for thousands of years. The public needs to realize that what people do is often secondary to the number of people doing it.
If couples around the world voluntarily limit their family sizes to an average of two or fewer children, we can begin to conquer our problems instead of continuing the pointless race to support more and more people with fewer and fewer resources. People who resent being told to limit their family size may not understand what's really at stake. The personal nature of reproductive decisions does not mean that common sense should be removed from the equation. Endless population growth is not a natural phenomenon (no other species tries to sustain it) and we need to use contraceptives to replace the natural controls we've overridden with modern medicine. If we don't do this voluntarily, first governments, then nature, will FORCE us to do it. China is a good example, and this wouldn't just happen in a communist regime if it became vital to survival. If Big Brother is coming, overpopulation is his vehicle because it creates mass dependency on social services and leads to a surplus of labor with increasing reliance on redundant, menial jobs.
We must replace the mindset of perpetual economic growth with a sustainable approach that defines "long-term" as 500 years down the road, rather than five or ten. If we keep blaming our difficulties on the management of growth, rather than growth itself, environmental, social and political problems may never be solved.
|"The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us." (Gilbert K. Chesterton)|
Some logical predictions
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