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Beyond the Numbers
A Reader on Population, Consumption, and the Environment
By Laurie Ann Mazur
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1994 Island Press
All rights reserved.
Population, Consumption, Development, and the Environment
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DONELLA H. MEADOWS
Seeing the Population Issue Whole
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The debate has been going on for almost two hundred years, since the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, in reaction to a group of optimistic French writers, penned his famous dictum in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population: "Taking the population of the world at any number ... the human species would increase in the ratio of — 1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,512,&c, and subsistence as — 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,&c."
Since then, the label Malthusian has been attached to those who believe that the human population could push or is pushing against the earth's resources. Their opponents, the anti-Malthusians, hold that this fear is not only exaggerated but dangerous. At best, they believe, it expresses too little faith in the adaptive, creative potential of humankind. At worst, they say, it allows some people to declare other people too numerous, a threat to the planet — with horrendous social consequences.
The optimists sometimes are called cornucopians or Marxists, since Marx was one of the harshest critics of Malthus. Other labels for the two sides have been antinatalists or ecofreaks for the Malthusians and pronatal-ists or technotwits for the anti-Malthusians.
Whatever the labels, since Malthus wrote, the human population has grown by a factor of six, and total human energy use by a factor of one hundred or so. Human life expectancy has increased nearly everywhere.
Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College. This chapter is reprinted from the June, 1993 issue of The Economist.
The forest cover of the earth has been cut by a third and the area of undisturbed wetlands by half. The composition of the atmosphere has been altered by human-generated pollution. Hundreds of millions of people have starved to death; thousands of species have gone extinct. Mines and oil wells have been depleted — and new ones have been discovered. The economy has gone on growing.
One reason the argument continues is that history offers such mixed evidence. If you are part of the richest 20 percent of the world's population, you can easily read the past as an uninterrupted human triumph over the limits of the earth. If you are among the desperately poor, you might well agree with Malthus. As he put it, in A Summary View of the Principle of Population (1880), "The pressure arising from the difficulty of procuring subsistence is not to be considered as a remote one which will be felt only when the earth refuses to produce any more, but as one which actually exists at present over the greatest part of the globe."
Or, as ecologist Garrett Hardin put it, writing in the November 1972 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Malthus has been buried again. (This is the 174th year in which that redoubtable economist has been interred. We may take it as certain that anyone who has to be buried 174 times cannot be wholly dead.)"
If a debate persists with passion for nearly two centuries, it must be true not only that the evidence is complex enough to support both sides, but also that each side is actively sifting the evidence, accumulating only that which supports preconceived notions. If people are doing that, there must be more to the argument than a scientific disagreement. There must be emotional investment as well. The protagonists in the Malthusian debate are not so much searching for truth as they are acting on commitments to see the world their way, and refusing to see it otherwise.
That shouldn't be surprising, science historian Thomas Kuhn would say, because even supposedly scientific debates have their ideological content. All human beings develop ego involvement with their own beliefs. They do so especially when the beliefs are fundamental, when they touch on the nature of humanity, the purpose of existence, the question of how we relate to nature and to each other. For centuries, scientists could not look objectively at the idea that the earth was not at the center of the universe. Many still have trouble with the idea that the earth is finite.
At least that's how I see it, as a person who has been active in the Malthusian debate but who has become less interested in winning than in understanding the intransigent nature of the discussion. I assume the argument resists resolution partly because the issues it raises are so complex and partly because they are so emotional. What I wonder is, what would we see if we were willing to approach the question of human population growth and planetary limits purely scientifically? What if we could divest ourselves of hopes, fears, and ideologies long enough to entertain all arguments and judge them fairly?
What we would see, I think, is that all sides are partly right and mostly incomplete. Each is focusing on one piece of a very complex system. Each is seeing its piece correctly. But because no side is seeing the whole, no side is coming to wholly supportable conclusions.
In short, to resolve the Malthusian conundrum and to find a way of thinking and acting that can guide a growing population to a sufficient and supportable standard of living within the earth's limits, we need all points of view. We need to treat them all with respect. We need to integrate them.
There are more than two points of view. The argument is not simply pro- and anti-Malthus. To begin what I hope will be a more comprehensive discussion, I will describe four sides of the debate here, with the understanding that many people put elements of these four together in their own unique combinations, and that there are other points of view as well. To avoid traps of labeling, I will use colors to characterize each side — though even colors carry emotional loads, as you will see.
Because of space limitations, I will have to simplify what are in each case self-consistent, sophisticated human worldviews. I will try to do so fairly (though probably no one can do that) so that the wisdom as well as the weakness in all these views will be apparent.
The Blue view of the Malthusian question focuses on the possibility of keeping capital growing faster than population, so everyone can be better off. Progress, as defined by this view, comes from the accumulation of productive capital, from the building of infrastructure (roads, dams, ports) to make that capital more effective, and from the education of humans to make them more skilled and inventive in producing output from capital.
An important part of the Blue model is the assumption that capital grows most efficiently in a market system, where it is privately owned, where those who make it grow are directly rewarded, and where government interferes minimally.
Blues see living demonstrations of the workability of their view all around them. The world's most vibrant, diverse, productive, and innovative economies are those where industry is strong and where people reap material incentives for hard work, cleverness, or willingness to sacrifice in the present to invest for the future. Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan are examples of successful development under the Blue model — and the United States, Japan, or Europe represents a vision for all the world's people of where that model can lead.
The Blues focus on raising the total level of output, not on the distribution of that output. They assume that concentrations of wealth are necessary to spur investment and that wealth will "trickle down" to enrich everyone.
Some Blues worry about population growth as a drain on investment — if too much is needed for consumption, schools, health care, and the like, then not enough will be available to plow back into the economy. Others, at the anti-Malthusian extreme, don't see even very rapid population growth as a problem at all. They see every new mouth as equipped with two new hands. The problem, in their eyes, is not how to slow the multiplication of people but how to multiply capital fast enough to put tools and machines in those hands so the new arrivals can earn their own way and even produce a surplus.
Blues see the human economy with great clarity. They see the natural world, from which raw materials come and to which wastes and pollution flow, only dimly — as a set of opportunities, a cost of production, or a source of government regulation — not as a complex system in its own right and certainly not as limited or vulnerable one.
Insofar as Blues admit that raw materials or the earth's ability to absorb pollution may be constrained, they assume that human technology and the market system can adjust. If a resource becomes scarce, if a pollution stream becomes unbearable, a cost will rise, prices will incorporate that new cost, and a technical change will bring about more efficiency or a substitute or an abatement process. There have been many examples of this kind of adjustment, from beneficiation technologies that yield metals from poorer ores to catalytic converters that have reduced the average pollution emission per car by as much as 85 percent.
Blues assume that human beings are basically competitive, individualistic, and motivated by material gain. They believe that there are real dif ferences in merit and competence among people. Justice in this model means appropriate rewards for productivity. Injustice means rewarding those who are not productive with goods or services taken from those who are. One of the strongest assumptions in the Blue model is that promoting the good of individuals and companies will add up to the good of the entire system.
Reds are quiet these days, subdued by the collapse of the former Soviet Union. But their way of looking at the world has by no means disappeared; nor, would they say, has it been invalidated. What the Reds see more clearly than anyone else is the way societies systematically enrich those who already are rich, leaving the poor behind.
Reds do not assume that the enriched ones reap just rewards of superior productivity, while the left-behind ones fail because they are unwilling to work or invest. They point out many social processes, from interest payments to differential educations to the distribution of political power, that reward those who already have won and condemn many to lives of continuous losing.
Reds want to fix these inequities and oppressions. They envision a community of people working together to control resources and produce goods. It is a community that respects every person as a full member, sharing both work and output. Red assumptions about human nature are, of course, quite different from those of Blues. Reds believe that people care about the welfare of others and that no one can be truly happy while others are miserable. They believe that people respond to opportunities to serve the larger society, not just to material rewards. Justice to a Red means meeting the needs of all and never discriminating against the least fortunate.
In the Red view, labor — not capital and not natural resources — is the most critical factor of production. Therefore, people should be rewarded for their labor. Some Reds harbor a deep streak of resentment toward people who earn through rents or dividends or other payments related to ownership rather than work.
Most Reds do not trust the free market alone to add up to the common good. They see the need for social control of the economy to keep it functional and equitable. The Soviet Union, modern Reds would say, was not a real example of their philosophy at work — it was too large to manage centrally, and there was too much greed and corruption at the top. For examples of their model at its best, most Reds would point to cooperatives and worker-controlled industries all over the world, or to the mixed socialist-capitalist economies of Scandinavia.
Most Reds, like Blues, see development in terms of large-scale industry but with factories controlled by representatives of their workers. Historically, Reds have not been much concerned about population growth or the environment. They have assumed that people with tools, land, education, and political empowerment will regulate their own numbers. Like Blues, Reds see economic growth as good in itself and as a key to solving social problems. They have not until recently focused on natural resources. The possibility of a limited earth is not easy to accommodate within the Red philosophy.
If Blues turn their attention to the growth of capital and technology and Reds are especially conscious of labor and patterns of distribution, Greens keep their eyes on resource depletion and pollution. They see not capital, not labor, but materials and energy as the most critical factors of production. They are worried about the size of the economic system relative to the size that nature can support. Whereas both Blues and Reds strive to make economies grow bigger, those who see the world through Green lenses fear that economies and population can grow too big to be sustainable.
Progress, according to Greens, should bring people to a state of sufficiency, not one of constant material growth. The key word is enough — enough food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care, and also enough clean water, green trees, and unspoiled natural beauty. The major threats to achieving this vision are production methods that waste resources and populations and economies that stress ecosystems.
The path to development, in this view, is to reduce excessive human demands for both production and reproduction. That means stabilizing or even diminishing populations, moderating material wealth, and choosing technologies that enhance, rather than destroy, the natural world. Greens are as technologically optimistic as Blues and Reds but only when it comes to technologies they like. They believe solar energy can work but not nuclear power. They think materials can be recycled almost indefinitely but not taken from the earth indefinitely. Greens are less likely than Blues or Reds to call upon a generalized technology to solve all problems. No technology, say the Greens, will allow continuous expansion of population and production on a limited planet.
From the Green point of view, both the market and social-equity measures may be necessary in an ideal world, but they will do no good if they are not contained within a mind-set of harmony with the environment. This mind-set would admit that human beings are both communal and individualistic, both greedy and altruistic, but it also would assume that humans have evolved in relationship with nature, that they require continued contact with nature to be truly happy, and that functioning ecosystems are needed to support a functioning economy. Both justice and pragmatism, from the Green point of view, must ensure the welfare of all species, not just Homo sapiens.
Green thinkers favor incentives for small families and disincentives for large ones. They favor either adjustments to the market, so that real environmental costs are contained within prices, or strong regulatory measures to prevent public and private actors from destroying resources. Most Greens are not as fond of coercion as Blues think they are, but, as with all these points of view, there is a range of opinion even within a single camp. Some Greens would be quite willing to use the police power of society to protect nature from greedy or senseless depredation. They would argue that crimes against nature are, directly or indirectly, crimes against humanity as well.
Blues tend to see Greens as Reds in disguise. Reds tend to see Greens as elitists who live at the ends of long, winding roads and who do not care about the struggle for economic justice. In fact, Greens do not fit on the Red-Blue spectrum at all.
The White view combines some aspects of all the previously mentioned colors (which is why I have dubbed it white), but it rejects their centralist, we-will-tell-you-how-to-behave tone. Whites see any policy as worthwhile only if it comes out of the wisdom and efforts of the people. Their emphasis is not on revolutionary redistribution or population control or building factories or planting trees but on empowering people to take control of their own lives. They care less about what should be done and more about who decides.
This model sees progress as local self-reliance. An important concept to the Whites is appropriate technology — technology that uses tools that can be manufactured and maintained at the local level, that uses nearby resources and skills, and that yields products needed close at hand. The best agents for development in this view might be facilitators (something on the order of Peace Corps workers) who are familiar with modern technologies (vaccines, for instance, or how to hybridize plant varieties). A facilitator should know how to tap outside resources and knowledge, when necessary, but should come from, live with, and feel himself to be one of the people.
Excerpted from Beyond the Numbers by Laurie Ann Mazur. Copyright © 1994 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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