Limits To Growth/Earth at One Billion
After a difficult transition the earth finally stabilized at a population near one billion humans. Now we clearly see the benefits and wisdom of this smaller population. It has been many centuries since the earth’s population reached its peak of more than 12 billion people back in the year 2050. Despite the dismal predictions of Malthus at the turn of the nineteenth century, publication of The Population Bomb in 1968 and The Limits to Growth books in 1972 and 2004, we all got swept up promoting the economic growth and relentless consumption that financial systems have relied on for millennia.
But eventually it became clear that Malthus and his disciples got it right. Drought, famine, global warming, overcrowding, deforestation, hoarding, violent conflicts, and depletion of: fertile soil, fossil water, fossil fuels, and essential minerals made it undeniable that we had already exceed earth’s ecological limits to growth by the beginning of the 21st century. In addition economies at the personal, regional, national, and world levels were relying on increasing and crippling quantities of debt. The bubble finally burst, we finally got the message, and something had to be done. Enough!
Political, religious, business, and community leaders agreed to unequivocally advocate voluntary birth control. Many young couples went childless; others had at most one or two children. They spent more time with nieces, nephews, and neighbors. Adoptions, community care centers, and other social arrangements helped ease the loneliness during this difficult time. At the same time people were living longer so it took centuries for the population to decrease. Advances in genetic counseling provide more information for family planning. Now couples typically have two children, and the population is finally stable at a sustainable level.
Transition of the economy was equally essential and difficult. One key was a mental shift that allowed us to realize prosperity as flourishing—enjoying life more—rather than as opulence—buying more things. Eventually we began to see opulence and all of its excess as vulgar and not something to envy or aspire to. People learned to seek more enduring and authentic forms of gratification based on savoring possessions, events, and experiences that provide real and lasting value. A walk in the woods was soon enjoyed more than a trip to the theme park. Durable goods are now built to last by skilled crafts-people, and they are enjoyed for centuries.
Another key to transforming the economy was to fully internalize the various externalities that primitive accounting systems ignored. It had long been recognized that Gross Domestic Product was a narrow and inaccurate measure of productivity and value added. For example, the results of a fatal car accident perversely caused the GDP to increase because the costs to replace the damaged vehicles, hospital expenses, ongoing therapy, funeral expenses, and legal expenses are all counted positively, despite the tragedy they each represent. In addition it ignores the value of natural resources and ecosystem services. Eventually we were able to move to more comprehensive measures of human well-being, modeled after the Human Development Index, the Genuine Progress Indicator, measures of Gross National Happiness, and other measures that began to emerge early in the 21st century.
Because there are now fewer people, each person enjoys a greater share of earth’s bounty. Most of the world has become a nature preserve for all of us to enjoy. Forests cover much of the land, providing habitats to preserve and enhance biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and generating fertile soil. Only the most suitable arable land is used for agriculture, relying on rain water for irrigation and compost for nutrients. The oceans are once again teeming with fully grown fish in every species not yet extinct. Those that are caught represent only a tiny sustainable fraction of those that live and grow. Overfishing has become only a distant and painful memory.
As there were fewer people, the dignity intrinsic in each person became more fully recognized. It was no longer tolerable to watch as a billion people went without clean, safe drinking water, three billion were malnourished, and violent conflicts killed millions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights finally took hold world-wide, and the rights of each person eventually prevailed over the last strongholds of tyranny.
Because of this bounty starvation has been eliminated, along with most resource conflicts. Peace finally prevails across the earth, eliminating the need for militaries, defense contractors, and so many other defensive drains on our time, energy, and natural resources. Many other jobs that did not add value have been phased out. The tobacco industry finally dwindled away as people became better informed of the dangers of tobacco use. Simplified tax codes eliminated the need for tax accountants, tax lawyers, and the entire tax interpretation industry. Simpler and more just laws reduced the need for lawyers, and reduced the number of people incarcerated. This reduced the size of prisons and the number of police and prison guards needed.
People only need to work two or three days per week to earn the income required to support their families. Most careers are in farming, engineering, teaching, art, and entertainment, in addition to the many hands-on trade and service jobs. Most of us enjoy a healthy balance between work and leisure time, while a few still choose all leisure or all work.
People eat healthier food and live healthier lives—spending more time exercising as a natural part of each day and encountering less stress. This leads to greater fitness and fewer health-related problems, thereby reducing health-care costs.
Education has evolved to become human-centered. We use our educations everyday to live better lives and improve our well-being. Illiteracy disappeared centuries ago. Open education platforms modeled after Wikiversity and the Khan Academy make vast collections of learning resources freely accessible and are now the widespread norm. Life skills such as emotional competency essential to improving human interactions are now core elements in typical curricula. Developing a robust theory of knowledge allows us to carefully decide what to believe and what to dismiss. Educational institutions have successfully made the transition from imparting knowledge to promoting wisdom. People learn more than facts, they learn what is most important in life, how to become more creative, and how to make decisions that improve their well-being. We are finally learning how to cope with abundance.
The major cities that were so overcrowded at the time of peak population continue to be where most people choose to live. However now that fewer people share the space, housing, and cultural resources of a huge city, there is plenty for everyone to enjoy. Renewed emphasis on placemaking has transformed the cities into safe, comfortable, and intriguing living spaces. Some cities located in earthquake zones were abandoned rather than rebuilt after earthquakes occurred. Of course, many people still choose to live in the surrounding suburbs, and in rural areas. The shorter work week reduces commuting time and expense. Also, high speed rail lines connect each of the major cities allowing safe, fast, comfortable, and economical travel.
Note: This fictional story was written for the Wikiversity course "Limits to Growth" to provoke thinking about one possible long-term outcome.
- This essay first appeared as a blog post on theycallmelee.blogspot. It has been adapted here with permission of the author. See: http://theycallmelee.blogspot.com/2011/08/earth-at-one-billion.html