Posted by: Dan | January 17, 2009

Balancing Economic Growth and Environmental Conservation

After loaning one of my favorite books for environmental conservationism to a friend, I realized that I have never put up a post referencing this book. For a blog covering this topic, not mentioning Edward Wilson’s <The Future Of Life is a mistake.

Medium ImageAs always, Wilson’s writing is poignant, and he marshals a formidable body of evidence (and downright common sense) to assess the state of our environment in an age of mass extinction and shrinking habitats. The crux of the book’s message can be conveyed by quoting the opening to the concluding chapter, “The Solution”:

What humanity is inflicting on itself and Earth is, to use a modern metaphor, the result of a mistake in capital investment. Having appropriated the planet’s natural resources, we chose to annuitize them with a short-term maturity reached by progressively increasing payouts. At the time it seemed a wise decision. To many it still does. The result is rising per-capita production and consumption, markets awash in consumer goods and grain, and a surplus of optimistic economists. But there is a problem: the key elements of natural capital, Earth’s arable land, ground water, forests, marine fisheries, and petroleum, are ultimately finite, and not subject to proportionate capital growth. Moreover, they are being decapitalized by overharvesting and environmental destruction. With population and consumption continuing to grow, the per-capita resources left to be harvested are shrinking.

This, I think, is the land ethic (or land-use ethic, more appropriately) that Aldo Leopold referred to some sixty years ago. But Leopold was speaking from conscience. In his book, Wilson speaks from the cumulative studies of the decades following Leopold’s conservationism, with specific strategies that follow the best knowledge of managing and preserving natural resources (and biodiversity).


  1. Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life. I’m not talking just about the obvious problems that we see in the news – growing dependence on foreign oil, carbon emissions, soaring commodity prices, environmental degradation, etc. I’m talking about the effect upon rising unemployment and poverty in America.

    I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

    This theory has huge implications for U.S. policy toward population management. Our policies that encourage high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

    But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

    The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight third world countries – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China – as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050.

    If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit either of my web sites at or where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It’s also available at

    Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph. I just don’t know how else to inject this new perspective into the overpopulation debate without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”


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