Population creates pressures on land, water and food supplies, is it possible to solve these problems with improved technology?
Firstly, let us acknowledge that increasing population is a significant problem. Obviously you cannot have an infinte population of humans on the planet and expect anything to work. The planet probably could not survive a population of 20 billion humans whatever the technology.
This is the classic Malthusian problem, and one of the ways that we have solved that problem is through improved technology and improved agriculture. We now grow more food than ever before. Can we keep improving our yields? The answer is probably not. We will eventually reach peak phosphorus, and peak other nutrients. This will occur when we have, if I can put it crudely, shat and pissed most of the essential minerals into the sea, where they will be hard to access. This problem of removing nutrients from the country, and putting them into the seas has been known since mentioned by the nineteenth century scientist Justus von Liebig, and is the basis of John Bellamy Foster’s talk of Marx’s analysis of the “Metabolic rift”.
So there is a point in talking about how do we reduce population or slow population growth, and whether there is a role technology can play in helping us to deal with the effects of population growth.
We do know that increase of population radically slows, where women have a degree of freedom, ability to be self supporting and access to birth control. In other words, the more equitable and the less ‘patriarchal’ the society the better for population decrease. So there is a possible solution to the population problem, but it is not popular with significant forces in the world. These forces are usually religious, although sometimes nationalist politicians campaign for population growth possibly to get more canon fodder or to sponsor economic growth. It has been argued that one of the reasons for British social security is that working class men made unhealthy and weak soldiers – improving fertility was another conjoint solution.
If ‘patriarchy’ is the problem and we know a solution but seem reluctant to use it, then population increase is primarily a political problem, not a technical problem (once reliable birth control exists).
As far as I understand, the main problems today, which are intensified by population increase, involve distribution of food, allocation of living space, avoidance of warfare, growing lack of access to drinkable water, and the destruction of natural systems of waste disposal and regrowth.
Poorer, less powerful, people are being dispossessed from land, which is taken for mining, deforestation, industrial agriculture, city expansion and so on. This destroys those people’s ability to be self-supporting, and often severs their connection with being attentive to, and looking after, natural systems. It often forces them into the cities. This, again, seems a political problem.
Some of the politics arises because businesses are given too much power to expand and to insist upon satisfying their drives, and natural processes are given a monetary value which, if paid, allows destruction. For example, water rights are sold by governments to private companies who then sell it to those who can pay the most, excluding many others who might need it more, but have less money. Emissions trading systems allow wealthy people to pollute. As said earlier, we also waste water and soil nutrients in coastal cities which pump it all into the ocean rather than back onto the land.
Likewise, in Australia, it has sometimes seemed that rather than belong to the people, coal belongs to the State which seems owned by coal miners, and hence people get displaced so that land can be destroyed for cheap coal, and, with it, potential food and water supplies. The possession by coal seems to be so extensive that it sometimes seems Australia spends more to get people to mine here, than we make from them in taxes or royalties.
We also have the problem of the huge ecological footprint of certain populations, and this footprint might be more senstibly distributed as well as cut – as I’ve said before, we simply can’t survive if everyone on the planet has the kind of footprint common in contemporary Australia…
All of these problems seem to be primarily political rather than technological.
That is, the questions are really about how do we persuade some people to have less, so that others can have more, and how do you prevent companies from engaging in destruction if it makes money? I don’t have any easy solutions to any of this at all.
On even simple fronts like energy, it seems everyone could be doing a lot better with the technology we have, rather than hoping for new tech – and this failure to act with what we have, is again a set of political, rather than purely technical, issues.
I’m dubious that even new tech can make that much difference, unless its completely unprecedented… which is a lot to pin our hopes on. However, without a change in politics, technology could simply make the processes worse; so that we destroy more land more quickly, strip soil of its nutrients with more efficiency, or create even more unequal distributions of wealth, nutrition, power and involvement.
But if the problems are more political than technological, then they can possibly be rectified with relative ease, once people start realising this and start to act.