Monday, July 30, 2007

The Point of Exhaustion


An article in The Economist discusses the theoretical implications of an alleged shift in the presumed beliefs of unidentifed people:

The panic about resource constraints that prevailed during the 1970s and 1980s, when the population was rising through the steep part of the S-curve, has given way to a new concern: that the number of people in the world is likely to start falling.
The article doesn't explain when the global population will start falling, nor how much it'll grow prior to that point. But who cares? The important thing is that "resource constraints" are not worth worrying about:
There doesn't seem to be much danger of a Malthusian catastrophe. Mankind appropriates about a quarter of what is known as the net primary production of the Earth (this is the plant tissue created by photosynthesis) — a lot, but hardly near the point of exhaustion....Certainly, the impact that people have on the climate is a problem; but the solution lies in consuming less fossil fuel, not in manipulating population levels.
There are a number of problems with this. First off, human appropriation creates externalities (including, since the author brings it up, impacts on climate). Second, this occasionally has a negative effect on net primary production (e.g., desertification, or changes in algae population), and thus on the animals that rely on it. Third, appropriating NPP can affect regional animal populations by leaving less energy for them. In other words, there's a lot more at issue here than reaching "the point of exhaustion."

This minor quibble aside, the article makes some clever suggestions for dealing with population decline, as thus:
The best way to ease the transition towards a smaller population would be to encourage people to work for longer, and remove the barriers that prevent them from doing so. State pension ages need raising. Mandatory retirement ages need to go.
What's not to like? The author also suggests that governments should make it easier for working women to have children, not least because of this attractive fringe benefit:
America and north-western Europe once also faced demographic decline, but are growing again, and not just because of immigration. All sorts of factors may be involved; but one obvious candidate is the efforts those countries have made to ease the business of being a working parent.
So if I've got this straight, we were formerly panicked about resource constraints, but now we're worried about population decline, which we shouldn't address by manipulating population levels, although governments should make it easier for working women to have children, which might keep the population growing and allow us to worry anew about resource constraints.

For some reason, it puts me in mind of a poem:
We are men of groans and howls,
Mystic men who eat boiled owls,
Tell us what you wish, oh King,
Our magic can do anything.
(Photo: Oklahoma Dust Bowl circa 1930, via USDA NRCS.)

2 comments:

steve said...

Great piece, as always. I reacted the same way to the Economist's article. But I think the scary thing is that I was at a "world futurist society" meeting a few years ago and the aging populations of Japan and Europe were discussed with great concern. There seemed to be broad agreement that depopulation was a very serious problem.

I disagree.

Perhaps we will need to learn how to value the skills of older people. Perhaps we will have to create work schedules that allow people to work fewer hours. Perhaps we will have to live more as extended families than as nuclear ones and to accept doing with a less in terms of consumer goods or travel.

The Economist article went to considerable pains to establish the downward trend in the price of all commodities; but it failed to note that this has been almost perfectly correlated with the skyrocketing use of energy. And that the trend cannot continue. Diamond in Collapse notes that the gain, the ratio between the cost of energy invested in getting energy resources and the net energy derived therefrom has been dropping. At one point, for oil it was near 500 to 1, I believe. Today most sources stand at about 50 to 1. Ethanol from corn, under the best scenarios is about 1.2 to 1. At that level, one would do better just to give up and farm using horses.

Japan, in the sixteenth century faced a severe resource shortage and turned to the sea for sustenance. But today most of the seas are fished out, especially those within a few thousand miles of the Japanese coast.

In other words, the crunch has already started. It is affecting the availaility of food, of energy, and of other resources. The production of more consumers is NOT the answer.

Phila said...


Perhaps we will need to learn how to value the skills of older people. Perhaps we will have to create work schedules that allow people to work fewer hours. Perhaps we will have to live more as extended families than as nuclear ones and to accept doing with a less in terms of consumer goods or travel.


Sounds good to me. One of the things that bothers me about the discussion of "problems" like these is that there's usually no recognition that we might be better off, in many ways, if they happen. The collapse of this society isn't necessarily a doomsday scenario, by any means. Quite the opposite, maybe.

Japan, in the sixteenth century faced a severe resource shortage and turned to the sea for sustenance. But today most of the seas are fished out, especially those within a few thousand miles of the Japanese coast.

That's OK...we'll just grow edible muscle tissue in labs!