Thursday, December 20, 2007

Population Growth, 35 years of thought

Apropos follow up to the review of Dr. Bartlett's lecture on arithmetic, population and resource usage, GristMill author JMG has reposted an article at Progressive Review about what is known and goes unadressed about population growth.

While Dr. Bartlett has been speaking for a very long time about the problem of exponential growth, the issue has also been examined as far back as 35 years ago by a US Commission on Population Growth report from 1972. That report published a list of recommendations of how to address the known problem that population cannot grow indefinitely, there will not be enough energy, food production capacity, water or other resources to support the population beyond a certain point. Most of the recommendations center around education, assuring equal and protected access to information and contraceptives, including to minors and does not accept abortion as a population control mechanism.
Opponents of this idea include the late Julian Simon who stated "We have in our hands now—actually in our libraries—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years" in a Cato Institute publication. His belief is that increased population leads to increases in innovation and that technological innovation reduces the quantity of resources required per individual, thereby enabling resources to be recycled and used indefinitely.

If the position that there is a maximum limit for world population, that technology cannot extend our resources indefinitely and increased population won't solve the problems of increased population is accepted, then not only should we be addressing resource consumption and the inevitable depletion of mineral resources, but also population growth worldwide. China has been attempting to do this for many years and claims to have already made an impact on global warming through the absence of population. To examine information about population growth rate and a lot of other statistics, go to the Population Reference Bureau's DataFinder. Their data indicates a world population growth of 1.2% as of 2007, which represents adding 79.5 million per year, and doubling world population in 58 years. By extrapolation, it will take a change in population growth rate at least that length of time to become apparent as populations shift to stable numbers in each age group, assuming no changes in death rates. Check out the population calculator and its assumptions, especially some of the modeled data, such as Malthusian Growth and Steady State tables in the examples section. Yes the author is glossing a lot and admits it, but a useful generalization tool.

The problem of course with any sort of explicit policy, such as China's "one child per family" rule, is that in western societies it is considered to be an invasion by the government into the rights of the individual. To propose such a thing is to be labeled a socialist or communist, in a negative way.

The last material used, Wildlife Society Bulletin 2004, makes me want to go back and reread JS Mill, who I primarily remember for writing on the line between government supervision of society balanced against impugning individual privileges to act how they wish.

John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest economists and political philosophers in history, emphasized that an economy in which physical growth was no longer the goal would be more conducive to political, ethical, and spiritual improvements.
Which maps fairly well to a lot of thought going around that consumption itself doesn't make the consumer happy. See the Story of Stuff and Some Convenient Truths. The authors of this last are proponents of a steady state economic system in which there is no growth of population, resource usage. All economic activity is a trade-off, jobs in one sector become jobs in another, incomes, when inflation adjusted (would there still be inflation?), would remain constant. The caveat to this is that the assumption is for a "relatively low population" in order to enable every worker to earn a "relatively high income."

If steady state is achieved, are some portions of the world population left behind? Are there some who will not be able to have a better standard of living because of geographic location, or the unwillingness of those with a higher standard to lower there's even a little? What constitutes a relatively low population?

A laudable goal, but it gets back to the question of how is this possible? Other than waiting for actual resource limitations to enforce biological limits on human population growth, what forms of growth will be acceptable to staunch individual rights supporters, developing nations looking to improve their lot, and the world rich who have a desire to stay at the top?

From, "Limitations of GDP When Measuring Living Standards"
We need to analyse the balance between consumption and investment. If an economy devotes too many resources to satisfying the short run needs & wants of consumers, there may be insufficient resources for investment needed for long term economic development.

Faster economic growth might improve living standards today but lead to an over-exploitation of scarce finite economic resources thereby limiting future growth prospects.

And finally, for an alarmist and conspiracy view of how the US is manipulating world population, read Culling the Herd. Be sure to also read the comments where unreliable and misinterpreted sources are pointed out.