It's unrealistic to have a serious discussion about sustainability and energy use without also bringing population growth into the discussion. It's a thorny topic for many, laden with religious overtones, economic growth dogma, reproductive freedom concerns, and even racial implications. All of these considerations pale in the face of a simple fact: the human population of the planet is rapidly overwhelming energy resources and threatening the recovery capacity of our ecosystem.
In a thoughtful article in the Summer 2009 issue of Earth Island Journal, Deborah Rich and Jason Mark examine population growth from several different angles and consider how we may have to rethink our economic model and political paradigms to effectively confront the probem.
Capping population growth and possible GDP will require a profound rethinking of our notions of progress and political clout. Historically, power and prestige – whether on the individual or societal levels – have been linked to size. Governments have balked at the idea of shrinking populations because declining numbers suggest a diminishment of economic force and military might. Many ordinary citizens worry that a smaller economy may lead to fewer opportunities for themselves and their children. The biggest challenge, then, is convincing people that growth for growth’s sake simply can’t keep working.
Getting to that conclusion will require a coordinated global effort. If we continue to maintain the ideal that size trumps everything, then any country that deliberately diminishes in population may put itself at a competitive disadvantage with its neighbors – at least until we learn to place a value on clean water, fertile land, and green space. Fewer workers mean higher wages, which means more costly products and probably lower exports. A nation that breaks from the dominant GDP paradigm and begins using more accurate economic accounting that includes the social and environmental costs of production will raise the costs of its products, further reducing its competitiveness. Essentially, we either grow together or shrink together.
For a real-time perspective on the current rate of population growth, drop into the Population Connection site and spend a few minutes watching the dynamic population counter for the world and the U.S. as it ticks off the births at a sobering pace.