It is clear that the main driver for the increasing cost and decreasing availability of natural resources is consumption, so, at some point, consumption must decline, unless we can find ways to make the products we use out of dirt (finite, with other issues), water (low cost supplies already diminishing), or air (quality already compromised in highest population areas). Interestingly, projects have been in place to make bricks out of dirt (link) for centuries, but they are uneconomical in the developed world because they trade off material cost for labor cost. Contaminated dirt is also a problem. Consumption reduction is still needed, though. How will that happen? It appears that resources more scarce than air, water, and dirt will continue to be required to support the burgeoning human population. If consumption must be reduced, how is that to happen? Recycling and conservation only go so far, and new technologies, from what one can easily see now, don’t look like a good prospect for a total solution. It appears that population expansion will probably be able to outstrip our best efforts on all fronts. Indeed, it looks like every possible way to decrease consumption must be applied simultaneously, including, and possibly especially, measures leading to a reduction in our numbers.
In essence, population growth must somehow be slowed, stopped, and reversed. (There, I said it: the tough observation nobody seems to want to discuss today.) I can only see education as the solution, at the root of it all. Nobody wants more wars, epidemics, or famine, as humans have experienced on increasingly larger scales throughout our history. Only when the vast majority of people around the world have the information and are educated enough to understand what they are seeing, will things change peacefully in a way that can lead to a sustainable future.
Unfortunately there are conservative forces, mostly religious but some political, that have worked against the education of the masses, frequently as a matter of tradition. I believe not so much that these power groups see an educated majority as a threat to their power and influence, but that the memes on which they subsist support anti-education and anti-science ideology in more subtle ways. A parallel example of this type of subtlety was revealed to me by a friend who belongs to a particular minority religion, who pointed out that his group never says outright that believers of other faiths are wrong, misled, doomed, or otherwise disfavored by his god, but that the “us versus them” distinction is implied in the struggle they carry on to preserve their traditions, and in the teachings of their faith.
It is through this example that I began to understand that memes, the virus-like ideas on which many religious and political power groups subsist, can evolve over time and become increasingly sophisticated, better able to not only attract and involve additional adherents, but to do so in extremely subtle ways. Of course, this varies from group to group (and meme to meme). For instance, some groups still make a big deal of declaring that everyone else is destroying the national character or going to hell, but others appear to avoid driving off prospective adherents by keeping the “us versus them” rhetoric to extremely subtle and inferential terms and positions.
However it comes about, though, too many huge and powerful organizations, including major worldwide religions and governments of substantial countries, work directly against any education they feel would lessen their power, and by doing so decrease education overall. It is this normal human phenomenon that will increase our risks in the future by delaying the achievement of the widespread education that will be necessary to achieve a sustainable, truly long term future for the human species. I will note that there is some hope glimmering around the edges, as noted in an interview (link) with Gary Gardner on the WorldWatch Institute’s site, and at the Earth Charter Initiative (link), and we need all the hope we can get. I also believe our institutions will actually be improved by increased understanding of complex human factors such as memes.
That takes me back to my vision of the future: that 20+ years from now we will see public education rising, worldwide, recognized as more essential than ever to every country and ethnic group’s economic success, and to the achievement of a long-term, sustainable, and progressing state of life on the planet. At that point world population will already be falling for a variety of reasons: lower birth rates in the more educated and developed countries, and increasingly tough times in the less-developed countries (though, of course, I hope this will not be the case). Improved technology, and conservation and recycling systems, will combine with decreasing population to substantially reduce consumption and lengthen natural resource exhaustion horizons.
I realize that the concept of reducing human population is an especially tough topic, difficult to face and complicated to think about, but I believe we need to be thinking about it, and planning and working to mitigate the problems we have already created for our species and life on the planet. That’s just my humble opinion, but it just makes sense to me. I am interested in the opinions of others, so feel free to comment.