How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Population Boom

Via MetaFilter, Foreign Policy points out that worrying about the environmental and economic effects of an increasing world population is a displacement activity that helps us Western developed-nation types avoid the real source of the shortages problems to come… namely ourselves.

Yes, threats to global sustainability are clear and present dangers. But the 10,760-fold increase in aluminum production reported by environmentalist Clive Ponting, or the 380-fold increase in oil production, or even the 24-fold increase in global GDP over the course of the last century isn’t driven by population growth. It is growing consumption per person that is the problem. And that, of course, is not the fault of Africans. The blame lies with wealthy countries that do nearly all of the consuming. The poorest 650 million people on the planet live on about 1 percent of the income of the richest 650 million. Each year, we add 1 percent or more to the incomes of those richest people – GDP per capita growth rates in wealthy countries are at least that high.  And that 1 percent growth has the same impact on global consumption as would doubling the number of people living on the income of that bottom 650 million of the world’s population. So, those people sitting in rich countries pontificating on unsustainable global populations might want to start off with the bit of that population they see in the mirror every morning.

And from the same MeFi post, the wonderfully-monikered Rick Bookstaber suggests that the consumption-per-person problem might be about to hit a paradigm shift:

The real paradigm shift, or more like a paradigm drift, because it is slowly enveloping us, is that we are moving toward preferences and lifestyle where we will simply consume less. A lot less. Like improvements in efficiency, changes in tastes and preferences are nothing new, but this time is different.

I have already discussed this in previous posts on life in the experience machine and the world of smaller scale. In The Accidental Egalitarian I make the point that with the increased focus on technology – where we spend more and more of our time on our cell phone, doing emails, watching DVDs and surfing the web – there is less of a difference between how the super rich and the reasonably well off spend their time hour by hour during their typical days. The point of that post is that in practical terms the income gap is not as large as it might seem; that several orders of magnitude differences in income don’t make all that much difference in what these people do with their time. The point here is a corollary: those activities do not require much in the way of material consumption, and therefore not much in terms of commodities.

In The Technology-Driven Consumption Trap I argue that in the not-so-distant future the main items we will demand, beyond food, clothing and shelter, are “game systems” that approach the level of Nozick’s experience machine, allowing us to have the experience of being anyone we want, wherever we want (even in a world we have designed), accompanied by whomever we want, all in Realicta Immersion 3-D® with full sensory feedback.

Our demand for housing and transportation, two of the biggest commodity hogs, will be lower. McMansions will be totally passe. It should already be dawning on people that most all of our non-sleeping hours at home are spent in the kitchen and its adjacent family room. Living rooms and dining rooms are relics. When people internalize the fact that they spend most of their non-sleeping, non-bathroom, non-eating time in a ten by twelve foot space with their various experience machine prototypes, large homes will, by and large, go the way of cars with fins and chrome.

A rather market-Panglossian view of things, perhaps (especially coming from a guy who works for the Financial Stability Oversight Council at Washington – optimism must be more vital than oxygen in that office, I’m thinking), but I wouldn’t want to entirely discount the forces and pressures Bookstaber is talking about there, either. Perhaps the shift to a predominantly digital economy will change the way we define wealth… though as we continue down the path of urbanisation, excess living space is surely always going to remain a display for conspicuous consumption? (Insert Soylent Green reference here.)

2 thoughts on “How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Population Boom”

  1. Several years ago when green architecture was starting to take off in the US, builders lamented the extra cost involved and staged massive lobbies based on this. While there are costs for certification for people who want to show off their green roots, the actual process of green building itself is specifically designed to lower costs or to payback any added costs over a short timeline. Main green building tricks are things like turning the building on the lot line so that it receives sunlight at a different angle and putting windows in places that will naturally control the heat. There’s not specifically an initial cost, just an education curve, related to many of these improvement that lengthen the life of the building and reduce the cost to run it and environmental impact. The word “green building” has become so emotionally charged, when the reality is that it represents specific technologies. Seems the lag in green building is not technological, but educational and cultural, perhaps mirroring 1st world lifestyle and consumption… what was the WG quote? … The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

  2. Maybe “how the super rich and the reasonably well off spend their time hour by hour during their typical days” is not so different from how the not-so-rich do that. However, the latter usually have much less time to spend in ways of their choice.

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