What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


In last week’s post, Global Warming, I pointed out that agriculture, and in fact all of current human activity, is unsustainable.

In support of this argument I refer to the 2010 Living Planet Report. On page 36-39 of the full report we find a graph showing to the ecological footprint of each county in the world, from the United Arab Emirates (the most consumptive country) to East Timor (the least). Overall we are using 150% of the Earth’s biological capacity each year (hence ‘unsustainable’).

What this means is that each year the damage inflicted on the Earth is greater, and the Earth is progressively less able to absorb this impact; for example groundwater worldwide is becoming depleted, and what remains is increasingly likely to be polluted.

The conventional wisdom is that we all need to work hard at sustainability and make what we do ‘greener’ so that our ecological footprint becomes smaller each year. And it is true that, for example, if we could convert to a low carbon economy, drive electric cars &c, then our (developed world) footprint would become a lot lower. But it still wouldn’t drop below the threshold where our (developed world) footprint was less than our per capita fair share of the world’s resources because the total population of the world is still increasing AND we can assume all the people living below that threshold would, given the chance, change to a lifestyle well above it.

The crucial variable in all this is population, because the other variables are very difficult to change. It requires a lot of ingenuity to devise ways that more people can live on less, it requires great ingenuity to persuade people to moderate their desires. It is still pretty difficult to persuade people to have fewer, or no, children, but I reckon that of the three it is the easiest.

If we could find a way to get people to have fewer children, then over time the amount of available resources per person would become greater, eventually dropping below the sustainability threshold. We can even calculate this figure. If there are the equivalent of 1.8 hectares per person of productivity available and the population is 6.6 billion (2007 figures, as used in the 2010 LPR), then there are 11.88 billion hectares available. If we select a developed country such as Germany, which has a footprint of 5 hectares per person, as a model, then there should be a global population of 2.38 billion people living as Germans do now.

I would argue in fact that for the purposes of long-term sustainability we should aim for a global population of well below this, to ensure an ecological buffer against unforeseen developments or catastrophes in the future (eg asteroid impact, or non-anthropogenic climate change), possibly around 1 billion, all living at around the same, high technological level. Personally, I would see the future of humanity as a continuation of human history up until around 1800, where the land areas of the planet were basically a sea of natural vegetation managed at low levels of intensity by humans, with islands of habitat more intensively managed dotted here and there (in contrast to the post C18 world of an intensively (mis)managed land surface of the world with a few island of natural vegetation dotted here and there). As we all know, ‘nature’, in the sense of natural vegetation, is good for people, because, after all, it’s our natural habitat, and overcrowding and competition for resources lead to wars and social strife.

Finally in this piece I’d like to discuss the strange view that population should be left to sort itself out by itself and that it illegitimate to discuss it at all. This, I take it, is a view that owes a great deal to Catholic social thought. It isn’t the abortion debate, the question of when life begins, but it is a view that sees any attempt to persuade people to have fewer children as somehow ‘murdering’ people who have never been conceived (!!!???)

To me this view makes no sense, as it is we face population disaster and even if the UN estimates of a slowing population growth eventuate, population growth will have slowed too late and the population will have settled at too a high a level to be sustainable.

If we take my 30,000 generations perspective we can see how short-sighted this view is. According to some 1 x 1011 (100 billion) humans have ever lived (including those alive at present). If humanity survives for another 30,000 generations at a sustainable global population of one billion, then 1.5 x 1013 people will have lived. 1 x 1011 (number of people who have lived already) added to 1.5 x 1013 (number of people who can be expected to live) is 1.51 x 1013. In other words the number of people who have lived up to now is utterly insignificant compared to the number of people who can be expected to live in a sustainable future. If we ignore the population issue, then I suspect that most of the people who will ever live have already done so.

Because of the Catholic view there seems to be an automatic assumption that it is unethical to call for a lower population. I can’t see that it is, after all, is it ethical to support the current arrangements, where up to a billion people still live with hunger, and in which there is no likelihood that the plight of these people will improve?

What needs to be said of course is that no efforts should be spared to feed the hungry or try to eliminate the distortions in the global economy that cause people to live with hunger. And, as I said, our goal should be a global society where everyone has a similar, and high, standard of living. However, no efforts should be spared either in convincing people that a lower population is a more sustainable population.

Another thing that needs saying, of course, is that population management can’t be coercive, and must be based on education. In this regard China’s One Child Policy is definitely the policy not to imitate; here there was a legal requirement for city-dwellers only to have one child per couple, but this was promulgated in the absence of any education about contraception.

Similarly no population policy can be based on any actual or perceived bias towards one or other social group. Eugenics, the unscientific view of the early C20 that it is possible to breed a better humanity by encouraging or forcing people perceived as inferior not to have children, should be left as a footnote in history. The thing we are concerned with is not the perceived qualities of humanity, but the bottom line, the actual number of people alive at any one time.

I like to think that if we can persuade people to have fewer children then we can avoid population catastrophe. I would have been more sanguine if this was a process that had started around 40 years ago, and the pessimist in me thinks that the chances of the population declining in any useful way before peak soil, peak oil and global warming cut in are small. Nevertheless it is a process that must be started.

Next week: a defence of Malthus

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