Generations of One: a challenge for young people

Published Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

When explosions happen, it’s usually a good idea not to be too close.  But there’s one explosion that each of us has been part of for as long as we’ve been alive.  Unlike typical explosions, this one’s not fast and violent; it’s slow and subtle.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less hazardous.

The explosion, of course, is the human population: ever more of us every day, on course to test the carrying capacity of our planet.  It’s an ugly problem, and it’s going to place an enormous challenge onto the shoulders of the young people of the world.

A few numbers

When my parents were born, there were two billion people on Earth.  When I was young, there were four billion.  Today there are 7.2 billion, and our population is still growing: since you started reading this, another 100 people have joined us.  Over the next three days, the equivalent of another New Brunswick will have been added.  In six months, we will have added the equivalent of another Canada. 

If Earth were an airplane, you could say that it’s getting pretty full.  Perhaps even oversold.

And not just that: today’s average global citizen is consuming more and more.  The 20 per cent of the world’s people living in the highest income countries – that includes Canadians – are responsible for 86 per cent of total private consumption.  The other 80 per cent dream of living like us.  

So not only do we want to be on the plane; we all want to ride in First Class.

Clearly, there are limits: our finite planet can carry either a lot of people with low per capita consumption, or fewer people with high per capita consumption habits.  But it can’t carry a lot of people who each consume a lot – the direction all signs suggest we are headed.

Checking growth

In his book Radical Simplicity, Jim Merkel suggests that widespread adoption of a one-child-per-family policy would enable global population to peak and then gradually taper down to one billion by the year 2100.

Generations of One is a great theory, but it’s far from simple to implement.  It would of necessity involve widespread education and availability of family planning options.  It would require long-overdue empowerment of women, and addressing the crushing poverty that underlies much of the planet’s overcrowding problems.

It would implore respectful reconsideration of religious or political convictions that frown upon the very concept of tempering population growth, and the active engagement of governments, churches and other institutions.  It would require non-judgemental acceptance of the choices of the past – something I am acutely aware of as one of the youngest children in a large family.

Generations of One would bring social consequences too – like far fewer people to tend to the needs of aging parents.  (On the upside, there would be plenty of jobs in caregiving.)  China’s recently relaxed one-child policy had the unintended and very negative side effects of infanticide, abandoned children and a disproportionate number of boys in the population.

Generations of One would also contradict conventional economics, which advocates the impossible notion of continued exponential growth in a finite world.  Unfortunately, physical reality often challenges economic theory.

Unavoidable

Generations of One would fly in the face of much of what most of us believe and stand for.  Yet, in spite of such enormous challenges, the frank truth is that it cannot be casually dismissed, because the alternatives threaten to be quite unsavoury.  And because of reality: by now, another 300 souls have joined us.

Clearly, it’s an issue far greater than any of us, or even our country.  But we could help by at least starting the conversation.