The world’s population has just set a new record: 8. As is often the case, there are heated debates about the so-called “carrying capacity” of the planet – the total number of people who can live on Earth permanently. Experts are generally divided into two camps. On one side are those who argue that we need to massively reduce human populations to avoid ecological catastrophe. And on the other hand, there are people who believe that instead of taking drastic measures, technology will find some smart solution to this problem. Scientists have been debating such demographic issues since at least the 18th century, when Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Theory of Population, arguably the first global treatise on the relationship between population growth and the reduction it causes.
A few decades later, however, the Industrial Revolution (which British economists had failed to anticipate) belied Malthus’ dire predictions about the inevitability of scarcity at the fringes of scientific debate and ushered the world into an age of abundance. 1960 Through a bestselling book published in the late 1990s, The Population Bomb, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich took up the topic again, advocating immediate action to limit population growth on a finite planet. This recommendation was reiterated a few years later by the Club of Rome, an international network of scientists and industrialists. Its 1972 report The Limits to Growth demonstrated the dynamic relationship between increasing consumption and the idea of ”planetary limits” that cannot be crossed without risking serious environmental change.
It is true that some technologies have made production more efficient (fertilizer is one of them), thus reducing the effect of population growth on resource use. But there is no doubt that mankind has crossed the planetary boundaries in a big way. Even a small increase in population can now be more devastating, although it is difficult to estimate how many humans the planet can sustain permanently. It is often overlooked in policy debates, which usually take the issue lightly, believing in the assumption that raising the standard of living will lower the birth rate. Therefore, it is argued, global population will decline as soon as continents such as Asia and Africa reach the same level of development as Europe and North America.
This can easily generate a contradiction. Countries will continue to increase their standard of living by increasing per capita consumption, resulting in smaller populations, but with huge ecological impacts. Take China only. Its population growth rate has slowed significantly from 2.8% in the 1970s, and this year marks the first absolute decline. But there has been a huge increase in its overall consumption level over that period, resulting in a much worse net effect. The same is true for India and most emerging and developing economies. If this trend continues, the global population may decrease, but it could have far more devastating effects on the planet. Developing a ‘welfare economy’.
It is time to rethink our approach to affluence and develop different ways to improve living standards. In a new report from the Club of Rome titled Earth4U, we argue that countries (especially the most industrialized ) should focus on broader measures of social and ecological well-being rather than economic development. This will result in a significant reduction in material consumption, while not reducing the overall quality of life. What can be done practically in this? Policies should focus on promoting better work-life balance and gender equality, as women’s empowerment is a major determinant of population growth.
They must also optimize energy use and efficiency because most renewable energy is that which we do not need to use. We also need regenerative practices and at-home solutions for manufacturing and food production (around 30% of food globally is wasted for various reasons). Such a “welfare economy” approach would help all countries (including the poorest) move towards a different type of development, one capable of combining a high quality of life with very limited impacts on the environment.