A Circular Argument

The Idea: A debate on how best to deal with the pressing global problems of overpopulation and overconsumption.

Dave talks to himself.

We need to reduce human population to sustainable levels — no more than 1-2 billion people globally. Why? The problem isn’t numbers of people, it’s the amount of resources they consume. And as nations become educated, they control their own population. The global population is going to level off at 9 billion. And no other method beside education has ever had any enduring effect on birth rate anyway. You can’t legislate it — the need to reproduce is an imperative in our DNA.
Well, then, we need to reduce consumption. Today we are already consuming resources and producing pollution and waste at a rate twice what the planet can sustain, and as third world countries aspire to first world living standards this is on track to rise to eight times what the planet can sustain by the end of the century. You underestimate human ingenuity and invention. Technology has already allowed us to increase crop yields enormously, to the point each acre of land can produce far more food than anyone ever expected. That same ingenuity will solve other shortages — replacing oil with renewable sources, finding ways to refresh water, enabling us to put more people on each acre and still keep our cities pleasant and habitable, even growing food indoors.
So then what. You have a whole planet packed with people, cities covering every square inch of the planet, and no room for any other species of life. In the first place, if the 9 billion all lived in healthy, well-designed cities, even cities full of trees and parks, those cities would still only take up 10% of the Earth’s surface. The other 90% would leave tons of room for other species of life,
But that’s just idealism. The reality is that people don’t live in well-designed cities, they sprawl out and clearcut and poison all the land available to them. Well, that’s human nature. We want room. But historically people have actually flocked to cities, and are still doing so. If you make a city attractive, people actually prefer to live there rather than in the country. The key is reinventing our cities. Europe is showing how to do that now, and the rest of us will learn.
Not everyone wants to live in cities. And much of the land outside the cities is used up and despoiled in order to provide people in the cities with what they want and need. Yes, and we’ll have to learn to be more efficient. Europe basically ran out of land a century ago, and since then they have been pioneers: achieving population stability and even reducing population, reclaiming land as wilderness to increase biodiversity, making cities more livable and more efficient and self-sufficient with wind turbines etc. so the land outside the cities need not be used up and despoiled. We can even invent proteins that have the same flavour, texture and appearance as animal proteins, and free up the 70% of arable land now used for grazing animals and growing food for those animals.
What you’re describing violates the laws of thermodynamics. The stuff these 9 billion people consume has to come from somewhere. Yes, and right now it comes from a lot of wasteful and inefficient processes. We’re still learning how to live properly. We will learn to reduce, reuse, recycle, to live within our means and consume no more than we produce.
How can you be so optimistic? Open your eyes, and all you will see is evidence to the contrary. I guess you see what you want to see. I think we’ve come a long way from the middle ages. There is less barbarity now. There is more knowledge and understanding. We are much better connected and aware of what needs to be done. How can you be so pessimistic?
All the wars and violence, poisoned food, water and land, preventable disease and suffering, global warming, end of oil, factory farming, government corruption, an economy dependent on unsustainable growth. I could go on… There have always been problems. Look at the Spanish Inquisition, the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao that together resulted in the deaths of over 100 million people, the two world wars, the cold war with two irrational fingers on the nuclear button. Somehow we seem to have the survival instinct to pull back from the brink in time.
But this time we’re heading over the brink with a lot more mass and a lot more momentum — more, faster than ever before, like a heavily-laden car careening out of control. Maybe. If you think so, you should recognize human nature for what it is, very adaptable, very resistant to change, and slowly maturing. And then focus your attention on the “careening car’s” vulnerabilities, areas where change is most possible. Go teach people, especially women, in the third world, and give them reliable, cheap, easy-to-use birth control, so they ‘grow up’ to the European model faster. Make it not worth their while to aspire to move to the West, and make them see that the Western European standard of living is a better model to emulate than the North American one. And in North America, work in urban planning to make sprawl and commuting unnecessary, to make urban communities efficient, self-sufficient, self-managed, and delightful to live in. Work in renewable energy and remediation technology. Help North Americans ‘grow up’ to see the value of the Western European model of land use, not to see value in each owning their own personal 50 by 100 foot piece of chemical-laden grass.
There’s not nearly enough time for that. It’s already happening. Third-world population growth rates, though still too high, are dropping. India is starting to attract some of its emigrants back. ‘Smart Growth’ models, though poorly named, and telecommuting are helping to reduce sprawl and commuting in North America. And if you’re right and this won’t be enough to avert ecological disaster, well, then you might as well party, because no top-down political act or peer-to-peer meme is going to cause people to change their behaviour before they’re ready, before they have no alternative. It’s not in our nature.
Hey wait a minute. I thought I was the pessimist. You are. I don’t believe it will ever come to that.
There are a lot of scientists and students of history who say it will. So do my instincts. So I believe we need to take a precautionary approach, using tax incentives and social and political pressure and technology to get people to voluntarily reduce human population to sustainable levels — say, to 1-2 billion people globally. Uh, I already answered that.

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13 Responses to A Circular Argument

  1. Joe Deely says:

    Dave – It sounds like you were talking to me. :)I’m definitely on the right hand side of your chart! This is a really great way to “visualize” this debate. You have a great talent in creating ways to SEE information.It would be interesting if you had a list of best practices or examples for each area. For instance, – on water usage, San Jose, here in the Bay Area, has implemented some great recycling programs, although I am sure they pale in comparision to Israel’s water usage practices. – Iran seems to have population programs that might work in the rest of the Middle East. – There are examples of zero energy homes etc…

  2. David Suzuki’s “Good News for a Change” is a great book that, for once, tells us about the good things and solutions. If you haven’t already read it, I’m sure you’d like it, Dave.

  3. Mike says:

    This is a breakthrough moment, Dave! Step thru!(ok, that’s from Mad Max, but maybe even better would be the final seconds of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series)

  4. sig says:

    Dave, excellent visual of good arguments and belief in the human nature! You’re right of course, how could you not be? Expand the theme please, I’m a simple being and like it nicely mapped out ;-)

  5. Evan says:

    That’s me over there on the right side, too.I do have a certain amount of cynicism borne of the observation that Americans (in particular) are dreadful at long-term planning, and always seem to end up putting extensive energy into fixing problems after they’ve gotten very large, rather than putting a tiny bit of energy into preventing the problems or fixing them while they’re still small. But I still think we’ll make it through.

  6. That was amusing, I’m glad I happened by.

  7. Life Tenant says:

    Dave, great post. I very much feel the power of the arguments on both sides of the chart. But I have often felt that you emphasized the left-hand side – the notion that radical changes such as drastic population reduction and redistribution are the only answer, and the fear of ecological collapse – at the expense of the right-hand side. I’m glad you’re contemplating both sides now. And in particular I’m glad to hear you acknowledge the merits of cities, because I think that cities, transformed, must be part of the solution. See David Owen’s wonderful article ‘Green Manhattan,’ originally published in the New Yorker, about why big-city dwellers are, on average, the most environmentally responsible North Americans.

  8. lugon says:

    Over at worldchanging.org I read the quote “things are too complex so we can’t have hope OR dispair”..There’s a recent item about the need to “go faster”. Go meta-catalytical?

  9. Mike says:

    Eventually, the internet may become vastly more interesting than real life. What happens when we can all be rich and happy in a virtual world, at minimum real-world expense?

  10. Rajiv says:

    Dave, My analysis shows that there were social innovations that led to the declining populations in “Developed Countries”1) Abolition of child labor. And the strict implementation of these laws. This prevented children from being a source of income for parents — increasing the cost of having a child. It should be noted that most developing countries pay lip service to these laws.2) Free and compulsary education (the accent being on compulsary) This prevented parents from using child labor at home (both for domestic chores, and using older children as child care while parents worked.) This is definitely missing in all “developing countries.”3) Emancipation and education of women. This enabled women to change their self image from “child bearing machines.” My reading is that these innovations, and these innovations alone are respomsible for the current declining populations in “developed Countries.”Historically populations fluctuated because of famines and diseases — of populations outgrowing their capacity to feed themselves — and that is where we are currently headed if more thought is not given to implement these innovations over all humanity.

  11. KevinG says:

    Thanks. I thought I was the only one who had these little episodes.

  12. Alex says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful conversation!It’s an interesting thought that only 10% of the earth’s surface is enough for all people to reside. However, it’s important to keep in mind what kind of resources are required to support those people. According to the ecological footprint concept, if everyone lived at the level of affluence that Americans did, we’d require 3-4 earths’ full of resources to support us at current rates of consumption.

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