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Could sustainability lead to an authoritarian future?

Those who imagine humans eventually returning to agrarian societies also often imagine that such societies have the potential to be much more democratic and egalitarian than our current world. But, among those who imagine what I'll call a sustainable industrial future, there is little discussion of future political arrangements. It is implied that we will continue with nominally liberal democratic governance in North America and Europe. (It's hard to see, however, how that model will apply to say, the governments of central Africa.) But a sustainable industrial future, if it can be achieved, might require the regimentation of the individual beyond anything we have so far experienced.

One need look no further than the issue of population to realize that this assertion is not overblown. In any sustainable society population cannot grow indefinitely. It must be stabilized at some point. How then to stabilize it? Normally, nature manages this task by making the death rate equal to the birth rate. The question that should concern us is whether we want to allow nature to match high birth rates with high death rates or whether we'd like to keep both birth and death rates low. Presumably, one of the principal advantages of industrial society is that it is able to provide a healthy longevity to many more people. This implies that to stabilize the population we must achieve birth rates low enough to match our low death rates.

The right to bear children, however, is regarded as a fundamental human right not to be interfered with by the state. And, the choice not to bear children is also regarded as a right in many countries. But if the choice is left up to the individual, there is no guarantee of a stable population. How then should we go about matching birth and death rates? Harrison Brown, writing to us from the year 1954 in his book, "The Challenge of Man's Future," suggests a method that would strike us as a crass violation of the rights mentioned above:

Let us suppose that in a given year the birth rate exceeds the death rate by a certain amount, thus resulting in a population increase. During the following year the number of permitted inseminations is decreased, and the number of permitted abortions is increased, in such a way that the birth rate is lowered by the requisite amount. If the death rate exceeds the birth rate, the number of permitted inseminations would be increased while the number of abortions would be decreased. The number of abortions and artificial inseminations permitted in a given year would be determined completely by the difference between the number of deaths and the number of births in the year previous.

But that wouldn't be all. If we are to maintain a worldwide sustainable industrial society, we will need to control population across current borders. If we don't, many members of overpopulated societies will soon be knocking at our doors asking for assistance or even entry.

Brown also suggests that such control over reproduction might be used to slow down the deterioration of the human species. This has occurred in industrial society because humans are no longer subject to natural selection to the same degree that they have been in the past. Those who are healthy and able might be encouraged through incentives to have several offspring, while those who have deficiencies, say, of sight or hearing or mental ability might be discouraged. The problem, he notes, is in deciding what really constitutes "fit" or "unfit" and overcoming our revulsion to such a eugenics scheme. Still, he adds, when one considers the bald evolutionary facts, it behooves human societies, if they want to remain resilient in the face of changing conditions on Earth, to somehow replace nature's cruel hand in pruning the so-called "unfit" with something less drastic. It's that or face eventual extinction.

Brown acknowledges that none of this will seem acceptable to the vast majority of his readers. But, he is concerned that unless population stability and other problems are addressed head on, arrangements that are far more restrictive and objectionable than the ones he proposes may be implemented in their place.

Already many of you who are reading this are probably squirming, and we are only getting started down the path of regimentation. In relating Brown's ideas, I am not advocating them. But I recognize that so much of the freedom we now enjoy is premised on access to increasing amounts of energy and other resources. This surfeit reduces the frequency of conflict over resources and makes sharing resources more palatable. Our abundance makes us less inclined to object, for example, to the roughly 80 million new mouths the world needs to feed every year.

There is also a second critical limit on human behavior in the sustainable industrial society. We will not be free to increase our consumption at will. There is, of course, the possibility that people will try to circumvent such a restriction; but to the extent that this occurs, others in society will have to consume less to stay under acceptable limits for consumption that keep the society in balance with the natural resources available to it. It is possible that efficiencies in resource use will allow some growth in perceived consumption, that is, increased satisfaction of wants with the same amount of throughput. But infinite efficiency is not possible and so at some point increased satisfaction of wants will presumably have to cease, at least satisfaction based on boosting the quantity of matter and energy consumed. (Spiritual and perhaps some social satisfactions may not have similar limits.)

Since both production and consumption will have to be carefully controlled, the necessary organization of a sustainable industrial society suggests considerable centralization of governance and regimentation of daily life.

While this rather unattractive outcome is not inevitable, it seems all too likely to materialize if we succeed at making the transition to a sustainable industrial civilization. Those who propose that we can and will make such a transition need also to contemplate what institutions will be required to govern such a society. How might we retain important freedoms that we now enjoy such as freedom of expression and freedom of association while acknowledging that increased control of human activity will be inevitable under such circumstances? And what of love and sex in a world of tight control over reproduction?

Perhaps, you will say, we can inculcate self-restraint in the future denizens of the sustainable industrial society, and this will serve in the place of regimentation. You will certainly be able to do this with some people who find self-restraint a virtue. But, what will you do with those who will not or cannot restrain themselves from violating the principles of sustainability?

As Garrett Hardin, author of "The Tragedy of the Commons," points out, it takes the cooperation of all to maintain the viability of the commons; and that's what a sustainable society must be considered, one big commons. But it takes only one person acting on pure self-interest to bring destruction to the commons by forcing everyone else to overtax it or lose out in the competition over resources.

Those who are selling us the bright green sustainable industrial future must tell us how they plan to regulate the behavior of humans in this future. It is either that or give up any pretense that what they are selling is, in fact, sustainable.

Editorial Notes: Kurt Cobb gives a much needed look at the issues of politics, population and sustainability. Several problems occur though when North Americans and Europeans bring up the subject of population control. First, as Kurt Cobb mentions towards the end of the essay, it is BOTH consumption and population that cause the problem. North Americans and Europeans have led the way in profligate consumption. It would seem to be responsible for us to acknowledge and clean up our mess before preaching to others. There are multiple opportunities for us to reduce consumption and live more satisfying lives. Second, the eugenics movement was overtly racist. In later times, the population control movement was often tinged with racism. And the sentiment was not just theoretical. Under British rule, both India and Ireland were allowed to suffer devastating famines. Anyone serious about population control needs to come to terms with this unsavory past. Third, population control is a complicated social issue; there's no magic button. The best efforts to deal with population are those which deal with the causes. For example, one way to reduce population is to improve the education and status of women so they have more control over child-bearing. -BA

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