True Progress and Population Growth

    By João L.R. Abegão | 18 March 2019
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    Aldeia Do Carrascal, Portugal. (Image: Daniel Abegão)

    Lately, I have been wondering what the true meaning of ‘progress’ is and if everyone shares the same notion of it.

    What would progress mean for a small village like the one in the picture? If I were an economist, I would say that nothing short of a 3% growth/year would suffice, if I wanted this village to grow as an economic potency. That would require the population to keep on growing – through an increase in fertility and possibly immigration – as well as being further urbanised so that infrastructures, housing, roads and services could be erected to sustain the greedy and rapacious industrial cravings of development.

    There would be a need to provide for the energetic demands of the new citizens, which, as they grew more prosperous call for additional kilowatts to power up their homes, air conditioning, and all the cornucopia and paraphernalia of stuff that becomes their extended phenotypes. As I’m feeling especially less of a ‘Cassandra’ today lets us assume that the whole village would be powered up by solar panels, an entire farm of such, which have their problems, but that on another day (the most likely scenario would still be transmogrifying the whole landscape while prospecting for oil, coal or gas).

    Next up, that augmenting populace (that is getting richer) would need to be fed. Forget the valleys, the canyons, the plains, the lowlands and the remaining forests visible… those would all be turned into grazing, farming and horticultural fields to feed the swelling community of humans and all their domesticated animals that they gorge upon. There would come a time when the needs of the citizens would surpass the carrying capacity of this area, and they would look elsewhere to replenish their needs. We need to look at the example of London as Herbert Giradet illustrates: “What is 120 times the size of London? The answer: The land, or ecological footprint required to supply London’s needs.” (This was written in 2002, I would venture to say that the number has substantially increased as the population and affluence hasn’t stopped growing in the cosmopolitan capital.)

    Subsequently, we are faced with the difficulty of dealing with all the waste and residues created by the burgeoning of the population and the aggrandisement of its per capita affluence. That would translate into more plastic, more glass and paper, organic residues and households sewage that would necessitate further infrastructures. Basically, at this point, the whole scenery in the picture would be unrecognisable. There is more that could be said, but for the extent of this thought experiment, it will suffice.

    And the most important of them all, water. We would need to dig ever deeper to find clean sources of water to drink and to make everything grow and work. That would be the most challenging task of all.

    In reality, this isn’t any random village. I was born here, and I live here. It is a precious memento of what I need to protect and safe keep. Fortunately, I’m not an economist, I’m an ecologist, and I see ‘progress’ through a different lens.

    For me, progress in this village is the fact that it remains identic to when I was born and quite possibly even before that. To be exact, if it changes it is not in a way that any generation of humans can perceive. That is invaluable because I know the possibility of falling into a “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” is way lower. And now I want to get to the heart of the reasons that I consider this to be PROGRESS.

    The rationalisation is quite inconspicuous and understated, but the only reason that this village has remained perpetual and almost unchanged for about 300 years, is the fact that the population was never allowed to explode beyond its means. Let us imagine the 200 inhabitants of this area instead of sharing the national fertility rate of 1.5 children per couple, would instead have double that, 3.0, which is relatively reasonable compared for example to that of Niger, 7.8. Under the scenario of 3.0 fertility, that would signify one additional person per couple after each generation, instead of the stable or slow reduction that the village has been observing for the last century or so.

    Even if migration was 0 (which in the rest of Europe and other developed nations it isn’t, because it accounts for the main reason for population growth in the West) that would still translate to the need to create 50% of everything that I wrote above, every new generation to provide for the needs of the new passengers.

    More roads, more houses, more energy distribution, more farms, more waste management, more water and the list is pretty extensive.

    My point is, the reason this village still holds any ecological value in its vicinity, as it can be seen in the picture is solely due to the compressed and constricted fertility rates that are practised in Portugal. This fact is not yet celebrated enough. That will change in the coming years. I want it to be acclaimed and revered and to make sure to prove that the natural world that we still preserve is due to the acts of copulating but not populating exerted in this country as well as the fact that we have low immigration rates. I want to keep it that way and desire for people to acknowledge this reasoning that goes beyond my village, and that applies to our entire territory and other countries in the same state of affairs.

    Progress, here, is when things remain the same.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

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