Ecology, economy, population growth and Do The Math

May 3, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Fitness, Nature

I’ve written about Do The Math, the blog that takes a quantitative, scientific, and usually non-judgmental approach to understanding our impact on the environment. I posted on it today for the first time about some questions I’d been thinking about for a while but haven’t approached in that blog’s way.

He has written about increasing his efficiency in using energy. I generally applaud that approach and do it myself, but I wonder about its value in the long-term, given population growth. I wrote the following on a thread on conserving energy in the home and persuading others to.

Regarding efficiency, while I also try to improve mine, I can’t help but put these gains in the context of population growth, mainly driven by having read Limits To Growth.

Gaining a few percent in efficiency, or even factors of two or ten seem to disappear in the face of exponential (or even slower) population growth.

When I talk about population growth, people point out the populations in some countries are declining. Still the overall population is increasing. I can imagine a future where everyone’s consumption balanced what we receive from the sun, but I can also imagine boom and bust cycles of the overshooting that balance and recovering. I don’t know of mechanisms to achieve the former and I don’t know how to avoid the latter.

I’d love to see a quantitative approach. Do you plan to analyze and write on population growth? Emotions can run intense on children and families, so I for one would welcome your non-judgmental approach of simply measuring effects without telling people what to do.

Some big questions to me seem

  1. Is the population leveling off or growing?
  2. How much is the population consuming (mainly of energy, but whatever other resources we need that energy can’t provide), relative to supplies?
  3. If we overshoot the supply, can we reduce our consumption to below that amount and keep it there?
  4. What are the consequences if we can’t? (not sure this one would fit in your blog)

There’s an underlying question of what’s the point of improving efficiency if we can’t stop population growth from causing us to overshoot our supplies. On the one hand, I can’t think of an example of humans cooperating to do something like cap its population. On the other hand, I suspect nature will do it for us if we don’t, so it seems worth trying.

I believe reducing consumption gives us longer to solve the problems of a boom and bust cycle (unlike economic booms and busts, which involve gaining and losing money, population boom and busts could involve gaining and losing lives), but I don’t know what past solutions could apply here.

I write this not to generate anxiety or fear but because I hope we can do something and I’m interested to learn what solutions people have thought of. People get angry, judgmental, and throw up their hands in futility when talking about these things. The point of my blog — and leadership in general — is to understand things in ways to enable doing things about them: not looking for blame but to take responsibility for improving things to the extent you can.

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