Michael Lind writes a piece in Prospect concerning how the earth will cope with the projected peak population of 9 billion people. This somewhat relates to recent debate on the amount of oil left on the planet. Lind gives some interesting stats including:
As the economist Paul Romer pointed out in the magazine Reason (December 2001) US per capita income in 2000 was around $36,000. If real income per American grew by 1.8 per cent per year, by 2050 it would increase to $88,000 (in purchasing power of 2000 dollars), while 2.3 per cent annual growth would increase the average American’s income to roughly $113,000 per year. Romer observed that in the second scenario, “in 50 years we can get extra income per person equal to what in 1984 it had taken us all of human history to achieve.”
As machines get ever cheaper, more people will be able to afford more of them. Today the combined mass of all machines, at more than a gigaton (Gt), exceeds the combined mass of human beings, about 1 megaton. The total amount of carbon, 5Gt, required to power and construct machines and electric utilities greatly exceeds the 1.3Gt global consumption of carbon by human beings, mostly in the form of food. As affluence grows, the amount of energy and raw materials “consumed” by machinery will escalate even more rapidly than human consumption. But this need not mean an end to the machine age. If manufacturing processes were to imitate the recycling that takes place in the biosphere, then most machine materials might be recycled to make new machines, rather than thrown away. And long before all fossil fuels were exhausted, their rising prices would compel industrial society not only to become more energy efficient but also to find alternative energy sources sufficient for the demands of an advanced technological civilisation – nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, solar energy, chemical photosynthesis, geothermal, biomass or some yet unknown source of energy.
Providing stuff, space and speed to 9bn people without putting serious strains on the global environment is possible, but not inevitable. A planet of crowded slums, extreme inequality, devastated ecosystems and rising atmospheric temperatures is a frightening possibility. To avert such a future, campaigns for political and behavioural reform, at both the national and international level, will be necessary to supplement the development of new technology – no argument there. But political and moral campaigns should take the preferences of people into account and they should be based on sound reasoning. It makes no sense to counsel individuals and nations to adopt austerity in cases in which there are technological solutions to problems created by technology. Sometimes there really are technical fixes.
Oh and by the way, Lind is the Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC