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How much is too much?

After receiving my new C&EN (Chemical and Engineering News, the flagship of ACS Publications) every week, the first thing I do is read the editorial. Then I flip through, stopping wherever I see something that interests me [sometimes, not much] until I get to the jobs section. After perusing through everything except academic positions, I land on the back page for the light side of science. This is my formula. And I tend to stick to it, unless I’m having a really bad day – in which case I turn directly to the back page and read the magazine backwards.Today, the editorial is about overpopulation and Rudy Baum gives me pause for contemplation with these words:

“The fact is that many of the problems we face today-water and energy shortages, pollution, climate change-have at their root one common element: There are too many people on Earth already, too many more are coming, and they all very reasonably want to live like people in the developed world. The idea that a decline in population is a “disaster” proves only that the world’s economic system is unsustainable.

…[A]n economic system that is based on an ever-increasing number of consumers is, by definition, not sustainable. At some point, the carrying capacity of Earth for any species will be exceeded. And while we are still a long way from reaching that carrying capacity for humans, the cost of even coming close-in environmental degradation and species loss-would be catastrophic. We must, at the very least, at some point in the near future stop world population growth.

And we must develop a new economic paradigm that provides Earth’s stable population with goods and services that make life worth living. That is one of the most fundamental challenges we face in the coming century.” (emphasis mine)

Wow. “Stop world population growth”. How would you recommend we do this? I read an article about Australia’s negative population growth about a year ago. They’re encouraging people to have kids by giving incentives of various kinds – mostly monetary. Most of Europe has had similar systems in place since [at least] the 1970’s. In fact, the last I’d heard, the US is the only western country with a positive population growth [holding between 1 and 2 kids per family]. [Sorry I have no sources here, but I can’t remember where I read that article – was it AARP? Or a Money magazine? It was last year and I can’t remember. And it seems that this info is harder to find that you would think.]

Now the reason that most western countries that are experiencing negative population growth have incentives for growing families, is that the economies of these countries depend on workers – both for manufacturing products and for contributing to the economy through consumerism, taxes, and social security-type programs. That last one is actually a big one. As the amount of old people increases, and their longevity increases, more money is necessary to take care of them. With lower amounts of people in the workforce, less money is generated and less money is put into social security programs [and the like], and old people lose their base of support.

On the flip side, more people = more consumers. More consumers = more waste. More waste = more environmental degradation.

So that’s what we’re looking at – the economy vs. the environment. And really, that’s what it’s always been about, hasn’t it? The only reason there aren’t more people interested in environmental issues, now, is the economic factor.

Which brings us to the directive at the end of the quote – develop a new economic paradigm. Umm…once again, wow. Economics is not my field, by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve actually never even taken a class. So I don’t know anything about developing a new structure of commerce. I’d love to hear/see some suggestions, though.


For now, I’m pretty firmly on the side of believing that the world is reaching overpopulation. For my part, I’m not planning on having kids [at least I’m not, right now, I won’t say never], but I’m planning on adopting. [I get to skip pregnancy, childbirth, diapers, baby spit-up (which I find simply disgusting), etc. I’d like to adopt a child around 3 or 4 years old – one that I can already communicate with. Doesn’t it sound like the best?]


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