Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Ever-Accelerating Treadmill

What makes me despair is that society faces a formidable double whammy, the growing population and the growing economy. We don't seem capable of slowing either. It's like an ever-accelerating treadmill. No matter how fast we run, we keep falling behind. Take the car, for example, a wonderful invention that greatly enhances our productivity and enjoyment of life. Over the past three decades there have been enormous strides in making them cleaner and more efficient. Yet deadly domes of smog hover over all major cities of the world, exacting a huge toll in deaths and health care.

The reason is simple: there are far more cars on the road than 30 years ago, and they are being driven further. In spite of the enormous technological improvements in cars, air pollution has worsened. The fundamental reason is that the population has grown, and because the standard of living (read economy) has improved, we can afford more and bigger cars.

This argument applies to virtually all technical improvements. Television technology has greatly reduced energy consumption, but now we buy bigger and bigger giant-screen TVs. Where is the savings? And so it will be with hybrid cars and other energy-efficient products. With an expanding economy, the savings we make on some items will simply be spent to buy more or bigger other items. And with the population continuing to grow, there will be more of us doing it.

This treadmill is unstoppable unless we tackle the fundamental forces driving it. How do we do that? I don't pose this question rhetorically. I'd like to hear your ideas. How do we tackle the treadmill of increasing population and economic growth?

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