The Growth Conundrum

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grondeau's picture
grondeau
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The Growth Conundrum

The comparative luxury in which we live is the direct result of centuries of steady economic growth. But we live on a finite planet, so never-ending population and economic growth must eventually stop. We find that societies that have high standards of living have lower fertility rates, yet much of the world's population lives in underdeveloped regions with low standards of living and high birth rates. The proven path for bringing population growth under control is through economic improvements in developing counties; that is, they need to grow economically. Hence the conundrum -- for population growth to cease, economic growth must continue.

Fortunately, much of the planet is already at a less than break-even fertility rate. If you are curious about these kind of problems, there is a great website, Gapminder.org, that lets you explore such trends.  (If you follow the links below you will be sent to the Gapminder site with the interactive graph for the screen shots I have shown.)

Here is a nice Gapminder graphic illustrating the relentless reduction in fertility that, among other things, seems strongly related to improvements in literacy. Note that a good fraction of the “developing world” has reached or is near reaching the replacement fertility rate of two children per woman.

BUT, as the world has developed, we all now use lots more energy. The following chart illustrates the trends, where the energy use is measured in tons of oil equivalent per person per year.  For developing countries, there is almost a one-to-one relationship between personal income and energy use.  It's interesting to note that for the US, while incomes have increased, our energy consumption per capita has flattened considerably in recent years.

Beware the log scales on the graph.  China and India are much poorer and use much less energy per person than the US, and  there is no sign they are ready to curb their energy use.  India especially needs to continue its development just to be able to stabilize its population, while China is poised to overtake the US in a few years as the country with the biggest energy appetite.

After you play with the Gapminder graphs for a while, you begin to realize how much progress has been made in terms of overall health and education throughout the world.  There is not nearly the large differences between haves and have-nots today compared with forty years ago. In absolute terms, health and education indicators are much improved worldwide.

Finally, take a look at the situation with Infant Mortality – a reasonable measure of overall health in a society. It is the exceptions that give us hope.

Again there seems a strong correlation between higher income and lower infant mortality. However, there are some important exceptions. First, although US citizens have the highest income, we don't have nearly as good infant mortality statistics as most western European countries, Japan, or even Cuba with a fifth of our income. In fact, note that Cuba continued to improve its infant mortality numbers even during the episode right after the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba was in the midst of an economic/energy crisis. So, you don't need affluence to have good health.

The prevailing growth model says the way forward is to grow our troubles away.  This looks good in terms of  the world's recent past history, but what is missing from these statistics is the degree of environmental degradation and resource depletion that has occurred as a result of all this economic growth.  Unfortunately the Gapminder statistics don't include data on fisheries depletion, ocean acidification, species extinctions, habitat destruction, deforestation, or topsoil erosion.  Such global maladies don't fit the Gapminder nation-based data sets very well, but these concerns are the reason for the growth conundrum.

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Damnthematrix's picture
Damnthematrix
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

"The comparative luxury in which we live is the direct result of centuries of steady economic growth."

No no no no no no no no ....!!

"The comparative luxury in which we live is the direct result of centuries of steady increase of ever better, denser, and easier to get energy use..."  and the most dramatic rise has been under the influence of Coal, then oil, and now gas.

Mike

grondeau's picture
grondeau
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

This is a chicken or egg problem here Mike.  Certainly energy usage and economic growth go together as my second figure illustrates.  We doomers like to revel in doom; but seriously looking at a way forward is not our strong point.  That is the strong point for sustainable development cornucopians like the folks that put together the Gapminder website.  Their message is much more optimistic than the doomer view.  Enjoy it!

deggleton's picture
deggleton
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

I'm closer to Mike's corner and I've seriously looked for a way forward for many years (read McHarg's Design With Nature in 1971 and Illich's Tools for Conviviality in 1976, among others).

For a couple hundred years post-Galileo, there were potentials (eggs) going nowhere, in relative terms, that got energized enough to look like reality (chickens).  Too much of the population and economic expansions happened in the fossil fuels age to allow denial of these essential active ingredients.  Reach and push involving stuff, now global, and human population dynamics could not have become what we've seen simply as a consequence of economic expansion.  Relocating and making anything/everything found and imagined required unprecedented quantities and portability of energy.

What looks like reality can be unreal and life diminishing.  As a permaculturist, I prefer to think of growth as improved engagement with the living reality.  Because it's not about the stuff, we can grow forever.  Stuff is a dead end.  We need to make a turn, if not a U-ey.

David

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Septimus
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

Overall excellent points.

I do get tired of the infant mortality statistic though: The U.S. records every live birth, no matter what the age of the new born as an infant. So a 5 month old counts as a live birth and has a higher mortlaity rate. Most other countries use a much different measure of a live birth...

And yes, my "liberal leaninig" professors in Public Health agree that this measure is not comparable country to country even though it keeps being compared. (I'll have earned my MPH within two weeks!)

http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2005/3/9/184540.shtml

"While comparing statistics among countries can be tricky, in the case of infant mortality figures, the comparisons are downright treacherous. For starters, different countries count differently.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) definition, all babies showing any signs of life, such as muscle activity, a gasp for breath or a heartbeat, should be included as a live birth. The U.S. strictly follows this definition. But many other countries do not.

Switzerland, for instance, doesn't count the deaths of babies shorter than 30 cm, because they are not counted as live births, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, Ph.D., Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute and formerly a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard University Center for Population and Developmental Studies. So, comparing the 1998 infant mortality rates for Switzerland and the U.S., 4.8 and 7.2 per 1,000 births, respectively, is comparing apples and oranges.

Other countries, such as Italy, use different definitions in various parts of their own countries. Eberstadt observes that "underreporting also seems apparent in the proportion of infant deaths different countries report for the first twenty-four hours after birth. In Australia, Canada, and the United States, over one-third of all infant deaths are reported to take place in the first day. ..." In contrast, "Less than one-sixth of France's infant deaths are reported to occur in the first day of life. In Hong Kong, such deaths account for only one-twenty-fifth of all infant deaths."

A UNICEF press release noted: "Under the Soviet era definition ... infants who are born at less than 28 weeks, weighing less than 1,000 grams or measuring less than 35 centimeters are not counted as live births if they die within seven days. This Soviet definition still predominates in many [formerly Soviet] CIS countries."

ron45's picture
ron45
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

Growth is not a conundrum for me. Beyond replacing people who die there is no real need for growth. Religions, tax collectors and factory owners are the only real reasons for the growth mantra. Most of the worlds problems can be traced to too many people too close together.

 

As many already know... too much of everything has never made anyone content for any prolonged amount of time. BUT too many people also provides poverty. This is the source of religion, factory and cannon fodder. Under the current system, poverty will never go a way. It's part of the what makes the system work. It provides a kind of upward pressure. And a boat load of terrorists looking for MORE.  This is how it seems to me. But I would listen to reasonable exceptions to this thinking. I'm not finished learning yet.

Ron

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grondeau
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

Ron, It's not a dilemma unless you consider the moral implications.  Lets apply the golden rule.  Would you willingly trade places with the median Indian peasant?  If you found yourself in that place, would you desire to better yourself and your situation?  Would you seek to improve you and your families' collective education and health opportunities?  I personally can't deny other less well off the right to make their situation better.  Once you come to that conclusion, then I would argue that economic growth will be inevitable.

We don't disagree that the world would be a better place with fewer people in it.  It's more a question of the trajectory for getting to a position where sustained de-growth is possible.   For me, thats a conundrum.

Gary

 

deggleton's picture
deggleton
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

Which morality says it's fine for a random, impersonal process to assert the nature of a better self and a better situation, and that it's fine for a period of acknowledged inequities to be open-ended while the randomly affected improve themselves in pursuit of a receding goal line?

Ours.

Who can imagine meeting her/his respective Indian peasant half-way?

Without different dominant ideas about living beings, reduction of population cannot make a better world.

ron45's picture
ron45
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Re: The Growth Conundrum

The moral implications are the problem. And the very idea of more and more and more and more of every THING is how we came to be here writting on this web site. It's the cause of the need for CC. The moral implications are imposed by made up religions. That median indian is probably one of the happiest people on the planet unless he lives in Brooklyn and  has a television. Then he will be told there is a bigger television that his children need...... yada yada yada.

There is nothing wrong with growing your mind. You do not need to grow an economy whose base is not pretend money. It could be stabilized. And we really really really do not need to grow the population. The only people who want this are business people whose motives are corrupt, religions whose motives are corrupt and governments whose motives are corrupt. Take a look at any other living system on the planet. If they grow till they use up their life support system [ their environment ] while polluting the hell out of what's left they die off and life goes on.

Modern humanity has tried to set itself outside the laws of nature. The result has to fail. It is essentially what CC is about. The very pillars of modern society are.......... corrupt. Founded on wrong  ideas and beliefs. Religion could not have been included for obvious reasons. But they are a huge part of the problem. All of them. Yes there need to be guidelines for people to live in close proximity and not be at war all the time, but you don't need all the fear and loathing added by every religion. I don't know how to fix this. But, most everything we have done in the last 200 years is pretty much what not to do. 

Ron

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