Limits: We Cannot Grow Forever


Growth Growth Growth.

Everywhere you look in the media today everything is all about growth.  Job growth. Economic growth.  Energy growth. Very rarely do I see anyone responsibly talking about limits and what those limits necessarily mean.

We live on a finite world.  We have access to a finite quantity of resources.  There are limits.  No amount of hope denial is going to change this and it is important that we begin to understand these limits as a society if we are going to have any chance of dealing with hitting our limits.

Now, I understand what many of you reading this might be thinking.  Scientific and technological development has served us pretty well so far, surely it will continue to do so in the future.  The truth is that yes, we can expect that various key discoveries and advancements will influence the numbers in many ways and that chances are in the next 30-50 years there are going to be solutions to problems that today would seem like outright magic.  Nonetheless, there are limits.

Something important to keep in mind is that there is simultaneously two limits to worry about for any measure. Our current limit, and the maximum limit. This distinction is not that hard to understand in theory, but it gets increasingly complicated to wrap your head around the more you think about it.  For starters lets think about land.  Now surely there is enough land right? I mean, recently XKCD’s What If blog pointed out that if you took every person on earth and brought them all together we would only take up an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.  Not very big.  But is this in any way meaningful? Not really. Think about the amount of space you feel that you need in your day to day life. Think about the products, services, good, and resources you use on a day to day basis and try to figure out how much land it takes to supply all of that. This is an important point for a few reasons.  First, realize that if you are reading this, you are likely better off than the vast majority of human beings in existence.  By so much that it is not really even close.  Second, realize that you, likely, do not want a reduced quality of life. If anything I would wager that you are either happy or want some kind of increase to your quality of life, whether that entails more food, more energy, more whatever is only something you can answer.  Third, realize that pretty much everyone else, the billions of them, also want a greater quality of life.

Well, surely there is enough land for everyone, isn’t there? Lets go to an outside source for some numbers. The Global Living Project (GLP) has an amazing webpage that describes the concept of an ecological foot print.  They do some basic math and break down, on average, how much land per person is currently being used.

The GLP reports that there is 126 billion acres of Earth. Of that only 29 billion acres are bio-productive land and sea.  The remainder is comprised of low bio-productive oceans, deserts, ice caps, and human settlements.

Now since the GLP web page was put up our world population has grown a bit, from the 6.4 billion they use in their calculations to over 7,083,624,500 individuals, according to World Meters. So I will update the population portion of their calculations with our new number.

At over 7 billion people we are currently have available approximately 4.09 acres of bio-productive earth per person that can be used to meet all of their needs.  This has to account for all of their drinking water, all of their food, all of their clothing, shelter, waste disposal, and so on.  Now, you might be thinking, well different countries use more than others, there are vastly different qualities of life throughout the world. Now lets think for a minute.  Where in the world would you agree the quality of life would constitute an acceptable minimum standard of living? Keep in mind that we are talking about everyone, all 7+ billion of us.

Personally, as a relatively uneducated quick guess I would say that I think that a quality of life somewhere between Russia and the US would constitute a reasonable standard.  Well, according to GLP the US uses about 24 acres per person and Russia uses around 11, which gives us a middle ground of about 17.5 acres per person. Well, we certainly do not have enough land for that, above we found that there is only 4.09 acres of land available per person now.  If our minimum standard of living requires 17.5 acres of land per person then we have to do a few things. For starters, we could try and expand the bio-productive land.  Lets just say that for discussion it were somehow possible to convert the entire earth to bio-productive area if we put in the work to do so.  Well, 17.5 acres per person times 7,083,624,500 individuals means that with today’s population we would need to use 123,963,428,750 acres of the earths surface productively, or over 98% of the earths surface.  And keep in mind, that is with just todays population numbers.

At 17.5 acres per person and using the entire earths surface productively we could sustain approximately 7.2 billion people.  After that the quality of life for some necessarily goes down.

Lets look at it another way, what if instead of converting the worlds low-productive surfaces into productive surfaces we addressed the size of the population.  Using only the worlds 29 billion acres of productive area how many people could we sustain at 17.5 acres per person? 1,657,142,857 people or roughly 23% of the worlds current population. There are not too many desirable ways to get the population to those levels.

Anyway, I am tired and starting to ramble. I found a few new resources when digging around for this post so I will write some more on global foot prints, quality of life, population size, population growth, and more in the coming days when I am less tired.

In the meantime, let me know what you think.  How much land per person should we be using on average to maintain a reasonably quality of life? Can we do it? Can we have a fair, balanced, and sustainable world?

Where have I gone wrong in my thinking? If you disagree tell me why and where and I will try to respond.

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