Population Matters

Time for a New Paradigm

October 8th, 2009

Old paradigms die hard. Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution we have been operating under the growth paradigm–the belief that earth’s resources are–for all practical purposes–infinite.  It may have seemed that way two hundred years ago or even two years ago, but the paradigm is wrong and it’s always been wrong.

We may never run out of sand, clay, igneous rock and salt water, but with world population at almost 7 billion and still growing we could easily run short of oil, natural gas, fresh water, top soil, arable land, and the precious minerals that sustain us and our lifestyles.  The critical question is “How do we manage the problems posed by the possible depletion of these scarce resources?”

Economists like to focus on what they call relative scarcity (i.e. the pricing and production of saleable items in a market economy).  In dealing with relative scarcity, economic success is measured by efficiency and low prices.  On the other hand, success in dealing with absolute scarcity is measured by sustainable production levels, not by ever rising consumption.

In conventional economics–with its focus on relative scarcity–the long-term doesn’t play a prominent role; it’s short-term economic output that really matters.  As John Maynard Keynes, the great English economist, once famously quipped, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

Today, John Maynard Keynes is dead, but his focus on short-term economic output is still very much alive.  In true Keynesian fashion, policymakers today are preoccupied with recovering from the Great Recession.  Given the hardship that has been imposed by the global downturn, that’s understandable.  But the longer range and far greater concern–the one that should be keeping us up at night–is what Tom Friedman and a few others are now calling the Great Disruption.

In March of this year, Friedman wrote a column for the New York Times on the subject. ”  Here’s what he said:

“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Two days ago, the Population Institute, the Population Media Center and the Wallace Global Fund hosted a public forum to examine  that critical question. Entitled, Population Growth and Rising Consumption:  What’s Sustainable?, the forum broad together five notable thinkers on economic and environmental sustainability, including Dennis Meadows, one of the nation’s foremost thinkers on limits to growth.

Next week a recorded webcast of the event will be posted on our website.  When that happens, we will be taking a closer look at the economic challenges posed by population growth and rising consumption, and discussing the corresponding need for a new economic paradigm.

Stay tuned.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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