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The eventual opposition of many economists to this stance generated many heated discussions. Paul R. Ehrlich born in published "The Population Bomb" in , at a time when the fertility transition was already advanced in developed countries, but still at very early stages in most countries of the so-called "Third World". As an ecologist, Erhlich provided an apocalyptical view of population issues based on his knowledge of the limits to natural ecosystems. He believed that any species that multiplied itself excessively would be destined to misery and possible extinction.

He proposed both malthusian population control through increases in mortality rates and neo-malthusian population control through reduction of fertility rates approaches. The goal of human society would be to equate fertility and mortality rates in order to achieve zero population growth.

He recommended that measures aimed at reverting environmental deterioration should be adopted simultaneously. He agreed to the use of compulsory measures in case the voluntary methods failed to reduce fertility. This sectarian debate from the s extended into the World Population Conference held in Bucharest in At this Conference, organized by the UN, developed countries, led by the United States, advocated voluntary neo-malthusianism as a means of reducing poverty. Meanwhile, the poor and less-developed countries, led by China and India, defended policies that supported development rather than population control.

The neo-malthusian standpoint was overcome by the slogan "development is the best contraceptive". However, even before the next World Population Conference could be held Mexico, , a major turnaround in international stances towards reproductive issues took place. On the one hand, China, which had fought against the ideas defended by Paul Erhlich in Bucharest, adopted a rigid and coercive "one child policy" in , the most draconian neomalthusian policy in history.

The first of these, published in , offered an essentially equidistant posture in relation to the impacts of population growth, but was interpreted by the media as being more neo-malthusian. The second study, published in , was described as "revisionist" and clearly defended the idea that development and the markets were perfectly capable of resolving population issues.

Julian Simon , an economist and one of the neoliberal ideologues of the Reagan government, gained prominence in population circles during this period. At the peak of the debate, Simon adopted a diametrically opposed stance to Erhlich, supporting a radical pro-natalist policy and discarding any and all environmental restrictions. Simon is a typical example of what analysts define as a market fundamentalist. He was one of the founders of the "free market environment" movement and a forerunner of climate change negationists. Simon defended the idea that there are no environmental limits to economic development and that scarcity problems are inexistent.

For him, each new baby is a capital good bound to create merchandise and bring greater wealth to families and to society. He opposed Ehrlich's catastrophist views, believed that the supply of fossil fuels was infinite and criticized the authors of the ecological economics school.

China's Futures: Scenarios for the World's Fastest Growing Economy, Ecology, and Society | Wiley

He was an "environmental skeptic" of the first order and argued that human activities were not responsible for global environmental problems such as the destruction of the ozone layer and the acidification of oceans. He defended the idea that unlimited human ingenuity together with the price system would be able to overcome all of the world's environmental problems. At the height of this debate, Erhlich and Simon laid a wager in on the future price of certain commodities to test their theoretical conceptions.

Simon bet that prices would be lower over a ten year period and Erhlich bet on growing scarcity and rising prices. The pessimist lost his bet since the price of minerals as well as of oil and food declined in the s due to a prolonged international crisis.


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Nevertheless, the bet proved little since the price of commodities has fluctuated significantly in the post period. Technological development and mineral discoveries have undoubtedly alleviated the pressure on some of nature's scarce resources but the more relevant question is whether and how long this can continue given the Jevons' Paradox cf.

The debate in the 21 st century - Lam versus Becker and the environmental crises. Lam's optimism in relation to demographic dynamics is based on the fact that the "population bomb" has been de-activated and that the demographic transition will bring about zero growth before the end of this century.

He also notes that changes in the age structure favor the onset of a "demographic dividend" that constitutes a positive force in increasing education and reducing poverty. Lam also defuses concerns with three potential challenges caused by rapid demographic growth: hunger, depletion of non-renewable resources and poverty. He shows that hunger has diminished greatly due to the Green Revolution. He notes that the main non-renewable resources cost approximately the same today as they did 50 years ago, despite an increase of some 4 billion people.

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He also observes the impressive decline in world poverty, citing both economic factors market responses, innovation and globalization and demographic factors urbanization, fertility decline and investment in children to explain the reduction in the rate of population growth. Less radical than Simon, Lam recognizes two negative trends - global warming and unsustainable consumption levels. He notes that increasing incomes in China and India, the world's two largest and formerly poor countries have indeed contributed to higher prices of commodities and to environmental challenges.

Nevertheless, in Pollyanna style, Lam , p. Lam's work can be seen as an important counterpoint to the simplistic messages emanating from the traditional "population establishment" as well as from the more recent "Northern Perspective", 2 both of which have tended to focus on population growth as a primary source of humanities' problems. Nevertheless, his optimism concerning the market's capacity to overcome all issues, including environmental ones, is questionable. His thesis has been criticized, perhaps most visibly in the demographic community, by Stan Becker, who focuses on the environmental limitations of "development" and of market-based economic growth.

Essentially, Becker criticizes Lam for his anthropocentrism, for his limited views on the utilization of the Earth's non-renewable resources and for his failure to generally consider the devastating effects of anthropic activities on the Earth's ecosystems. Becker points out that the per capita increase in production shown by Lam was grounded on the massive use of non-renewable resources.

He notes that food prices are bound to increase over the 21 st century due to: a the massive use of fertilizers that are typically composed of fossil fuels and non-renewable resources; b the fact that the enormous use of irrigation is rapidly depleting the capacity of rivers and subterranean aquifers. Becker also cites a number of well-known negative impacts of human activity that are ignored by Lam such as deforestation, over-fishing, nitrogen pollution of streams, estuaries and oceans, the removal of mountain-tops for mining coal and other minerals and so forth.

He shows that, although homo sapiens has indeed had considerable success, as described by Lam, the rest of the "world" has suffered setbacks during the Anthropocene, a period in which our species has altered the Earth's dynamics on a global scale. In sum, Becker asserts that Lam has failed to do justice to the great and imminent ecological problems that are resulting from the human progress that he so admires.

This debate extended into the XXVII Conference of the IUSSP - International Union for the Scientific Study of Population - held in where a plenary session was organized to debate the following assertion: "For developing countries, economic development needs to be a higher priority than environmental protection and conservation of natural resources. After the debate, the participants were invited to vote for one or the other position.


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The result was a draw. In short, the demographic community was evenly divided between a developmental and an environmental perspective. Two years later, the accumulation of additional scientific evidence concerning the environmental threats provoked by human action already makes this debate appear as anachronistic.

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An editorial in July, by Marcia McNutty, Chief Editor of Science, one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the United States, summarizes the situation in a surprisingly aggressive tone: "we face a slowly escalating but long-enduring global threat to food supplies, health, ecosystem services, and the general viability of the planet to support a population of more than 7 billion people The time for debate has ended.

Given the critical importance of this matter, it is imperative that we review the evidence in greater depth. Taken as a whole, these elements would advise a much more cautious attitude towards the supposed capacity of market structures and human ingenuity to effectively solve the social, economic and environmental problems of our era.


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The optimists have every reason to highlight humankind's enormous advances over the last years. However, when viewed in the light of the exacerbation of major social and environmental problems, such advances can be compared to the reaction of the character who falls from the 20 th floor of a building and comments - while whizzing by the 5 th floor window - "so far, so good". In effect, the definitive answer to the cornucopian view is emerging both from the scientific literature and from nature itself.

The major misgivings that surge in relation to human progress are of two types:. These two questions warrant a much more careful analysis since they will define nothing less than the future of humanity in coming decades. The limitations to progress in each of these pillars, analyzed in the next segments of this paper, constitute what we are identifying as the trilemma of sustainability in the 21 st century. History reveals that before the Industrial and Energy Revolutions, which occurred in the latter stages of the 18th century, economic and demographic growth had been slow.

However, between and , global GNP was multiplied by This exceptional period will certainly never be repeated.

Indeed, the enormous economic growth of the 20 th century was made possible by an exceptional array of favorable factors during a specific historical moment. These can be summarized in ten items: availability of fossil fuels at very low costs; availability of vast natural resources that had previously remained largely untouched land, water, forests, biodiversity, etc. Unfortunately, several of these determinants and conditioners have reached their limit at the current time and this could well lead to the breakdown of the model of production and consumption that has underwritten economic growth over the last two centuries.

Getting used to this will not be easy. On the one hand, the economic growth objective is dominant worldwide, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has a logic and internal consistency that stimulates societies and all their respective economic actors - State, entrepreneurs and workers - as well as international development agencies to dedicate themselves to promoting growth because it has been the basis for material welfare during this bonanza period. On the other, as discussed below, this model requires constant increases in production which are, in turn, guaranteed by the culture of consumption, whose values are so deeply rooted that they defy eradication.

Despite this framework and the mechanisms that guarantee the prevalence and persistence of this model, objective conditions are putting a check on economic growth. The poor performance of the developed countries is contaminating emerging economies. The World Bank talks of "structural sluggishness" of the developing countries who are facing a particularly difficult transition wherein loan costs are high and the price for oil and other commodities is low. The emerging market corporate debt-to-GDP ratio had grown by 26 percentage points in the same period.

China's Futures: Scenarios for the World's Fastest Growing Economy, Ecology, and Society

The IMF goes on to say that "These developments make emerging market economies more vulnerable to a rise in interest rates, dollar appreciation, and an increase in global risk aversion. As explained in the next segment, the exhaustion of growth's ecological underpinnings constitutes one of the principal limitations to the persistence of its current mode. A series of factors - such as the reduction of the economically active Population, population ageing and increased dependency ratios in the developed countries, the end of the demographic dividend, the long-term increases in the cost of energy and food, growing environmental problems and the growing debt crises - will make it difficult to maintain investment capacity and technical progress.

Terrible crises, such as that recently experienced by Greece, may proliferate. Crises are recurrent in the history of capitalism and the classical economists had already surmised that it would be impossible to maintain growth indefinitely. Everything points to a deceleration of growth in the 21 st century. The world will have to rethink its model of civilization based on consumption and constant increases in production.

Faith in the miracle of the markets that Simon, Lam and other optimists profess is based, in large part, on their belief in technological development and human ingenuity. Cornucopian thinkers today continue to insist that technology and human inventiveness will be able to overcome nature's limits and that development can maintain economic growth rates for a longer period. Such arguments obviously neglect the fact that the Green Revolution contributed to the depletion of land, aquifers, rivers, lakes and oceans, as well as biodiversity.

In a more general sense, all technological advances have limitations and conditioning factors. Enormous advances were made over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries in the utilization of resources and in the energetic efficiency of economic growth.