How Many Earths?

When I let myself think about the future of the planet, or rather the future of humanity’s time on the planet, the one word, or concept, or theme I keep coming back to is population.

It may even trump the climate issue, as if anyone’s keeping score, in that even if we weren’t altering our biosphere in dramatic and destructive ways, we would still have to contend – as we sought out new living space, more arable land, and as yet undiscovered fresh water supplies – with overshoot, the idea first proposed by the cleric and scholar Thomas Robert Malthus in his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population.

For much of the late 20th century, the work of Malthus was in bad odor with academia. The adjective Malthusian , or the broad concept of Malthusianism, was synonymous not with a thoughtful and well-researched concern for humanity’s growing numbers, but rather a sort of dim-witted and somewhat old-fashioned hysteria about growth. The Green Revolution, we were told, had proved Malthus wrong, once and for all. Through technology, and agricultural science, we would continue to push back the boundaries on food production, the efficient use of fresh water, etc., etc. Those in the know were not worried!

It’s not that the smart set thought there would be permanent continued exponential growth. They did envision a flattening off of the growth curve eventually, but this would happen voluntarily, the thinking went, as people currently living in poverty achieved much or all of the prosperity that those in the West and/or industrialized North had come to take for granted.

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