In a recently published work in Nature Sustainability group scientists concluded that the Earth can support, at best, only 7 billion people on the subsistence level (and in this June we had already 7.6 billion). Achieving “a high level of life satisfaction” for all will lead to the limit of the biophysical boundaries of the Land and lead to environmental collapse.
Despite the apparent scientific accuracy of these statements, they are not new – that the population and consumption may soon exceed a fixed “capacity” of the Earth, say for a long time and confidently. This concept, apparently, owes its origin to the Maritime transportation of the 19th century, when it referred to the carrying capacity of the steamers. On land this concept came in the late 19th century, when they began to refer to the maximum number of livestock that could support the ecosystem of pastures and rangelands.
In relation to the environment, this concept is problematic. The goods are not propagated on their own. And the capacity of ecosystems cannot be determined by design drawings. However, environmental scientists for decades have applied this concept to human societies with a declared precision, which is contrary to its vague nature.
Ecologist William Vogt first did it in 1940-ies, predicting that the excessive use of agricultural lands will lead to soil depletion, and then to disaster. In the late 1960’s — early 70-ies of the Paul Ehrlich focused on food production, and the “club of Rome” — material resources. Ecologists and activists of our time pay more attention to the effects of pollution and environmental destruction, on which depends the welfare of the people.
But they all hold the same neo-Malthusian view of fertility and the consumption of man. Echoing the arguments of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, 18th-century, the prophets of environmental doom have promised that in response to the abundance of resources, people will have more children and consume more. Simple or fruit flies, we continue to reproduce and consume, while resources that allow you to continue the growth will not be exhausted.
In fact, fertility and the consumption of the people have nothing in common. Welfare and modernization lead to a decline, not increase fertility. With the improvement of our material condition, we have fewer children, not more. The explosion of the population over the last 200 years was not the result of rising fertility rates but rather a reduction in mortality. With the improvement of public health, nutrition, physical infrastructure and public security we live much longer.
Today in the United States, Europe, Japan, much of Latin America and even in some parts of India fertility rates are below replacement, i.e. the average number of children born per woman, less than two. A large part of the rest of the world will likely follow suit over the next several decades. Most demographers predict that human population will peak and then will decline slowly until the end of the century.
For this reason, today’s warning about the impending environmental collapse are mainly aimed at consumption growth, not population growth. How many today recognize our social biology may not function as the simplest, but capitalism can. He can’t survive without endless growth in material consumption.
Such statements are not particularly solid Foundation, as well as evidence to the contrary. The long-term trend in market economies was aimed at a slower, less resource-intensive growth. Growth of consumption per capita increases dramatically when people move from rural agrarian economies into modern industrial economies. But then it ends. Today, Western Europe and the United States are struggling to maintain a 2% annual growth.
It also changes the composition of prosperous economies. During the same period in most developed countries, manufacturing accounted for 20 percent or more of the volume of production and employment. Today it is only 10 percent, the vast majority of economic products come from the field of knowledge and services with significantly lower levels of material and energy indicators.
For decades every increase in economic growth in developed countries has led to lower consumption of resources and energy. This is because the demand for material goods and services becomes saturated. Few of us need or want to consume more than 3000 calories a day or live in a house with an area of 1500 square meters. Our appetites for material goods can be large, but they have a limit.
However, this does not mean that we won’t exceed the capacity of the planet. Some environmental scientists argue that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. But this view has no confirmation of the story, because it suggests that the carrying capacity of the Earth remains static.
In fact, we changed its environment so that it is more productive to satisfy the needs of man for tens of thousands of years. We have cleared forests to grasslands and agriculture. We have chosen and bred animals and plants that were more nutritious, fertile and abundant. 9,000 years ago to feed one person, required six times more agricultural land than today, even though we eat quite differently. Paleoarcheologist records show that our throughput, that is, the ability of our planet to accommodate and feed people, not fixed. And it is many orders of magnitude greater than it was when we started our journey on this planet.
There is no reason to believe that we will not be able to continue to increase the capacity of the planet. Nuclear and solar energy is clearly capable of providing more energy for more people, without producing a lot of carbon emissions. Modern intensive agricultural systems are also able to meet the dietary needs of many people. A planet with a much larger number of chickens, corn, and nuclear energy can show non-ideal, but it certainly can support more people consuming more resources.
This future, however, is anathema to many supporters of planetary limits and at the same time highlights their limitations. If to be optimistic, is born of the belief that with wisdom and ingenuity of mankind, it will flourish. Demanding to restrict the human society planetary boundaries, the scientists and “environmentalists”suggest mankind dark future.
To see people in this light is to liken them single-celled organisms or insects. Malthus believed that laws aimed at protecting the poor, only encourage the poor to reproduce. Ehrlich spoke out against food aid to poor countries for the same reasons and for the harsh measures of population control. Today calls for respect for planetary limits formulated in the redistributive and egalitarian rhetoric, that is, their observance does not lead to the appearance of billions of the poor. But they say little about how social engineering in such an extraordinary scale will be imposed democratic or fair way.
Ultimately, it is not unreasonable to say that people will consume more if it goes against the obvious facts, but believing that the lack of dialogue about the limits of our planet will benefit, too, not worth it.
But the threat of social collapse, which are based on the conviction of the fixity of the bandwidth of the planet, are neither scientific nor fair. We are not fruit flies, programmed for reproduction until the population collapses. We are not cattle, whose numbers must be controlled. You need to understand that we again and again to alter the planet to suit our needs and our dreams. The aspirations of billions of people depends on the continuation of this process.