Growth at all costs
Human population is expected to reach 8 billion later this year. Or it might have already happened. It’s hard to keep up.
Two hundred years ago there were only 1 billion humans on planet earth. Two thousand years ago, it was probably about 100 million. And two hundred thousand years ago, there was maybe about a million of us. Population growth increases exponentially, like the grains of rice on a chess board that double with each square. But that isn’t the whole story, because as population increases so does it’s consumption of resources. Not just more people, but more people each using more. Exponential growth growing exponentially.
When we talk about growth we mean consuming resources in order to create something new that is of benefit to the thing that is growing. Flowers grow. They do it by consuming sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil and turning them into stems, leaves and petals. People grow. We are genetically and culturally programmed to want to learn more, live in nicer homes, make more money. Economies grow. They consume resources such as energy and people’s time and effort, and turn them into goods and money. Nothing can grow without consuming resources.
But resources are finite. This makes growth always a zero-sum game. For an individual or a species or an economy to grow, some other individual or species or economy cannot.
We humans evolved in a world that had abundant resources. Finite, but abundant. And maybe we didn’t quite understand the difference. We have all evolved to grow. We’re not genetically, or culturally, programmed to preserve any particular state of being. We don’t know how to do it. We always want to grow. We always seek to do more with less, not to do less. And we do it in three ways.
Human populations have grown by expanding into new geographical territories and consuming the resources available. That’s what was going on all those hundreds of thousands of years ago as our species spread out across the planet, and it’s what was going on hundreds of years ago when European countries invaded other countries. They claimed the resources of those places to grow their population and grow their consumption.
The second way we try to get more resources is through technology. From ploughs to robots, the goal of technology has always been to be able to produce more from less. Grow more crops. Build more cars. The tech optimists might like to believe that using technology to optimise production can enable continued growth but it doesn’t change the fact that resources are finite.
Exploiting people who have resources is the third way we enable growth. From invading countries to unethical labour practices, growth comes those with more power exploiting those with less. And at the end of a growth period, as we start to realise that growth is lessening, humans naturally tend to become more tribal to protect what they have. They come up with reasons for why some people shouldn’t be allowed to continue to have the resources that they have, and justify their group having them instead. We see this occurring ideologically in the mass media as the rise of fascism, the narrative around immigration, but actually it’s a universal phenomenon with all groups of humans whatever their ideology.
It’s not hard to see how these three have worked together in the past and we can see their “success” across the globe as the zero-sum game of ‘who owns what’ continues to plays out today. But now we face a new situation. One that humans are not genetically or culturally equipped to handle.
We face a future where those finite resources have run out. The planet doesn’t have enough oil or fresh water or clean air or farmland or any of the things we use up when we grow. Soon, growth will no longer possible. But we don’t know how to stop growing.
So, yes, we could (and should) stop using oil. And, yes, we could (and should) have better governments making better economic decisions. But just stopping using oil or having better governments doesn’t answer the question of how we stop growing.
And if we don’t figure it out, we’ll become the cost of our own growth.