The Destiny of Progress

The idea of progress has previously been outlined within the wider framework of the Brave New Worlds section of website-2. In this context, modernity was described in terms of the complex interactions within a human ecosystem, as illustrated right, where the more traditional institutions of society, i.e. economic, social and political, are now increasingly dependent on technology developments. Of course, within this somewhat abstract description of the world in which we live, any population is still dependent on the quality and quantity of the environment and resources available to them. While the idea of progress has to encompass all the complexity suggested by the diagram, it is possible that all the demands being placed on progress originate with the exponential growth of the global population over the last few centuries and the resources required to sustain this population. In this context, sustainability of basic survival needs has required more food, more water and more shelter, which in-turn has demanded more energy. Of course, along this path of progress, we might realise that people have come to aspire to more than just basic survival. For this reason, this discussion will focus on just the issue of population, where the ‘destiny of progress’ might be simplified to the goal of delivering a better future world.

Note: Before proceeding to discuss some of the problems associated with global population, we should possibly start by providing a more optimistic perspective by making reference to a TED talk by Steve Pinker, who has articulated the case that the world is getting better for everybody based on his analysis. Likewise, the respected academic Hans Rosling has also produced statistics showing that the global population growth rate has already peaked, although not the actual peak population - see TED talk for details.

So, while the global population has increased from 1.6 to 7.8 billion over the last century or so, statistics suggest that the health and wealth of the global population has improved over the same timescale, despite many dire predictions to the contrary. In this respect, it has been argued that population growth has not been caused by people suddenly starting to ‘breed like rabbits’ , but rather because they finally stopped ‘dying like flies’ as medical science has been able to drastically reduce childhood mortality.

 So, is there any reason to question this optimism?

In part, there are two perspectives on this question, first from the past to the present, and second, from the present to the future. In this context, the optimism expressed, and substantiated in statistics, about the present relative to the past is considered a valid assessment. However, any extrapolation into the future has to be seen as far more speculative as any number of potentially disruptive events within the human ecosystem might negate previous optimism. Therefore, the discussion of the ’destiny of progress’ will focus on the uncertainty surrounding the future, which we might initially characterised in terms of the population growth shown above. With the focus on the future, rather than the past, there are two key words in the title of this discussion that possibly need some wider introduction. First is the word ‘destiny’ that might be considered in terms of a sequence of events that inexorably leads to some outcome in the future. Likewise, the second word ‘progress’ might initially be considered as a process that leads to the ‘gradual betterment’ of the human condition. Of course, it has to be recognised that both of these descriptions are grossly simplistic and possibly need to be questioned on a number of different levels. For a start, does the idea of destiny imply some form of determinism that cannot be avoided, no matter what action is taken, or not taken, and does progress always lead to the betterment of the global population?

Note: In both cases it might be accepted that the answer has to be no, such that these concepts need some further consideration. For while ‘destiny’ is not necessarily predetermined, we might recognise the probability of action, or inaction, that might result in a consequence, which becomes increasingly difficult to avoid. Likewise, history is littered with the unintended consequences of ‘progress’ that did not result in the betterment of the human condition.

However, this introduction also wants to clarify its definition of the word ‘conservatism’ with a small [c]. In the context to be discussed, conservatism differs from the description given in the link above as its scope is not defined in terms of any recognised political or social ideology. Rather conservatism, with a small [c], simply forwards the idea that ‘change’ should be evolutionary and informed rather than revolutionary and uninformed and while this definition does not necessarily guarantee a positive outcome, it is hoped that it might increase the probability. So, having introduced some terms of reference, this discussion will now proceed to consider some issues that some people may find unpalatable, such that the current notion of ‘political correctness’ often seeks to censor such discussions. However, as outlined in the previous discussion entitled the scope of propaganda, consensus and censorship are often used, along with the claim of certainty, to both influence and deceive public opinion.

OK, so what issues need wider discussion?

In part, some of the motivation for this discussion was initially triggered by the Michael Moore documentary entitled Planet of the Humans. While readers should review this documentary for themselves, it basically attempts to outline some of the issues surrounding renewable energy along with the apparent ties between many environmental movements and wider corporate interests – also see The Climate Change Debate for wider discussion. Not unsurprisingly, some supporters of the interest groups mentioned have immediately called for the documentary to be banned, presumably by its removal from various media platforms. However, such issues are not the primary focus of this discussion, which will initially focus on the issue of population and resource usage.

Note: The reason for referencing the cited documentary is that it makes some commentary on the problem of population growth, see minutes 44-50, which it describes as the ‘elephant-in-the-room’. However, while acknowledging the problem, no attempt was really made to discuss any solution. This discussion tries to outline why this is possibly so.

Some years ago, another discussion entitled ‘Population and Resources’ was posted on website-2, which tried to consider various aspects of the debate surrounding ‘over-population’ versus ‘over-consumption’. Part of this discussion also considered the implications of the ‘limits to growth’ model, as illustrated below– see ‘Concluding Comments’ for more details.

Naturally enough, over the years, since first published in 1972, some have questioned the accuracy of the limits-to-growth model, especially in light of the subsequent optimism expressed by Pinker and Rosling, to name just two, who have demonstrably shown that the world is getting better, at least, in statistical terms.

Note: While this discussion will not contradict the optimistic analysis cited, it has highlighted that much of this analysis is predicated on extrapolations from the past to the present, such that further extrapolation into the future is still open to further debate.

As suggested by the previous charts, the global population is generally projected to peak within the 21st century. However, given the uncertainty about the actual numbers, this may not be the critical issue, if everybody demands their ‘right’ to an equality of resource usage comparable to the most affluent in the world today. For it is estimated that the top-10% use more resources than the bottom-90%. However, a possibly more worrying statistic is that the bottom-50% consume less than 10% of the top-50%, such that it might suggest a latent demand for a 2-fold increase in the consumption of current resources.

Note: As the previous discussion ‘Brave New Worlds’  attempted to outline, future technology developments may help to meet some of these additional demands, although it questions the optimism that technology alone could be a panacea for all the problems outlined. Likewise, a debate polarised in terms of ‘over-population’ versus ‘over-consumption’ may be missing the point, if both are issues of concern related to finite resources.

So, is the physical world implicitly limited by its natural resources?

At one level, we might intuitively recognise that there has to be some limit to any form of growth, let alone the exponential growth experienced over the last couple of centuries. However, history might provide some cautionary perspective as to when and how any peak in the thousands of resources now used by humanity may become a critical problem. In 1798, Thomas Malthus published a book entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population’, which basically forwarded the argument that while an increase in food production would improve the well-being of a given population, this improvement would be temporary, if it simply supported a population growth, such that the original per capita usage remained unchanged. This argument has become known as the ‘Malthusian trap’ that has been subject to much debate, which this discussion will not directly address, other than to say that the ability to increase resource production infinitely is still questionable.

Note: It is highlighted that the global population is only projected to grow by some finite amount, e.g. 10 billion, such that technology might support a 25% increase in resource usage. Of course, if this entire population were to seek equality of resource usage, then it would project a 2-fold increase in resource demand, which at face-value appears to be a far more problematic goal, even with optimistic technology developments over a similar timeframe of 80 years.

So, can we still proceed on the grounds of reasonable optimism?

 While reasonable optimism can be more productive than unreasonable pessimism, some further discussion of the issues is possibly required. For example, it might have been implied that the current consumption of resources is sustainable, even though numerous authoritative sources already question this assumption – see Resource Consumption for further references. In this context, it needs to be highlighted that these sources are already questioning the ‘current’ sustainability of a global population of 7.8 billion, not the projected 10 billion by 2050, where the bottom 50% do not simply remain content to consume 10% of the top 50%, but aspire to have resource equality. If so, we come to a question that most people, especially politicians, do not want to pursue in detail, especially in public debate.

Is there some upper sustainable limit to the global population?

It is recognised that there is no definitive answer to this question, because it depends on the assumptions made about the overall biocapacity of planet Earth to provide the essentials, not necessarily the luxuries, of life, e.g. food, water, shelter etc. As this topic has previously been discussed under the heading Human Footprint, this discussion will simply make reference to the chart below.

Here, the vertical axis shows the population that might be supported by some overall biocapacity based on a given consumption per capita. As such, the green, orange and red bars reflect different consumption rates per capita, where the green bars show an overall biocapacity of 8-units that might support a population of 8 billion, while an optimistic increase of the biocapacity to 20-units, i.e. 250%, might support an increased population of 20 billion. At the other extreme, the red bars reflect an increase consumption per capita against the different biocapacities, such that the estimated sustainable populations fall to 2-5 billion, which is considerably less than the current global population. Of course, this is a very simple model and while it might provide some insight to the trade-offs between overall biocapacity and the consumption per capita, it ignores one very important consideration – resource distribution in the real world is not equal.

Note: As pointed out, the bottom-50% of the global population may only consume less than 10% of the top-50% and the idea that the top-50% will willingly agree to a redistribution of their living standards to achieve equality with the bottom-50% appears ‘unlikely’ to say the least.

So, given the obvious limitations associated with this type of footprint model, might we consider the previous question concerning a sustainable population in a different way in order to highlight why so few want to really discuss this issue. For example, let us assume that the maximum sustainable population could be determined by some unknown, but accepted method, and was estimated to be in the region of 4 billion, i.e. half the current global population. Might we then table the following question and seek an answer.

How would the governments of the world seek to address this problem?

It is possibly too optimistic to assume that this question would be address as an issue of global governance, but rather one that each national government would attempt to resolve in terms of its own national interests and influence. If so, we might proceed to consider this issue in terms of just the few nations listed in the table below, taken from the earlier Human Footprint  discussion, such that the figures are a little out of date. First, we might recognise the scope of the sustainability problem in terms of the ‘Overshoot’ figure, which reflects whether the existing national population might already be using more resources than its current biocapacity relative to its consumption, i.e. gha/cap. In this respect, all countries with a figure greater than unity have a sustainability issue that might only currently be resolved by importing certain resources from other countries.

Country Population
% Global Footprint
China 1336.6 18.31% 2.21 2953.8 1309.8 2.26
US 310.0 4.25% 8 2480.0 1199.7 2.07
India 1164.7 15.95% 0.91 1059.8 594.0 1.78
Russia 141.9 1.94% 4.41 626.0 816.2 0.77
Brazil 190.1 2.60% 2.91 553.2 1707.3 0.32
Guyana 0.8 0.01% 2.38 1.8 47.2 0.04

We might also perceive an additional problem with the high overshoot figures in countries like China and India, which also have a large wealth and resource distribution gap within their current population, such that striving for more equality might only aggravate the consumption overshoot problem. Of course, the other problem with these two countries is that, combined, they represent 35% of the global population. As such, it might be accepted that neither of these national governments would necessarily pursue an open policy that might seek to reduce their population by 50%, although China’s one-child policy was an attempt to control its growing population, but which led to many socio-economic problems associated with population demographics – see Global Demographics for wider discussion.  

So, how might governments try to address any potential ‘overshoot’ problem?

In reality, it might be accepted that many of the 190+ nation-states around the world would not really be in a position to do anything effective, other than to try to improve their own national biocapacity or increase imports of required resources. This might be achieved by either, or both, technology or economic developments, where the technology might help improve productivity and economic growth might allow additional resources to be imported. Of course, even within this simplistic outline, we might recognise that increasing imports might only compound the global issue of finite resources, while technology developments may have unforeseen economic and environmental impacts.

Note: Clearly, part of the previous discussion has been predicated on a hypothetical premise that the maximum sustainable population might be determined. However, there is no substantive proof that a projected global population of 10 billion cannot be supported, let alone the current 7.8 billion population. In fact, this discussion started with the optimism that the world has become an increasingly better place to live by most statistical measures relative to the past. However, it is unclear whether this optimism really addresses the issue of whether the current global population is sustainable into the future, both in terms of resource usage or the nature of their role in society.

It is recognised that the alarm bells may have started to ring in respect to any suggestion that people must have a role in society to justify their existence – see Economic Catalysts and AI-Robotic Automation for wider implications. However, it might be accepted, based on history, that those who cease to have a meaningful role in society may ultimately come to have little say in the direction of its progress.

Of course, many will argue that life may have purpose without necessarily having to play any functional role within society and any argument to the contrary might simply invite angry criticism in terms of both morality and the constitutional right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. However, while we might accept the morality of this position in a perfect world, where the issue of sustainability does not exist, it is a position that may simply be ignoring the issue of finite resources.

But is there really any limit to a sustainable global population?

 If only tabled as a hypothetical question, it is possible that most people might accept that there has to be some limit. However, many will be quick to point out that global population projections suggest that we will reach a peak sometime this century and that there is high confidence that technology developments over this timeframe will help meet any additional demand. Of course, others might suggest, as illustrated below, that while technology has indeed helped to support an increasing global population, it may have also led to the depletion of global resources at a rate that cannot be sustained. Equally, other developments in the wider human ecosystem have not solve the obvious problem of resource inequality around the world.

As such, technology may not necessarily be a panacea to all future problems as articulated in the following quote.

“One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.”

Without wanting to pursue the arguments of a somewhat ideological debate, it is not unreasonable to assume that progress could be ‘manipulated’, but not necessarily controlled, to serve the interests of a few powerful interest groups, e.g. political, economic and social. It might also be suggested that the ‘interests or goals’ of these powerful interest groups will not always benefit the majority within any population.

But what has this really got to do with the previous question or the title of this discussion?

In part, the issue of the sustainability of the global population has only been used as but one example of the problems surrounding the idea of progress, i.e. the betterment of humanity. For it might be accepted that progress often proceeds in small incremental changes and while each step may go unnoticed, it can lead to a profound disconnect between the past, present and future. In this context, we know that past changes, even if disruptive at the time, led to the present, both good and bad. This said, how we proceed from the present towards the future is far more speculative, especially if considered in terms of a myriad of unseen and possibly unknowable developments across the entire width of the human ecosystem.

So, what might we assume about the future?

In terms of any speculative assessment of the future, we may need some better idea of the projected populations for different regions of the world, as estimated in the table below. Without necessarily questioning the accuracy of these estimates, we might focus on Africa as it has a projected growth [Δ%] of over 230% by 2100. If so, its population would dwarf all other regions and be the main contributor to the 39.7% increase in the global population by 2100.

2020 2100
Region Billions % Billions % Δ%
World 7.80 100.0% 10.90 100.0% 39.7%
Africa 1.30 16.7% 4.30 39.4% 230.8%
India 1.38 17.7% 1.45 13.3% 5.1%
China 1.44 18.5% 1.10 10.1% -23.6%
Europe 0.75 9.6% 0.63 5.8% -16.0%
USA 0.33 4.2% 0.43 4.0% 31.1%
Other 2.60 33.3% 2.99 27.4% 15.0%

Clearly, such a large demographic shift in the global population will undoubtedly have a major impact on the global economy in terms of both supply and demand of resources. While Africa has a large quantity of natural resources that have yet to be fully exploited, it has been estimated that Africa’s human footprint may still exceed its biocapacity within the next 20 years, although many regions may reach this point in much less time.

But does this table really suggest an insurmountable population problem?

Again, there may be a number of perspectives on this question depending on whether, or not, current regional populations are already ‘overshooting’ their biocapacity. The first perspective might simply focus on essential survival needs, e.g. food and water. However, the second, and possibly wider perspective may consider that the modern world now depends on a multitude of resources, both natural and man-made, where any shortage might cause problems. Another perspective might consider the issue of equality of resource usage across all populations, such that the population size does not necessarily reflect resource consumption, if some large majority only consumes a small fraction of a smaller minority. Finally, it might be recognised that few countries are entirely self-sufficient in all resources, such that they need to participate in the global economy, where many other factors beyond population numbers may determine success, but which still leads to a worrying question.

Is there an optimal global population?

To clarify, this question differs from the sustainability issue, where some larger population might simply survive. Again, it is recognised that the alarm bells might start ringing at the direction this discussion might be taking. For the word ‘optimal’ appears to imply a number less than ‘sustainable’, which then requires some explanation of how the idea of ‘optimal’ might be achieved. However, before pursuing this issue, the following quote by Alan Weisman might characterise the scope of the issues under consideration.

Whether we accept it or not, this will likely be the century that determines what the optimal human population is for our planet. It will come about in one of two ways: Either we decide to manage our own numbers, to avoid a collision of every line on civilization's graph or nature will do it for us, in the form of famines, thirst, climate chaos, crashing ecosystems, opportunistic disease, and wars over dwindling resources that finally cut us down to size.

While this quote alludes to two basic options, it only really outlines the potential implications of the natural world proceeding on the basis of what might be described as ‘survival-of-the-fittest’. Of course, while this option can hardly be described as ‘optimal’, it may reflect a potential reality, if nobody is prepared to discussed the implications surrounding the other option, vaguely described by the phrase ‘ managing our own numbers ’.

Note: There are many obvious problems with the ‘managed option’, not least, in terms of the ‘we’ who decide on how the numbers are to be managed. In this context, the dark history that surrounds the issue of eugenics will simply be rejected. However, the issue of how a population might achieve some optimal level still remains open for debate.

 So, what might be inferred by the word ‘optimal’?

Based on the diagram right, the idea of optimal might infer a population that exists comfortably above the poverty line, as opposed to a sustainable population that simply survives. However, let us also consider the question in terms of the wider reality of the world, not as some revolutionary inspired utopia, which most might come to reject as a dystopian nightmare, but as something close to an achievable goal. If so, we might return to the idea of conservatism with a little [c], where change is evolutionary not revolutionary, as well as being informed rather than misinformed. In this context, we might require any approach to an optimal population to retain the freedom for people to choose for themselves rather than simply imposed by some centralised authority demanding conformity.

Note: While the suggestion above does not necessarily forward an idealistic solution, the projected 230% increase in the African population might be reduced to a more ‘optimal’ level, if based on better education about family planning and contraception options. Again, the word ‘education’ needs to be stressed, if the individual is to retain some freedom of choice.

At this point, some might argue that just constraining the future global population below the 10.9 billion, as cited in the previous table, does not necessarily meet the criteria of ‘optimal’, especially if the current global population is already unsustainable. Of course, this claim of unsustainability has been questioned by many, such that there can be no certainty in this assumption, although looking at the world today, it is far from certain that sustainability is not a problem. Likewise, even if sustainability was not in question, it is clear that the idea of an ‘optimal’ population appears to be advocating an approach that might deliver a better, more rewarding life, than the mere survival on offer to many based on the word ‘sustainable’. If so, it might be accepted that the real scope of the question above has not really been addressed, such that we might still need to consider some wider issues.

So, what might optimal really imply?

Let us start with a relatively uncontentious definition that ‘optimal’ might simply suggest an outcome that is both ‘desirable’ and ‘satisfactory’. Of course, we might then complicate this definition by suggesting that what is ‘desirable’ and ‘satisfactory’ can be subjective and relative to your current place in the world. As such, a starving man may desire and be satisfied by a bowl of rice, while a rich man would not and therefore this subjective criterion may not be that helpful. If so, a slightly more contentious argument might be forwarded suggesting that life, beyond mere survival, needs some purpose, such that it contributes to the quality of life within a society.

Note: While some people might question the idea that life requires a purpose measured in terms of a contribution to society, it is not necessarily one that can be ignored. For we might recognised that most people have to work for a living and, in this respect, their renumeration reflects some sort of value that society puts on this role. Of course, while society may value certain essential roles, it often appears to put a disproportionate value on other more frivolous roles associated with celebrity. However, for whatever reason, it appears that society already participates in a selection process based on supply and demand, although we might sometimes question its rationale.

Of course, the idea of any type of selection process can quickly raise moral and ethical concerns, if it appears to be weighted in favour of a certain type of individual – see Nature versus Nurture Debate and The IQ Controversy for wider issues. So, at this point, we start to edge ever-closer to the moral dilemma that so few want to discuss in public debate, where the definition of a more optimal population requires some form of selection criteria leading to a reduction in numbers. For, not unreasonably, we might perceive the risk that it leads to the idea of a selection criteria based on ‘quality over quantity’ such that the world might never agree to the ‘managed’ solution, as proposed by the previous Weisman’s quote.

So, will progress simply be destined to end in collapse?

Initially, in response to this question, it needs to be highlighted that there are those who simply reject that there is an over-population or over-consumption problem, such that the optimism that led to the present will simply continue into the future. On the other hand, others may concede that there are problems associated with both over-population and over-consumption, but they remain optimistic that technology developments will address these problems by the end of this century. Finally, there may be another option, which does not end in total collapse, as alluded by the Weisman’s quote, where problems are resolved, but not necessarily solved, on the basis of ‘ winners and losers ’ without any obvious management.

Note: If we consider the optimistic assessment of Pinker and Rosling in a more critical light, it might be realised that the world is still divided by winners and losers, where the winners live more optimally above the poverty line, while the losers only survive below this line. Even more brutally, we might realise that the ultimate losers that fall below the sustainable line, simply died.

As unpalatable and cruel as the description above might appear, it is a solution that has worked in the past and might continue into the future, as it avoids the controversy of any ‘conscious’ selection process. Of course, in reality, this selection process is taking place every single day as one billion people go hungry and approximately 25,000 people die, every day, of malnutrition and hunger-related diseases, where 18,000 of this number are children under 5 years old. While many people will either reject this conclusion, or ignore it, the destiny of progress might turn out to be increasingly unkind to those who can no longer contribute to society, possibly for no fault of their own, where technology developments only succeed in exacerbating the division between ‘winners and losers’.