Population And Sustainability

Two weeks ago, I was in Johannesburg at the South African Chemical Institute/Federation of African Societies of Chemistry meeting. On the last day of the meeting, Werner Van Zyl, a chemistry professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, gave a talk on developing sustainable energy sources through chemistry. In discussing the priorities humans have set for R&D spending, Van Zyl said: “We live healthy lives on a dying planet. We have to stop focusing our R&D budget as if death were an option.” Last week, I was in Philadelphia for the official U.S. kickoff of the International Year of Chemistry. The program on Tuesday morning featured six luminaries of the chemistry enterprise discussing “Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions.” Daniel G. Nocera, a chemistry professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moderated the panel discussion, during which he observed that, as a result of modern medical technology, the average life span in developed nations is now 80 years. We are, Nocera said, “living healthy on a dying planet.” Because Van Zyl’s talk focused largely on alternative energy research done by Nocera and coworkers at MIT, it’s possible he borrowed the idea of living a healthy life on a dying planet from Nocera’s work. In any case, the phrase resonated with me and I highlighted it in my notes. Can one live a healthy life on a dying planet? Is it responsible to spend as much as we do on biomedical R&D that seems to have as its raison d’être the impossible goal of living forever? Nocera observed that during that average 80-year life span, “almost all health care costs are incurred during the last two years of life.” Does that make sense? The session in Philadelphia featured, in addition to Nocera, Joshua S. Boger, the founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; Rita Colwell, chairman of Canon U.S. Life Sciences and a professor at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University; Janet Hering, director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology; Ellen J. Kullman, chair and CEO of DuPont; and Andrew N. Liveris, president, chair, and CEO of Dow Chemical. In their remarks, Nocera and Liveris focused on energy issues; Hering and Colwell focused on clean water; Kullman focused on feeding Earth’s growing population, which, she pointed out, will surpass 7 billion in 2011 and reach 9 billion by 2050; and Boger focused on health care. During the panel discussion, Nocera noted that “population growth is driving a lot of these sustainability challenges. In our hearts we care about the poor, but in our actions, we don’t.” He then asked whether there is a business model for helping the poor address such challenges, and Colwell, Liveris, and Kullman answered him, focusing on acting locally and developing realistic markets in developing nations. An assumption behind all of the talks was that it is inevitable that Earth’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050, and that we must work to provide this population with clean water, appropriate health care, abundant food, and adequate energy resources. I asked the panel whether our advocacy efforts should include, in addition to providing these necessities for a good life, limiting population growth. Colwell and Nocera both answered that the key to limiting population growth is educating and empowering girls and women. “Study after study has shown that when girls and women are educated, population growth declines,” Nocera said. I have no doubt that Colwell and Nocera are right about educating and empowering girls and women. But is it really as simple as that? Toward the end of his life, Rick Smalley (the discoverer of C60 and champion of nanoscience) lectured that, if we could solve Earth’s energy problem, most other problems we face—food, water, security, and others—would also be solved. He was right. But the same can be said for population. Stabilize population, and sustainability becomes a much less daunting challenge. Of course, economists insist that countries that have stopped growing are doomed to stagnation. Growth, endless growth, goes their chorus, is the key to prosperity. On this finite planet? Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. You can cut population growth by educating women and giving people in poorer countries another source of labor (by enhancing their ability to do work without having more kids), but at some point, they will want what everyone else has. In a zero-growth (closed-cycle) economy, everything becomes zero-sum: if you gain, someone has to lose. We haven’t found a way to redistribute things fairly – usually, zero-sum games end with “Whoever has the biggest (or most) guns wins.” The desire to win more resources for self, family, or country competes with the risks of not having enough resources to care for more people. While mental resources can make physical resources last longer and work more efficiently, physical resources as limitations are likely to be the objects of value. All of which makes a zero-growth economy problematic to implement, and why people don’t contemplate it easily (because they can’t see how it can’t end badly).

    People spend more when they get sick. Some of the major costs could be limited by better care for the sickest (see Atul Gawande’s recent article in the New Yorker, but even when those are implemented, people will still spend more at the end of their lives. We don’t know when we’re done with life, and neither do doctors, so people throw everything they have to try to survive. Since there are limited resources, someone has to make choices, and the “death panel” nonsense stems from this – in a zero-sum game, if I gain, you lose, and (once again) there isn’t an authority that people are willing to trust with their lives.

    We don’t know how to play zero-sum games well, and don’t want the guilt that comes with trying (because bad things will happen by our hands), even if we know the alternatives are also bad.