More and more scientists, professors and philosophers alike are warning about the potential catastrophes that steady growth can lead to. They urge politicians, business people, and the average citizens to start questioning the exponential growth model upon which modern civilization is based.
What is Exponential Growth?
Exponential growth sounds simple enough. Most people learned about it in high school algebra class. It is not a complicated principle, but it is one that is often forgotten, to society’s detriment. It means that something is growing steadily; it’s increasing at a percentage rate. Any steady growth is exponential growth. If the population is growing at a rate of 1%, it is increasing exponentially. The only difference between a rate of growth of 1% and 10% is the doubling time.
For instance, if a population is growing at a rate of 1% per year, it will double in 70 years. If the population is growing at a rate of 10%, it will double in only 7 years. So, if there is a population of 1 billion people, growing at a rate of 1%, the population will be 2 billion in 70 years, 4 billion in 140 years, 8 billion in 210 years, and a laughable 16 billion in 280 years. In essence, the population has gone from 1 billion people to 16 billion in only 4 lifetimes, at a mere 1% growth rate.
Why is Steady Growth Bad?
The problem is that most of the economic and social systems that civilization depends on nowadays are based on exponential growth. High rates of growth are encouraged in the economy, in technological advances, in the size of communities, etc. It’s been taught through schools and the media, that the systems will flounder if they do not keep growing.
The problem is that there simply is not enough room for human systems to keep growing. The growth of the economy, technology and most everything else that people consider progress is running into very real physical limitations. They rely on the exploitation of limited natural resources. Unlimited growth cannot happen in a world with limited resources. Even the amount of space people have, the area in which people can move around is a limited resource. Therefore, exponential growth can be very dangerous.
To put the example above in real terms, our global population is currently 6.8 billion. It was only 3 billion in 1960. This is very alarming. The human species is now growing at a rate of 1.1%. So, in one lifetime from now, less than 70 years, the global population will be 13.6 billion. The median estimate that published works refer to as the carrying capacity of the Earth is 12 billion (Cohen). Meaning that, on average, most experts think that the world’s resources cannot support more than 12 billion human beings.
Economic vs Population Growth
However, it’s not only population growth that is alarming. It’s economic growth as well. It’s simply not feasible to have continued steady (exponential) growth of an economy based on material inputs and outputs in a world with limited resources. Yet, the media, politicians, and corporations continue to encourage the citizens to identify themselves as consumers. “Help the economy grow!” they exclaim. It is a safe conclusion to make that they don’t understand the exponential function within the context of real, planetary limits.
In conclusion, what could be considered the human race’s biggest challenge right now is to do exactly what everyone’s been told is bad: stop the growth. It’s time to balance out. The human race must now find an entirely new mode of existence. A mode of existence that involves keeping populations, economies and resource use at a steady (not growing-not shrinking) level; the ultimate balancing act.