Crowded Planet and Supply

Last week, Oxford Computer Science Professor Steven Emmott published an excerpt of his book, Ten Billion, in The Guardian. The tone of the excerpt breaks all of the rules about communication on environmental issues. It uniformly grim and offers no solutions—verboten on two counts if you actually want people to listen, hear the message, and take action. However, the article, and presumably the book, deals head on with the foundation of environmental destruction—population growth—from which so many environmental groups and writers shy away. The article correctly points out that the constraints are not just climate, but water, waste, and concentrated populations combined with contaminated environments that lead to elevated risks of disease.

The Green Revolution caused the Malthusian crisis to go out of fashion. But Malthus was not wrong, but rather too narrow in his analysis; he identified food as a single, inflexible constraint. He didn’t allow for the expanding effects of technology and didn’t consider the ecosystem’s other limits. He should have identified multiple constraint that represent the ecosystem as a whole.

E.O. Wilson coined the term ‘technological prosthesis’ for pesticides, fertilizers, de-salinization, fossil fuels—anything that allows the population to continue to expand beyond what it would without technology. But these prostheses come at the cost of the complexity and resilience of the natural environment. Each prosthetic fix that allows us to go beyond natural carrying capacity also creates a point of weakness at which our built environment can fail.

The Earth has a carrying capacity. Technology and its continual advancement make that capacity hard to pinpoint, but it does not vitiate it all together. If the capacity is met, human population will inevitably be curtailed. The question now is merely whether the curtailment comes about humanely through policy and planning, or painfully, through ecosystem collapse.

Emmott’s article rightly states, “The fact is that they – we – are not being well informed. And that’s part of the problem. We’re not getting the information we need. The scale and the nature of the problem is simply not being communicated to us. And when we are advised to do something, it barely makes a dent in the problem.” But beyond this, Emmott’s prescription become confused. He says that it makes no sense to tell people not to have children, but insists that population control is necessary. He rightly dismisses ‘green lifestyle’ choices as ineffective, but goes on to insist that curtailing consumption is necessary. Ultimately he calls for behavioral change writ large. The prescription is neither new nor actionable. And the final line in the article—that children should be taught to use guns—is bracing, theatrical, but unhelpful.

But Emmott is right about information. Most people, even those concerned about the environment, do not think about the gravity of environmental projects or the consequences of those problems’ trajectories. Mobile technology and the Internet now present unprecedented opportunities for people to have real-time information on the state of not just their own environment, but the health of far flung ecosystems that are being deforested, degraded or acidified. Technology can also allow for people to understand, with a swipe of a barcode, the embedded carbon or water in the products that they are using. But just providing information on the frightening state and trajectories of our environment is well known to merely create panic and causes people to turn away or simply disbelieve.

So what if this mobile information were coupled with information on how our legislators were voting, on critical issues, and how their votes had the power to impact, either positively or negatively, the environmental data that was scrolling across our screens? What if the data tracked our lifestyle choice—including having children—and told us both the immediate and likely future impact of those choices on the environment, ten, fifteen, and twenty years in the future? Now that might just have the chance of bringing about powerful behavioral change.

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