Day 17 Blog Post
This post takes a look at the fault with the free-market approach in its idea of endless growth in GDP and consumption, as well as the problem with endless population growth upon the earth.
Today there are over 6 billion people on the planet, and estimates say that by 2020 there will be 8 billion; and by 2050, ten billion. This steady increase in global population means that the rate that people are being born is more than the rate that people are dying. In a perfect world, these rates would be equal (and obviously less in number than what they are operating at now). Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population explains that when left unchecked, population increases in a geometric (exponential) ratio, whereas subsistence (food) increases in only an arithmetic ratio. This means that the population growth rate would look like 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516; and the subsistence growth rate can only increase by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. According to this disconnect in growth rate between us what we need for survival, he said that an increase in the rate of the human species population can be kept proportional to the increase in their food supply “only by strong law of necessity acting as a check.” This means that if we are to continue this rate of population growth, we must be rational in distribution – if we want all people to have somewhat fair shares of the thinly stretched food supply. What’s even simpler? No food, no humans; which implies a limit to this growth. If we were able to keep increasing the rate of food production and human population, then eventually each and every human being would get less and less rations of food. But Malthus’ real bottom line is telling us that tragedy and pre-mature death await us in the form of famine; “the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery of vice.”
Technically this would be occurring today, but the current societal structures in place allow for a skewed distribution of food. In real life, this equates to the richer nations getting more food and poorer nations getting less. One needs only to look at history to see that populations increase only where there is a means of subsistence.We in the first world have been “oblivious to these oscillations” because the “histories of mankind are recorded by the higher classes;” and for a more correct view we need to take into account the experiences of those who live closer to fear of not having enough. We also don’t pay attention to the real cost of the labor that produces our goods for consumption, which is what perhaps contributes the most to conceal this truth from our view. Our society’s dependence on a “limitless” growth in GDP does not jive well with the sobering reality of the consequences of our constant consumption. As a matter of fact, “neo-Malthusians” are criticized from the political left because they’re claimed to support “genocidal programs” to deal with overpopulation, or for supporting the “infringement of a right to procreate;” as well as they are criticized from the political right because they’re claimed to be technological pessimists and to underestimate the capacity of the planet to support large population growth.” At the end of the day, however, Malthus’ calculations are right, which means that unless the problem of overpopulation is corrected by human means, like war, plague, or epidemic, then a famine of monstrous proportions is inevitable. Something’s gotta give.
Garrett Hardin, author of Tragedy of the Commons, gives a good metaphor for a way of thinking about the overpopulation problem in the his “lifeboat ethics.” Imagine you’re in a lifeboat with 50 people. The capacity is 60, and 100 people are out wading for survival in the water, begging to get in. How do you choose who comes into the boat? Would you chose the “best” people? The neediest? Would you make it first-come-first-serve? Now imagine a larger scale in which the population inside the boat doubles every 87 years and the population outside doubles every 35 years, and don’t forget the earth’s resources dwindle to support the said unending growth. Add on the way societies are set up, and you see a increasingly drastic difference in prosperity between rich and poor countries. An egalitarian approach would be to pool all our resources together with these other countries. The result would be that American would have to share resources with more than 8 other people. And thus the familiar tragedy of the commons plays out when everyone has access to use something shared by everyone, which in reality is what we’re doing, but it’s hidden behind the true cost of labor and externalities. Doesn’t this also mean that we have a responsibility to protect our commons? Should not one of the major tasks of education today be an awareness of the dangers of misuse of the commons? Such as illuminating not just the biological and ecological effects, but also the social and thus economic effects of, for example, overfishing?
It appears that only a replacement of the system of the commons with a responsible system of control will save the air, and, water, and oceanic fisheries. Recently there has been a push to create an “international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and from which they would draw according to their needs,” or a World Food Bank. It is thought that the developing world is the more environmentally taxing populous with its 2.5% population increase per year (versus the richer countries’ 0.8% population increase per year), however the first world makes up for its fewer numbers with qualitatively more environmentally destructive economic practices like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The World Food Bank idea appeals powerfully to humanitarian impulses, but is this great food reserves concept nothing more than a human-made common? The creation and implementation of a system of growing more food (pushing more commodities through the economic machine, which ultimately means more business for agronomies) and storing it for the purpose of staving off famine, hunger, and death without repercussion only exasperate the initial problem? Human ecology tells us that this well-intended humanitarian effort is “like helping the spread of a cancer on the body of the earth.”
Garrett Hardin would say any form of voluntary restraint from plundering this new common would prove ineffective in a world run by imperfect humans, so another – proverbial – philosophy is proposed. The Chinese saying “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life” is the approach taken by the Ford and Rockefellar foundations. In the “Green Revolution” these programs have led to the development of “miracle rice” and “miracle wheat,” new strains that offer bigger harvests and resistance to crop damage to help feed the 15 million new Indians born each year and foreign-aid could mean 1.2 billion Indians within 28 years, each of which puts an additional burden on the environment. But here we’re just giving the growing populations the tools to sustain their growth, tools that ironically mean economic furtherance to us and environmental exhaustion on the planet. It appears that there’s now no eloquent way to say it: there needs to be less people on the planet, not just a leveling off of what we have now.
It’s a distressing reality that we have no choice but to address if we have any intention of creating a more just earth for everyone. However, some like Julian Simon wish to undermine the necessary concern and claim that natural resources are not finite. Simon sees “scarcity” as just another way of saying “increase in cost,” and says that is something is replaceable, then it’s not finite. Unfortunately, it is anthropocentric, economic-based solutions like this that actually do more harm than good. Simon’s lack of any geological, or any scientific evidence does not do his argument any good. And he must be joking about going to the moon for resources. I think the one sentence where he speaks truth is when he says that solar energy is infinite (by human standards), however he quickly ruins his sole logical thought in saying that this then means that the energy within fossil fuels (derived from plants that harnessed the sun’s energy) is thereby infinite as well. It just doesn’t work like that.
So what do we do? I believe that an anthropocentric approach, like free-market environmentalism, cannot be the answer (let alone an acceptable school of environmental thought at that). It focuses too much on one species rather than looking at the big picture in the way that all of the life on earth functions in unison with each other. I agree with Malthus in that if something isn’t done soon, then the famine will come later. Without trying to be a fear-monger, it seems that without a proactive approach to solving the population crisis we’re just delaying whatever stabilizing force nature has in store anyway. It appears that overpopulation is more than half the problem of environmental crisis. Education, especially among women, brings population sizes down. Contraception is obviously necessary. Vertical farming needs to be pursued far more than just as a concept. It is a nasty and unfortunate “mixture of poverty, entrenched patriarchal attitudes, ignorance, passivity, prejudice, shame, and institutionalized barriers, sometimes expressive of cultural and religious ideologies, that is at the root of population excess in many poor nations,” so undoing that will mean a more “natural” form of depopulating.