Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Monday, June 8, 2009

Population Growth

In astronomy the Fermi Paradox refers to a question asked by Enrico Fermi with regards to the idea of advanced extra-terrestrial civilizations. Basically, based on the size and age of the universe, Fermi thought that there should be many advanced civilizations out there already. But if there are, why haven't we seen them? This question has been addressed in a multitude of serious and less-than-serious ways. Personally, my suspicion is that we're in the middle of an intergalactic wildlife park. Tourists can only enter if they make sure not to disturb the native wildlife (i.e. us). Ok, maybe not. But for those who search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, it is a serious problem.

This paper seems like a less-than-serious solution. Basically, it boils down to the idea that no civilization can sustain sufficient long-term rapid growth to outstrip humanity on its way to the stars. The authors claim to have examined civilizations here on earth and come to the conclusion that fast-growing societies usually lead to resource degradation and environmental damage. In other words, the faster societies grow, the more likely they are to damage themselves and hamper their long-term prospects.

Let's simply list some obvious objections. First of all, it seems a bit of a stretch to assess extraterrestrial civilizations based on what failings mankind may or may not exhibit. Secondly, why can't we assume that an alien society may have "grown up" on a significantly larger planet, or one with more accessible nearby neighbors capable of sustaining life? In that scenario, any destructive activities could be sustained for a far longer period of time without coming to grips with their ramifications. We also have to wonder why they need to operate with the same technology humanity uses. Perhaps they never had a period of nuclear alarmism like the 1960's and the entire planet is powered by sustainable fission or fusion reactors? Or maybe all of the habitable land mass is located close to the equator and their civilization isn't required to make the huge energy expenditures humanity finds necessary in order to regulate temperature.

Leaving aside all of those for a moment, the most obvious flaw is in the study's main assumption. While Easter Island may be a fun example for the author to cite, it seems like more realistic examples would be Europe and America. Speaking for my own continent, I'd like to point out that fuel efficiency here has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years, and I see no reason to assume that such advances will not continue. In other words, we are learning to do much more with much less all the time. Meanwhile, America's population has grown at an almost exponential rate during the last century, without America ever slipping from the number-one spot in terms of its quality of life, and the wealth of its citizens. Meanwhile, slow-growing nations see economic stagnation. (Although one can argue about which is cause and which is effect) And lastly, far from poisoning its environment, America and Europe are FAR cleaner now than they were 100 or 200 years ago. While no one would argue that neither continent has had any deleterious effects on its environment, the smog in London 100 years ago KILLED people, while America had far less forest than it does at present. And while we have obviously used up many natural resources, we are both far closer to cost-effective sustainable energy in the form of nuclear and solar power, and far better able to access resources like fossil fuels that would have been inaccessible even 30 years ago.

In short, the premise of this paper seems to be based on the kind of dismal neo-luddism that one sees far too often among environmentalists. Technological progress and the growth of manufacturing and population MUST inevitably be accompanied by increased human misery and damage to the earth in this mindset. In reality though, it is only as we become richer and move further away from subsistence-level living that we have the leisure to worry about things like our environment. There is a reason the US has such stringent pollution controls in place and China doesn't.