Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Seven Billion and Counting

Sometime in the past few weeks or coming up soon, the planet is expected to welcome its 7 billionth human being. After the jump, two different takes on the milestone.

Brad Plumer, in The Washington Post, considers the implications for a sustainable environment.

seven billion people all using the same amount of energy and raw materials as the average American would utterly demolish the planet's carrying capacity. But if we can either curb our consumption or learn to use resources more efficiently -- so that everyone consumes, on average, one-fifth of what Americans do now -- then we could, in theory, survive just fine.

That paragraph points out the flaw in the "drill, baby, drill" strategy. Even if we pretend for a moment that America has enough fossil fuels in the ground (oil, gas, coal) to meet the demand of 300 million Americans, does anyone think that the more than six and half billion non-Americans in the world are going to be content continuing to consume only a fraction of the resources consumed by Americans? Growing demand in the rest of the world, even if global population stabilizes at 7 billion, will lay waste both planetary resources and America's isolationist prosperity.

Rod Dreher notes the 7 billion milestone in passing on his way to a more dire (to him) demographic trend: declining fertility rates in affluent countries. Dreher is worried about who is going to look after him in his dotage (he must assume that he isn't there already). The article he quotes, by Joel Arbach in The Washington Post, contains the obvious solution: "Countries may start competing for immigrants." After all, if the planet now has 7 billion people, a lot of those people will be young and ambitious and talented and eager to move to, say, Louisiana and work and pay taxes to care for Rod Dreher in his old age. But Dreher speeds past that to warn about what's really got him concerned: "Seriously, this is going to get scary if we're not careful. Watch for a big push to normalize euthanasia." He's afraid those immigrants are going to kill him.

I like reading Rod Dreher because he has an intelligence that leads him in diametrically opposite directions from my own thinking. It's not that he uses faulty logic; it's more that he starts from postulates completely alien to me. Trying to work backwards from his writing to his implicit assumptions is a useful exercise in helping me understand my own assumptions.

For example, I suspect Rod Dreher's jumping from world population growth to declining fertility rates has more than a little to do with the fact that the former trend is driven mostly by the abundance of black and brown and yellow babies and the latter trend is driven mostly by the relative lack of white babies. I suspect that says something about Dreher's attitude towards race. And I suspect that my finding Dreher's logic peculiar says something about my own attitude towards race. I'll leave it at that because people get very touchy when one person starts speculating about another person's attitude towards race.

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