Planet Girth


Every environmental problem has a population angle. Remember the idea – taken from chaos theory – about how a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas? Well, that Lepidoptera is nothing compared to a million Ford Explorers – not to mention the flood of super-cheap and not-so-clean Tata Nanos now rolling off India’s assembly lines. Or the impact of a billion Big Macs served. Every day, we’re pummeled by clear (and often stormy) evidence that humankind’s impact on the planet can impose catastrophic repercussions on the human population. It’s chaos theory – squared.

Nevertheless, the growth-crusaders continue to insist: “We must build new (fill in the blank) to meet the growing demands of the world’s growing population.” Driven by this growth-is-good credo, we’ve created a truly bipolar planet where longitudes of inequity clash with latitudes of envy – a strangely topsy-turvy world where the biggest industries, most sophisticated infrastructure, and greatest political power and global wealth have metastasized in the North. Meanwhile, the South – whose resources and cheap labor make all that infrastructure and industry possible – continues to wither from lack of adequate food, water, education, fair profit-sharing, and sustainable locally based jobs. The image that comes to mind is that of a top-heavy codger whose overindulgences have left him with a massive belly that tumbles over his belt, casting a shadow on the two thin legs that somehow manage to hold him upright.

Sure, you can replace a single 1,000-MW nuclear power plant with 500 2-MW wind turbines, but how much of that so-called consumer “demand” is really necessary? Changing a power source doesn’t necessarily solve the larger problem. The Pentagon has built a solar-powered tank, but hey, it’s still a tank. If we could replace all of Earth’s gas-burning autos with sun-powered sedans, we’d still have cluttered roads, stalled commutes, and endless parking hassles.

Which is to say: The population problem is compounded by a consumption problem. Discussions of population limits (which seem to be strangely missing from the international dialogue these days) always took a bad turn when the finger of blame was pointed only at those countries where crowded populations and poverty intersect. As the Journal pointed out in a 1992 cover story, there was – and is – “An Unspoken Environmental Threat: Too Many Rich People.”

In that issue, retired sociology professor Charles Gray introduced the concept of the World Equity Budget. Using the global GNP for 1960 (at a time when the economy was not yet threatening the marine food chain or melting Antarctic ice), Gray divided that generated wealth by the human population to determine that a worldwide “living wage” would amount to $250 a year for every man, woman, and child on Earth. Gray then did something unusual. He gave away all his worldly possessions and demonstrated that it is possible, even in the USA, to survive on $250 a year.

We’ve created a truly bipolar planet where longitudes of inequity clash with latitudes of envy.

Meeting the “growing demands of a growing population” is not solving the problem: It’s perpetuating it. But the goal of the growth-ists has never been long-term survival – only short-term profit. When it comes to debating long-term survival, the English language has shortchanged us. We have no antonym for the word “growth.” As a consequence, the opposite of “growth” has come to mean “death” or “decay.” If we’re going to have an honest dialogue on a linguistically even playing field, we need a new word. A Journal writer once suggested “shrinkth.”

No one would question the wisdom of limiting the number of passengers who can occupy an elevator in a skyscraper. It might be useful to think of Spaceship Earth as an elevator whose “support systems” are seriously frayed and starting to unwind. The idea that you can build bigger elevator cages – to accommodate more passengers with more baggage – without paying attention to the condition of the cable is, well, setting yourself up for a fall.

On the hopeful side of the ledger, recent years have seen a flowering of catchphrases and popular movements all crafted to nudge us toward a less cataclysmic end. Small Is Beautiful. Power Down. Simple Living. Global Footprint. Carrying Capacity. Less and Local. Locavore. And, of course, there’s still that golden oldie: “Zero Population Growth.”

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