The theory of exponential population growth versus arithmetic resource growth has been widely explored by scientists and economists alike. In this post, I will explain why I am skeptical of many resource-driven apocalypse theories.
Resources: A history of economic thought
Economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo both hypothesized that the world population would eventually reach an equilibrium when the world’s finite resources are stretched thin. Ricardo postulated as the population grows, wages decrease, as a result the population self-regulates and decreases over time. Thomas Malthus rose to prominence, permanently embedded in the textbook of every economics 101 class, with his doom and gloom observation: population increases geometrically, but food (and other resources we rely on) increase arithmetically. Plainly said, the population’s growth rate vastly outstrips that of our resources’. Charles Darwin furthered these findings by monitoring a number of animals. He concluded that once a species’ population grows to its apex, fewer preys are available, thereby naturally causing a reduction in the number of predators. This is cycle was further corroborated and put into numbers by scientists Lotka and Volterra in the Lotka–Volterra equations.
However, clearly Malthus’ (and Darwin’s) apocalyptic revelations have not materialized.
Why is that (there are 7 billion reasons why he’s wrong)? They did not take into consideration improvements in technology. We’ve had several agricultural revolutions, starting from the shift from hunting to agriculture during the Neolithic era. Following each revolution, the growth in resources has increased significantly, disrupting the Malthusian arithmetic growth line (here is a good summary from Dickson Despommier).
It is true that the world’s population is growing at an unprecedented rate. The numbers in the chart above track the remarkable growth, showing the years between each 1 billion increment increase in world population. We see in the chart that population growth is forecasted to flatten, if not decreased over the next few years. This is not surprising given the flat growth rates in Europe (The Telegraph), and rapidly (!) declining population of Japan (BBC).
What are the implications for energy and food?
The implications for food and energy is that technology will adapt to our larger demands over time. Interestingly, the technology to resource relationship does not exist in energy. There has been an interesting paradox in energy consumption; as energy efficiency has increased, consumption has also increased. This is known as the Jevons paradox. This kink in environmental economics means that the assumption that many politicians and some environmental make — that efficiency gains will lower resource consumption –is incorrect. It also means that energy demand in non-OECD countries is likely to rise significantly over the next few decades.
I’m not saying that we should not be worried about our finite resources; I am merely pointing out that until this point in history, the linear growth of resources has been disproven several times. Of course, we are also poisoning our water, food, and atmosphere with chemicals, radioactive substances, and pollutants at an alarming rate and this is not factored into economic calculations of growth. However, even with the current rising temperatures, rising levels of carbon dioxide, droughts, extreme weathers, technologies have evolved (to some extend) to deal with some of the problems (this relies heavily on adapting to new conditions and has led to a fierce debate in the scientific and political sphere of adaptation versus mitigation [NASA], which I might elaborate on in a later post). Climate change is still a global risk and over time, as our demand for resources increases, the waste and pollution we generate is bound to increase. Nevertheless, the increasing rate of innovation in technology has also helped developing countries develop in a cleaner way than developed countries. Currently, developing countries are using more renewable technologies than developed countries (Financial Times)!
One of the biggest of these challenges is shifting baselines. Baselines measure the health of an ecosystem and provide information in which to evaluate change. These are important factors in restoration efforts. These baselines are used by a restoration project as goals in order to begin the restoration. However, “the historical baseline chosen for a restoration project is largely arbitrary — there are thousands of time periods to choose from.” This problem is part of the bigger challenge of shifting baselines. Daniel Pauly used fisheries to define “Shifting Baseline Syndrome”: as each new generation of fishery scientists continues in this career path, the perception of what defines a healthy fish population lowers from the generation before. Each generation accepts these declining standards only as far back as far back as the generation they can get information from.
The current generation thinks the environment has changed only from what the previous generation is aware of, but the decline is built up from the time humans first touched the environment. Because of the shifting standards that aren’t able to consider the original untouched state of the ecosystem, it is a challenge to know when an area is at the point of needing restoration and to what point it needs to be restored to indicating how much work needs to be done. Restoration goals are set by these shifting baselines causing unreliable restoration. The community supporting these projects only knows what they’ve experienced in their lifetime (a cause of shifting baseline); in order to fight this, awareness must be made about historical standards shifting baselines further back, and awareness must be kept in order to not backslide in the future of environmentalism. For proper restoration of a damaged ecosystem, baselines must be considered.