There are now many credible scientific studies establishing that the global economy is exceeding, by some way, the regenerative and absorptive capacities of Earth’s ecosystems. One way to understand this defining problem of our age, and perhaps move towards its resolution, is to look at the problem of overpopulation. The planet is in such a dire situation, it can be argued, because there are just too many people.
Dick Smith is one of those people very concerned – and quite rightly so – about population growth. In fact, last year he stated that he would be dedicating the rest of his life to fighting policy that encourages population growth. Mr Smith has even pledged $1,000,000 dollars in prize money to the young person (under thirty) who comes up with the most innovative solution to the problem of overpopulation (and related problems). This generous prize is the Wilberforce Award, and the prize money is intended to advance the innovative ideas being championed by the recipient of the award.
Without a touch irony, it can be said that nothing quite excites the soul of an advocate of voluntary simplicity, such as myself, more than the prospect of having lots of money to spend on promoting the idea that having lots of money is not so important. But alas, as I have not-so-long-ago left the category of ‘young person,’ as defined above, and now presumably fall into the category of ‘almost young person,’ I am ineligible to win the million dollars. Nevertheless, as the riddle at the heart of the Wilberforce Award has a solution, I thought it was only decent to publish the solution below in the hope that some enterprising ‘young person’ (note disparaging scare quotes) might take hold of this opportunity and win for themselves the million dollars.
To that individual, I sincerely wish you the best of luck, for the world will conspire against you; indeed, it is already conspiring against you.
Statement of the Problems and their Solution
The following argument is based on the I = PAT identity, which holds that ecological impact (I) is a function of population (P), Affluence (or consumption levels) (A), and Technology (T). Behaviour (B) could and probably should be added (I = BPAT), but for present purposes I won’t focus on that for the sake of, or perhaps at the expense of, simplicity. (Pun intended.)
The argument is as follows:
(1) The global economy is already in ecological overshoot, and by some way;
(2) The poorest individuals and nations on the planet have a right to a dignified standard of living, which means developing their economic capacities in some form and thereby almost certainly increasing their ecological impact as well;
(3) The world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, further increasing ecological impact;
(4) Science and technology (T) are leading to ‘relative decoupling’ but not ‘absolute decoupling,’ meaning that science and technology are leading to a reduction in ecological impact per unit of economic output, but not a reduction in the overall ecological impact of the global economy, due to economic growth;
(5) Reducing population (P) is an extremely important part of reducing ecological impact (I), but even if the global population were stabilised tomorrow, the problems stated above would remain and overtime intensify due to economic growth;
(6) Furthermore, since ecological problems are global in nature (e.g. climate change, species extinction, etc.), limiting population in one nation through anti-immigration laws won’t in any way address the problems stated above
(7) Therefore, if the problems stated above are to be solved, it is absolutely necessary that people in affluent societies learn how to consume not just differently and more efficiently, but less (A and B);
(8) Only when affluent societies transcend their cultures of consumerism will an economy ‘beyond growth’ become a political possibility, and not just an ecological necessity; finally, if rich nations don’t learn how to stop growing their economies in a way that is deliberate and stable (rather than through unplanned recession or ecosystemic collapse), the future of our planet and our species is destined to be very grim – grim beyond historical precedent.
(9) In short, the solution to the problem of overpopulation requires addressing the problem of overconsumption, and the only adequate solution to the problem of overconsumption is to facilitate the emergence of ‘voluntary simplicity’ lifestyles of reduced and restrained consumption in affluent societies.
(10) Fortunately, lifestyles of voluntary simplicity are in our own immediate self-interest, as well as the planets’ interest, so the problem of overconsumption – in some strange way – isn’t really a ‘problem,’ as such.
So, there we have it – a simple solution to a complex non-problem. If perchance Dick Smith were unable to find someone in the category of ‘young person’ who is prepared to spend the million dollars on promoting this solution, then I would be prepared, somewhat reluctantly, to burden myself with the responsibility.
But all jokes aside. For two heavily footnoted and more comprehensive statements of the solution outlined above, see the recent publications available at the Simplicity Institute website here.
It’s probably also worth reading the clarifications to my position in the comments below.
[Futhermore, on 28 October 2011, George Monbiot just published the following article which supports my claim that consumption is a greater problem than population: http://www.monbiot.com/2011/10/27/its-the-rich-wot-gets-the-pleasure/]