Concluding Commentary

Throughout this series of discussions, an analogy has been drawn between the ‘evolution’ of the global economic system and the wider ecosystem of planet Earth. While both of these systems can be incredibly complex in all their detail, certain traits and trends may still be outlined in terms of some underlying ‘cause and effect’ relationship. For example, the evolution of life within the biosphere of planet Earth may be reduced to the idea of Darwinian natural selection, i.e. survival of the fittest. This basic mechanism appears to apply to all forms of life, irrespective of their complexity, which may range in scope from bacteria to human life. So, let us table a question for consideration:

Is the ‘survival’ of an economic system also subject to a form of natural selection?


Often, many discussions of economics are anchored in its financial mechanisms without necessarily giving too much consideration of what else is going on in the wider ecosystem of planet Earth. However, as the earlier discussion of the ‘Limits to Growth’ model clearly illustrated, there are multi-faceted relationships between an expanding economy and the renewable and non-renewable resources of planet Earth, which can be both finite and damaged by pollutants. Of course, even this expanded view of an economy is a simplification as recognised by the authors in the following statement:

..the LTG model is a simplification of reality, which does not distinguish among different geographic parts of the world, nor does it represent separately the rich and the poor…… there is no military capital or corruption explicitly represented in the model, because incorporating those many distinctions would not necessarily make the model better and very much harder to comprehend. This probably makes the model highly optimistic. It has no military sector to drain capital and resources from the productive economy. It has no wars to kill people, and destroy capital, nor waste lands. It has no ethnic strife, no corruption, no floods, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, or AIDS epidemics. As such, the model represents the uppermost possibilities for the ‘real’ world.

In this respect, it might be argued that there are two key limitations of the LTG model. First, the model is essentially a global one that does not really account for developed nation-states prioritising their own self-interest above all others, especially in respect to developing nation-states. Second, it does not really seem to account for the ‘human condition, i.e. both in terms of our instinctive fight for survival and bias towards self-interests. In part, Adam Smith highlighted the dangers of unchecked ‘self-interest’ in his famous work entitled ‘The Wealth of Nations’ back in 1776 and this review might suggest that there is still no obvious solution to the human condition, when it comes to collective long-term decision making. Of course, this is not to say that all of humanity is only driven by self-interest and controlled entirely by a ‘survival-at-any-cost’ mentality, but it might be equally naïve to assume that this perspective does not exist, especially in the context of a nation-state. Therefore, let us frame this issue in another question:

Which is the dominant factor: self-interest or global altruism?

In this case, the idea of ‘self-interest’ might be extended to a community or even nation-state, where decisions are based on the best outcome for itself rather than some wider group. In contrast, ‘global altruism’ implies that short-term, and possibly even long-term, self-interests may have to be sacrificed for some greater benefit or goal. While conceding that some individuals have certainly sacrificed their own personal self-interest in altruistic acts, it is less clear that such acts can often be attributed to larger communities and almost never when it comes to nation-states beyond ‘mutual self-interest’.

Why might this be so?

In part, it may be that the rich and powerful, who invariably help influence many of the decisions within any nation-state, believe they have the most to lose in an act of ‘global altruism’. However, it also appears that the general electorate, as a whole, is not naturally inclined to support political leaders who propose policies that will adversely affect their quality of life. In both cases, what should be seen as a collective responsibility may simply become a means of plausible denial. Of course, while there is the suggestion in the LTG model that the future path being following by the global economy will adversely affect the quality of life for many, it does not necessarily imply everybody and, in this context, it is doubtful that the ‘meek shall inherit the Earth’. For it is quite possible that powerful nation-states will prioritise the protection of its own elite, and possibly its broader population, above any other. Equally, if the demand for natural resources does exceed supply, it is quite feasible that some nation-states may simply ‘acquire’ access to these resources by any means. So, in terms of the evolutionary semantics being used:

Who might be best equipped to survive?

Within the natural selection model, there are invariably ‘winners and losers’ when adapting to a changing environment. Of course, when extending the analogy to survival within a changing economic environment, the determination of the ‘fittest’ may have to be based on different, but possibly equally unforgiving, criteria. Unfortunately, this is the point where any honest debate about such issues can become very uncomfortable for many, especially in open public forum. While some may disagree, it will be argued that there is only one fundamental question that future generations have to answer, i.e.

What is a ‘sustainable’ global population?

While there is still much debate as to whether the world population will peak somewhere between 9-15 billion, it appears that the current population of 7 billion is already responsible for a level of ‘unsustainable’ demand on the planet’s resources and ecosystem. In this respect, the figure of 7 billion, in isolation, is misleading as it does not reflect the resource distribution between rich and poor.

The suggestion in the graph above is that nearly half the global population is living on less than $2/day, which is also reflective of their demand for some key resources. However, to put this daily income into some better perspective, the average income in the US is reported to be in the order of $50,000/year, which would equate to something like $135/day. Clearly, if the 50% of the population now living on less than $2/day were to aspire to just half the average US income, the demand for resources could increase dramatically beyond current level, which already appears to be unsustainable.

So how might a sustainable population be estimated?

A paper entitled ‘The Sustainability of Human Populations’ provides some insights, which suggests a sustainable global population between 1-3 billion based on the ‘affluence’ assumed. While the link to the paper allows the details to be reviewed in full, the following outline summarises the salient assumptions behind the figures being quoted. The idea of sustainability is quantified in terms of the ‘impact’ as expressed in the equation:

Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology

As might be expected, the impact on the environment is directly proportional to the population and its level of affluence, when equated to resource usage and population. While this impact might be offset by a fractional technology factor, this is not necessarily the case in practice. So, increasing population creates a bigger impact, as does affluence, which technology 'might' be able to offset through further innovative solutions. However, to-date, the net effect of technology only appears to have resulted in greater resource usage and pollution, e.g. deforestation, soil erosion, salinity of the soil, waste disposal to landfill, desertification, declining fish stocks, global warming and rising sea levels and climate change. Clearly, it would seem that technology can be a two-edge sword, such that it cannot be assumed that further technology advances will simply lead to a lower impact figure. However, the idea of ‘impact’ might also be quantified in terms of something called the ‘biocapacity’ that is a measure of the resources produced by the planet per year, which is then used to sustain the ‘human ecological footprint’ on the planet. In 2003, the Earth’s total biocapacity was calculated to be 11.2 billion global hectare (gha) shared by a population of 6.3 billion, i.e. 1.8 global hectares per person, while the actual ecological footprint was estimated to be 2.23 global hectares per person, i.e. we were already exceeding the biocapacity of planet Earth by 25%. However, this is an average estimate, which might be put into better perspective by citing the ecological footprint of the UK being 3.5 times greater than its biocapacity as a result of its high population density and affluence. Extending the examples to the average European lifestyle, which has a figure 4.8 global hectares per person, the Earth could sustain only 2.2 billion people, while the average US lifestyle requiring 9.4 global hectares per person could only sustain 1.2 billion. However, the paper possibly sums up the bottom-line in the following sentence:

“It follows that if affluence and technology are not able to decrease, then the only parameter left to reduce is population.”

Of course, it is possible that future ‘technology’ factors may yet need some further consideration. For example, it might be suggested that the 2003 figure of 11.2 billion global hectare (gha) could be dramatically increased via the development of cheap, clean energy supporting desalination plants for freshwater and hydroponics to counter soil erosion. However, as already indicated, a degree of caution is necessary when making such speculative assumptions, as history suggests that the net effect of technology tends to result in an increase in the  impact figure. As such, the statement above may still be an accurate summation of the problem, while the closing paragraph of the paper appears to be more of an open question awaiting some, as yet, unknown answer.

“Failure of politicians to grasp this nettle and lead their nations to accept the necessity of - and to provide the means to have - smaller families will be to threaten the world at large with the worst population crash in the history of humankind. Is it too much to hope that, with all the knowledge and technology at the disposal of the planet’s most intelligent species, such an outcome could be avoided?”

So, yet again, while it would appear that most of the papers reviewed want to offer up some optimistic possibilities, the overall conclusions drawn suggest that population growth and increasing living standard cannot continue for much longer, let alone forever.

If so, what other future outcomes may have to be considered?

In the 1950’s and 60’s, the idea nuclear holocaust was possibly seen as the main threat to the future of humanity. Unfortunately, today, humanity is beginning to understanding the wider scope of dangers that may yet come to threaten its future, e.g.

  • Natural disasters
  • Man-made disasters
    • Global warming
    • Ecosystem collapse
    • Resource depletion
    • Economic collapse
    • Social and political anarchy
    • Disease pandemics
    • Cultural and racial strife
    • War and terrorism

While natural disasters in the form of asteroid impacts, solar flares, hurricanes, floods, tornados, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes are all still possible, there is a feeling that the most imminent dangers are now weighted towards a growing list of potential man-made disasters. For despite all our technological sophistication, the adage that we are still ‘just 4 meals from anarchy’ may appear to be a disturbing possibility.

“Our society is so fragile, so dependent on the interworking of things to provide us with the goods and services that you don't need nuclear warfare to fragment us anymore than the Romans needed it to cause their eventual downfall.”  Gene Roddenberry

Possibly, in an age of 24 hour news, we have become accustomed to being confronted with what appears to be a constant stream of actual or pending disasters. As such, we may have become increasingly immune to such dire warning of future global doom and gloom that we simply focus on what affects us personally in the ‘here and now’. Therefore, as a consequence, maybe both people and governments are more driven by the adage ‘the urgent drives out the important’, such that longer term problems simply become a secondary priority.

OK, so what is the ‘most’ important problem?

It has been suggested that there is only one central problem: ‘the total global population’. In this respect, all of the man-made disasters cited above are only an ‘effect’ stemming from this one single ‘cause’, which it has been suggested can quickly lead to some very uncomfortable outcomes that many may consider to be either socially or morally unacceptable, e.g.

  • Controlled and reduced birth rate
  • Uncontrolled and increased death rates

If you accept the basic premise that the resource demands of the current global population are possibly already unsustainable, then a potential doubling of this population simply makes the situation even more unsustainable, especially if everybody aspires to a better standard of living. While some may still pin their hopes on some future technology to save the day, the various assessments and models outlined appear to hold out little hope for this ‘cure all’ approach. In fact, the models appear to suggest that even if we could control the global population today, the current over-demand for natural and non-renewable resources would still lead to some form of collapse of our current global economy.

So what possible outcomes might be highlighted at this point?

Please understand that the following discussion is not being forwarded as a preferred solution, but rather what might result from a form of ’natural’ selection, where only the ‘fittest will survive’ . However, in this case, the word ‘natural’ needs to be qualified, because in practice, the ‘selection’ may be man-made at several different levels of society:

  • Nation-State
  • Local Communities
  • Individual Ability

Clearly, powerful nation-states with access to the necessary resources and military force to either protect or acquire essential resources may be able to protect its own population better than a weaker nation-state. Equally, within each nation-state, certain types of communities may be better place to collectively address resource shortages, e.g. the breakdown of extended family units and community spirit in many urban cities may be problematic. Finally, certain individuals may simply be better equipped to survive based on any number of personal traits, e.g. intelligence, strength, health and wealth. 

But how would such situations come about?

First, some may continue to refute the resource exploitation of planet Earth or the majority simply refuse to adapt their present life-styles. As consequence, economic globalisation continues down the same path with nation-states ‘competing’ for ever-dwindling resources, which might suggest an ever-increasing probability of yet further man-made disasters. So, despite the alarm bells of 24 hour news coverage, our collective priority remains fixed on self-interest, both at the level of the individual and the nation-state.

But surely everybody must see the danger sooner or later?

Quite possibly, but if it is later rather than sooner, then it may be too late for many. For example, UN reports have already highlighted that rising food prices, driven by fuel prices, climate impacts and financial speculation has added another 75 million people to the one billion already facing starvation. Currently, there are some 40 nation-states struggling with the problem of food shortages linked to climate change, warring conflicts and/or economic failure, i.e. man-made disasters. Reports also suggest that the global consumption of rice and wheat, on which much the world population depends, is rising faster than production. However, the potential for food shortages may not just exist in poor countries, for example, the UK once maintained emergency food stocks that could be stored on a long-terms basis. However, it seems that the UK government now depends on reserves within the food supply industry itself, i.e. the big supermarkets, even though many of these supermarkets have adopted ‘just-in-time’ delivery strategies in order to lower costs in a competitive market.

So how many days are we really away from anarchy?

In some respect, this may be a meaningless question without explaining the role of the nation-state, local community and the individual or by giving some account of the circumstances leading to a given shortage. By way of example, people in the UK have become accustomed to getting non-seasonal food products all year round as they are now shipped in from suppliers around the world. Of course, should the global transport of certain food products become prohibitive due to rising cost of aviation fuel, we might not be able to get fresh strawberries in the middle of winter. Of course, this specific example is hardly going to lead to ‘anarchy in the UK’,  but the food shortages experienced in the UK during the 2nd World War were far more serious. However, people still survived by changing their diets to maximise local or home grown seasonal food products and, as a relatively powerful nation-state, the UK was also able to impose a degree of martial law on its population in order maintain order, even when some of the shortages threaten lives.  As such, the impact of shortage has to be contextualised in terms of how a given society functions and the scope of the shortage, e.g.

  • Nation-State
    Depending on the resource wealth and military power of the nation-state, a majority of its population might be buffered from critical global shortages, while law and order is maintained, albeit by possibly draconian measures. Of course, this may not be the case in many resource-poor countries, where large sections of the population may already be near the poverty line and the infrastructure of government does not extend into its rural areas.

  • Local Communities
    In the absence of any effective centralised government institutions, many may have to rely on the ability of local communities to organise themselves to maximise and share local resources. As a generalisation, it is possible that rural farming communities may not only have easier access to natural resources than those residing in inner-city urban communities, but they may also be able to maintain a greater degree of social cohesion. In some respect, poorer countries may have a small advantage, if local communities and villages have previously existed without the help of central government.

  • Individual Ability
    Finally, in the absence of any effective central government or local community, people would have to rely on their own ability to survive. While, to some extent, this would imply an extreme breakdown of the current global economy, many developed countries might still maintain a reasonable, albeit reduced standard of living based on their natural resources and access to technology. Equally, some undeveloped countries may be able to maintain their subsistence economies utilising their existing local community infrastructure. However, the lack of medical facilities and good food could still endanger the lives of the young and old alike.

However, the resilience of any social infrastructure to withstand a specific shortage will depend on the scope and scale of the shortage in question. In part, we might attribute the cause of the shortages being discussed to any one, or all, of the previously listed man-made disasters, primarily because there is an implication that the shortages might accumulate with time without any obvious or immediate recovery plan.

  • Global warming
  • Ecosystem collapse
  • Resource depletion
  • Economic collapse
  • Social and political anarchy
  • Disease pandemics
  • Cultural and racial strife
  • War and terrorism

However, at this point, it may also be important to highlight a distinction between natural disasters and man-made-disasters, as outlined. Typically, natural disasters occur within a very short timeframe, i.e. hours to a few days, while man-made disasters of the type being discussed will probably unfolded over decades. As such, there may be time for some nation-states, local communities and even individuals to prepare for the implied change to the current world order, if they cannot be avoided.

But what are the implications of any ‘contingency-planning’ models?

It is entirely possibly that many nation-states already recognise that the type of collapse predicted by the LTG model is essentially unavoidable. For history presumably tells them that getting collective agreement between nation-states has proved to be both too slow and too ineffective to address the scale of the problems how facing future generations. If these problems are all rooted in the global population, we might characterised the basic arithmetic of the situation as follows:

Population = Current + Births – Deaths

Earlier figures have suggested that the global population might peak at somewhere between 10-15 billion by the year 2100; although such projections appear difficult to reconcile with a sustainable population of 1-3 billion, as suggested by some of the sources reviewed. However, there is some historical data that suggests birth and survival rates can be influenced by basic factors, such as clean water, soap, hygiene, education, vaccination and family planning as reflected in the following comparison charts between 1960 and 2008.

In 1960, it is estimated that there were some 2 billion ‘poor’ people, which represented some 2/3 of a 3 billion global population at that time. However, the 2008 chart on the right suggests that there are still some 2 billion ‘poor’ people within a revised global population of 6.46 billion, i.e. an apparent fall to 1/3. However, statistics can be misleading, even when presented by Hans Rosling, as the chart below possibly gives a better definition of ‘poor’. The bottom figure below each column is the income per day and the population in billion is shown at the bottom of each dark red column against the remaining total in the pink columns.

If we defined ‘poor’ as those earning less than $10/day, we are describing 80% of the 2008 global population, which needs to be compared against the average US income being in excess of $100/day. As such, we might realise that most of today’s global population will still aspire to a much higher standard of living, meaning that they want access to more resources. If so, somewhere along the line, the following equation still has to be balanced:

Sustainability = Population * Affluence * Technology

Of course, as has been hinted, it is still possible that technology may solve the problem of cheap, clean energy in the timeframe being discussed. If so, virtually unlimited energy might also allow for the large-scale development of desalination plants to meet the growing demand for clean water by humanity, industry and agriculture. Likewise, cheap, clean energy might also allow the development of large-scale hydroponics farms, which might then offset the erosion of agricultural farmland. However, it is unclear that even if these developments were possible that they could be deployed on a global basis in the timescales under discussion without any downside. In many ways, the future may simply depend on how the next question is addressed:

Do we continue to pin our hopes on possibilities or plan for probabilities?

While many may have little choice but to hope for the possibility of some, as yet, conceptual solution coming to the rescue, probability would suggest that this may simply be wishful thinking. Even if few wants to really think about it, let alone talk about it, the stark reality is that estimates suggest that planet Earth may only be able to sustain a global population of between 1-3 billion, while projections suggest a population between 9-15 billion by 2100. Of course, evolution tells us that there is always another approach to the problems described, it is a form of ‘natural selection’ that will in all  'probability' be brutal and uncaring.........

  • According to UNICEF, some 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”

  • Half the global population now live in cities and towns. In 2005, one out of three urban dwellers, i.e. ~1 billion people, were living in slum conditions

  • Urbanization is not synonymous with human progress and urban slum growth is now outpacing urban growth by a wide margin.

  • Rural areas account for three in every four people living on less than $1/day with a similar portion of the global population suffering from malnutrition.

  • In developing countries, ~2.5 billion people still rely on biomass, e.g. wood, charcoal and animal dung, to meet their energy needs for cooking. In sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the population depends on biomass for cooking, as does 50% of the populations of India and China.

  • Air pollution, resulting from the use of solid fuels, is now a major killer affecting the poorer segments of society. It is estimated that it claims the lives of 1.5 million people/year with 50% being below the age of five, i.e. ~4000 deaths a day.

  • A quarter of humanity, i.e. 1.6 billion still live without electricity.

  • The GDP of the most 41 indebted ‘poor’ countries, accounting for ~570 million people, is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.

  • The world’s low income countries, accounting for 2.4 billion people, account for just 2.4% of world exports.

  • For every $1 of aid receive by a developing country over $25 is spent on debt repayment.

  • 12% of the global population uses 85% of its water.

Probability versus Possibility

While accepting the wisdom of Seneca's word  at the beginning of this series of discussions, it is unclear that they ever represented a viable solution to the global use of resources given the underlying nature of  the human condition. However, it is also possible that the LTG model has also ignore the 'elephant in the room' when it comes to considering solutions to the 'limit to growth' problem, if the central issue is anchored in the global population.

If all cannot survive, then who will?

Again, this is a question that few may wish to honestly debate in an open public forum for there is a suggestion of some sort of selection process, which in all probability cannot be avoided. Human evolution appears to tell us is that mere survival is not enough, as collectively human civilisation has never been content with the 'sustainability' as expressed by Seneca, i.e. it has always strived for more. If so, an equitable sub-division of the Earth's dwindling resources is unlikely should a collapse of the global economy occur, as suggested by the LTG model. As such, the difficult question tabled above will 'probably' be addressed within an evolutionary process, which in the very long-term might transcend our current understanding of humanity:

"Evolution is an on-going process. As such, humanity is a transitional result."