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Population and the Steady State Economy

(Image credit: Sérgio Valle Duarte, Wikimedia Commons)

By Max Kummerow

Sir David Attenborough remarked in a 2011 presidential lecture to the Royal Society that “every environmental and social problem is made more difficult and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more people.” Wherever women’s status has improved and societies modernized, he said, birth rates have fallen. He begged his audience to “talk about population.”

We often hear politicians call for “more jobs.” Growing populations require a bigger economy to prevent unemployment. So if you assume population growth is good and/or unavoidable, you probably favor economic growth to prevent unemployment. And even if there was a steady-state population, the world desires (and some of it needs) higher incomes, more consumption, and more wealth.

Many regard growth as a moral imperative to alleviate extreme poverty. Two billion people still live on two dollars a day. How can their lives improve without economic growth? Attention is focused almost exclusively on economic growth as the path to supporting more people at higher living standards. But there is another path.

A conventional measure of economic well-being is Y/P, or output divided by population (that is, per capita income). Y in this equation represents GDP (gross domestic product). We can acknowledge that a growing GDP per capita may increase wellbeing, but only when GDP is not beyond the optimum level. A growing GDP causes environmental, economic, and social problems. Various measures of well-being (such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Happiness Index, and the Human Development Index) help us determine when GDP is beyond optimum. Indeed, numerous analysts inside and out of the CASSE network believe that is now the case – that GDP is beyond the optimum – and perhaps has been so since the mid-late 20th century.

(Graph created from UN World Population Prospects 2017 data.)

 

In a crowded world facing physical limits to growth, then, why not think more about reducing the denominator? If population falls, we can get by with fewer jobs. There will be more land per family for poor subsistence farmers. Wages will tend to rise and the prices of commodities—housing, fuel, food, etc.—will tend to fall.

To examine the problem if we do not reduce population, let us consider a simple equation comparing the Earth’s carrying capacity—or its ability to provide all that we need from it—with our use of the supply. When we exceed carrying capacity, we also reduce it. Carrying capacity is the Earth interest generated by Earth principal (natural capital, in other words). When we use more in a year than the Earth interest generated that year, we use up some Earth principal, so next year less interest can be generated. Many ecological economists and sustainability scholars have described in theoretical and empirical terms how we are currently over long-run carrying capacity, and we are using up Earth principal (biodiversity, for example). So every year there is less interest and less long-term capacity.

Before family planning, most women bore many children, and infant and maternal mortality rates were extremely high. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith wrote, “It is not uncommon… in the Highlands of Scotland, I have been frequently told, for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive” (Book 1, Chapter 8).

In 1970, global fertility still averaged five children per woman. Now the global average fertility rate has fallen to 2.4 children per woman. In about 90 countries, women currently average less than 2.1 children each, which is the replacement fertility rate (two children reaching adulthood for every couple equals replacement). When fertility falls, it takes about 50 years for “demographic momentum” to play out so that growth stops. Young populations have to grow up, have children and age before death rates exceed birth rates. That has finally happened in a handful of countries. Germany and Japan, with declining populations, are doing much better than high fertility countries. Scarcity caused by growth is not alleviated by more growth. Growth is the problem, not the solution.

Country average fertility rates currently range from about 1.1 (Singapore, now one of the richest per capita) to 7 (Niger, one of the poorest). Europe’s fertility averages about 1.7. Sub-Saharan Africa’s fertility rate of 5 children/woman is falling slowly. But death rates by country are falling faster, so natural increase (births minus deaths) is higher now than in 1960 (the current rate is about 2.7% population growth per year).

Globally, annual population growth fell from 2% in 1970 to 1.1% in 2010. Meanwhile, world population doubled from 3.5 billion to 7 billion. World population is therefore growing as fast as ever (2% x 3.5 =1% x 7) and increasing by about one billion every 12 years, which means it is headed from 3 billion in 1960 to 10 billion by 2050.

(Graph created from UN 2017 population prospects data.)

Completing the fertility transition in places with corrupt governments and poor people will be difficult. Fundamentalists in all religions have more children. But modernization helps fertility rates fall, especially education and improving the status of women. Low fertility rates in Cuba, Iran, Brazil, Botswana, Thailand, and about 85 other countries shows that fertility transitions are possible anywhere. There are trade-offs, but countries with small families are usually better off economically and their children tend to be better educated.

Lower fertility rates have numerous benefits for individuals, families and societies. It is possible to stabilize world population and to reduce population back down toward global carrying capacity. Education can help change family size norms to reflect the reality that we live on a small planet that doesn’t get bigger when we add more people.

With declining population, the strongest arguments for economic growth disappear, and a steady state economy with universal prosperity becomes both physically and politically more feasible.

Max Kummerow is a retired Real Estate professor. He has presented a dozen papers at the Ecological Society and Population Association and other meetings advocating completing the global demographic transition.

 


 

Elect More Women: Prerequisite for a Sustainable Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

In 1990 there were only two women in the U.S. Senate, but in 2013, twenty women will be serving in the Senate, and another 81 women will take office in the House of Representatives. With this record number of Congressional seats held by women, the U.S. is closing in on the global average (20%) for lawmaking bodies. This is good news because evidence suggests that governmental bodies with more women are more likely to tackle issues of social justice and environmental health (and they’ll be more likely to pass budgets that reflect these concerns).

Especially noteworthy in the U.S. election were the defeats in the Missouri and Indiana Senate races where Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock gained notoriety when they expounded their views on rape. Akin announced that in cases of “legitimate” rape a woman’s body had defenses to avoid pregnancy, and Mourdock asserted that a pregnancy from rape was something that “God willed.”

It’s worth celebrating U.S. electoral gains for women, but there is a long, long way to go. Iceland, for example, has a majority of women filling its university professor positions, and women comprise almost half the members of parliament.

Why is it so important to elect more women to positions of power? And is having 20% of seats enough to make a difference? Researchers Tali Mendelberg and Christopher Karpowitz found that when women make up 20% of a decision-making body that operates by majority rule, the average woman used only 60% of the floor time as the average man. But once women comprise 60 to 80% of such a group, “they spoke as much as men, raised the needs of the vulnerable and argued for redistribution.”

Mendelberg and Karpowitz conclude: “…when there are more women in legislatures, city councils and school boards, they speak more and voice the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, children and families — and men listen. At a time of soaring inequality, electing vastly more women might be the best hope for addressing the needs of the 99 percent.”

Empowerment of women is the centerpiece of the strategy to achieve a sustainable, ecologically sound economy. Here are two of the many reasons for this claim: first is the overarching problem of a growing population. The inexorable momentum of the global population has led to over 7 billion human beings on the earth today and more to come every day.

At dinner tonight on this planet there will be 220,000 mouths to feed that were not present yesterday. Such a figure should cause alarm because the quality of farmland on the planet is being significantly impaired by erosion, by overpumping of ground water, and by the flood/drought cycles being exacerbated by global climate disruption.

Most experts on population growth observe that when women achieve a higher degree of status, respect, and power, they tend to have fewer children. Thus, empowerment of women is a key progressive strategy to stabilize population. In addition, slowing population growth could help reduce future climate-destabilizing emissions.

A second area is government budget priorities. Lawmaking bodies dominated by men spend too much money on war and too little on conservation, protection, and restoration of vital ecosystems. If the majority of members of legislative bodies were women, budget priorities would be influenced by more discussion and debate of sound economic policy.

In contrast to most policy discussions, which spend 90% of the time on the problem and 10% on solutions, I will conclude with two suggestions for continuing the trend of empowering women. First, enact a law that mandates a gender analysis before deploying U.S. foreign assistance in the form of projects, loans, or grants.

It surprises some people to hear that U.S. foreign assistance may be making women worse off. Most aid worldwide is not accompanied by any gender analysis that would answer the basic question: will women be better or worse off as a result of this grant, loan, or matching fund? The nonprofit organization Gender Action offers information and resources for tracking the effects of international financial flows on women.

Second, conduct more robust campaigns to fund family planning services worldwide. Population Action International points out that 215 million women who want to avoid pregnancy lack access to contraception and family planning.

The difference between a world reaching a population of 8 billion people in 2050 as opposed to 9.2 billion is huge. A world of 8 billion would emit roughly two billion fewer tons of carbon – an amount that is equivalent to what would be saved by eliminating all deforestation.

The Next President’s Inaugural Speech (If Only…)

by Brent Blackwelder, Head Speechwriter

Once upon a time the United States was a global pioneer of democracy and justice. The founders of this great nation articulated a noble vision of inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Times have changed. We have emerged from this presidential campaign with an ignoble vision of alienating wrongs — venom, vitriol, and the pursuit of pettiness. The campaign, including my campaign, dodged the most important issue of our era: coming to grips with the ecological reality confronting life on this planet. Today I pledge to make our nation once again the leader in solving economic, environmental, and social crises.

We have built a global economy that refuses to recognize ecological limits to growth. Repeated financial collapses, mushrooming corruption, and rampant speculation have characterized the last twenty years. We will blaze a new trail over the next twenty years; we will take bold steps to confront the failed global economy. Better late than never, we will face the issues of climate change and population growth that we have been avoiding for political expedience.

Modern industrial societies, with the United States leading the way, are emitting so much pollution that we have endangered the stability of earth’s climate and jeopardized the survival of over one quarter of the planet’s species. Our global population of over seven billion needs access to goods and services, but almost a billion are already struggling to obtain the bare necessities. Our civilization is using natural resources much faster than the earth can regenerate them. Scientists explain that we would need one and a half earths to keep consuming at our current rate. We can do better.

Our goal is to create a true-cost economy, a sustainable economy that gives everyone a fair chance. No more cheater economics and no more casino economics. We will put the cheaters in jail and close down the Wall Street casinos.

We will challenge the zealous pursuit of economic growth as the solution to the all problems. Much of our so-called economic growth has cost us far more than it has been worth. We have ruthless growth that benefits a few at the top but does nothing for most Americans. We have futureless growth that destroys resources, such as water and farmland, that will be needed by our children and grandchildren. Our economy should line up with our family values. We tell our children to save for the future. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers and judge the quality of their lives based on quarterly financial reports.

We will fund family planning so that the 250 million women worldwide who want such services can get them. All U.S. foreign aid will be screened to ensure that women will be better off as a result of the assistance.

While America has been sleeping, other nations have stepped into leadership roles:

  • Iceland has become the leader in empowerment of women; women hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly half the seats in parliament.
  • Bhutan has become the leader in measuring progress; this small Himalayan nation has committed itself to maximizing gross national happiness rather than gross national product.
  • Costa Rica and Sweden are leading the way in climate stabilization by instituting carbon taxes.
  • Germany, a nation with unexceptional wind and solar potential, has became the world’s largest generator of electricity in both categories.
  • Several European nations are taking the lead on jobs, shifting to shorter work weeks to relieve unemployment and enable citizens to spend time as they choose.

It’s encouraging to see other nations stepping up, but the United States need to get in the game. We can no longer stand still and watch other nations pass by on the way to a sustainable twenty-first-century economy.

Your odds of being struck by a meteorite are better than your odds of hearing a speech like this from one of these candidates.

Instead of rehashing the vicious debate over the deficit, I will move to implement a Robin Hood tax of just half of one percent on financial transactions. This simple and fair tax would yield billions in revenue and prevent Wall Street gamblers from playing with our money. We can have prosperity without growth.

We will adopt a four-day work week. There is no winner in a rat race. We will share the work, so that everyone can have a job, and we will trade the high productivity of our workers for a time dividend — meaning more time spent with our families and less time spent at the office.

Instead of fighting wars over oil, our military will prevent wars by helping to engineer the transition to clean energy. The military is already far ahead of the public and politicians in recognizing the threat of climate disruption. For example, the U.S. Army is working to get its bases off the electric grid and onto renewable energy. We will accelerate efforts like these and apply them across the nation.

We have only to look at the history of our nation to find inspirational leadership. The United States led in stewardship of the land with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first, in 1872. Faced with mounting pollution in the 1960s, we responded to the challenge. Congress launched the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and assumed global leadership in reducing pollution by passing clean air and water laws. Other countries replicated our laws.

Now, even though most citizens are aware of profound economic and environmental problems at home and abroad, the United States has been a drag, not a leader. Instead of excuses and gridlock, we will take responsibility for our actions. My administration will put aside pessimistic notions of what we can’t do and focus on what we can do.

I am not proposing an unachievable agenda for the American people, but rather a solid plan to build on our past triumphs and cooperate with today’s leading countries, regions, cities, and towns that have begun the quest for an economy with a future. We will systematically transform the United States from the biggest consumer to the biggest conserver. We will take up the challenge of leadership so that we can once again pursue the noble vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Role of Religious Congregations in Promoting a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Proponents of a steady state economy could get a boost from religious congregations. Very thoughtful and insightful people are now writing about the urgent need to transition to a steady state economy. However, good ideas from deep thinkers in this day and age are often insufficient to overcome the power of entrenched lobbies such as the oil, timber, and mining industries, as well as those in the financial sector who specialize in offshore tax havens and dubious finance schemes of the kind portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Inside Job.

Those interested in a sustainable economy are seeking to focus society’s attention on the limits to economic growth. This means rethinking the measures of economic growth and coming to grips with the drivers of consumer demand, such as population growth.

Religious communities are good places to look for allies because, over the past 15 years, many congregations have developed an interest in exploring human duties to creation. The concept of stewardship of creation is gaining widespread support among those who believe in God as the creator of the universe.

Surprisingly, many environmentally concerned people are not aware the Biblical teachings on stewardship of creation. Some promptly dismiss the notion by saying that the Bible is anti-environment and against sustainability. They claim that the book of Genesis urges humans to “exercise dominion over nature and subdue the earth.” This is an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew that unfortunately played a role in promoting a view of the earth and the rest of life as resources to be exploited.

Today there is much greater theological scholarship describing the full range of environmental messages in the Bible. This scholarship has caught on in many religious congregations where support for environmental sustainability is gathering strength. For example, Interfaith Power & Light, founded by Episcopal minister Sally Bingham, has coalitions in over 30 U.S. states, encouraging churches and temples to adopt environmentally enlightened policies in operating their religious buildings and grounds and to be active in promoting clean energy.

Proponents of a steady state economy need to enlist congregations to discuss the concept of a new economy and to consider alternatives to massive consumer spending. There is a natural connection because most religions emphasize living a simpler and less materialistic life, a life that considers the impacts of one’s actions on others.

It would be fitting for religious congregations to take the lead in demanding a new national index of well-being to replace gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is a good measure of the throughput of resources in an economy, or more bluntly, the rate of converting natural resources into waste. Typical economists exhort people to increase their purchases and consumption to keep GDP on the rise. Such a philosophy is incompatible with a sustainable economy on a finite planet. Religious congregations bring moral authority to a discussion of the ethics of consumerism and materialism. They can be powerful allies in challenging the basic economic dictum to go out and shop. People of faith could deliver a powerful message about the failure of GDP to serve as an accurate measure of happiness and well-being.

The Genesis story of Noah’s ark ends with a covenant that is not simply between God and Noah, but rather a three-way covenant among God, Noah, and all the animals on the ark. Humans have not lived up to this contract, as modern industrial society is devastating wildlife habitat, putting as much as one fourth of the earth’s life forms in jeopardy.

During a discussion of animal species threatened by human activity, one of the world’s foremost biologists, E. O. Wilson, was asked what animals would disappear if humans were to disappear from the earth. Wilson answered that the only ones he could think of were two species of head lice.

Religious organizations have already played a role in debates on endangered species, but people of faith could also weigh in on the topic of population growth. They could write the Pope pointing out that the Genesis blessing, “be fruitful and multiply,” is first given to all the animals. Humans, therefore, must take their blessing in this context and seek a planet characterized by a flourishing of all kinds of creatures.

In summary, the effort to attain a sustainable economy needs big allies. I have suggested that religious congregations can confront the biggest economic question of our times. What kind of stewards of creation are human beings if our global economy disrupts the earth’s climate, decimates wildlife habitat (even in remote places), expands the population of our own species beyond sustainable bounds, and gauges its success by the volume we consume?

References

1. For evangelical perspectives on environmental stewardship see Matthew Sleeth’s The Gospel According to the Earth or visit the Blessed Earth environmental ministry.

2. Visit Interfaith Power & Light for a set of activities on clean air, food, and climate that religious congregations are involved in.

The Big Population Question

Should we be thinking about the number simultaneously alive or the cumulative number ever to live?

by Herman Daly

More people are better than fewer—as long as they are not all alive at the same time! Sustainability means longevity for the human race—more people enjoying a sufficient level of consumption for a good life over more generations—not more simultaneously living people elbowing each other off the planet. Nor does it mean a perpetual sequence of generations. Nothing is forever in the present Creation—both science and Christianity agree on that, and perhaps other religions do as well. Christianity hopes for a New Creation free from death, sin, and decay. Science is not in the business of hope, although scientism peddles cheap optimism as a substitute. I share the Christian hope, but also accept the scientific description of the present Creation and its subjugation to entropy and finitude. Economist Georgescu-Roegen criticized sustainability and the steady state economy as advocacy of perpetuity (or “eternal life for the species”) rather than longevity. Maybe some people confused the two, but it is a confusion easily corrected. As creatures of the present Creation we must do the best we can with what we have for however long it lasts, even while we may hope for the New Creation as an eschatological faith.

In the past “doing the best we can” seems to have meant a larger and larger population consuming more and more stuff. Now we see that too many people alive at one time, and consuming too much per capita, reduce the carrying capacity of the earth for all life. This will mean fewer people and/or lower consumption per capita in the future, and a lower cumulative population ever to live at a level of consumption sufficient for a good life. If our ethical understanding of the value of longevity (“sustainability”) is to “maximize” cumulative lives ever to be lived, subject to a per capita consumption level sufficient for a good life, then we must limit the load we place on the Earth at any one time. Fewer people, and lower per capita resource consumption, facilitated by more equitable distribution today, mean more, and more abundant lives for a longer, but not infinite, future. There is no point in maximizing the cumulative number of lives lived in misery, so the qualification “sufficient for a good life” is important, and requires deep rethinking of economics, a shift of focus from growth to sufficiency.

Given that the whole marvelous shebang is still going to end sometime, why make extraordinary efforts to prolong it, especially if, as the modern intelligentsia assures us, the universe and all life are just random events, as well as temporary? And if we have no idea of what a good life is, then we cannot say how much per capita consumption is sufficient for a good life. But for some of us faith in the love of the Creator and the promise of New Creation substitutes divine purpose for cosmic random, and saves us from despair over our repeated failures, as well as over the ultimate impossibility of preserving this Creation in the very long run. Like the first Creation, New Creation will be a miracle. It gives hope in the face of entropy and finitude, but does not solve our ethical problem of how to share the limited life support capacity of the present Creation among generations and species. Belief that the end of the world will occur soon, with lots of life-support capacity left unused (wasted), is a tenet of some fundamentalist Christians who consequently consider themselves exempt from the responsibility of Creation stewardship. Fortunately this view seems to be waning.

Most scientists will not be happy with talk about miracles, with hope in the New Creation. Yet when faced with the ultimate heat death of the universe, and the meaninglessness implicit (and increasingly explicit) in their materialist cosmology, some scientists seem to flinch, and look for optimism somewhere within their materialism. They invent the hypothesis of infinitely many (unobservable) universes in which life may outlive our universe. They were led to this extraordinary idea in order to escape the implications of the anthropic principle—which argues that for life to have come about by chance in our single universe would require far too many just-so coincidences. To preserve the idea of chance as reasonable cause, and thereby escape any notion of Creator, they argue that although these coincidences are indeed overwhelmingly improbable in a single universe, they would surely happen if there were infinitely many universes. And of course our universe is obviously the one in which the improbable events all happened. If you don’t believe that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, you can claim that infinitely many monkeys pecking away at infinitely many typewriters had to hit upon it someday.

Unfortunately the evidence for infinitely many universes, or monkeys for that matter, is nonexistent. Likewise, the only “evidence” that could be offered to support hope for a future miracle would be the occurrence of a similar miracle in the past. That of course would be the Creation itself. Science rightly tries to account for this Creation, as far as reasonable, in its own mechanistic terms, and of course rejects “miracle” or God as an explanatory category. Whether ad hoc postulation of infinitely many unobservable universes qualifies as a reasonable scientific explanation, I will leave to the reader’s judgment. But the working hypothesis of scientific materialism, however fruitful it has been, should not be sanctified as the Ultimate Metaphysics of Chance. Nor does adding Darwinian natural selection to Mendelian random mutation alter the picture, since the selecting criterion of environmental conditions (other organisms and geophysical surroundings) is also considered to be a random product of chance. Mutations provide random change in the genetic menu from which natural selection picks according to the survival value determined by a randomly changing environment. Such a Metaphysics of Chance precludes explanation of some basic facts: first, that there is something rather than nothing; second, the just-right physical “coincidences” set forth in the anthropic principle; third, the “spontaneous generation” of first life from inanimate matter; fourth, the creation of an incredible amount of specified information in the genome of all the irreducibly complex living creatures that grew from the relatively simple information in the first living thing (random change destroys rather than creates information); fifth, the emergence of self-consciousness and rational thought itself (if my thoughts are ultimately the product of random, why believe any of them, including this one?); and sixth, the innate human perception of right and wrong, of good and bad, which would be meaningless in a purely material world. Explaining these facts “by chance” strains credulity even more than “by miracle”.

Metaphysical humility remains a virtue for both science and religion, and longevity (sustainability) is a metaphysically humble goal appropriate for limited creatures in the face of ignorance and mystery. Whether we will in the long run have the courage to serve even that modest goal in the absence of eschatological hope remains a question. Christianity and science both recognize the fundamental limits of this Creation. Christianity offers ultimate hope in New Creation; science remains mute about that. Scientism, however, seeing no limits to this Creation, offers, instead of hope, the campaigning optimism of, for example, IBM’s call “to build a smarter planet” and NASA’s promise of space colonization—all in the service of a forever-growing population of simultaneously-living big consumers. Phooey!