Population increase, economic growth and the environment – standing shoulder to shoulder with the planet.

Stephen Hawking pointed out “In the last 200 years the population of our planet has grown exponentially, at a rate of 1.9% per year. If it continued at this rate, with the population doubling every 40 years, by 2600 we would all be standing literally shoulder to shoulder”. 

The year 2600 is only 24 generations away; roughly 600 years ago King Henry V was fighting battles in France. The battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, between people fighting with weapons and speaking languages that we would understand today.  

Of course I do not think that the world will ever be inhabited with any single species standing shoulder to shoulder; the way that nature works will stop that happening and there are built in restraints. If the human race ever looks like getting close to standing shoulder to shoulder than I am sure that some disease, catastrophe or event will stop it happening. 

We are growing both in numbers and our national economies are for the most part growing; the world economy certainly is growing fast. Virtually every politician celebrates economic growth as a laudable achievement. Gordon Brown has presided over a period which has averaged growth of 2.7% while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Bush has done his best to actively stimulate growth. The European Union has grown, but at a slower rate than other economies and this is felt to be a bad thing. China and India are experiencing massive economic growth. China’s economy has grown at 8% since 1978. 

Growth, particularly economic growth, is not always desirable. It depletes scarce resources, damages those species with which we co-inhabit earth, and is ultimately unsustainable.  This shows itself very clearly when you look at fuel for energy.  Massive growth requires massive amounts of new energy. The new energy drives the growth, and also is needed to satisfy the beneficiaries of growth, as they increase the demands on energy use.

China is building two new coal fired power stations each week and plans to build 43 new nuclear power stations in the next 15 years. Every growing nation has similar plans.  At these rates of consumption the sources of fuel will first become very expensive and then become scarce. This in itself will inhibit growth.

Growth will also be restricted and partially set in reverse by the climate change consequences of growth, as people living in poorer countries will suffer from adverse weather, drought and famine. Those nations that will survive the energy shortages of the future best will be those that have adopted renewable energy.

On human time scales the power of the sun is inexhaustible and using it for heat and for electricity should be an essential and large part of every nation’s energy planning. In other words, what is in the long term interest of the planet earth is also in our long term interest; if we harm earth we harm ourselves.