This post also appeared at Tate’s personal blog, Short Sentences.
My uncle has a tendency to prognosticate doom. Doom regarding overpopulation, finite resources, biodiversity, and human nature. He recently wrote about such things through the lens of whale bone corsets.
We periodically discuss these issues when we’re together. And I probably enjoy conversations with him more than any others. He usually sticks to a quasi-Malthusian script while I try to slay his doom.
He likes to tell me that, while he’s not an “expert,” he knows that “an 8 ounce glass full of home brew will not go into a four ounce glass without a lot of it going on the floor.” I push back and ask, “but what if the glass is growing too?”, as the food supply has since the advent of agriculture.
He also frequently blames competition fostered by markets as a force that will eventually lead to the planet’s destruction. According to him, our species must cooperate in order to ensure sustainability. But the essence of a market is people cooperating to exchange things and ideas. Markets, voluntary ones at least (and if it’s not voluntary, it’s not a market in my opinion), inherently require cooperation.
My uncle’s right that they also promote competition, which is the driving force behind most technological advances. Throughout history those advances gradually afforded people the luxury of not worrying so much about starving, making possible things such as books, air conditioning, sweet tea vodka, musical genres, Peruvian fried chicken, and internet.
Obviously not everyone on the planet has access to all innovations and inventions. But it seems like, even taken as a whole, humans are doing better and better as time goes on. For instance, the percentage of people living on less than $1 a day has halved in recent years.
Our cancerous population does continue to grow, however, and there are clearly limits to that growth. Physical resources are finite, as is energy. But neither is created nor destroyed. If we burn up all the energy from oil, coal, and gas, it’s still out there somewhere. The challenge is figuring out where and how to harness it before we choke all the trees or start eating each other.
I do agree with my uncle that many people today — especially Americans — use a lot more stuff, space, resources, and energy than necessary. Many other people condemn them for it, and many of those people consequently become smug bastards (or maybe they already were?). But as long as energy and resource users are paying for each, then how much they use is their prerogative.
I don’t believe that anyone can objectively determine how much water or energy is too much to use. But I am conscious when I profligately use either. Not because my conserving will save the planet, not because it’s my duty, and not because I want people to think I’m green — whatever that means. For me, it’s mainly because I’ve lived on much less than I often use today. It’s amazing how little water you need to bathe or wash things when you have to pay a high price — in time, effort, or money — to get it.
So while I don’t put much stock in Soylent Green scenarios, inflection points of doom, or peak oil theory, I do think being conscious of one’s resource use is a good thing.
Ultimately, I have faith in the ingenuity and desire of mankind to ensure the survival of the species. That combined with people’s adoration of little children and what entails making ’em should be enough.