dialog: the population problem


Richard Moore

Lawrence Gillett wrote:

Your informative writing is good at summarizing many problems, but the one thing I don’t see an answer for is how to convince the world to depopulate humanely to a sustainable number. Then, how to run an economy that doesn’t depend on absolute growth…

Hi Lawrence,

Good questions.
In order to understand big problems it is necessary to think in whole-system terms, not about problems in isolation. Sustainability, over-population, growth-based economics, land-use patterns, agricultural methods, and many other things are all interlinked with one another.
As regards the ‘population problem’, we can begin to see the system relationships if we focus not on the whole globe, but break the problem down to regions. 
For example, are Europe and America over-populated, beyond their carrying capacity? In one sense, the answer is no: they are quite capable of growing enough food for all of their inhabitants, supplying them with adequate water, etc. But in another sense, if you look the per-capita consumption of global resources by Americans and Europeans, over-population in Europe and America is a dire threat to global sustainability.
Is Africa over-populated? In this case the answer is absolutely not: Africa has plenty of resources to feed all its inhabitants, and indeed it should be very rich, as it has so many valuable mineral and petroleum resources. Africa’s poverty comes not from local over population, but from the appropriation by force and intrigue of their best land and other resources for the benefit of Western corporations and consumers. 
It should be clear to all from the experience of globalization, that deglobalization is the path we need to follow if we want to have sensible economics and sensible resource utilization. Such problems are more tractable on smaller scales, where the feedback loops are clearer, and the production and consumption processes occur within the same economic context, with the same currency valuations. Mutual-benefit trade among regions is of course desirable, but not a ‘global market’ where all the leverage is held by the middlemen.
There is no inherent reason why an economy needs to be growing in order to be healthy. Under capitalism, where private investors decide who gets funding and for what, all the investments naturally go to enterprises which show promise of growing, and hence returning a profit on the investment. That is where the ‘growth imperative’ comes from. Something that can grow is nourished with funding; something that is functional but stable in size receives no such nourishment. 
In order to avoid this capitalist domination, we need to prevent the undue concentration of wealth into a few hands. In fact it was Adam Smith who made this argument in The Wealth of Nations, where his “guiding hand” is predicated on the principle that no one producer or consumer, or any small clique of them, can be large enough to affect the market price of goods and services. Adam Smith argued not for capitalism, but for what David Korten calls a market economy. Strong regulation is at the heart of Smith’s very sensible thinking.
best wishes