The present state of the whole of the human species in relation to its total environment is so vast a topic that cautious and discriminating people might well avoid it as the subject of a single, short paper. It is, after all, a major area of concern for many sciences—social, biological, and technological. I take it as my subject here not, I hope, because I am incautious or undiscriminating, but because the ecology of any species, no matter how complex its behavior, can justifiably be regarded as unitary, and should therefore be reviewed as a whole from time to time. Furthermore, I would hold that the predicament of our species at the present time makes such a review not only desirable but vital.

The Swarming Stage of the Human Species

Following an evolution of hundreds of millennia, Homo sapiens emerged on the post-glacial scene as a dominant species with almost world-wide distribution. Clearly his numbers had increased only very slowly over this vast period of time, and it was not until around A.D. 1810 (Table I) that a world population of one billion was first achieved.1

Table I

Only just over a century then elapsed before the species had added just as many again to its numbers, the two billion mark being passed just after 1920. Then, in less than forty years, another increment of the same magnitude was added by the end of 1960.

If the growth rate of the decade 1950-60 were to be continued up to A.D. 2000, projection indicates the addition of further increments of one billion by the years 1975, 1984, 1992, and 1998, and a total of 7.41 billion by the end of the century2 (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

In fact it seems unlikely that such a growth rate could be sustained. Nevertheless, realistic projections made in 19633 still indicated a vast population increase by the year 2000; projections for that year varied between 5.30 billion and 6.83 billion according to the assumptions made, but medium assumptions indicated a population of four billion by about 1977, five billion by about 1990, and 5.96 billion by the end of the century (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Furthermore, there are now clear indications that, in the absence of disasters on a world scale, these 1963 medium estimates will be far exceeded and that the world population in A.D. 2000 will be more than double that in 1960.

A biologist presented with this graph of population increase would diagnose a “swarming stage” situation.4 This is frequently observed both in nature and in the laboratory when a population of a particular species experiences favorable environmental conditions in the absence of some of the environmental controls to which it has normally been subjected throughout its evolution. The stage is inevitably short-lived and may be terminated in a number of ways: there may be mass neurosis owing to overcrowding, as has been suggested for the Scandinavian lemming;5 there may be a great increase in predators; or there may occur that concatenation of events which is so well demonstrated in a laboratory culture of bacteria, where the population gradually expands to occupy the whole medium and then rapidly declines from the original focus outward, partly through food shortage and partly poisoned by its own waste products.6 Whatever the end may be, the inevitable outcome is mass mortality.

Social scientists have largely been very unwilling to view the increase of our own species on so cataclysmic a plane. They have held that man has evaded the inexorable operation of the Malthusian law7 (and other biological controls) by his creation of a technology which can be handed on from generation to generation with increasing refinement and elaboration. In the minds of many people, however, doubts are beginning to develop. Even for one who has almost boundless faith in technological advancement, though it may be possible to contemplate with equanimity a world population of over six billion in A.D. 2000, it becomes progressively more difficult to be optimistic about twelve billion in 2035, twenty-five billion by 2065, and fifty billion by around the end of the twenty-first century.

Fallacies About Economic Growth

Because rational projections can produce figures such as these, for a point in time only four generations ahead, an increasing number of social scientists are concluding that some kind of population limitation program will have to be formulated. Unfortunately, those who have begun to recognize the need for such a limitation often seem to betray a lack of appreciation of the complexity of the whole problem: indeed their recommendations are often misleading if not actually contradictory. Thus we read:

Increasing rates of economic growth and slowing rates of population growth are both essential to rising levels of living….8

Statements such as this must be regarded as misleading since they may leave the reader with the impression that, unlike population growth, economic growth may well be infinite. And yet the very reason why population increase must cease is because economic growth is finite. Although “growth” has become the cornerstone of our technological society, nevertheless any vision of its continuance into the indefinite future is based on illusion. All the evidence suggests that the earth’s resources, renewable and nonrenewable, cannot possibly sustain technological and agricultural expansion for very much longer.


Agricultural Food Production

In order to justify this statement fully, it would be necessary to review the whole of the earth’s resources alongside the population projections already given. Clearly this is impossible in the space available, but examination of a selection of critical facts and basic issues provides sufficient indication of the gravity of the human situation. The rapid rate of population increase in many of the technology-deficient nations is one of the most striking features of the world population picture. It is particularly obvious in the countries of southern and eastern Asia where, on the basis of the medium projection, a 1970 population of some two billion will increase to some 3.40 billion by A.D. 2000.

We are concerned here then with more than half of the world’s population. Work that has been done on the rates of increase in food production in this area provides no grounds whatever for optimism. One set of projections for India indicated that while the population would have increased 2.9 times by the end of the fifty-year period following 1961, the available food supply would be capable of increasing only 2.74 times.9 Furthermore this estimate was assuming the realization of the “full potential of increased agricultural production…” making the best possible use of known technology and allowing for little administrative or cultural waste. It should also be noted that, even if this level of productivity were achieved, production would still fall short of a satisfactory nutrition level by something like 20 percent. In fact, during the five years following the publication of these projections, agricultural production in India fell far short of the rate prescribed for it. there is no indication whatever that the near-miracle of technological application and administrative efficiency can possibly be achieved.

Working on similar assumptions, Sukhatme10 estimated that the Far East would require an increase in food supplies of 286 percent between 1960 and 2000 in order to achieve an adequate nutritional standard, and that the developing countries as a whole would require an increase of 261 percent. He went on to make the point that, with considerable effort, food production in the developing countries might be increased by 70 percent by 1980, but that food demands (taking into account population increase and a modest improvement in diet) will have risen by 100 percent. He emphasized, of course, that these broad figures conceal a variety of conditions, and that it is in Asia that the great difficulties will develop.

It seems most unlikely therefore that food production in Asia, even on the basis of the most optimistic assumptions regarding technological application and social adjustment, will be able to keep pace with population increase; and with any kind of climatic, economic, or social cataclysm, the shortfall will be enormous. Indeed it appears only reasonable to anticipate the necessity to obtain sufficient food for something like 700 million people in monsoon Asia by A.D. 2000, 11 and if technical improvement and innovation proceed no faster than they have been doing during the past twenty-five years, much greater deficits will have developed.

Food imports on a vast scale would be necessary to counterbalance deficits of this size. Whether or not these could materialize would depend upon two things: first, the existence of commensurate food surpluses elsewhere in the world, and secondly the longterm ability of the Asian peoples to purchase them. With regard to the first point, any attempt to provide a simple answer would be hazardous; nevertheless some commonly held views on the agricultural potential of the earth require closer scrutiny.

It is certainly true that the best lands of Europe and eastern North America are, at the present time, capable of producing large agricultural surpluses—indeed overproduction has been a frequent problem. In the work already cited,12 Sukhatme estimates that by 1980 this surplus could amount to about 10 percent of world food production and that this would approximately balance the food deficit in Asia and elsewhere. Whether the volume of this food transfer could go on progressively up to the year 2000 is very problematical: the projected population increase in the developed countries would certainly take care of a lot of surpluses, and the attitudes of the taxpayers in the producing countries would become a not inconsiderable factor should the transfer be effected as aid rather than through trade.

The Potential Productivity of Virgin Lands

It is also important to examine some of the fairly deep-rooted misconceptions regarding the large, sparsely populated areas of the earth. Quite a large percentage of these are arid deserts, mountain ranges, and cold tundras which could only be made productive with a capital input which would be prohibitive even for a rich, technologically developed nation. At first glance, however, suggestions regarding the potential productivity of the Amazon and Congo basins, Borneo, and the coastlands of New Guinea are more beguiling: these, after all, are well-watered tropical areas with high temperatures throughout the year.


A review of the present man/land ratio in Indonesia puts this problem in a proper perspective. A quarter of a century ago Mohr13 pointed out that it was no mere accident that Java had about sixty million people on thirty million acres whereas Borneo, with four times that area, supported only about three million people. Three quarters of the soils of Java are developed in recent base-rich andesitic lavas or in colluvial and alluvial deposits derived from such lavas, and most of the remainder are formed in marls and limestones with some addition of volcanic ash.

Most of Borneo’s soils on the other hand are on older sedimentary rocks; the igneous rocks that are to be found there are of the rhyolite and dacite groups—base-deficient and inherently infertile. In an area with around 100 inches mean annual precipitation and no dry season, there must also be very rapid leaching. In other words, the agricultural potential of Borneo is very similar to that found over much of the Amazon and Congo basins and many other smaller areas in the humid tropics which remain sparsely populated.14 In such areas the clay-humus complex is often less than 5 percent base-saturated as compared to the 70 percent required for a moderately productive soil.

This is not to say that the application of artificial fertilizer, if generously and scientifically applied, could not produce a harvest, but as Mohr has pointed out:

…if we stop to figure out how much calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus we would have to add—it would be quite impossible to develop an agriculture which would pay.15

If agriculture in these areas would not pay, clearly they could never become either a source of food for export to impoverished countries or places to which mass immigration could take place. It might also be added that if large-scale food production from such soils were attempted without the necessary capital input, the resulting erosion, laterization, and general degradation would create more of a Pandora’s Box than an Open Sesame.

The basic unrealism of any agricultural philosophy that visualizes a great increase in the use of mineral fertilizers by the underdeveloped countries is underlined by the pattern of phosphate consumption at the present time. Of all the mineral fertilizers, phosphates are the most important: they not only contain one of the vital elements for plant nutrition but also are essential for the rapid incorporation of atmospheric nitrogen into the nutrient cycle through the medium of leguminous plants. And yet mineral phosphates in economically exploitable deposits are of very restricted distribution: over the past decade 90 percent of world production has come from the US, the USSR, Morocco, and Tunisia,16 and world reserves are of very limited extent.

Furthermore, in the year 1968-69, out of a world consumption of 17.3 million metric tons (P2 O5 from all sources), Anglo-America, the USSR, and Europe accounted for 13.1 m.m.t. and the agriculture of the whole of Africa, Latin America, and Asia (less Japan and mainland China) less than 2.2 m.m.t.17 The agriculture of West Germany (population 60 million) consumed twice as much as the combined agricultural systems of India, Pakistan, and Indonesia (population over 700 million). One must doubt the feasibility of so expensive a commodity being made available in vast quantities to poor countries.

Food From the Oceans

The oceans have often been presented as a limitless source of food with which to supplement terrestrial production, but recent estimates have shown this to be very unrealistic. Precision is impossible at the present time, but the fact that estimates based on two independent approaches have produced very similar answers does indicate that we now have a sound notion of the total productivity of the earth’s water bodies.

A summation of the productivity of the upper trophic levels of marine life has produced answers of between 300 and 320 m.m.t. per annum, of which no more than half—150-160 m.m.t.—are harvestable at a sustained yield.18 When we recollect that the total world catch of aquatic products in 1966 was already in the vicinity of 60 m.m.t.,19 it becomes patently obvious that here is no limitless supply. It would certainly be possible to push production up to 100 m.m.t. by A.D. 2000 if the capital were made available, but this would only be a 66 2/3 percent increase on the present and there is reason to believe it could only be achieved by a total physical investment in ships and equipment of three times that of the present (an increase of 200 percent). If an attempt were then made to push production to its probable limit of about 150 m.m.t. this might well require six times the present investment.

This is obviously not an inexpensive way by which impoverished nations can supplement their food supplies. It is equally clear that any attempt to increase marine production by mass harvesting of the lower trophic levels of the food pyramid, such as the plankton and small plankton feeders, would be even more costly per unit of production, quite apart from the fact that conventional fishing would then become less profitable as the basis of fish subsistence was removed.

It has also been suggested that the productivity of the oceans could be increased by raising the nutrient status of the water. This is undeniably feasible but its implementation begs so many of the questions that have already been raised that it cannot seriously be entertained as a substantial contribution to world food problems over the next twenty-five to fifty years. Indeed, there is every indication that population increase and human technology on the land masses are far more likely to decrease the productivity of the water bodies than the reverse. Methyl mercury in the oceans, the eutrophication of Lake Erie, and the deleterious effects of chlorinated hydrocarbons on marine plankton20—these are all now well-worn themes.

Furthermore, concentrated pollution of the more insidious kind is being discharged into the marine ecosystems, at the present time, by a relatively small percentage of the world’s rivers—primarily those of North America and Europe. If, in an effort to raise agricultural productivity, the other peoples of the world begin to apply biocides to the land in anything like the same concentration, the effect could be very serious. If these peoples also expand their industrial capacity and begin to emit industrial waste in materially greater quantities, then the results could be catastrophic.

World Consumption of Minerals

For reasons I am about to give, there may well be no chance of such world-wide industrialization. From the viewpoint of the ultimate ecological health of the world this could be one of the most fortunate facets of the human situation, but one cannot expect the technology-deficient nations to take this view: at the present time it is the lack of a capacity to produce industrial goods that is regarded as the main criterion of “underdevelopment,” and those impoverished nations with large food deficits will obviously attempt to expand industrial production as one means of increasing their economic flexibility and exchange capability.

At the present time, although a large percentage of the world’s industrial raw materials are extracted in underdeveloped countries, these materials are largely consumed by the manufacturing industries of Europe and North America. This applies not only to obvious commodities such as iron ore but to almost the whole range of mineral materials which are indispensable to the functioning of a modern industrial complex. Detailed and accurate statistics for the consumption of such commodities are notoriously difficult to obtain, but a few examples make the broad picture clear enough.

In 1965,21 out of a world smelter production of about six million tons of metallic copper, the industries of Europe, the USSR, and the US (total population about 850 million) consumed well over 75 percent while the industries of the whole of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (population about 2.50 billion) consumed far less than 25 percent. Indeed if the very considerable copper consumption of Japan and the Union of South Africa is deducted, an almost insignificant amount is left to the underdeveloped world.

More precise figures are available for the world consumption of tin. 22 In 1967 the industries of the noncommunist world (along with Yugoslavia) consumed 166,000 short tons of which almost 75 percent was absorbed by Western Europe and Anglo-America alone and less than 10 percent by Southern Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

And in the case of aluminum the contrast between the developed and the underdeveloped world is even more striking: out of a world production of 7,415,000 short tons in 1965, Europe, Anglo-America, and the USSR consumed about seven million tons and Japan a further 300,000 tons23 (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Even in the absence of exact consumption figures for the technology-deficient countries it is obvious that their industries can have consumed only a negligible amount.

Some measure of the contrast between the technologically developed and the technology-deficient countries is obtained from the fact that the industries of the US consume 50 percent of the annual world production of aluminum, 25 percent of the smelted copper, about 40 percent of the lead, over 36 percent of the nickel and zinc, and about 30 percent of the chromium. But it is perhaps even more salutary to realize that the industries of the Netherlands (population 13 million) consumed more tin than the whole of the Indian subcontinent (population 600 million) in 1967, and nearly twice as much as the whole of Africa (population 280 million).

It is against this background that we should view the future of living standards in underdeveloped countries. Many social scientists seem to regard it as axiomatic that these countries should industrialize at the maximum possible rate, presumably with a view to achieving Western levels ultimately. Before one commits oneself to this view, however, consideration should be given to the amounts of raw materials that would be required to achieve the Western scale of industrialization in technology-deficient areas.

During the century from 1860-1960, in which its population grew from about 31 million to 180 million, the US consumed an estimated 45 million short tons of primary copper. If the population of the Indian subcontinent, given no increase whatever, were to use primary copper at the same rate per capita as did that of the US in the 1960s, during the coming century it would consume 450 million tons. If the remainder of the technology-deficient countries were to do the same thing, they would consume about 1.25 billion tons. Inevitably the question arises whether there is so much copper available in the earth’s crust; are there the amounts of lead, tin, zinc, cobalt, manganese, and tungsten for their rates of extraction to be raised commensurately? And if there are enough metals, are there sufficient power supplies to drive the machines that would be manufactured?

Unfortunately there are, as yet, no precise answers to these questions, but increasingly intensive and comprehensive exploration is beginning to provide some indication of the size of many mineral reserves. The problem is not merely one of geological exploration however: nearly all elements are present in nearly all rocks, but usually in such small proportions as to make them economically unexploitable. In the case of many metals, relatively rich ores are of very limited extent and will soon be worked out; from then onward cost will make them unavailable to all but the richest nations.

Since 1940 technology has consumed more primary metal than during the whole of previous history. During the past ten years world production of industrial metals has been increasing at a rate of more than 6 percent per annum.24 The situation is already an urgent one with regard to certain scarce metals which, though only used in small quantities, are nevertheless vital to industrial complexes. The world production of mercury in 1969 stood at about 275,000 flasks (76 lbs.) per annum, and the US Bureau of Mines estimated world reserves, at $200 per flask, to be no more than 3,160,000 flasks. At this price and with world demand rising at no more than half its present rate, far more mercury would have to be mined over the next twenty years than is present on the basis of this estimate.25 If world prices were to rise to over $1,000 per flask, leaner ores could be exploited and world production might be maintained for fifty years; but the future of industrial development in technology-deficient countries is obviously in great jeopardy if prices rise in this way.

To a greater or lesser degree one can speak of the imminent exhaustion of the reserves of a large number of essential metals; the time scale with which the crisis is concerned is to be measured in decades rather than centuries. One can appreciate why so eminent a figure as the former Director of the US Bureau of Mines, Walter Hibbard, should have reached the conclusion that the time is rapidly approaching when indifference could be disastrous.26 The all too prevalent notion that mineral resources are to all intents and purposes inexhaustible must be discarded with the least possible delay.

Energy Problems

A recent review of the world’s energy resources27 reinforces Hibbard’s statement. Technology today is very dependent on fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil. Although, given time, these could be substantially supplemented and partially replaced by other sources of energy, contemporary solar energy, direct and indirect, cannot be harnessed to the extent that it could supply total requirements, even with the present world population. The vista of a great world industrial complex supplied by tidal power and vast batteries of photoelectric cells is an illusion, and potentialities for hydroelectric generation, though much greater, are nevertheless subject to certain limitations: although total world potential is certainly equal to the present world consumption of energy, it is very unequally distributed, and the great majority of impounded reservoirs do, after all, become silted up during the course of a century or two.

Nor can nuclear sources be regarded as a certain future source of almost unlimited, cheap energy as has so frequently been assumed. Apart from problems of waste disposal, it is by no means certain that power from fusion reaction will ever be available and, indeed, the whole future of fission energy is now in dire jeopardy: consumption of the relatively rare uranium-235 in non-breeder reactors could result in its complete exhaustion in relatively cheap deposits in a mere fraction of a century, resulting in a situation where nuclear power would be more expensive than power from fossil fuels and water.

One point is salient in this general picture: world reserves of petroleum—the mineral upon which world industry (particularly its transport sector) leans so heavily—are running out very rapidly. Evaluations from a range of estimates indicate quite clearly that the oil reserves of the US (excluding Alaska) had been reduced by half by about the year 1968, and that only 10 percent will remain by about the year 1990.28 Equivalent estimates of world resources show that they will have been halved by a point in time somewhere between 1988 and A.D. 2000 with 90 percent exhaustion somewhere between the years 2020 and 2030 (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5

The main corollary is that world oil production will begin to fall at the turn of the century if not well before it.

The prospect of an almost doubled world population along with a decreasing supply of petroleum in a mere thirty years’ time should be a daunting one for technologist; indeed the shortness of the time interval is the most disconcerting point of all. When one considers the small amount of fundamental change in the resource basis of industry that has occurred in the past quarter of a century and compares it with the enormous revolution that appears to be necessary over the next quarter, the tasks ahead seem insuperable.

The case of the hydrocarbon fuels illustrates the point very well. It is true that the earth’s reserves of tar sands and bituminous coal are sufficient to supply requirements for several centuries, given the present rate of expansion. But the costs of transport and plant conversion that would be necessary to distill a large percentage of the earth’s supply of liquid fuels from such materials would be enormous. Furthermore, such rapid developments can usually only be achieved with the accumulated capital and technical skills of an already developed country; again, the technology-deficient countries will be at a great disadvantage, and one can visualize this being particularly serious if it coincided with a great increase in the cost of nuclear energy.


With a hazard of these dimensions looming ahead one might expect that our species, unique in the animal kingdom for its capability for logical anticipation, would already be caught up in a near-frenzy of conservationist activity. In reality it is difficult to find serious public warnings, much less any sign of action. It is as though mankind has developed a blind faith in the immortality of the Industrial Revolution: ever since the great expansion began over a century and a half ago materials have been available, and it is unthinkable that this should not always be the case! Technology is taken to be omniscient, and even if resources are used up, substitutes will inevitably be found!

It is this faith in unspecified future technological innovation that is perhaps the most disturbing feature of our current social philosophy. It is completely unscientific and should certainly be deprecated by a body such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Any planning policy whose main prop rests upon unknowns rather than on rational assessment of what is known and understood indulges in nothing better than foolish optimism; its standpoint is exactly analogous to that of Mr. Micawber, but the evidence suggests that it has far less chance than he that something will actually turn up.


Before us there is a vision of what intellectual and material emancipation we, mankind, might achieve, and there is no technological reason why this should not materialize were we not so numerous. Indeed, just what might become possible, given time, cannot be imagined: a minority of mankind has already profited enormously after a mere century of development. But the press of numbers gives us so little time, and the door will inevitably close on the vast range of options open to mankind unless a revolution of unprecedented speed in attitudes and activities takes place within the next generation.

If the door does close, it will do so on an organism that is then forced into the position of having to destroy the remaining fertility of the planet in a vain effort to survive. The last precious resources will be used up carelessly and the very material that should be carefully husbanded will continue to contaminate the environment and vitiate the situation. As with the bacterial culture already referred to, an ultimate population crash to very low levels will be inevitable. Even if our species survives, the struggle back to a technological civilization will be subject to far greater restrictions than was originally the case. Nearly all easily accessible minerals will have been exhausted and the gene pool of the earth’s ecosystems will be enormously reduced as compared to that which was available to man when he set out on his hunting and collecting forays in Paleolithic times.

This is no fanciful excursion into science fiction: given a continuation of present trends it is probably the most optimistic way of speaking of man’s future. When the swarming stage is reached in nature, mass mortality is inevitable. But in nature, because of limited mobility, predators, and weather fluctuations, the effect of the swarm is rarely more than very local and the scars wrought by the temporary imbalance are soon healed. Because of his mobility and other aspects of his technology, man will be the first species to achieve the swarming stage simultaneously over the whole earth: from the point of view of all the other organisms in all the earth’s ecosystems, man is becoming a “pest” everywhere at the same time. Furthermore, as a technological animal, he is more of a pest than other organisms that reach the swarming stage because he uses up nonrenewable resources and produces inorganic by-products, whereas a non-technological species consumes mainly renewable resources and produces only organic waste.

If Homo sapiens, as a reasoning organism, is to have a chance of avoiding the population crash, he must simultaneously, and with the greatest speed, dramatically reduce his consumption of primary mineral material and he must cease to increase his numbers. There cannot be the slightest chance of the former unless the latter is achieved, since recycling any substance with 100 percent efficiency is an impossible goal, and even if achievable, could only cater for the present population at the present level of industrialization.

Three further doublings would produce a world population of 30 billion, and with the kind of birth rates and death rates experienced in the mid-twentieth century, this could easily be achieved in less than a century from now. And yet responsible estimates of the maximum sustained yield of world food supply have indicated that little more than three doublings are theoretically possible.29 It should be noted also that these estimates assume that all renewable assets are used with maximum efficiency and that the economic and social systems of the earth are rigorously managed as a unit with no major disruptions or mistakes.

Furthermore, the product of this almost inconceivable feat of organization would be a vast population at a chronic level of near starvation for the great majority and with personal choice and freedom of action reduced to a level far below that which obtains at present even in the underprivileged countries. Nor would there be any possibility whatsoever of any further population increase: those who might have continued to oppose birth control up to that point would no longer be able to do so without implicitly condemning people to certain death by starvation.

In the face of this prospect it is small wonder that the final policy statement of the Committee on Resources and Man of the United States Academy of Sciences contains the following recommendation:

That efforts to limit population increase in the nation and the world be intensified by whatever means are practicable, working towards a goal of zero rate of growth by the end of the [twentieth] century.30

But even if this demographic miracle can be achieved, it will only be a short first step. Mere contemplation of the intricacies of the human ecological problem is depressing enough, but it is when one begins to consider the measures that are necessary for a long-term solution that one plumbs the depths of pessimism. In a world where politicians, economists, industrialists, and trade unions—capitalist and communist—are in almost universal agreement that an increased rate of growth is the panacea for nearly all our ills, how can a rapid and complete revolution in thought be possible? When the power of politicians and the wealth of business are ultimately dependent on the number and wealth of constituents and customers, how can it ever be possible to gain voluntary acceptance for a philosophy whose central theme is conservation and contraction?

It is not as though solid economic benefits can be offered as a reward to our children and grandchildren: a contracting economy would, of itself, create problems, and a new race of economists would have to be born to cater for a progressively aging population over two or three generations. In the Western countries in particular it is barely conceivable that any administration could persuade the population to accept a drastic reduction in standard of living so that conservation policies of world-wide scope could be effected and so that a much larger percentage of resources could be diverted to technology-deficient peoples.

In the present world, dogged by political and economic nationalism, racial tension, and conflicting political and religious ideologies, there seems to be no glimmer of hope that these problems of unprecedented magnitude can be solved in a mere quarter to half a century. It is small wonder that some have already reached the conclusion that all optimism is no more than foolish optimism, and that mankind (to use the words of Paul Ehrlich) may be “too far into the tube already” for any planned solution to be a practical possibility.31

Perhaps those who anticipate the end of the road in this way are wrong, and some way out can be found. If so, it can only be through an unimaginable transference of our total scientific effort from exploitation to conservation. It is certainly to be hoped that those who have plumbed the depths of pessimism will not cease to urge constructive action along these lines in order to try to avert what they feel to be almost inevitable.

Tasks for the Planner

Although the problems facing mankind have been presented here as essentially global ones, it should not be inferred that local effort in one’s own community is pointless. Politicians must certainly be provided with the information necessary for a global strategy, but this cannot possibly succeed if human ecology on the local scale is not intensively studied to provide a basis for realistic planning. As pressures grow and shortages develop, a constant surveillance of man-land relationships in all kinds of environments will be a necessity. Indeed the need for analyzing developing land-use problems is so great that the efforts of planners of all kinds should surely not be misdirected and squandered as they are at the present time.

In a situation where so much effort is needed, trained social scientists and technologists must surely forsake many of the purely academic and fruitless exercises to which they are at present devoting their lives. As our cities swell and crumble about our ears, and as our agricultural lands deteriorate and disappear beneath bricks and mortar, it seems incredible that countless academics—be they civil engineers, architects, economists, geographers, or the rest—should sit in their university departments or municipal offices devising theoretical models of cities and transport networks for the year A.D. 2000. There can be no more pointless exercise if the former are to lack the bare necessities of subsistence and the latter are to have no power for traction.

Planning there must certainly be, indeed I am calling for planning at the most fundamental level. But any planning that ignores either of the two fundamentals in the equation—amounts of people and amounts of raw materials—must be baseless. Practitioners of superficial planning are wielding their bows in competition with Nero, and the developing conflagration promises to be a holocaust.

This Issue

November 18, 1971