The Growth Conundrum

The comparative luxury in which we live is the direct result of centuries of steady economic growth. But we live on a finite planet, so never-ending population and economic growth must eventually stop. We find that societies that have high standards of living have lower fertility rates, yet much of the world’s population lives in underdeveloped regions with low standards of living and high birth rates. The proven path for bringing population growth under control is through economic improvements in developing counties; that is, they need to grow economically. Hence the conundrum — for population growth to cease, economic growth must continue.

Fortunately, much of the planet is already at a less than break-even fertility rate. If you are curious about these kind of problems, there is a great website,, that lets you explore such trends.  (If you follow the links below you will be sent to the Gapminder site with the interactive graph for the screen shots I have shown.)

Here is a nice Gapminder graphic illustrating the relentless reduction in fertility that, among other things, seems strongly related to improvements in literacy. Note that a good fraction of the “developing world” has reached or is near reaching the replacement fertility rate of two children per woman.

BUT, as the world has developed, we all now use lots more energy. The following chart illustrates the trends, where the energy use is measured in tons of oil equivalent per person per year.  For developing countries, there is almost a one-to-one relationship between personal income and energy use.  It’s interesting to note that for the US, while incomes have increased, our energy consumption per capita has flattened considerably in recent years.

Beware the log scales on the graph.  China and India are much poorer and use much less energy per person than the US, and  there is no sign they are ready to curb their energy use.  India especially needs to continue its development just to be able to stabilize its population, while China is poised to overtake the US in a few years as the country with the biggest energy appetite.

After you play with the Gapminder graphs for a while, you begin to realize how much progress has been made in terms of overall health and education throughout the world.  There is not nearly the large differences between haves and have-nots today compared with forty years ago. In absolute terms, health and education indicators are much improved worldwide.

Finally, take a look at the situation with Infant Mortality – a reasonable measure of overall health in a society. It is the exceptions that give us hope.

Again there seems a strong correlation between higher income and lower infant mortality. However, there are some important exceptions. First, although US citizens have the highest income, we don’t have nearly as good infant mortality statistics as most western European countries, Japan, or even Cuba with a fifth of our income. In fact, note that Cuba continued to improve its infant mortality numbers even during the episode right after the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba was in the midst of an economic/energy crisis. So, you don’t need affluence to have good health.

The prevailing growth model says the way forward is to grow our troubles away.  This looks good in terms of  the world’s recent past history, but what is missing from these statistics is the degree of environmental degradation and resource depletion that has occurred as a result of all this economic growth.  Unfortunately the Gapminder statistics don’t include data on fisheries depletion, ocean acidification, species extinctions, habitat destruction, deforestation, or topsoil erosion.  Such global maladies don’t fit the Gapminder nation-based data sets very well, but these concerns are the reason for the growth conundrum.


  1. The notion that literacy and wealth produce lower population growth ignore the intervention of imperial values into traditional societies. As just one example, the Green Revolution sought to bring prosperity to the third world, but its main result was a vast increase in urban poor, as released constraints on rural population led to mass migration to newly industrialized urban cores, from overpopulated countryside.

    We should remember that pre-literate societies in North America and Africa self-limited populations to levels appropriate to a cooperative relationship with nature. The disappearance of forests and animal life, as well as the catastrophic population boom in Africa, date from late-19th century European and American intervention. This seems to indicate that imitating the West is not the only path to a stable population.

    One of the greatest pressures on the third world, leading to large, poor families, is the need for one generation to secure its “safety net” by producing children who will begin working early and add to the parents’ incomes. This is especially true in terms of old age security. If the initial children are girls, there is often tremendous pressure on the mother to produce sons. A family ends up with six or eight children, and when the parents finally die anyway, they leave a legacy of three times as many poor people.

    My point is that, now that industrial growth is doomed, we don’t have the option to “bootstrap the third world” into population reduction through industrial growth. We may, on the other hand, be able to guarantee basic needs in such a way that large families are not necessary. It has always been possible to feed the world, but food aid has been used as an economic and political tool, sometimes crushing local economies as in Haiti. By investing in local farming instead of buying American food and shipping it around the world, local economies would develop which could, at least potentially, guarantee basic needs to all people. These economies need not be predominantly urban or industrial, and dependence on foreign aid could, potentially, be phased out, leaving people free of the need to “reproduce for a living.”

    I’m not saying this WILL happen, but it should be clear that it has always been possible, and that it does not depend on industrializing the poor nations. The imperial model has always held out many hopes of imitating the West, but has continually bestowed these benefits on a small demographic within the “developing world”, leaving continually more poverty in its wake. This is intentional, and could be changed. Whether it will, is hard to say.

  2. “My point is that, now that industrial growth is doomed, we don’t have the option to “bootstrap the third world” into population reduction through industrial growth.”

    Hence the conundrum.

    I agree with you that there have been many ill conceived development efforts that have left indigenous people worse off than before. However, for the majority of nations, for the majority of people in those nations, their general welfare has significantly improved in the last four or five decades. Thats the take-home message from the Gapminder statistics.

    I’ve never liked the meme of the growth imperative, but it is clear that it is one way to improve a society’s welfare. The correlation between GDP per capita and health and welfare statistics is too strong to deny.

    The capitalist system has emerged as the economic system that produces the highest growth rates – therefore it is the dominant economic paradigm. In the race between nations, those that don’t grow are overtaken by those that do. So today we are stuck with capitalism and its unrelenting growth demand.

    A third of India is still illiterate (30 years ago 2/3 were illiterate). Are we going to deny that sovereign nation the chance to continue on its path towards a modern state? What are the options?

    It’s too easy an answer to say “stop exploiting the poor.” That goes without saying… the problem is bigger and more systemic. Even if we just educate half a billion people – nothing else – then those people are going to want laptops and cell phones and we have stoked the growth engine again. It’s even hard to “do good” without a large planetary energy / resource impact.

  3. Nice blog, Gary….
    Well, the population issue is so unpopular, pun intended. I wrote an essay in a writing class last fall on this issue and the middle aged women in the class were very defensive. It really is the elephant in the room whenever the subjects of global warming, species extinction/ habitat destruction, pollution, etc. come up, rarely do we talk about the need to stop reproducing. And then we have the life expectancy going up as well.
    I read that the carrying capacity for the Earth, using the amount of resources in industrialized nations, is 2 billion. We are projected to be at 9 billion by 2040. We are using up the future to live over consumptive lives.
    It’s population and consumption. I’m a big fan of Amory Lovins and Steven Hawkins’ “Natural Capitalism” which is where you include in the cost of a product or project how much it takes to restore the natural resources. This puts the earth’s finite resources into the equation and things get very expensive quickly. Three ply toilet paper from trees would be long gone.
    I wrote in my essay the benefits to a woman when she chooses to not birth a child. There are many. I know.
    I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been at and the guys ask; “Where are the women?” Well, by the time most women start to become aware of all the problems on our planet, they have 2.3 children to take care of. So for the next 20 years their level of activism and civic involvement is the PTA, school board, car pools to games, etc.
    Well, time to get back to work on my studying for the Lane County Land Use Task Force meeting tomorrow…we are trying to prepare our resources for a more crowded Lane County.
    Peace, Love, Unity & Healing

    1. Pam,

      Thanks for the nice comment. It’s probably true that if women didn’t have kids, there would be more women in politics and the world would be a better place. I certainly appreciate your local activism!

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