Overpopulation, Overconsumption, and Technology
Aquifers are drying up. There are severe, prolonged droughts in regions that produce our food thanks to global heating. Soon there will be wars fought over water. Species are going extinct faster than ever thanks to industrialization and the endless demand for natural resources. The global ecosystem is dying. The future is not looking good for humanity. And why is this?
Balancing The Sustainability Inequality
So at a very high level, we need to satisfy the following inequality to achieve global sustainability:
number of humans x average resource consumption per human <= rate of resource replenishment
This inequality isn’t perfect. For one, it might be better to use this inequality on a per-resource, per-region basis. Second, the variables aren’t really independent. For example, many natural resources replenish slower the more they’re consumed. To keep things simple, we’re going to ignore all that and use the inequality to represent all resources together and assume its variables are independent. These simplifying assumptions won’t affect the points I’m going to make.
Use Less Resources
According to this inequality, the people who suggest that we all use less resources have a point. If humanity uses less resources, that decreases the left side of the inequality and gets us closer to where we need to be. So I’m all for reducing resource usage as much as possible, individually and collectively. Only a fool would argue against that.
For that, we need a culture shift. We need to stop being so identified with what we own, which brands we purchase products from, and how much stuff we have. We need to stop buying things we don’t need, stop using air travel, use public transport, and go vegetarian or vegan. The modern fashion industry needs to die. It should be more fashionable to reuse old stuff rather than buying everything brand new.
We need the right to repair. Products need to be made to last longer than they do. We need replaceable parts for all products and manuals for how to fix them ourselves. We need standards to force manufacturers to use compatible hardware. There is so much yet to be done in terms of reducing our resource usage.
Decrease The Global Population
Now all that’s great. But why limit ourselves to just manipulating one variable of the inequality? We are clearly in a dire situation as a species and we need to do all we can to mitigate the upcoming catastrophe. By choosing not to have children, especially those of us who live in rich countries which is probably everybody reading this, we can reduce total resource consumption far more than any other life decision would. So please don’t have kids.
Along with that, we need a culture change. We need to find ways to strongly discourage and disincentivize having children. It’s a selfish decision that costs us all resources we don’t have and it cannot continue if we are to have a sustainable population.
Reducing the global population via not having children won’t solve the resource problem in the short term, but it seems necessary in order to achieve long term sustainability.
Invent New Technology
Humanity may be able to become more sustainable by inventing new technology. New technology works on two variables of the aforementioned inequality. It can reduce the average resource consumption per human by giving us what we already have while consuming less resources and it can increase the rate of resource replenishment.
But technology is a double-edged sword. It often leads to more resource consumption, not less. Computers are a good example. The microprocessors of today can perform orders of magnitude more operations per second than their predecessors and take less energy to do it. Computer hard drives can store more. But now, thanks to the increased efficiency, there is increased demand. Now there are massive server farms that use huge amounts of electricity (and water). Now, programs aren’t written efficiently any more because the resource constraints aren’t there.
Rerunning the human experiment a thousand times, some technologies would probably result in increased global resource usage every single time because that’s just their nature.
But even when a technology isn’t inherently unsustainable, global economic systems prevent sustainability. You cannot have unlimited growth and be sustainable at the same time. There are only so many people on planet Earth to sell products to. So when you run out of customers, the only thing you can do is encourage existing customers to consume more than is sustainable.
Our economic systems need to be redesigned to enforce sustainability. Companies currently aren’t being charged for their negative externalities. They cause environmental destruction and others bear the cost and environmental regulations are too weak to prevent it. We need new, stronger regulations.
There’s obviously a lot more to be said here that I don’t have time or motivation to get to today. For example, strategies for creating political pressure for sustainability. But anyhow, I’ve given a very high level overview of the resource problem we’re facing and the three main ways we can fix it.
There is no reason to argue over which pathway to sustainability humanity should take. We’re not in a position to be so picky. Given the significant probability of failure, we have to reduce our resource consumption, decrease the human population, and invent new technologies which help us use less resources all simultaneously.