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From The Invisibility of Success:
Excerpt 3

The First Handle on the Population Problem

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) had written: “The power of popula-
tion is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce
subsistence for Man.” Based on this, he most famously (and very
influentially) predicted that we would eventually fail to be able to
grow enough food to feed our growing population.

What was new and most alarming in modern times was the
realization that the increasing rate of our population growth was
like nothing that could have been imagined in the age of Thomas
Malthus. Modern research and modern surveys revealed that our
population was doubling at an increasingly rapid rate, going from
one billion to two billion in 123 years (1804-1927), from two billion
to four billion in 48 years (1927-1975), and from three billion to six
billion in just 39 years (1960-1999).

Two handles on the problem presented themselves. The first was a
handle with three mandate buttons you have to push to SLOW and
ultimately END population growth. The mandates are: We must
(1) promote the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning;
(2) advance the status of women; and (3) drastically improve social
and economic conditions worldwide. THEN our population will
automatically level off and soon stop growing entirely. These first
two mandates probably need no explaining; they have wide support
and are realized to a small degree every year, though probably not
enough to account for any decrease in population growth. Here’s
the reasoning behind the third (and most ambitious) of these

It’s an established fact that population growth has leveled off and
even ceased in many socially and economically advanced nations.
The United States and some European nations are examples. The
citizens of these nations typically spend a lot of money on their
children’s health, education, and social well-being. Children are
a welcome but heavy economic burden until near adulthood, and
this condition discourages most parents from having large families.
Contrast this with the world’s least socially and economically
advanced nations, where children, far from being economic burdens,
typically begin to contribute to family income at a very early age
(and very little money is spent on them). For this reason, having large
families is actually an economic benefit, so it’s no surprise that these
nations have the world’s highest rate of population growth; this can
be halted by helping them attain the social and economic wealth of
the most advanced nations.

On its face, this would seem to make sense, to be obvious. All
we have to do is make all seven billion humans on the planet as
wealthy as middle-class Americans and the problem of population
growth will disappear. What is not quite so obvious is the fact that
solving this problem creates another that is just as devastating.

A United Nations Human Development Report of 1998 states that
“Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource
base. . . Runaway growth in consumption in the past 50 years is
putting strains on the environment never before seen.”

To see how consumption presently stands (and to keep the math
simple), let’s pick an arbitrary number to designate the amount of all
resources consumed by humans every year—100 billion megatons.
As it presently stands (based on percentages from the Global Issues
Web site), the world’s richest 20% consume 76 billion megatons,
the poorest 20% consume 2 billion megatons, and the middle 60%
consume 42 billion megatons (100 billion megatons total, as you
see). If all nations were to become as rich as the wealthiest 20%,
then the 20% poorest would consume 74 MORE billion megatons
than they do now, and the middle 60% would consume 54 MORE
billion megatons than they do now, bringing the total to 204 billion

In other words, if we somehow managed to push all three buttons
on this handle, our population would stop growing, but its
catastrophic impact on the environment would MORE THAN



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