In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus, a British cleric and scholar, famously predicted that population growth would outstrip food production in a very few years and drive living standards back toward subsistence. The population of the world when he made this prediction was 800 million people.
Malthus has been the subject of considerable ridicule in the 216 years since he authored his opinion. The world population has grown in that time span to over seven billion people.
More recently, in 1968, Paul Ehrlich in his book “The Population Bomb” painted a doomsday scenario of a collapse of society resulting from runaway population growth. The world population at the time of this prediction was 3.5 billion people.
A few years later in 1972, a group of researchers from MIT, commissioned by the Club of Rome, made similar predictions in a report titled “The Limits to Growth.” This was a rigorous work that looked at a variety of resource utilization, environmental and population trends. A major conclusion of the study was that “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.”
Pro-growth advocates look at this history of predictions and continuing widespread prosperity and conclude that technology and innovation will always keep ahead of impending disasters. Indeed the societal gains achieved during the era of cheap energy have been amazing.
However, a recent United Nations report concluded that last year there were 842 million people in the world suffering from chronic hunger.
Even more ominous is the civil strife and unrest that exists around the world. Daily news reports highlight war-like conditions in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, and Israel. This is just a part of a much longer list of world military hot spots. In addition, there are political regimes in China, North Korea, and numerous other countries where the population is kept under a tight authoritarian control and human rights are shown little respect. Closer to home, drug related strife in Mexico creates conditions that spill over our common border.
Finally, right here in the United States we have a Congress that is divided to the point of being dysfunctional, the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen, immigration issues drive a wedge into our society, and racial tensions periodically erupt from just below the surface to an open wound.
The predictions of the collapse of society resulting from population growth outstripping our food and mineral resources have not been universally proven or accepted. The fuse on the population bomb continues to burn. But now we must consider whether it’s really the material needs of the expanding population that are the limiting factors. Perhaps it’s also an inability of societal systems to cope. Perhaps we have passed a tipping point and now there are too many people in the world for governments to work, and for all people to live in a sustainable environment.
We continue to add 80 million people to the population of the planet each year. We continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates. We continue to deplete the scarce and finite mineral and biological resources of the planet. We continue to gloss over our conflicts at home and resort to military solutions abroad.
How many times do we need to be warned? At what point do we recognize that technology and growth will not able able to continue to mask our fundamental problems? When do we seriously address the condition of the physical and societal systems we are passing along to the next generations?
The planet is a finite system. Sustainable living is not optional. We must find ways to be a part of the ecological system and not just exploiters. Our lives — our children’s lives, their children’s lives — depend on when we wake up and what we do.