Humanity’s biggest challenge is sustainability. How does our avaricious species live within the natural constraints of the planet? Certain global trends suggest we may inadvertently be answering that question. Superficially appearing to be matters for concern, these trends may to the contrary be setting us on a path to sustainability.
Start with population decline. As I discussed in a previous post the populations of many countries across the globe are declining along with their fertility rates. And populations are aging as they decline.
Economists and others do not like these trends one little bit. They see declining, aging populations as averse to growth. They see shrinking work forces of younger people unable or unwilling to bear the burden of caring for increasing numbers of older people.
But are their concerns justified?
Let us digress for a moment and consider growth. Growth, the ever increasing demand for consumer goods, is the great threat to sustainability. The planet is finite. We are already using up more resources than it can regenerate while discharging pollutants faster than it can assimilate them. Nonetheless, economists insist growth is necessary to maintain a healthy economy.
This dilemma began with the Industrial Revolution. With the revolution came relentless advancing technology and with advancing technology comes improved efficiencies. We have steadily been able to produce the same amount or more goods and services with fewer workers. But fewer workers in turn leads to unemployment, and this is bad for the economy. Unemployed workers cannot buy much.
We have dealt with this in various ways. The most important way has been by producing more stuff, i.e. by growth. More stuff, more jobs. This has created a growth trap. If we don’t produce ever more stuff, our economy pays a price.
But eventually growth must stop and consumption retreat to a sustainable level. So how do we consume less? We might ask everyone to adopt simpler lifestyles but, people being the way they are, that is unlikely to happen.
Now consider another way we have dealt with advancing technology and increasing efficiencies—working less. Since early in the 19th century, the average work week has declined by almost half.
Unfortunately work times have plateaued since the 1960s, surprising given the extraordinary advances in technology over that period. However we may be correcting this lapse. A recent trial of a four-day 32- hour workweek in Britain found that an overwhelming majority of the 61 companies that participated will continue with the shorter hours. Employers found that most employees were less stressed and had better work-life balance while revenues largely stayed the same or grew. So hopefully we can get back to the historical trend.
With increasing use of AI and automation the trend should even accelerate. Indeed these technologies are often viewed with trepidation as people see themselves being replaced by machines. But by replacing workers they allow us to maintain productivity with shrinking workforces.
The trends fit together nicely. Population declines reduce consumer demand and aging populations reduce the work force. At the same time, technology allows us to replace workers (or work hours) while maintaining or increasing productivity. We are able, therefore, to produce the same amount of goods per capita with fewer workers. Overall demand falls but each individual persons’ doesn’t need to.
We can maintain our individual standard of living while reducing overall consumption. We can live comfortably within the constraints of our environment.
We have tended to look at these trends individually and become legitimately concerned. When we look at them collectively, however, a bigger picture emerges. They begin to complement each other as a potential path toward sustainability.
This then is the story. But can it be realized? Possibly, but only if the trends are recognized for their potential and accepted, and then guided toward the goal of sustainability.
Gaining that recognition will be a challenge in itself. It does not fit neatly into conventional
economic theory and political objectives. And countries are working against the trends.
For example, instead of accepting population decline, some countries, such as Canada and the U.S., counter low fertility rates with immigration. Others maintain their tribal attitudes, reject foreigners, and desperately try to get their women to produce more babies, usually without much success.
Aside from the economic concerns, declines in population are often feared as a threat to political power or ethnic strength. Few countries it seems are inclined to accept the need to end growth.
But people did finally accept the reality of global warming, so maybe they will eventually, hopefully before it’s too late, accept the threat of relentless growth and the need for sustainability. Or, given the difficulty they are having increasing fertility rates, the trends may force them to.
Many countries continue to grow their populations with fertility rates above 2.1. This allows for ample immigration but doesn’t help to reduce total global consumption. Fortunately we know how to reduce fertility rates—we raise living standards. Improving education and employment opportunities for women, providing family planning, improving child health, and increasing social prosperity generally all tend to reduce fertility rates.
We all have a stake in making things better for all of us. Even more than we may have thought.
This article was first published in The Monitor