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Multiplying by two – the problem with growth

Economists and politicians are always comparing growth – the growth of the population or the growth of the economy. They often call for growth to be increased. If they had the slightest idea of what they were talking about they would not do any such thing. To see why, you only have to understand what happens when you multiply by two.

Here is a simple example. Imagine a pond with water lilies growing on it. Starting from a few leaves, think about what would happen as the plant doubled in size. Say it started with two leaves. If it doubled to four the next day that would be lovely: we all like healthy growth. The next day there are 8 leaves, the next 16, then 32, then 64. Soon half the pond is covered. When will the pond be covered? The very next day the whole surface of the pond is covered! This is exponential growth.

Now it is quite possible that the economists and politicians would say, 'Oh, but we were not thinking of doubling anything'. No? All they were saying was that a growth rate of 1 or 2 per cent was too low, and asking for it to be raised.

The problem with raising the growth rate is that by growing at just 1 per cent each year there will be a doubling in 70 years. If growth is 2 per cent, then doubling time halves to 35 years, growth of 3 per cent, means doubling in just over 23 years and growth of 4 per cent reduces doubling time to less than 18 years. You get the picture.

Of course we were thinking of a small pond – a very small world! Unfortunately the proponents of growth are thinking of the whole Earth. Well, surprisingly, nature has also been dealing with the whole world, all these thousands of millions of years. And evolution has filled every niche on the planet with species that fit into that niche. Evolution has also ensured that every species consumes, in some way or another, some other species, and that it in turn is food for yet other species, in endless cycles.

As human populations keep growing there is less room for all the other species we like, the other mammals, the birds, especially the rare and endangered ones. But we make it a field day for those we consider the nasty species that 'prey' on us, the ones that cause our illnesses.

One of nature's many unwritten rules is that it takes a lot of smaller creatures to enable a few much larger animals to survive. This was one of the reasons that the advent of humans with hunting skills was able to extinguish the megafauna from island after island, continent after continent. Large animals have relatively few offspring and they are spaced further apart.

In our endless quest for growth we are quite capable of throwing Earth's life-support systems out of kilter. We have shown this on comparatively small scales during the progress of modern humans. But now we are experimenting with the whole world. In our dealings with the Earth, our one and only home, we are in danger of damaging it beyond recognition. For a long time we did not realise that we were doing so much harm but now we have been warned by the scientists who study the Earth, its climate and the living creatures on it. It is time for us to exercise wisdom, to stop our growth while there is still time.