Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Liberty and Sustainability

It took thousands of years for the world’s population to reach one billion in around 1800. It took another 130 years for the population to reach two billion (1930) and just 30 years to reach three billion (1960). In the 50 years since then, the world’s population has more than doubled, to an estimated 6.8 billion at the end of 2010. To most thinking people, this does not appear to be sustainable. Even with the best management practices, the earth cannot sustain an infinitely expanding population with finite resources. This raises for me the specter of sustainability being achieved at the expense of liberty.

Consider this: When Europeans first arrived in the Americas they were greeted by an estimated total of between 50 and 100 million native people. The vastness of the two continents understandably seemed to them to be an inexhaustible bounty. Settlers in North America were encouraged to claim land and do as they wished, farming and hunting and exploiting the resources without the government giving any thought to what they were consuming or bothering to check in at all. Indeed, the government would not have been able to, and really had no mind to even if it could. In a big world with few people, consumption wasn’t much of a problem. But now, with rain forests disappearing and fossil fuels being consumed and land being gobbled up and other species being threatened, it becomes clear that multiple billions of people cannot continue to chop away or develop or exploit as they wish. Neither can they procreate unlimited numbers of children, because population growth is exponential.

I can only imagine a solution coming down from the powers that be that involves complete control over what we consume, how we use land and other resources, whether or not and how much we procreate, and even what we teach about these things in our religious institutions. In other words, I am imagining an inverse relationship between liberty and sustainability. The logic will be something like this: Freedom and lack of regulation have produced this catastrophe, and only control can deliver us from it.

Labels: , , ,