COVID-19 highlights need to end unquestioned 'growth' dogma

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The exponential function reminds us that unmitigated growth is dangerous (image by Anna Shvets via Pexels).

In this time of crisis, it's clear that the world's trajectory of population and economic growth isn't sustainable, writes Michael Bayliss

IMAGINE BEING TOLD that the COVID-19 death rate is increasing, on average, 5% per day for the past fortnight (current at time of writing). 

Sounds ominous but manageable.

Now, imagine being informed that the COVID-19 death rate almost doubled in a fortnight from 106,000 on April 10th to 203,000 on April 25th and at this rate we could hit 406,000 deaths in another fortnight.

The scale of the problem now sounds much bigger and more imminent. If anything, it reinforces the need for "social distancing" and to flatten out that curve as soon as possible.

Guess what else has been doubling out of control around us?  Everything from house prices, the GDP and even human population. Over the course of just a few decades, many aspects of human activity, when graphed out, result in accelerating curves that look very similar to the COVID-19 curves in the early days of the pandemic.

The exponential function is used to describe the size of anything that is growing steadily at a fixed percentage, measured over a fixed length of time. 

Dr Albert Bartlett said that:

'The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.'

Why is this difficult for us to comprehend?  We can easily conceptualise the fixed addition of discrete numbers – for example: “2-4-6-8-10”.  Compound growth results in a doubling rate that starts off small that then quickly sneaks up with large numbers unexpectedly:  “2-4-8-16-32”.  Perhaps it is the speed of escalation from something so small that our brains struggle with.

The chessboard example details this phenomenon successfully.  If we place one grain of rice on the first of the 64 squares and double the number of grains per square, how many grains of rice do we arrive at the last square?

The answer is a whopping 18,446,744,073,709,600,000 grains, probably more grain than has ever been harvested.  This result sounds unbelievable at first, but it can be demonstrated with an internet search on "chessboard exponential".

There are many examples of the exponential function in the natural world.  For example, many bacteria species divide by the hour.  If we begin by placing just 1,000 such bacteria in a jar at the start of the day, the jar will end up with 16 billion by the end of the day.  

This is why compound growth can be quickly dangerous if left unchecked.

In nature, there isn’t infinite space or resources for this kind of growth to persist without checks and balances. Bacteria and yeast don’t self-regulate so nature does this on their behalf when populations exceed carrying capacity. Starvation, competition over resources and predation lead to population crashes. In the case of yeast, they literally suffocate and die in their own waste – this is how we get alcohol.

Unfortunately, many aspects of modern human society, particularly economic growth, operate in a way that neglects the compound exponential function and if this remains unchecked we will be left in a similar predicament to bacteria in the petri dish.

China’s GDP has averaged 9.46% per annum from 1989 until 2019, which means the scale of human activity doubled every 7.5 years.

According to Richard Heinberg, author of The End Of Growth’:

'China now consumes more than twice as much coal as it did a decade ago – the same with iron ore and oil. The nation now has four times as many highways as it did, and almost five times as many cars.'

This is not sustainable, neither is Australia’s GDP and population growth rate. The former has been hovering near 2% per annum or a doubling every 35 years while the latter, currently at 1.6% will have population doubling every 45 years. At this rate of growth, Australia’s population will be over a billion in 250 years from now.

In 1800, the world population stood at about one billion; by 2025 we will have a population of eight billion. At a growth rate per year of a seemingly modest 1.3%, there will be 148 trillion humans on Earth 600 years from now  one person for each square meter of land on the planet’s surface.

It makes sense that at some point, arguably now, the human impact on the planet needs to discontinue this growth trajectory. Unfortunately, this is antithetical to the current economic paradigm that assumes that growth can continue indefinitely on a finite planet. 

This assumption is unfounded from the perspectives of mathematics, physics, or even from observing the reality of what is going on. Resource depletion, loss of habitat and wildlife, environmental catastrophes – these impacts are also increasing exponentially in what is known as "the great acceleration". 

These will worsen as the scale of human impact growths, despite any attempts to reduce per capita consumption or improve income equality.

Growth does not have to be inevitable, whether we are talking about the GDP or human population. Many other animal species have demonstrated a capacity to reduce their fertility when population densities are high or food sources are scarce. Humans can do so through agency and choice. There is evidence to show that many pre-colonial Polynesian island societies were able to maintain long-term, stable populations prior to colonisation.

Even today, modest individual choices to reduce family size make a huge difference when this decision is made collectively. It is critical that women across the world are empowered, have agency and have access to affordable and accessible family planning services.

Human societies have existed for most of history with zero or very low growth and it is crucial that we take the steps to voluntarily transition to a post-growth society. If we don’t, nature will make this decision for us (and has already begun to do so).

As Australia’s fertility rate is just below replacement, there is still plenty of opportunity for migration. A migration target of 50,000 per year still provides means for a generous humanitarian program for people of all races, religions and walks of life,  while ensuring that our population stabilises over time.  Unfortunately, none of the major political parties seem prepared to discuss limits to growth at this stage.

The recent pandemic and lockdown is a wakeup call that existing patterns of being cannot exist indefinitely. Just as we need to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases by taking unprecedented global action, so we need to make bold and brave steps to flatten the exponential curve of our collective impact on the planet.

The fact that governments across the world are suddenly able to find trillions of dollars to inject into economies is starting to awaken many people to the fact that we have much more potential to intervene to solve global crises than many of us thought.

We have much more manoeuvrability in terms of creating an economic system that is not based on perpetual growth. We must build on this momentum and use this rare opportunity to help mould a society that can both weather the storms ahead and reverse the climate and ecological emergency. It is a window of opportunity that we must not ignore.

Michael Bayliss is communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and Co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning. You can follow him on Twitter @Miketbay83 and Sustainable Population Australia HERE.

A statement from Sustainable Population Australia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.

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