By Donella Meadows
–April 2, 1992–
Twenty years ago there were 3.6 billion people in the world. Now there are 5.5 billion. In another twenty years, according to United Nations projection, there will be 7.5 and by the end of the next century 12.5 billion.
In 1970 the world had 250 million automobiles. In 1990 there were 560 million. Still only about 10 percent of the world’s people own a car. If the 7.5 billion people expected in the year 2010 are to have, say, half the U.S. density of one car for every two people, the number of cars will climb to 1875 million. That would be more than a tripling within the next twenty years.
In 1970 the world economy burned 2.3 billion tons of coal. In 1990 it burned 5.2 billion. Over the same 20 year period the electric generating capacity of the world rose from 1.1 million to 2.6 million megawatts. The amount of fertilizers used by the world’s farmers grew from 70 to 140 metric tons per year.
The size of the human economy — its roads, houses, vehicles, factories, smokestacks, dumps — has roughly doubled in two decades. Some things have grown much faster than that (nuclear power generation increased 23-fold), and other things have grown slower (oil consumption by only 41 percent). But the overwhelming trend of the global economy has been physical expansion. Nearly everyone celebrates that growth. Most people expect more of it to come.
There is another characteristic of the global economy clearly visible in the 20-year trend, and for that matter the 200-year trend. That is, in spite of pervasive growth, the persistence of poverty. To be sure growth has lifted some people out of poverty. But growth tends to happen primarily where it has already occurred. In the past twenty years the average per capita GNP of the United States (in 1987 dollars) rose from $14,000 to $18,000. In Japan it rose from $4,000 to $24,000. In Nigeria it fell from $600 to $350. In India it crept up from $200 to $300.
Even when there is economic growth in poor countries, its effect on human welfare is undermined by population growth, 90 percent of which takes place among the poor. From 1970 to 1990 food production in Africa doubled — an amazing achievement — but population rose even faster, and so food production per person fell. In Asia food production tripled in twenty years, but food per person rose only slightly. Two decades of astounding agricultural growth produced not more food for hungry people, but more hungry people.
Why all this growth, and why this continuing poverty? The causes are deeply embedded in the economic, technical, and value systems of the industrialized world.
Population and industrial output double and double again because both people and factories are self-multiplying. It takes people to make people, and the more people you have, the more new ones you can get. The same for factories — it takes steel mills to make the steel for more steel mills; it takes electric plants to make the electricity to turn the motors to form the parts for more electric plants. One of the reasons that economic growth goes faster in the rich world is that there are already more factories there to make more factories.
Population growth goes faster in the poor world because to poor folks children are real economic assets — about the only ones available. People living in poverty put their kids to work, doing household or farm chores, taking care of animals and of other kids. One son can work the land, other sons can be sent to the city to earn money, daughters can be married off for a dowry. Children are the only hope for support in old age. It is completely rational for a poor family to want many children.
Thus the persistence of economic growth for the rich and population growth for the poor. Both trends are aided by value systems that encourage growth, and also by all the ways the rich systematically grow at the expense of the poor — including debt and interest payments, power over prices and wages, and power to swing government budgets more toward the wants of the haves than toward the needs of the have-nots.
It’s really no surprise that the record of the past twenty years has been both growth and poverty. The surprise will come when that pattern changes. That will have to happen soon, because the physical growth of human economy is taking an great toll on the planet.
Every person, factory, car, house, appliance is a standing demand for food, energy, water, materials. It is also a continuous source of waste and pollution. A stream of materials and energy flows from the earth’s soils, waters, forests, fish, game, mines, and fossil fuel deposits through the economy and back to the earth as pollution and waste. The population and economy have grown to the point where the material and energy sources are falling, nearly all of them, nearly everywhere. And the sinks to which wastes flow — from urban landfills to the global atmosphere — are overflowing. The flow of materials and energy from the earth, through the human economy, and back to the earth, is already beyond its limits. It cannot double again. It cannot even be sustained at its current level. It will have to go down, not up, and the sooner the better.
That need not be a tragedy. It could happen without threatening either the comforts of the rich or the hopes of the poor. It could even be a tremendous opportunity. More about that next week.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992