Monday, February 4, 2008

Sacred Cows

For readers who are interested in more down-and-dirty details about my population-consumption model, you can now find them along with updated projections and related information on the Web site

I now feel confident enough in the model to actively solicit feedback from people who have professionally studied the relevant issues. Of course, the opinions of anyone and everyone are important to me, but I mainly want to know if there are any major flaws in the model which need to be addressed. It is one thing to develop a theory and discuss its potential implications on an obscure blog, and quite another to vigorously and publicly challenge some of most basic notions that people organize their lives around.

Perhaps the most sacred of the “sacred cows” we hang onto is the idea that with ingenuity and hard work we can perpetually increase both our numbers and our standard of living. I am far from the first to challenge this view; indeed much of my recent work has simply involved testing its validity in my own terms. My conclusion, that with ingenuity and hard work we’ll be lucky to just maintain our numbers, is one I’ve come to reluctantly because I’m one of the people whose beliefs it offends.

My model threatens another sacred cow, one shared by subscribers to “sustainability”: that we can extend our collective lifetimes by reducing our consumption and maintaining only a replacement birth rate. For this strategy to work, the model projects that we would need to almost instantaneously cut our per capita consumption of ecological resources by nearly half so that we could use only the currently available renewable resources (capacity). If we only gradually decreased our per capita consumption, we would risk eroding the capacity before consumption dipped below it, thus setting the final per capita consumption below what we needed to survive. If we aggressively decreased our per capita growth rate as much as we could (by affecting its growth rate), we would need to keep a positive birth rate to avoid losing population from resource depletion; with historical natural population growth, we would end up with per capita consumption that was 40 percent of its current value by the time we could finally stabilize the population (at 9.5 billion people).

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