Thursday, June 24, 2004

22. Growth must slow down

First read in 1969 to a group of students at the University of Colorado, the message still applies today:

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability
to understand the exponential function."

There are approximately six billion, four hundred and fifty-three million, three hundred and twenty-five thousand, five hundred and sixty-two human beings on planet Earth. That's 6,453,325,562, and counting. And that is counting at a net rate of 3 persons every couple of seconds.

Each one of these 6.4 billion persons would, ideally, like to have 2-3 children, a house, three square meals a day, a car with gasoline, fresh drinking water, fresh air and, of course, someone to take away their garbage once a week. This "life-style" is prominently an American life-style and increasingly the envy of most of the world. Shamefully, the United States contains only 5 percent of the world population yet consumes 22 percent of the world's energy.

These global numbers and national expectations drain natural resources and prompt discussions of rights versus values. The rights, of course, are that of the individual (or of parents) to have as many children as they like. For many might ask, what right does anyone have to tell individuals how many children they should have? Apparently none, because even though some governments might offer financial incentives for families limiting the number of children into the world, no government that I know of actually imposes a limit. On the other side of the issue, some religions and countries actually promote, or have promoted, large families, "Go forth and multiply," meaning, of course, that there is strength in numbers.

These rights are balanced, or should be balanced, with the environmental concerns of overpopulation, such as the depletion of the earth's natural resources, quality of life and famine. Every person, depending where they are born, is a considerable drain on the earth's natural resources. In addition to oil, natural gas and coal, these resources include many things we take for granted such as water, land, soil and biota.

As countries develop and continue to populate, competition for these resources will grow in intensity and military victories to protect our interests may not come so easy. As researcher David Cleveland notes, " We (United States) need to consider what extent our "life style" depends on access to resources, waste facilities and cheap labor in other places." and that this dependence may be "contributing to the creation of countries with nothing left to loose." It is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the actions of the American government and large corporations that take advantage of the rest of the world for their own profit and to protect the American life-style.

Population estimates differ but some predict it doubling before leveling out. Can the Earth sustain 12 billion people on a social, economical and natural level? As resources dry up, are Americans willing to continue to fight to protect their life styles? And, will the rest of the world just stand by while we exhaust more than our fair share?

Exponential theory is the realization that things add up faster than one might realize or expect. Such is the idea of recycling and conservation- for every aluminum can recycled is one less in a landfill and every car pool is natural resources conserved. If every American recycled one aluminum can per day, approximately 106 billion cans would be recycled per year. Every little bit does matter, and it may be your grandchildren that thank you.

The argument against overpopulation and conservation is that other resources will be discovered, that they are in a sense unlimited. Similar to Pascal's wager, there are two possibilities and two consequences (and four outcomes). Essentially, if we choose conservation and subsequent generations find resources to be infinite then no harm has been done. However, if we continue to be wasteful and future generations find that resources are indeed finite then we have left them in considerable distress.

Seventh Generation was a local environmental group named after The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederation and their commitment to preserve the land for the next seven generations. It reads, "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Seventh Generation engaged in local beautification projects, led participation in environmental events like Earth Day and studied local resources such as the Black River. But alas, most of us realize that natural resources will survive our lifetime, hop into our sport utility vehicle and never give it another thought. To that end, Seventh Generation ceased operations in 2000.

As for rights versus values, it is still our decision. A decision hopefully based on our ability to think exponentially and its impact on the next seven generations

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