Issue Date: January 14, 2008
Too Many People
I recently spent several days in Phoenix attending the annual ACS Publications Division Editors Conference. On a free afternoon, an ACS colleague and I drove east through Tempe, Mesa, and Apache Junction to pick up the Apache Trail into the Superstition Mountains.
We drove through one new housing development after another sprawling across the Valley of the Sun desert floor. The six lanes of U.S. Route 60 were jammed with cars and trucks. Complex new highway overpasses soared over the freeway.
"Sometimes I think humanity is a pestilence spreading out of control across the Earth," I said. "This just can't continue." My companion nodded. Neither of us is pessimistic by nature and neither of us is a misanthrope.
We drove along the Apache Trail into the austere and beautiful Superstition Wilderness as far as Tortilla Flat. Entering the wilderness, we passed a sign that told us that boating was prohibited on Canyon Lake. When we reached Canyon Lake, we could see why: The lake is 70 to 80 feet below its normal level due to the unprecedented decade-long drought that has parched the southwestern U.S. At least two-thirds of the lake bed is exposed.
A consistent feature of climate-change models—the ones that climate-change detractors insist can't predict anything—is that the arid bands that circle Earth near the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn will shift north and south, respectively. We are now experiencing unprecedented drought in the southwestern and southeastern U.S.; across Spain, Italy, and Greece in Europe; and in Australia. I'm sure it's just coincidence.
I returned home from Phoenix on Jan. 7, and during the evening, I read that day's Washington Post. In it was a fairly long story entitled "Demographic Crisis, Robotic Cure?" The story discusses remarkable advances in Japan in the development of robots, especially at Toyota and Honda.
The abilities of Honda's ASIMO robot are quite remarkable. In videos on the website, a robot maneuvers a cart containing beverages to a table. Another robot walks up to the cart, and the two robots serve the beverages by lifting them from the cart and setting them on the table. They step back from the table and bow slightly to the humans sitting there. The technology behind both companies' robots is stunning. The companies see this technology underpinning robots that will assist humans, particularly aging humans.
The primary gist of the Post article, however, was the catastrophe that a shrinking population in Japan represents. The story's lead reads: "With a surfeit of the old and a shortage of the young, Japan is on course for a population collapse unlike any in human history." At another point, the story states: "The scale of the coming demographic disaster, assuming present trends continue, is without precedent." The idea that robots instead of people can "spoon-feed the elderly" or "hoist them onto a toilet and phone a nurse when they won't take their pills" is anathema to the author of the article.
This attitude strikes me as odd. The fact is that many of the problems we face today—water and energy shortages, pollution, climate change—have at their root one common element: There are too many people on Earth already, too many more are coming, and they all very reasonably want to live like people in the developed world. The idea that a decline in population is a "disaster" proves only that the world's economic system is unsustainable.
I have written this before, but an economic system that is based on an ever-increasing number of consumers is, by definition, not sustainable. At some point, the carrying capacity of Earth for any species will be exceeded. And while we are still a long way from reaching that carrying capacity for humans, the cost of even coming close—in environmental degradation and species loss—would be catastrophic. We must, at the very least, at some point in the near future stop world population growth.
And we must develop a new economic paradigm that provides Earth's stable population with goods and services that make life worth living. That is one of the most fundamental challenges we face in the coming century.
Thanks for reading.
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