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Thread: Slowly declining population/slowly contracting economy = stable?

  1. #1 Slowly declining population/slowly contracting economy = stable? 
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    As economic growth cannot continue indefinitely, and our current global economy already putting huge burdens on the natural environment, could a slowly declining world population together with a slowly contracting economy be a solution? If the economy declines at a slower rate than the population, then per capita income can still rise.Any thoughts?


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    As economic growth cannot continue indefinitely
    Why not? I challenge your premise.


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    I think that on a finite planet, the environment will eventually become a limiting factor (it could be running out of a resource such as water, or too much pollution from industry affecting people's health). The economic growth since WW2 has already had a heavy impact on the environment.

    Technology could allow us to have less impact per $, but it wouldn't be able to go down to zero (unless it was a non-manufacturing, service-only economy).

    I can't prove that an economy can't grow forever, but having seen the damaging effects of the last 60 years of economic growth on the natural world, I think re-considering our pro-growth policies would be prudent, and that we should try to err on the side of caution when huge issues like species-extinction are at stake.
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    It depends how you measure economic growth. Just going off of GDP can be deceptive. If people begin to value air because it is getting scarce and you have to buy it, then air production would count as a contribution to GDP. Yes....even though you're producing something that used to be free.

    Quote Originally Posted by russell_c_cook View Post
    As economic growth cannot continue indefinitely, and our current global economy already putting huge burdens on the natural environment, could a slowly declining world population together with a slowly contracting economy be a solution? If the economy declines at a slower rate than the population, then per capita income can still rise.Any thoughts?
    That would be the ideal direction for things to go. Per Capita growth is the only growth that means anything at all. It alone determines what your quality of life will be. If per Capita declines, but total GDP goes up, that means the human condition is declining.

    Wanting a high number of humans to live on Earth AT ONE TIME is the worst kind of short sighted thinking. Sure it's good for as many people as possible to experience life, but it's better to have a trillion generations of 500 million each, taking turns owning the planet one after the other, rather than 10 billion trying to share it at once, and then they nuke themselves and don't have any kids. In the end, the second scenario is fewer total people. It may look like more, but it's not.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    As economic growth cannot continue indefinitely
    Why not? I challenge your premise.
    Lynx, could you clarify for me why you think that economic growth can continue indefinitely?
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    As time goes on we become increasingly more efficient at just about everything from mining raw materials, using raw materials and use of energy. We are also getting better at recycling resources. Also non of use can predict whether drawing materials from other planets will become viable in the next century or so. Now I'll be the first one who'd admit things look pretty damn bleak, but than I doubt my grand father who sat in a wet trench under artillery fire during WWI and never could have imagined we'd even survive the 20th century.
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    Thanks for the reply.This idea that efficiency gains will allow us to keep growing whilst keeping resource throughput at a sustainable level has many advocates, but seems fallacious to me. The graph below from the Sustainable Europe Research Institute shows how between 1980 and 2007 the material intensity of the global economy decreased, but because the economy had itself grown faster than this decrease, resource extraction actually increased.
    http://www.materialflows.net/images/...extraction.jpg
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    Also, here's a breakdown of global resource extraction from 1980 to 2007. http://www.materialflows.net/images/...extraction.jpg
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    And I'd add that UN population models that suggest we level off in 30 or 40 years completely failing to account for the fact that wealth and population growth go hand and hand but there aren't enough materials to sustain most of the world population at anything close to the economic wealth of nations near zero population growth now.

    But we're all assuming that growth will follow the wasteful consumptions of the last century. That's far from certain and examples of skipping generations of technology, such as going directly from no phone to cell-phone or no power to solar power, are easy to find.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    But we're all assuming that growth will follow the wasteful consumptions of the last century. That's far from certain and examples of skipping generations of technology, such as going directly from no phone to cell-phone or no power to solar power, are easy to find.
    But my point is, looking at the years 1980 -2007, improved technology helped us to reduce the material intensity of the economy, but it wasn't enough to offset the growth in the economy. So, I don't think history gives us reason to expect technology to allow us to grow the global economy within environmental limits.Rather than continuing to grow and putting all our chips on technology, why not consider the option of a steady state economy?
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  12. #11  
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    Quote Originally Posted by russell_c_cook View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox View Post
    But we're all assuming that growth will follow the wasteful consumptions of the last century. That's far from certain and examples of skipping generations of technology, such as going directly from no phone to cell-phone or no power to solar power, are easy to find.
    But my point is, looking at the years 1980 -2007, improved technology helped us to reduce the material intensity of the economy, but it wasn't enough to offset the growth in the economy. So, I don't think history gives us reason to expect technology to allow us to grow the global economy within environmental limits.Rather than continuing to grow and putting all our chips on technology, why not consider the option of a steady state economy?
    It depends on if you're looking at total GDP, or per capita GDP. Quality of life is not determined by total GDP. Only Per Capita GDP matters for determining that. Total GDP has limits, but Per Capita GDP can grow forever, so long as the means by which we obtain it is that we shrink the "capita" part, sharing the total amongst fewer and fewer people. That's the solution hardly anyone wants, but it is the best solution. We can obtain it without being mean to anyone simply by having fewer children (provided everyone is required to participate in that process equally.)


    Quote Originally Posted by russell_c_cook View Post
    Thanks for the reply.This idea that efficiency gains will allow us to keep growing whilst keeping resource throughput at a sustainable level has many advocates, but seems fallacious to me.
    That's because it is fallacious. Efficiency ends at 100%. You can't get 110%.

    What happens in practice, is the efficiency will always keep growing, but in a tapered manner. It grows more and more slowly so that you never quite reach 100%. It's like if you want to travel to a certain destination, and you walk half way there, then stop and walk half the remaining distance, then stop and walk half the remaining distance..... etc.. You never arrive, but you always feel like you're getting closer. It creates the illusion that infinite progress is possible even though the destination is a finite distance away.

    Another good analogy would be an object moving away from Earth at escape velocity. No matter how far it travels, the Earth's gravity will always be pulling on it, by smaller and smaller amounts, yet even after it travels an infinite amount of time, the object will never come to a stop, turn around, and come back. That's how efficiency moves also. 100% would be the stopping point you never reach.

    The only way to grow infinitely is to tap resources that have no upward limit on their supply, such as Sunlight, or to recycle. But even recycling has its limits because you can only have so much of a given resource in circulation at one time.
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  13. #12  
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    Quote Originally Posted by russell_c_cook View Post
    Rather than continuing to grow and putting all our chips on technology, why not consider the option of a steady state economy?
    Lynx, I'd like to hear your opinions of a steady state economy (a.k.a. economy in dynamic equilibrium). Some good introductory reading could be Tim Jackson's "Prosperity without Growth?" which you can download for free here:Prosperity without Growth? - The transition to a sustainable economy · Sustainable Development Commission
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