Learning isn’t always fun

I visited the Hong Kong Science Museum the other day, and buried among all the knob-twiddling, lever-pulling exhibits is a simple dot-matrix display designed to plunge people (like me, specifically) into prolonged terror. The information shown on the screen relates to the Earth’s human population, which, it turns out, is increasing by around 2-3 people every single second. That means that by the time you’re done with reading this paragraph, there’s an additional 60 people scouring the planet in search of food, water and shelter. (Not to mention fame and fabulous wealth.)

Only a small amount of arithmetic reveals that such an increase equates more or less to:

  • 9,000 people an hour;
  • 216,000 people a day;
  • 1,512,000 people a week; or
  • 78,624,000 people a year (about the population of Ethiopia, the 15th most populous country in the world).

Were such a rate to be sustained, the current (and there’s a word being ripped apart at the seams) population of the planet would double within the next 86 years—a startling fact considering the 200,000 or so years that went into the making of the first 6.8 billion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Such a projection relies upon a sustainability that we simply haven’t got. Even at our current (and there’s that word again) level of population we’re eating, displacing and hunting animals into extinction, eviscerating our natural resources in the name of economic efficacy, and causing irreversible damage to our climate by burning fossil fuels. It doesn’t take an awful lot of brain power to realise that these problems are only going to increase (and exponentially so) along with our burgeoning population. And that’s without throwing things like disease, overcrowding, and food and water scarcity into the mix.

In a very real sense then, we have become victims of our own evolutionary success. Our survival instincts, which have brought countless medical, scientific, agricultural and mechanical advances in the name of human longevity, may yet, in fact, be the end of us. We are just that bit too good at surviving, procreating and making use of what’s around us. We really are canny bunch, that’s for sure, but then this isn’t a question of resourcefulness, it’s a question of resources.

Others, I admit, would argue that the opposite is in fact true: that questions of resources can and will be answered by human ingenuity and brilliance. It’s certainly a tempting interpretation, but then any argument that suggests we can maintain the status quo is always going to be tempting. It’s just far too easy to accept a viewpoint that divests us of ethical responsibility, and in placing the fate of humanity in the hands of an unnamed, messianic scientist, we can free ourselves from our consciences without changing a single aspect of our lives. Perfect.

I think this is what economists and political scientists would call the ‘status quo bias’—a model which states that without a compelling imperative for change, no change will come. If we’re given the choice between change and stability, the theory posits, we will nearly always choose stability, and only significant benefits (or threats) to our health, status or bank balance can alter this outcome. When our notion of ‘stability’ entails flat-screen TVs, expensive holidays and never going hungry, it’s easy to see how the case for change rapidly loses weight and significance, and the unseen abilities of a miracle scientist look all the more appealing.

Unfortunately though, as demonstrated by the population figures above, this status quo is actually in rapid and increasingly entropic movement. We’ve just managed to convince ourselves otherwise. Our ballooning population, spurred on by capitalism’s need for year-on-year economic growth, will just consume more, spend more and waste more until such time that any compelling imperative for change has transmogrified into a very real change we’re no longer able to temper.

Things are moving away from us, and the longer that we remain swaddled in the solipsism, luxury and greed of the 21st century, the more permanent this ‘distance’ becomes. We need to remember that we are part of an ever-expanding planetary population, and that the choices we make in our everyday lives matter, more now than ever before.



  1. starbreez · March 6, 2010

    “solyent green is people!”

    by the way, does that population increase take into account the death rate?

    the truly dire battle for resources will be in water, not oil. a big part of why the sudan is such an unhinged area is because its main lake is but a fraction of its previous size, so groups are coming into conflict as they move to secure their freshwater supply.

    this is why i think politics, though a dirty business, is a necessary one. all politics is local. have enough layers of that, and all politics become global. perhaps you should turn your degree to one on sustainable development …

  2. starbreez · March 6, 2010

    in addition, two more questions:

    have you heard that there are actually enough land and resources to go around, only that the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is so wide that there’s never enough for the latter?

    have you heard about why the mayans died out despite developing into a high and mighty civilisation? it was something along the lines of unsustainable development.

    i was telling PA and SW today that when the overfished area around an island was sort of cordoned off in the North Sea, the entire place sprang back to full and varied life within 2 years. so i suspect i would take the opposite tack — it’s really not so much resources (droughts can be man-made) that we lack, but the will to employ and allocate them equitably and efficiently.

    peace out

  3. lefolly · March 7, 2010

    Yeah, I suppose if I was going to put them into some kind of formula, those figures would look a bit like this:

    births per second – deaths per second = terrifying statistics

    And I think this is why I now struggle to convince myself that some kind of coordinated affirmative action is going to make any kind of impact. Partly because I don’t believe politics is able to act in such a manner (Copenhagen and Kyoto seem pretty good evidence for this), but mainly because each of these new lives, when looked at through things like GDP, 3% inflation and per capita income, are essentially just economic units whose sole purpose is to generate revenue via production and consumption, which is kind of how we got here in the first place.

    Politics certainly has a unique power to enact change, but it also has a bottom line to think about. And a rather worrying propensity for inequality, backhanders and corruption (the land distribution you mentioned could be used as evidence for this I think).

    As soon as ethical, renewable and planetary politics becomes economically viable, we’re laughing.

    Ha. Ha. Ha. See?

    Hadn’t heard about the Mayan thing. It sounds interesting. And yes, while I was writing this I was thinking about how I could angle a bit of this stuff into my upcoming scrawlings. Might be an interesting angle. Or obvious and mundane. I’m not sure yet.


  4. lefolly · March 7, 2010

    Automatically justified text can go to the seventh circle of hell.

  5. starbreez · March 7, 2010


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