REFLECTIONS ON SUSTAINABILITY,

POPULATION GROWTH,
AND THE ENVIRONMENT - REVISITED

Albert A. Bartlett
Part Three: Democracy, Economy & Trade


POPULATION GROWTH DESTROYS DEMOCRACY

In an interview ( Moyers 1989 ) Bill Moyers asked Isaac Asimov:

What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?

Asimov responded:

It will be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to stay as long as you want for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom; it should be right there in the Constitution.

But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, "Arenít you through yet?" and so on.

Asimov concluded with the profound observation:

In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive [overpopulation]. Convenience and decency cannot survive [overpopulation]. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesnít matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters. [ emphasis added ]

 

WAR AND PEACE

At the local or state levels, there is an interesting parallel between the promotion of growth ( unsustainability ) and the promotion of war, both of which can be very profitable for high level people but are very expensive for everyone else.

The waging of war is the sole enterprise of large military establishments. Even the meanest mind knows what has to be done to win a war; "One has to beat the opponent," after which one can have a large party to celebrate the victory, pass out the medals, and then start preparing for the next war. Promoting community growth is quite similar. The promotion of growth is the sole enterprise of large municipal and state establishments, both public and private. It does not take much of a mind to know that victory in the growth war requires that your community beat competing communities to become the location of new factories. Campaigns and battles are planned and, when a factory comes, there is a large party to celebrate the victory and pass out the awards. Then the community warriors start fighting for even more new factories.

In contrast, winning the peace is quite different. Even the best minds don't know for sure the best way to "win the peace." Compared to the groups that promote war, the public agencies that are devoted to maintaining peace are miniscule. In the effort to maintain peace, there is no terminal point at which a party is in order where all can celebrate the fact that, "We won the peace!" Winning the peace takes eternal vigilance. Protecting the community environment from the ravages of growth is quite parallel. The best minds don't know for sure the best way to do it. There are few public establishments whose sole role is to preserve the environment. One can postpone assaults on the environment, but by and large, it takes eternal vigilance of concerned citizens, who, at best, can only reduce the rate of loss of the environment. There is no terminal time at which one can have a party to celebrate the fact that, "We have saved the environment!"

 

A HEALTHY ECONOMY

For some time, the economy in the U.S. has been said to be "healthy." During this time studies shown that the economic gap between the well-to-do and the poor has been increasing. This allows us to say that "healthy economy" is one in which people with large incomes find that their incomes are rising more rapidly than their costs, while people with low incomes find that their incomes are rising less rapidly than their costs.

 

INJUSTICE AND INEQUITY

The series of big city riots of the recent decades are symptoms of a deep-seated illness ( injustice and inequity ) that we have ignored too long. The illness is certainly made worse by the rapid population growth that consumes public and private resources in order to give generous returns to investors, with minimal benefits going to help the low income people who are adversely affected by the growth. The public financial resources that are needed to pay the costs of population growth come at the expense of all manner of community programs that are essential for improving education, justice, and equity. Injustice and inequity breed unrest and discontent. When a condition of instability is reached, things can happen with surprising speed. We were all stunned by the swiftness of the fall of the Soviet Union.

 

GLOBAL TRADE

As we enter an era of expanded global trade, we need to know that technology has made it easy to conduct trade over long distances, and this ease of trade serves to block out our recognition of the concept of "carrying capacity." Especially if their peoples are unsophisticated, these other places with which we trade with such ease, are used to provide an "away" from which we can get the resources we need, and to which we can later throw our trash. Technology and trade combine to interfere with our understanding of the concept of limits.

 

Part One: Introduction & Overview
Part Two: Population, Environment & Pseudo Solutions
Part Four: Laws of Sustainability
Part Five: Where Do We Go From Here?
Acknowledgements & References


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