Nov 11, 2015: 7,377,870,064 Elephants in the Room


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In our June 28th Newsletter article I wrote that I was glad Pope Francis had spoken out against climate change but disappointed that he hadn’t said anything about population growth. This prompted a surprising and troubling response from a very dear friend of mine who came close to accusing me of being in favour of genocide and infanticide. I replied that, no, I’m not in favour of genocide or infanticide. I simply don’t believe human life on the planet can survive unless something is done to curb our population growth and I am in favour of education and birth control. Unfortunately I haven’t heard back from my friend and I’m afraid that one brief mention of the word ‘population’ may have cost me a lifelong friend. So I can begin to understand why no politician, business or religious leader seems prepared to raise the issue and why we are left with 7.4 Billion elephants in the room.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ and found some interesting things. This Wikipedia page cites the origin of the idiom as being: ‘In 1814, Ivan Andreevich Krylov (1769-1844), poet and fabulist… wrote a fable entitled “The Inquisitive Man” which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant.’ The phrase has come to mean ‘an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed…. an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss’. This seems perfectly appropriate to the issue of global population, especially as the Wikipedia article goes on to state that ‘the idiom is commonly used in addiction recovery terminology to describe the reluctance of friends and family of an addicted person to discuss the person’s problem, thus aiding the person’s denial.’

It seems glaringly obvious to me that continued growth in the number of people on the planet is going to, at some point (if it hasn’t already), mean that we don’t have enough resources to feed, clothe, shelter, and provide a decent life for everyone. So why is NOBODY talking about it? Personally I think it’s because we’ve all been brainwashed into believing that growth is good for us. It seems to me that you cannot read anything about politics, business or human endeavour without the word ‘growth’ being used with the implied understanding that it is what we want. We have become addicted to growth and we are happy to deny that we have a problem and to ignore the elephant in the room.

Perpetual Growth = Cancer

We are labouring under a global economic system that is founded on the principle that ‘Growth is Good’. This founding principle requires perpetual growth in every measure of economic achievement. There is no question that this philosophy has led to an unprecedented spurt of technological and scientific endeavour, but at what point do we stop to question whether this is beneficial? Has all this economic growth actually made our lives any better? Has it been worth the cost in terms of human suffering and damage to the planet? I wonder what an aboriginal elder would have to say on the subject. Indigenous people all around the world seem to have a deep understanding of the need to nurture the earth that nurtures us. So what do they think about perpetual growth? To me it looks a lot like cancer… it grows and grows, gradually consuming, and eventually killing, its host. Are we on the same path?

When you think it through, the only way we can continue to ‘grow’ the global economy is by encouraging more and more people to consume more and more resources. I think this is why population growth is such a taboo subject… it lies at the heart of a belief that pervades every government, nation, religion and business in the world… the belief that ‘growth is good’. The addiction will only end when the resources run out unless we voluntarily, and globally, decide to change the system.

From ‘Growth’ to ‘Balance’

This economic paradigm of perpetual growth is killing the planet. I strongly believe that we need to change the goal from ‘growth’ to ‘balance’. Can you imagine a global economic system that strives for balance? For a start we would have to figure out how many people the planet can sustainably support. Then we’d have to find a way to more fairly distribute the available, sustainable, renewable resources to ensure that everyone has a decent quality of life. These thoughts would not sit well with the people and institutions that run the current system and who, not coincidentally, gain the most from it. I may well be crucified for uttering such blasphemy in the face of an economic and political system for which growth is god but we have these 7.4 Billion elephants in the room and I think it’s time someone mentioned it.

Of course I’m not the first to do so… there are all sorts of people out on the fringes, shouting from the hills that we have to consider the limits to global population growth. But no-one in the middle of things, no-one at the centre of the global stage, seems willing to risk putting their hand up and saying, ‘there is a huge problem looming and we had better take a long, hard look at it.’

‘Short of Workers and Consumers, China Abandons One Child Policy’

The above headline led an article that appeared in Bloomberg Business just two days ago. The article opens with the following paragraph (emphasis mine);

‘China ended one of the most ambitious demographic experiments in human history, abandoning the limit of one child for most families to foster the population growth required by the world’s second-biggest economy.’  

Well, that pretty much says it all but, in explanation for why they are abandoning the one-child policy, it adds ‘the baby limit now threatens to undermine growth’. I am in no position to pass judgement either for or against China’s one child policy. I’m simply using this article to illustrate my point that population growth is intimately connected, in economist’s and politician’s minds, to economic prosperity.

Ironically, the same article also states that, ‘after decades of discouraging people from having children, the challenge is changing the mindset of potential parents worried about the costs of expanding their families‘. Doesn’t that raise the question of who benefits from the ‘economic prosperity’ brought on by population growth? Surely the answer is that government and big business benefit and working families are left to bear the cost… yet again. I wouldn’t be surprised if, instead of allowing people to have two children, the Chinese government actually made it compulsory. It might be the only way they can get their ‘workers and consumers’ to accept the additional cost and achieve the ‘growth’ they so fervently believe in.

While I’m at it, is anyone else bothered by the fact that citizens of a country are seldom referred to as people any more? More often than not these days, we, the people, are called ‘consumers’ by politicians and the media. This clearly illustrates our position and purpose in society. We are valued most highly for how much we consume.

I apologise if any of the above offends anyone’s religious, economic or political sensibilities. It is certainly not my intention to offend, simply to ask the question, ‘Can the human race afford perpetual population growth?’ If not, then clearly the direction in which we are headed is unsustainable and will lead to untold hardship and misery at some point in the future. Perhaps there are ways that we can prevent an impending catastrophe but, like any addict, the road to recovery can only begin if we are willing to admit that we have a problem. Denying climate change or pretending that population growth is not an issue looks, to me, a lot like we’re ignoring the many elephant(s) in the room.

2 comments to Nov 11, 2015: 7,377,870,064 Elephants in the Room

  • Hi, I’m not offended, you’ve drawn attention to a very important issue. World population is growing exponentially, due to hit 10 billion before the end of the century. Scary.

    One interesting thing is that many more prosperous countries, such as Australia, have birth rates below replacement level(1.799 in 2014). The countries with very high birth rates are often countries also dealing with poverty and poor access to education and job opportunities for women. Part of the solution to this population explosion is to improve the position of women in our world, although it seems like we need more urgent responses too.

    • admin

      Thanks Liz, I think you’re right that improving education and opportunities for women around the world is an important part of the solution. Personally I’d gladly hand over the running of the whole show to women and see what happens… you couldn’t do any worse than us men have done.

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