With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2011

It is difficult to balance individual liberty with concerns of a global nature.  We want to be free to consume and reproduce.  But the choices of free individuals add up, creating significant impacts.  This is especially true now that there are 7 billion human beings on earth—a number that will grow to 10 billion by the end of the century.

We passed the 7 billion mark on Halloween.  This is a kid-friendly holiday, which makes parents glad they have children.  But it also marks the beginning of the typical American over-consumption calendar.  Once the Halloween candy is gone, we turn to Thanksgiving gluttony and then on to Christmas overindulgence.  Imagine the environmental impact of 2 or 3 billion more people gorging themselves as we do every year.

Ecologist Madhu Katti, from Fresno State’s Biology Department put it this way in a recent post on his blog, “A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings”: “There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet.  Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk.”  Common sense tells us that as population grows and consumption increases, we will hit a limit.

This point has been known, at least since the time of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century economist.  Malthus is famous for arguing that as populations grow, they will suffer a dieback caused by environmental pressures.  He is infamous for hinting that it is wrong to support poor people since aid to the poor increases population in counter-productive ways.

So far, we have found technological solutions that have helped us avoid the grim Malthusian limit and reach the 7 billion mark: increased agricultural productivity, new sources of power, better medicine, etc.  But there may be a limit to technological solutions.  And as population and consumption grow, the Malthusian limit looms.

So what can we do?  Policies that use coercion to prevent people from reproducing are immoral.  The right to reproduce is very basic.  It would be wrong for the state to license reproduction or require sterilization.  The morally acceptable response to population pressure is to increase each individual’s sense of responsibility for reproduction.  Perhaps we could do the same for consumption.

This individualistic approach is, however, vexed by the problem of diffusion of responsibility.  When there are 7 billion other people involved, my own choices appear to be infinitesimally insignificant.  It is odd to demand that I should consider global population and environmental issues when thinking about my reproductive life or shopping patterns.

So where does that leave us?  Perhaps it helps to return to Malthus.  Malthus thought that one solution to the population problem was “moral restraint.”  He defined this as celibacy until marriage and refraining from marriage until one is ready to support a family.  Not only would this help to moderate population growth but Malthus also thought it would be good for women, since it would prevent the “evils and unhappiness” that arise from “promiscuous intercourse.”

Malthus was on the right track here, despite his prudish sense of sexual morality.  The key to population pressure is to find ways to empower and educate women, including giving them more control of their own reproductive lives.  Professor Katti explained it to me this way, “the empowerment of women and reduced infant mortality are the key factors” in slowing population growth.  Women choose to have fewer children when there is “greater economic security, better health, and some measure of control over their futures.”  This has helped to lower birth rates in industrialized countries as well as in places like Bangladesh.

So far, so good.  The further problem is that despite lowered birthrates, we continue to consume loads of cheap plastic junk.  Professor Katti continued, “we have figured out how to lower birth rates, but are far from tackling the wasteful consumerist lifestyle that is at the root of so many of our environmental problems.”

Is it possible that some version of “moral restraint” could work when it comes to consumption?  Instead of focusing on promiscuous intercourse, it may be time to begin thinking about how to limit promiscuous consumption.