Managing Earth’s Future: Self-restraint for the common good?

I was asked to be on a panel at the 2016 Fall American Geophysical Union Meeting on Planetary Intelligence: Managing Earth’s Future. This is what I wrote as an abstract before realizing I was limited to 2000 characters. (This is >2100 without spaces.)


We are global in our impacts, yet local in our thoughts and feelings. The daunting challenge facing Homo sapiens is learning to cooperate at global scale for the common good.

For millions of years, our ancestors, like most animals, consumed the fruits of their labors, and little capital or infrastructure accumulated over the ages. This radically changed over the past centuries. Following the inventions of the loom and the steam-engine, we have been developing ever more efficient ways of generating consumer products. Critically, some of the wealth generated by these more efficient technologies was reinvested into additional capital infrastructure, such as factories and machines, thus expanding the capacity to offer goods and services to insatiable consumers. Some of this reinvestment, and technological innovation, was in technologies that extracted and transformed natural resources into valuable goods and services and also into dangerous pollution. Improvements in medical technologies led to quasi-exponential population growth, mirroring and multiplying the quasi-exponential growth in per capita consumption.

We are reaching a stage where this quasi-exponential growth is starting to reach boundaries, but these boundaries are not sending signals to the market that would allow a laissez faire approach to work.

The central question is: How can we continue improving the well-being of living people (at least), while diminishing material flows associated with environmental pollution?

Globally speaking, if we don’t place constraints on ourselves, nature will impose constraints on us. We can impose constraints on ourselves to protect us from what nature would otherwise to do to us.

To have a sustainable future, we would need to level off population at the lowest feasible level. The difference between a future population of 6 billion and a future with 16 billion is a half-child per family less-or-more than the central projection of demographers. Empowering women with education and technology has proven to be a most effective strategy at reducing population growth.

To have a sustainable future, we would need strong disincentives on environmental damage, especially on the production of long-lived wastes such as carbon dioxide. It is of course a huge political challenge to get such disincentives in place. If we fail to get these global guardrails established, planetary management will be largely reactive, driven by competition among those with incentive and power.

In a resource- and pollution-constrained world, technological innovation is the surest path to economic growth and improved well being for all, especially the poorest on this planet.

With better policies in place, we can look forward to a future of continuous innovation and ever-improving well-being, with stable populations and diminishing environmental impact.