Sudan farmlots, NASA photo

Development & Sustainability

Is it possible to have a world of 6 or 10 billion people where all can enjoy a reasonable standard of living, adequate food, clothing and shelter, with individual freedom, and at the same time sustain a healthy planet with its immense diversity of species and ecosystems?

Most of what has happened in history, and what will happen in the future, is related to the demographic of the day. So let's start by considering the graph of world population:

 

When resources are limited only by the manpower and technology needed to harvest them, population tends to expand exponentially in the absence of war and pandemic disease. For most of human history, however, conflicts, climate-driven famine, and infectious diseases have punctuated population growth markedly. More recently, public health improvements and global food distribution have curtailed many threats to human life, allowing for rapid population growth.

Over the past few centuries:

    • Population growth never exceeded 0.5% per year before 1750.
    • Population growth never exceeded 1.0% per year before ~1930.
    • Population growth peaked at 2.1% per year around 1965-1970 and has fallen since.
    • World population has increased about six or eight-fold since the industrial revolution began, and continues to climb.

The above graph illustrates the great difference between the developed and developing regions of the world. Prosperity is the most effective form of population control known. One can ponder why this is so, but literacy and social freedom, as well as access to birth control, are effective factors in lowering birthrates. Perhaps they are too successful: all developed countries now have birth rates below replacement values, with the exception of the United States, whose birthrate is close to replacement value. Birth rates remain highest in the very poorest of nations. Again, prosperity and literacy are the universally effective ingredients of birth control.

Most recent population models predict a world population peaking at around 10 billion in the next couple of decades, and then declining back to current levels.

How many people can the Earth support?

Early attempts to answer this question have ranged from 1 billion to 1 trillion as a sustainable global population, but a majority of the estimates fall between 4 and 16 billion. With a world population now over 6 billion, we may be near the limit of sustainability.

However, "the future is unlike the past because it has not happened yet." Population carrying capacity is always defined by current state of technology, our social, political and economic institutions, our lifestyles, and the physical and biological environment.

Current realities of the planet are logically consistent with a whole range of alternate futures, including:

    • Continued expansion
    • Tapering off of growth
    • Oscillations, or
    • Chaotic changes, followed by overshoot and collapse.

If economic disparity continues to widen, the likelihood of chaos and collapse rises sharply. Since prosperity is the only effective means of birth control, a just distribution of wealth is a requirement for material sustainability. This means fair trade practices, which are not currently realized since the agricultural subsidies of rich nations permanently disempower the poorer nations.

There are reasons for optimism. Today in the world, almost as many people are obese as are starved. Therefore, there is no net food shortage, only problems of distribution and of food quality. Clothing and shelter require only renewable and recyclable resources. Luxuries such as cars require only recyclable materials and energy.

Energy consumption and standard of living have been approximately linearly correlated in all times and societies. So the sustainability question from a material viewpoint comes down to a question of whether there are viable sources of energy that are environmentally sound (don't deplete, and don't cause runaway global warming). Which, if any, of the new energy futures (solar, wind energy, nuclear, hydrogen storage, methyl hydrates) are viable options?

A very short list of the top global threats to our planet and its population would include:

    • Widening economic disparity leading to social disintegration
    • Unfair global trade practices leading to conflict and war
    • Rapid climate change causing population displacement and economic collapse
    • Gender-based eugenics, such as selective abortion of female fetuses, leading to serious gender imbalance and inevitable conflict
    • Global environmental disaster, such as an asteroid impact on Earth.

We have been conditioned to accept a simple notion that "development" alone will solve all the material challenges of our collective future. Richard Norgaard (an activist scholar and economist) has looked much deeper into this idea in his fascinating book "Development Betrayed". He concludes:

"Those in power still appeal to the myth of progress to defend a disintegrating social and natural order, not to establish new healthy relations between peoples and their environments. The old image of progress through control is still rallied, for lack of an alternative, clouding our vision at a time when a clearly new, richer image of the construction and interaction of social and environmental orders is desperately needed. The combination of problems is all the more dangerous in a world of modern military technology, of global economic interdependence, with the ease of ecoterrorism, and with some eight times as many people as there were when the modern project was initiated. With the idea of progress rapidly fading, the need for an effective, constructive shared image of the future has never been greater."

Further perspectives:
Countries ranked by Human Development Index
Millenium Development Goals
Millenium Development Goals
International Institute for Sustainable Development
Limits of growth
A First Nations' view of development
One Sky
BC Progress Board

"If people live in poverty, there’s no way the world is not going to be unstable. "
- Desmond Tutu

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