Some comments under Kent Welton’s Growthism essay raise a subject of profound importance. There’s a widespread notion that if we could just make the transition to completely clean and renewable energy – which we certainly need to do – our ecological problems would be over. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.Historically, there’s been a striking correlation between increases in energy consumption and population growth. It seems increasing access to energy has actually been a major driver of population growth, perhaps in large part because of the associated increase in food production. William Catton shows this so clearly in his book, Overshoot, that it knocks you over the head with new awareness.
Now add the observation that a great deal of resource depletion and ecological degradation occurs apart from the consumption of energy, and the conclusion is that we will not achieve sustainability by addressing energy without tackling population (not to mention economic growth) as well.
Paul Chefurka noted some of the resource problems which remain for a population as large as ours, even after energy is “solved.” There are also some key observations, such as those Trinifar made recently, to the effect that a population closer to carrying capacity, perhaps especially one which has reduced consumption in order to increase carrying capacity, is less resilient. It’s less able to adapt to stress, cannot scale back consumption in times of scarcity, is simply more fragile.
I wonder, as well, why we, as one among millions of species, feel we have a special right to grow our numbers completely out of proportion to those of other comparable species (mammals, great apes …). What is the largest number of gorillas ever to exist on Earth? (Of course today they’re in danger of extinction due to human activity including, obviously, human numbers.)
The problem of population apart from energy is ripe for further examination. It’s ignored today by mainstream environmentalists. I hope that changes.
For further illuminating discussion of the topic, see the Democratic Underground thread to which Paul referred.
Up next (unless another brief note pushes its way to the surface), a new guest essay.