Skip to main content

This planet comes with limits

By Carl Safina
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
A NOAA satellite captured this view of the Americas on Earth Day, April 22, 2014.
A NOAA satellite captured this view of the Americas on Earth Day, April 22, 2014.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carl Safina: Some say innovations will solve problems of unlimited population growth
  • U.N. expects world population to be 9.6 billion people by 2050; that's two more Chinas
  • Safina: Billions more people mean more people living with hunger and poverty, conflict
  • Safina: Unlimited growth also accelerates the extinction of animal species, environments

Editor's note: Carl Safina is an award-winning scientist and author, founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University and host of the PBS television series "Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When I was in my 20s, a girlfriend surprised me by saying that we didn't have to worry about overpopulation because technology would make sure we always had what everyone needed. Of course, economists have been saying this for decades.

And of course, billions of people today don't have what they need.

Carl Safina
Carl Safina

Because such people as my old girlfriend and economists presuppose that unlimited economic growth is necessary and also believe adding billions more humans to the world is desirable, I would like to share some thoughts about such thinkers, whom I'll call "Growthers."

2013: Mideast's demographic time bomb
Will world population reach 11 billion?

Why do Growthers think we should add billions more humans to the world? Do they want more consumers? Or is it something deeper, more biblical, more fruitfully multiplied? All of the above? Whatever their impulse, compulsive craving for "no limits" to economic growth and human numbers is irrational. A finite planet comes with limits.

The United Nations expects the population to grow to about 9.6 billion people by mid-century; that's two more Chinas. That worries me. Yet in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, April 26, Matt Ridley expressed these views when he reassured us, "There are no limits because we can invent new ways of doing more with less." He doesn't see that this very acknowledgment undermines his premise. If limits don't exist, why would we need to do more with less?

He continued: "Oil and gas ... will run out one day, but only in the sense that you will run out of Atlantic Ocean one day if you take a rowboat west out of a harbor in Ireland. Just as you are likely to stop rowing long before you bump into Newfoundland, so we may well find cheap substitutes for fossil fuels long before they run out."

Is it possible to think more incoherently about matters of such importance? And as a mariner I must point out -- if only for safety -- that a rowboat far in the open ocean is a frail and vulnerable craft.

Another big blind spot in the unlimited growth view is the fact that other species also need to live here with us. But other creatures pay for our growth. Meanwhile, populations of fishes, amphibians, mammals, reptiles and birds are all declining worldwide. Species are going extinct about 1,000 times faster than the natural rate -- in other words, the rate it would be if humans weren't around.

North America's pursuit of growth obliterated the tall prairies, exterminated the continent's most abundant birds and marginalized many mammals. An Africa of unlimited human growth will lose free-living elephants, apes and cats, natural landscapes and free-flowing rivers. It happens when farms and towns replace plains and forests.

Bio-luminescence in the tide makes walking along the beach on Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives especially magical. The light is emitted from tiny plankton in the water. Bio-luminescence in the tide makes walking along the beach on Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives especially magical. The light is emitted from tiny plankton in the water.
Awash in light
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
Photos: Stunning natural spectacles Photos: Stunning natural spectacles

Would farming Africa like we've farmed the Plains solve Africa's problems? Food isn't Africa's only problem.

Already, Ethiopia's planned dams threaten the nation's own people and Kenyans who rely on Lake Turkana for water and food. Competition and conflict always shadow the broad edges of humanity's tent, and a bigger tent tends to inflame tensions. Like all continents, Africa focused on growth would still have poverty, hunger and conflict. Better to focus on reducing poverty, hunger and conflict.

Growthers and I agree that it's great that farmers can grow more food on fewer acres than in the past. We disagree utterly on why it's great. Growing food with increasing efficiency could solve human hunger and the need to give space back to other animals who need it -- if humanity doesn't continue to grow.

But no-limits people want more food to feed more mouths. That keeps civilization on an endless Red Queen treadmill of running faster to stay in place. It means that more efficient food-growing accomplishes nothing. It means that more food will not end hunger.

The Green Revolution solved the food production problem of its time. It did not solve hunger because we did not achieve the family planning revolution needed with it. Had we stayed for the main event -- stabilizing population -- the whole world might have reached a wonderful sweet spot in nutrition, health and security. What we got was billions more people and, consequently, more people living with hunger and poverty.

That keeps civilization on an endless Red Queen treadmill of running faster to stay in place.
Carl Safina

More efficient technology and fewer people could help. But more people erase the benefits of technological efficiencies.

We are forced toward more efficiency precisely because we're scraping deeper into an emptying barrel. Petroleum once ran out onto the ground in Pennsylvania. People collected it; they didn't even have to drill. Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas wasn't considered viable a decade ago because it's difficult and expensive.

Economists and Growthers say, "Look, we haven't run out because technology saves us." Well, look, fracking is a symptom of hitting limits. Technology is forced to keep up with the pace at which we are running out. That you still have some checks left doesn't mean you're not going bankrupt.

Fracking is postponing the switch to clean energy while the planet warms and oceans acidify. Shouldn't we work now on what's needed next?

Digital tech saves us time. It doesn't save elephants and apes, lions and tigers, bears and eagles, salmon and rivers, orchids and forests, giraffes and pandas, coral reefs and turtles. Human growth dooms the animals we paint on nursery-room walls. Different kinds of growth -- more poor people versus more affluent people -- doom them differently.

Economists can feel enthused about boosting unlimited growth only if they're not worrying that our accomplishments continue to come at the expense of forests, grasslands, coral reefs, the ocean, other creatures, and native peoples.

And what are the accomplishments of growth? Has the doubling of world population in my lifetime caused the world to become more peaceful and secure, kinder and more humane? Do we have computers and digital cameras and smartphones and Ibuprofen because there are billions more people than half a century ago? No. We have them because engineers improve technology over time, not because the population has doubled.

Quantity isn't the same as better.

Life improves with qualities such as health, safety, love, family, community, and compassion. More stuff, more crowding, more competition, more profiteering -- and let's be plain, profiteering is what economists' growth-mania is always about -- isn't what makes life worthwhile.

It's only fair to poor people to let them in on the main secret of wealthy, educated and successful people: smaller families mean larger lives. In the happiest of coincidences, the thing that brings fertility down fastest happens to be the same thing that brings down poverty: educating girls.

Illiterate women bear three times as many children as do literate women, and their children tend to stay poor. Meanwhile, each year of schooling raises women's earning power by 10% to 20%. And when people are a little better off, they desire fewer children. Gender and justice is always a good combination.

For any pie, the biggest slices get cut at the least-crowded tables. The easiest, least expensive and most efficient way to have a bigger slice of the pie is to limit the number of guests you invite.

Most of us know that the secret to a big life is a small family. It works on a global scale, too. If you love your children, humanity and the world, you want to take the best possible care of them, not crowd them out of the house.

Growth for the sake of growth? I don't see the point.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT