Kicking the habit: living big in a limited world

May 15, 2012 | By | 1 Comment

World population curve. A log scale is used for the population figures to allow better reading of the data. (Source: Wikipedia)

Until fairly recently, modern humans wandered the Earth in small bands across a bountiful, seemingly endless landscape. The idea of a limited world was largely ignored. Until half a century ago, there was never any need to ask the question.

Now things are different.

Despite persistent wars, famine and disease, modern society has nevertheless grown at a frankly astonishing rate. The Agricultural Revolution, expanding infrastructure and advances in medical care have helped increase mean living standards globally. In many respects our society is better off today than it was 1990, when 46 percent of the world’s population lived in chronic poverty. By 2005 that number had fallen to 27 percent, and is projected to fall below 15 percent in 2015. We have witnessed similar progress in education: more children are attending school, and more of those children are girls.

It’s worth noting that these improvements have been achieved despite a growing world population, which is finally showing signs of slowing – but therein lies another problem. Slower population growth does not equate to population stabilization; we still expect the world to grow increasingly overcrowded. Barring any disasters, the overall population will reach about 9 billion by 2040.

More of us live in urban environments. The creation of necessary infrastructure, educational and employment opportunities for the rising middle classes is placing considerable pressure not only on governments and the economy, but also on non-renewable resources and ecosystems. The problem is further exacerbated by a marked disparity in growth rates around various regions of the world. Rising populations, coupled with widening disparities of living standards, ecological destruction and natural disasters are poised to create the largest people movements in history.

Annual population percent change in the world in 2011. (Source: CIA World Factbook)

Thanks to pervasive media technologies, many of us are well aware of the misfortunes of others. Unfortunately, our society has traditionally shown little enthusiasm for sharing wealth, especially on a global scale. International acts of altruism – however well meaning – tend to be sporadic and poorly organized at best.

It’s not all bad news. We are (at last) seriously considering sustainable development solutions. Furthermore, we are beginning to realise that we need to build a different kind of society, with a revised economic framework that is celebrated for its contribution to society and the world.

If nothing else, we may imagine how business, the economy and the world could look if we think and act long term. We are, after all, working towards a more human future, leaving behind centuries of expansion and uncontrolled consumption. We will always be a species on the move, a bigger tribe inhabiting a smaller world – but now it’s time to take a different path. In order to survive, we need nothing less than an evolution in thought and cooperation – a transition into becoming a responsible society.

 Part of the above text was derived from the 50+20 Agenda, which will be launched at the UN PRME 3rd Global Forum during the RIO+20 summit

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Comments (1)

  1. Dear Mr Zimmermann

    Many thanks for your article.

    Many people (including myself) have tried to take on what is described as
    "mainstream economics", which has become more and more one-sided over
    the years.

    A good course in the history of economics, which very few institutions now
    teach, would be a useful corrective to the current dominance of the right-wing
    view which has won out in economics departments not because it is economically
    better or sounder but because of the deliberate "political
    engineering" of economics departments.

    My own view is that courses in economics should be banned at school and
    undergraduate level in favour of courses in political economy. Once students
    have a wholistic understanding of the interplay and costs/benefits of economic
    choices, then of course they should be encouraged to go into economics if they

    But the whole drive towards economics and business studies was a historical
    flash – a result of the sudden expansion of the global economy – such as took
    place at the end of the 19th c but ended in the 2 world wars – and we are now
    trying as a global society to avert the recent expansion ending the same way.

    I doubt that, in future, there will be the same emphasis on economics and
    business – till the current economic and political issues are resolved – and
    that may take at least a decade and, more likely, several decades.

    Meanwhile, if you are interested in looking up my work on the internet, the best
    place to start is my article "Towards the Right Kind of Globalisation – Why
    it does Not happen and what To Do about it". You should be able to find it
    by a Google search but in case of a problem with locating that, do shoot me an
    email and I will happily send it to you.

    Professor Prabhu Guptara

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