1967

Earth photographed from the Apollo 4 mission, 1967.

Earth, photographed from the Apollo 4 mission, 1967. Much has changed down there in the decades since.

It’s my birthday. I’m 48. And 48 years ago it was 1967, and looking back to that time can give us some perspective on the human trajectory, because trust me, it wasn’t all that long ago, and much has changed. When I was born, there were 3.4 billion people on the planet. Today there are over 7.3 billion, and the numbers are still climbing (though, thankfully, slowing down just a bit, but still projected to climb for the remainder of this century). That’s 3,900 million more people on the planet, since I was born not all that long ago. 3,900 million more people that need to eat, and have clothes, and clean water, and a roof over their heads.

And, what’s out-paced even population growth is the growth of the world economy. In 1967 world per-capita GDP was about $2,000. Today it’s over $7,000. So, if my math is right, while population has more than doubled since I was born, the economy is now something like seven times larger. Seven times. In general, that’s seven times more roads, ports, planes, energy use, steel  and concrete production, and consumption of all kinds.

Here’s what this mass of humanity looks like today, from the International Space Station–

As you can see from the video, there are an awful lot of us now. These two things, population growth and economic growth, have brought us where we are today, where the ecology of the planet is under tremendous pressure. Half of the world’s forests are gone. Nearly 40% of all arable land is being used for agriculture. The oceans are under siege, from acidification caused by fossil fuel use, to pollution and dead zones and overfishing. Animal life worldwide is finding itself squeezed. All of this, in addition to human-caused climate change.  This is why an article in last week’s Economist caught my eye, as they pose a question they’ve posed before, “If the rich world aimed for minimal growth, would it be a disaster or a blessing?” The standard economic arguments call for growth, to “lift the poor out of poverty”. Unfortunately, the standard arguments are hitting some hard limits, namely, we’re running out of planet. The old rules will apply less and less as we go forward; and economists will be forced to add more ecological variables to their equations. Anyway, I won’t rehash my arguments from when I wrote about this two years ago, my position hasn’t changed—we live on a finite planet, and the status-quo has become untenable.

But, here are some related thoughts that are as clear to me as the fact that we can’t keep “growing the world economy” in exponential fashion. Productivity has been going up, and will continue to. Our market system rewards the efficient producer, and ever-increasing automation and machine-intelligence only accelerate the trend (a good article about this in this month’s Atlantic, “The End of Work“). So, just to refresh your memory with some Econ-101—if a population works 40 hours a week, and their productivity doubles, then they will have twice as many goods and services available to them. Since I was born, US productivity has nearly tripled (graphs here). We can see this around us—we all still work those 40-hour weeks, so the productivity shows up in the fact that we have more stuff. Bigger houses (the average US house size in 1945 was 700 sq. feet, if I remember correctly. Today it’s well over 2,000), more cars, more electronics, more vacations, more possessions. Now, here’s the upshot– if productivity is going up, but we need to stop the exponential increase in consumption (because we’re running out of planet), then we will all need to work fewer hours. (The alternative is politically less palatable—fewer people will work full time, and support those without work.)

To help illustrate this productivity issue, there’s a joke in the economics profession that goes something like this– “In the future, factories will all have one dog, and one human. The human will be there to feed the dog, and the dog will be there to keep the human from messing with anything.” It’s a bit of reductio ad absurdum, but the point remains– with technology, we can fulfill our needs with much less labor input than in the past, and these trends will continue. But, we don’t have enough planet to keep cranking out more and more stuff, just because we’re in the habit of working 40 hours a week and wanting more of everything.

So, I don’t want to belabor my point, so let me just attempt a somewhat concise summary here—in an infinite world, human ingenuity might indeed allow ever-increasing productivity and production and consumption. But, we live on a very finite planet, and we’re either going to purposefully stop this production-consumption-productivity loop (fueled by advertising), or the ecological underpinnings of this system will fail. Either way, it will stop. So, we can either have orderly change by choice, or disorderly change (or even collapse) forced upon us.

So, that’s my birthday thought. We humans are on a path that cannot, and won’t, continue. I’ve seen many, many positive changes in recent years in terms of sustainability, but we might only be scratching the surface in terms of coming paradigm shifts. I’m not exactly sure what future systems will look like, but they will be quite different, and at a minimum, we need to start letting go of the status quo.