If Thomas Robert Malthus were alive today, he would see his economic theory surpassing those of modern economists. Today planet earth is home to seven billion people. Humanity has reached a new milestone. By the year 2050, the world population will reach nine billion. English scholar Malthus (1766-1834) popularized the economic theory that the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of earth to produce subsistence.”
As we welcome the seven-billionth global inhabitant, we also acknowledge the challenges to accommodate a burgeoning population: depletion of resources, scarcity of food and water, the daunting task of waste management, and our overcrowded cities and villages. Humanity’s total demand is unsustainable. We are now utilizing planet earth’s regenerative resources 50 percent faster than they can renew. The question is, what will come next?
A large portion of people in the world do not have enough resources to secure even the most basic needs. The suffering is intolerable. It affects the rest of humanity—most visibly through conflict and instability. According to the most recent statistics, planet earth can reasonably support about five billion people, yet we are two billion in excess. The world population currently consumes commodities and natural resources at a rate of roughly 1.5-times that of earth’s regenerative capacity.
Since the 1970s, human consumption has been in “ecological overshoot” with annual demand on resources exceeding what the earth can regenerate in 365 days. It now takes our planet one year and six months to regenerate what we use in one year.
Reduction in individual consumption can be achieved technologically by encouraging efficiently-built, compact cities where non-car transport options are more viable than personal vehicles. Other options include cradle-to-cradle industrial approaches, renewable energy sources, and smart grids. Technological innovations can increase the efficiency of resource use: video conferencing instead of travel, cellular phones rather than resource-expensive landlines, and energy-efficient electronic devises in place of paper.
Underlying any action, there are many non-coercive and effective strategies that should be considered to reduce and eventually reverse population growth. A slow reduction in population may generate few resource gains in the short term, but it will lead to a cumulative decline in bio-capacity deficits in the long term. Population growth can most effectively be discouraged through voluntary measures such as information about and access to family planning and female education. Successfully implemented, these strategies of decreased population growth can significantly increase human well-being through longer life spans, greater education opportunities, stable lifestyles, and reduced potential for violence.
We, the world citizens, must decide what kind of future we want. Progress and quality of life are not dependent on year-to-year growth in per capita income alone, nor do we need an excess supply of goods to satisfy our needs. The short-term goals of our economy, such as maximizing profits and accumulating capital, are major obstacles to sustainable development. We should return to a more decentralized economy and reduce world trade in light of its environmental impact and energy costs.
We must ask whether our species has the right to reproduce to such an extent that we may reach a population of 11 or 12 billion by the end of the century, laying claim to every square meter of our earth, and restricting the habitats and well-being of all other life to an ever increasing degree.
We should not strive to place all aspects of our lives under the dictates of a purely competitive economic system. Without common principles of global governance, sustainability cannot be achieved. Making justice and fairness a reality for all is not only a moral and ethical imperative, but also the most important means of securing world peace in the long term.