Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Population Bomb Redoux

Remember Paul Ehrlich's book, "Population Bomb", which predicted mass starvation by the early 1980's due to runaway population growth? Didn't happen, we ducked that bullet by increasing the agricultural yield and upped our consumption of fish and meat. This required corporate farming and fishing which used financial resources to input the energy and effort to increase food supplies, mostly at the expense of local ecosystems. Part of it is due to the costs of energy and equipment to keep food production at a maximum - turning oil into food - which again dumps pollution, pesticides, fertilizers and carbon into the air and water. It's a system of money that props up an artificial food supply that is increasingly volatile and has encroached on natural systems that are the "commons" of the globe.

Money is one form of information, and tracking it as it expands and contracts underscores how systems can collapse and degrade very rapidly, and take years to recover. It's a dynamic interaction, with many complex factors that have to be balanced in order to prevent the degradation of the common resource pool that unregulated use of assets creates. There is no "invisible hand" moving capitalistic systems or natural systems to balanced equilibrium. It is, rather, an increasingly volatile cycle of intensive buildup and subsequent disintegration.

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is a paper that showed that the relationship of self-interest and resource management has to be balanced. This rationale, originally an exploration of the issue of overpopulation, has now expanded to show how self-interest destroys common assets and natural resources. This means that the modern commons must be considered as all of nature and animal populations in the global commons. There is obviously a limit to how much humanity can consume without restoring balance to the natural systems.

But how do you achieve this preservation of the common global resources with a population that has already exceeded earth's carrying capacity since 1980? An interview with Bill Ryerson, founder of the Population Media Center, outlines how groups of people can be taught through stories to change their behavior. These stories are entertainment, soap opera, and educational documentaries. What this could do is help populations of people become self-limiting by choice, and thus diminish the demands on ecosystems that use up all available resources and diminish the critical diversity of species that is necessary for functioning ecosystems.

The fiscal reality check that we're currently experiencing on a worldwide basis has its parallel in natural system collapse, which is something that can be averted by the development of a steady-state system that produces a livable environment without consuming the world's common resources. That's the tragedy of the commons. Everyone's self-interests ends up devouring more than the planet can bear.