Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Elusive Steady State

The other day I stumbled upon the web site of a neat organization, one that has put its finger on what is going wrong with this crazy world. The Centre for the Advancement of a Steady-State Economy (CASSE;, a non-profit organization of natural scientists and ecological economists, makes compelling arguments that the current financial crisis has been caused by excessive growth in the economy, and that the current meltdown is a method of "correcting" the situation. CASSE states that continued economic growth not only harms the environment but also threatens national security and international stability. We need, they urge, to move toward a better non-growing (i.e., steady-state) economy. In a world of fast-depleting resources and increasing pollution, these words are rapidly becoming more meaningful.
A quiet corollary that is frequently overlooked, however, is that it is impossible to bring the economy into equilibrium if the population is constantly growing. A necessary requirement for a steady-state economy is a steady-state population.
I strongly feel that both a steady-state economy and a population in equilibrium are necessary of we want a sustainable planet.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Old News

While cleaning out some files recently I came across a newspaper article dated 1994. "Earth has too many people" shouted the headline. A study at Cornell University led by Professor David Pimentel had concluded that the human population must fall substantially to an optimum of — get this! — between one and two billion. With this population the Earth can provide the water and fertile land necessary for a diverse, nutritious diet of plant and animal products. Otherwise enormous numbers of people will live in misery, poverty, disease and starvation. The study stated that the population could be brought to below two billion by 2100 if each couple had only 1.5 children.
Similar studies by the United Nations, the World Wildlife Foundation and Professor William Rees and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia also conclude that human population exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth. They feel that a sustainable human population is in the four to six billion range. These are trusted and respected organizations with learned, reputable researchers. The validity of their studies is not in doubt.
Yet their results are buried on the back pages, ignored and treated as mere curiosity. No one is taking action. Instead, we march in the opposite direction. The world's population has increased by just over one billion since the 1994 study, and the count keeps ticking upward.
Signs of a teetering world are everywhere: war in Iraq, genocide in Darfur, food riots, peak oil, fisheries wiped out and now the biggest recession since the 1930s. This can't possibly end well.
How long can the pressure keep building? What will it take to get us talking seriously about population?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Split Personality

Our economic system is in shambles. The sub-prime mortgage crisis and plummeting stock markets are the start of the biggest recession since the 1930s.

To make things even worse, human numbers — almost seven billion — are well beyond the carrying capacity of the good Earth. Oil production has passed its peak. World grain production is decreasing. The ocean's fisheries are being depleted. Global temperature is rising. And I could go on.

After the Second World War, cheap energy, mass production and technological innovation brought good times. Society enjoyed the best 60 years of human existence. But now that Golden Age has crashed onto a reef.

As discussed in my last blog, communism and now capitalism have been brought to their knees by a common human trait: greed. Today our society is characterized by conspicuous consumption, superficiality, vanity, materialism, mindless entertainment and, most of all, greed, which comes in many shades. Instead of planning ahead, we have instant gratification. Instead of kindness and consideration, we have vanity and narcissism. Instead of ethics, everything is condoned. Instead of honour, we have "who cares." Instead of charity and sharing, we grasp for more.

It's the tragedy of the commons on a grand scale. To hell with others; let's live for the present and abandon the future.

Technology will not solve our problems. The solution lies much closer: between our ears. We need to change our attitudes and become more caring of our neighbours and considerate of future generations. We must learn to control our greed. But how?

Human beings have split personalities. We desperately need to find ways of curbing the negative traits, especially greed, and fostering the positive. But how?

Send me your ideas. Let's talk about this .... our survival depends on it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Berlin Wall, Capitalism and Greed

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the failure of communism. It was a great theory – equality, sharing, brotherhood – but it went sour in practice. When walls, barbed wire and machine-guns are necessary to pen in fellow comrades, the system is morally bankrupt.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis that is devastating the stock markets and plunging America into a deep recession/depression marks – like the Berlin Wall – the failure of capitalism. Again, a great theory – free enterprise with a competitive marketplace providing built-in checks and balances – ran aground in practice.

The common factor in the unravelling of these two great theories is human greed. Something in the human psyche, a basic drive, makes us – some more than others – lust for power, wealth and all their trappings. Too many CEOs and managers believe the ends justify any means. Who cares about ethics, regulations, share holders or our grandchildren. It's all about getting obscene salaries, perks and huge severance packages. Conrad Black – now languishing in jail – and Dick Grasso – who somehow "arranged" a $187 million severance package from the New York Stock Exchange – are poster boys for unfettered capitalism.

What a dilemma: two vastly different systems of governance have both been skewered by a simple, basic human trait. So what is the answer?

We must change our mindset. Somehow we need to become more caring of our neighbours and considerate of the future we bequeath our grandchildren. We must diminish our greed. But how? Perhaps topics like happiness, caring and volunteerism should become important parts of school curricula. Instead of obsessing about technology perhaps research should be directed towards these social topics. Perhaps cities can be redesigned around centres that function like villages, offering "communities" where people care and help each other.

Desperately needed is a campaign to conquer greed. Let's talk about this, it's important.