The Growth Conundrum
The comparative luxury in which we live is the direct result of centuries of steady economic growth. But we live on a finite planet, so never-ending population and economic growth must eventually stop. We find that societies that have high standards of living have lower fertility rates, yet much of the world’s population lives in underdeveloped regions with low standards of living and high birth rates. The proven path for bringing population growth under control is through economic improvements in developing counties; that is, they need to grow economically. Hence the conundrum — for population growth to cease, economic growth must continue.
Fortunately, much of the planet is already at a less than break-even fertility rate. If you are curious about these kind of problems, there is a great website, Gapminder.org, that lets you explore such trends. (If you follow the links below you will be sent to the Gapminder site with the interactive graph for the screen shots I have shown.)
Here is a nice Gapminder graphic illustrating the relentless reduction in fertility that, among other things, seems strongly related to improvements in literacy. Note that a good fraction of the “developing world” has reached or is near reaching the replacement fertility rate of two children per woman.
BUT, as the world has developed, we all now use lots more energy. The following chart illustrates the trends, where the energy use is measured in tons of oil equivalent per person per year. For developing countries, there is almost a one-to-one relationship between personal income and energy use. It’s interesting to note that for the US, while incomes have increased, our energy consumption per capita has flattened considerably in recent years.
Beware the log scales on the graph. China and India are much poorer and use much less energy per person than the US, and there is no sign they are ready to curb their energy use. India especially needs to continue its development just to be able to stabilize its population, while China is poised to overtake the US in a few years as the country with the biggest energy appetite.
After you play with the Gapminder graphs for a while, you begin to realize how much progress has been made in terms of overall health and education throughout the world. There is not nearly the large differences between haves and have-nots today compared with forty years ago. In absolute terms, health and education indicators are much improved worldwide.
Finally, take a look at the situation with Infant Mortality – a reasonable measure of overall health in a society. It is the exceptions that give us hope.
Again there seems a strong correlation between higher income and lower infant mortality. However, there are some important exceptions. First, although US citizens have the highest income, we don’t have nearly as good infant mortality statistics as most western European countries, Japan, or even Cuba with a fifth of our income. In fact, note that Cuba continued to improve its infant mortality numbers even during the episode right after the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba was in the midst of an economic/energy crisis. So, you don’t need affluence to have good health.
The prevailing growth model says the way forward is to grow our troubles away. This looks good in terms of the world’s recent past history, but what is missing from these statistics is the degree of environmental degradation and resource depletion that has occurred as a result of all this economic growth. Unfortunately the Gapminder statistics don’t include data on fisheries depletion, ocean acidification, species extinctions, habitat destruction, deforestation, or topsoil erosion. Such global maladies don’t fit the Gapminder nation-based data sets very well, but these concerns are the reason for the growth conundrum.