Population and Money

The top map is a cartogram showing equal areas per equal population, while the lower map is skewed for equal areas per equal GDP. (Via Resilience, the maps are by physicist Mark Newman who has plenty more on his homepage.)

Minor note: I wish Alaska weren’t so emphasized in the second map. I am sure that isn’t meant to break it down by state; it’s misleading because it just takes the eye off the total hugeness of the USA relative to its population.

Now, is the above situation OK? On the conventional capitalist model, yes, certainly. The more developed countries have had the skill and persistence to “grow” and deserve their wealth. Such growth is not intrinsically limited, nor is it any sort of a zero sum game. We are happy to help others “grow” as well, although those of us in dominant positions, you understand, will do what we can to stay “ahead” of the “game” which “everybody wins, but some win more than others”. This view is the key to western optimism, and that in turn is the key to the massive denial about limits to growth, about which, after all, we were duly warned almost fifty (correction, almost forty) years ago to essentially no effect beyond the briefest media splash. (Always a trendwatcher, I still own a contemporaneous paperback edition. Call me a creature of fashion.)

If you have limits to growth, though, the everybody wins game simply goes away, and any mismatch between the population shapes and the wealth shapes is hard to defend on moral grounds. The closer we are to the maximum sustainable wealth of the planet, the closer we get to a zero sum game. Accordingly, if we are close to that limit, any outcome other than, basically, white people getting less wealthy, is unsustainable without imperialism. Even if you believed in the growth game in the past, where you are happy to give your neighbor a hand so long as you stay ahead, you can’t believe in it anymore once you hit limits. Post-growth, it’s just a matter of holding on to your share, even if it’s much bigger than the next fellow’s, or else figuring out how to let go.

Well, many of us are seeing limits popping up all over the place. Yet business proceeds in as near a usual fashion as it can manage. Can this have anything to do with the presidential candidates’ reluctance to talk about science? Telling the truth, it appears, is political suicide. Best to stay as far from numbers as possible. The idea “maybe we can aim for about a sixth of your current impact on the earth, if we are all smart and lucky” is not, really, likely to be a big seller. So we in the west lead the rest of the world off the cliff, unwilling to take note of the fact that there is no more material wealth to be discovered, no more new frontier to settle.

A change is going to come. What change is the question. People are always saying the poor countries are the most vulnerable but I think that may not be exactly correct.


  1. I stand accused of believing in a dead Malthusian theory. Apparently, on this death of Malthusianism theory, the earth can support an infinite number of people.I personally believe the number is rather less than that, and that it depends on the sum of the individual impacts that individual people have. As such, assuming no imposed discipline, sooner or later there comes a point where the highest impact society reaches an impact which could not be sustained if it were shared globally. Have we reached that point? Is the number of Americans that the earth can support less than seven billion? If it is greater, what is that number?This is not an easy question, but UNEP puts it at below two billion. Which means that the American standard of environmental impact cannot be sustained. Perhaps that number is pessimistic. If it’s off by a factor of five, we are far better off. Then the rest of the world can catch up. We could match the shapes of the maps without any shrinkage in size of the wealth map. But only just barely.If it’s off by a factor if fifty, Malthus is put off for a generation or two. I can’t see how he can ever be put to rest entirely, though.Humanity may eventually expand indefinitely into space, but the home planet can only support a certain amount of exploitation even in that scenario.

  2. David hopes his wish disguised as a comment has a glimmer of fact, because if it doesn’t, his ideology (and by extension his identity) is invalidated. Best to be humble about such matters, lad, as we see how tenuous the food production on this planet is by a mere cursory glance at the headlines. Sure, the rich will always eat, but what are the chances that all the adherents of cornucopian ideologies are rich?Best,D

  3. I regret to inform you that the death of Dr. Malthus was *not* exaggerated,and his silly theory is even deader than he is!Honestly, Michael, you’ll be walking up and down your Main Street with a placard soon!

  4. Oops. Apologies. Diener, E. and Seligman, MEP 2004. Beyond Money: Towards an Economy of Well-Being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest5:1 pp 1-31.I hope this link isn’t behind a sub. Best,D

  5. 10K ref here.Trying to remember where I saw the link to a recent WSJ arty about McMansions. The best part was the comments, wherein there was a lot of regret [IIRC: ‘my cat and dog enjoy our McMansion. My husband and I never see it, as we work long hours to pay for it).Best,D

  6. Chin up, there, Michael!The “limits to growth” conversation is indeed political suicide today. I think that “sell” is going to be even more intractable than getting agreement/compliance on emissions reductions. There is just this enormous cognitive dissonance for people when confronted with some of the immutable limits on this. The first reaction in trying to deal with seems universally to be “bargaining” and “magical thinking” about techno-miracles… which don’t seem to be easily forthcoming when dealing with things like conservation of mass and energy, entropy, etc.Hey, about that dog-eared paperback copy of “Limits to Growth”. I am not sure where mine is. Certainly I would have deliberately saved it, but it is probably boxed in the basement somewhere. Teenage me still remembers a scatterplot chart, I believe towards the beginning of the book, that graphically illustrated what percentage of human “thinking” time is allocated relative to space and time… something like 98% on issues like “what’s for lunch?”, “she has a nice body”, etc.; 1% on “me in retirement”; 1% “me in far away vacation destination”, and about 0.000001% on “the planet in 30 years”… always stuck with me that chart… But who knows? Maybe it’s a false memory!

  7. About the 10K as the point at which additional income brings no additional well-being, my wife Irene quoted that at a wonderful talk to our local Ethical Society just last week. (I’m trying to remember where that comes from; have you got a reference?) In my own experience it seems plausible. In my childhood, as my father attained success in business, we leapt over most of the middle class, moving from a 700 sq ft tenement rental to an ostentatious (by the standards of the day) split-level with high ceilings and chandeliers. The quality of my life deteriorated abruptly for several reasons, decline of community prominent among them, and I was desperately unhappy from the time of my father’s abrupt success until moving away to college. Admittedly adolescence may have had something to do with it as well, but most of the advantages of a big house and a big income have never spoken to me. I don’t think most other people have the experience of money not buying happiness as vividly as I do.

  8. McKibben’s Deep Economy makes this argument as well, using the argumentation that we need to keep limits in mind, because getting ‘more’ isn’t making us happy. Seems that inflection points for happiness wrt income is ~10K/yr – over that there is no appreciable difference in happiness before and after. So, yes, political suicide to try an implement a moral strategy.Keep up the good work, sir. Best,D

  9. Yes, it all started with the theory of the leisure class and ‘reputable futility’… I’m off to the frozen north to secure my future; thanks for the tip, and your thoughts in general.

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