Planning for a Sustainable Future: Resource Conservation, Population Control, and Economy

Resource conservation is important but not the solution by itself. If we want a sustainable future we need to think ahead.

sustainable future - mountain road

If we focus on the immediate obstacle, we’re likely to hit that obstacle. Achieving a sustainable future requires visualizing success and thinking ahead.


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A motorcycle accident did it. A motorcycle accident, and its aftermath, led me to a series of realizations about what humanity must do to achieve a sustainable future. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

It was in July of 2007, and I nearly killed myself. Not intentionally; I almost died from a terminal case of poor visualization. That’s right, poor visualization almost ended my life.

On a motorcycle, if you enter a turn with a gentle arc and that arc gradually becomes smaller, then you are in a decreasing-circumference curve — which presents a serious problem when you enter the corner too fast and then discover it closing down on you. It’s your classic rookie-motorcyclist error, and I made it.

There’s only one way out, and slowing down is not an option. To brake a motorcycle in a high-speed corner is disastrous. You’ll lose traction and lay the machine down on its side. So the experienced rider leans deeper into the irrational angle and holds his intent. He visualizes a successful outcome. He experiences the exhilaration of successfully testing his own courage and skill against the laws of nature.

I, on the other hand, lost my nerve. Rather than visualizing myself — and the motorcycle — completing that turn at that speed, I let fear take over. I couldn’t visualize it and, for lack of a clear mental picture, I became trapped in the curve. Instinctively, I tried to slow the motorcycle down. The motorcycle and I went sideways, bounced off a fortuitous guardrail, and I went down in the middle of the road at about 45 mph. It would be a year before I healed completely.

The Destination Fixation

As I considered the lessons I took from the experience — while massaging the deep bruises on my legs, arms, and torso — it dawned on me that the human species is, in a manner of speaking, in the middle of a decreasing-circumference curve. Global climate change has created a worldwide sense that if we don’t do something soon, we may mess up our environment for the long term. We’re moving fast toward some form of environmental reckoning. The path we are on necessitates a change in attitude.

At the moment, we have our attention trained on resource conservation, effectively the middle of the curve. Instinctively, we want to slow down our personal consumption, but we are caught in the middle of a bunch of phenomena we don’t know how to interrupt.

We’re focusing our attention in the wrong place. Motorcyclists, mountain-bikers, skiers, and steeplechasers all learn the same lesson: When you have a lot of forward momentum, you have to train your attention beyond the short-term challenges. You need to be thinking ahead. You need to form a picture of yourself successfully negotiating the coming obstacles.

If you focus on the intermediate obstacle, you’re likely to hit that obstacle. Your attention should be trained beyond obstacles. Athletes call it the “destination fixation.”

It’s recently occurred to me that I don’t hear anyone describing the world in which we want to live 20 years from now. Almost no one, it seems, is visualizing a successful outcome. We’re too busy arguing about where to drill for oil.

The Ultimate Riddle

As far as we know, there is only one species in the universe capable of conceptualizing its impact on its habitat. That’s us.

If we are defined by our capacity for objective thought, then we are now living in one of the definitive moments in human history. Our ability to conceptualize our own role in nature helps define us as human beings. Our capacity for creating solutions to complex problems is the primary factor in our success as a species.

Today we face the challenge of solving the definitive human riddle. We are aware that we have an impact on the environment. We are aware that our population has been growing exponentially. We are aware that no species can expand infinitely on this finite planet. With this awareness comes responsibility.

We are capable of moderating our impact on the planet. We are capable of conceptualizing a sustainable human habitat and executing a plan to create that habitat. Yes, we face complex problems. But we’ve solved complex problems before. Perhaps the more vexing puzzle is how to defeat our biological programming — the programming that, in the words of the Judeo-Christian Bible, tells us to “go forth and multiply.” It’s a good thing we enjoy solving puzzles.

A Terrific Time to be Human

Now is the moment when our uniquely objective perspective and our enterprising intellect are engaged in what may be the most important challenge faced by our species so far.

Other species have damaged their habitats or lost them to environmental disaster. The dinosaurs, the saber-toothed tiger, and the woolly mammoth died out. Many species routinely go through periods of catastrophic population collapse and reestablish themselves in some new biological equilibrium. Lemmings spring to mind.

Nature has many tools at her disposal that allow her to control species that cause habitat damage. Famine and disease are her most potent weapons — both effective and unpleasant.

We, on the other hand, can conceptualize our effect on the environment and we might, if we wish to, avoid the suffering Nature will inflict.

And we could restore the astonishing garden into which we were born — the Earth. I can’t think of a more inspirational goal.

In one sense, it’s a terrific time to be human. We’re here to meet our biggest challenge so far — bigger than bipedal locomotion; bigger than the domestication of plants and animals; bigger than the invention of the wheel. We’re here to confront our own biology, the essential nature that tells us to keep reproducing and expanding. If you could view the entirety of human experience from the dawn of our evolution to the present, if you could pick the human century you’d like to witness firsthand, you might choose this one. I think I would. I would want to watch us tackle this problem.

Best Planet in the Universe

The suffering, if we don’t get it right, will not be humanity’s alone. Already we’ve destroyed thousands of species. In just the last few years, Europe’s Pyrenean ibex, Costa Rica’s golden toad, North America’s pearly mussel and the West African black rhinoceros have, so far as we can tell, passed into oblivion as humanity has destroyed their habitats. The scientists of the World Conservation Union estimate that 99 percent of recent extinctions and currently threatened species have been or will be destroyed by human activities. Conservation International reports that, as of the middle of 2008, a plant or animal species was becoming extinct every 20 minutes.

Extinction is normal, of course. The vast majority of species that ever lived seem to have disappeared somewhere along the line. What’s not normal is the rate of extinction. The rate has been accelerating since the beginning of the 20th century, and we’re responsible.

We’re taking a healthy, resilient, and rich natural habitat — the only planet we know where life thrives — and degrading its ability to support life. New species can’t evolve fast enough to replace the diversity we’re destroying, even if we hadn’t made the habitat inhospitable. We’ve inherited the best planet in the known universe, only to squander it. And if we don’t change course soon, the planet could end up unfit for human habitation, or at the very least, damned uncomfortable.

The Limited Habitat

We could take this philosophically: A few decades or centuries after we disappear there will be a healthy planet here. Or we can see it fatalistically: The damage we are doing is part of a natural process. Our awareness doesn’t change that essential fact. We can even salve our guilty consciences by resorting to the geologic perspective: Eventually this planet will suffer some sterilizing galactic calamity. Scientists tell us our sun will, eventually, burn out.

But it’s not our nature to sit around complacently waiting for the asteroid, not while we have this miraculous opportunity to preserve and enhance our planet. Just as we once visualized the first irrigated field, invented the first wheel, and dreamed of machines that fly, we can visualize the Earth as a beautiful and productive garden where millions of species thrive. Then we can build it.

Unfortunately, we are not visualizing the successful outcome: a healthy planet. Conservation has captured the human imagination lately and some great new inventions have come from this new fascination — the gas-electric hybrid engine, photovoltaic solar energy, wind-powered electric turbines, the hydrogen fuel cell. This is cool stuff. But it’s stopgap stuff.

The best product of our fascination with conservation is that it has captured our imaginations — the key component in a new human philosophy that values other living things. That’s a great thing.

On the other hand, short-term thinking distracts us from the underlying problem. At current rates of population growth, there will be 10 billion people on the planet in about 60 years. When there are 10 billion people on the planet, it won’t matter what they drive or if they’ve all committed to vegan diets. The planet will be under human assault in a battle in which everyone loses. We could hit that guardrail.

Someone’s going to object to my evidence. Maybe it will take 75 years to reach a population of 10 billion. Maybe the planet can accommodate 12 billion frugal human beings. But the rate of population growth is not the issue. Any growth at all creates the same ultimate dilemma. Sure, we might figure out ways to accommodate 10, 15 or 20 billion people in a crowded world. But why would we want to?

If ultimately we must control our population, then why not plan for a rich, healthy planet?

What if we decided, by mutual consensus, that a stable worldwide population of 4 billion people is our goal? Could we then live on a planet with clean air and water, plenty of food for everyone, and the environmental resilience necessary for us to prosper? Couldn’t we create a sustainable, healthy planet just because we decided to?

I think it’s time for us to start visualizing the future we desire. I’m not pretending it will be easy to get there.

Three Mountains

We have three tall mountains to climb. Conservation is, indeed, the first — if smallest — mountain. We need to forestall the effects of global warming as much as possible while we attempt to get our act together. We’re on the lower slopes of this mountain.

The next climb is longer and steeper. Population control is perfectly unavoidable. Eventually, we must stabilize human population or we’ll make a mess of our habitat and then nature will exert the control we abdicated. I’m not advocating anything Draconian, but if the international moral consensus were that each human being should reproduce himself or herself once — two children per couple — populations would slowly begin shrinking. It’s a simplistic solution, but the ultimate solutions are often the simplest.

I’m optimistic that we’ll reach both these goals. We already have the tools we need to reduce per-capita consumption and control our population. That leaves the third, and tallest, mountain.

As our economies are now structured, we depend on population growth to support economic growth. If demand for all goods and services were shrinking, values of all goods and services would also be declining in our current models. Imagine a world in which demand for all the fundamental human necessities — food, shelter, etc. — was shrinking every year. Imagine a world in which, let’s say, 5 percent of all houses on the market had no buyers because fewer people lived in your city. We’ve never seen this, and we probably don’t have the means of creating prosperity in a shrinking population. To sustain our population at lower, healthier levels, we’ll have to invent an economy that creates prosperity without growth. We will need brand new economic tools.

If we are to form the global consensus we will need to support these sea changes in human attitudes and culture, then we’ll have to visualize — as individuals and as a species — successful outcomes for all concerned. Otherwise, a lot of people won’t share in the consensus and we won’t be successful. We need new systems in which no one is placed at an unfair disadvantage. I’m not talking about socialism, communism, or any other obsolete social system. We’re looking for something new that rewards human innovation without requiring human expansion. Simply put, our new economic systems will require unprecedented cooperation across cultural, social, and political barriers.

I believe that we are at another turning point and that the vision we need today is, at its root, a spiritual vision. Because we’re the only species that perceives its impact on the habitat, we have a sacred responsibility to protect it for our own sake as well as the sake of the biological system as a whole. The gospels of monotheism — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — place this “responsibility” on us, sometimes translated as “dominion.” Gradually, we are accepting this responsibility. If we are to fulfill our duty, we’re going to need a new vision of the future.

And we’re going to need it soon.

I believe we can see these three mountains and their steep curves pretty clearly from here.

Publisher and Editorial Director Bryan Welch writes the Rancho Cappuccino blog.

stephen d. shenfield_59
1/17/2010 5:04:42 PM

Yes, we have to think, plan, and act together to shape our long-term future as a species. That is the approach we need. Unfortunately, most people lack a strong consciousness of "we as a species." Their main concern remains some narrower "we" -- we as a family, nation, race, gender, religious community, generation, etc. Even when they do think about what should be done to save the species, their thinking is colored by loyalty to narrower identities. They try to pursue species interests and the narrow interests of their group simultaneously, and it is this more than anything else that prevents agreement on any adequate plan of action. How can this barrier be overcome except by reorganizing and uniting society on the basis of common human interests? But this is the basic idea of socialism or communism, which you off-handedly dismiss as "obsolete." Of course, some or all of the systems that have been CALLED socialist or communist may well be regarded as obsolete. In that sense, we do indeed need a new system. In particular, past attempts to unite society have been confined to the national level, preserving or even exacerbating conflict between nations. The new system must be global in scope. It must also be democratic. But it will still be a form of socialism or communism, because any system that functions in the interest of the community as a whole is socialist or communist -- by definition.

paul scott_1
9/1/2009 5:32:34 PM

So good to read a well written piece on why population matters. It is clear that all serious problems in the world have overpopulation to blame. Whether it's resource depletion, energy use or wars over water and oil, society cannot handle the massive growth in humans that we've experienced over the past several decades. Sustainability is key. Reduction in growth must start now with the goal to get to that magic number where everyone is educated, gainfully employed and able to live a free life without fear of persecution or discrimination. Anyone who does not consider overpopulation a serious problem is not a "real" environmentalist. I've endowed vasectomy funds with three Planned Parenthood offices (Los Angeles, Eugene, OR and Pasadena, CA). If you want to make a serious effort to reduce the growth of population, not to mention have an effect on unwanted pregnancies that may result in abortions, then contribute to one of these funds Better yet, start one yourself with your local Planned Parenthood office.

7/13/2009 5:05:13 PM

Thank you for addressing and continuing to address this issue. It doesn't matter WHAT we do to reduce carbon emissions or reduce the amount of resources consumed if the population continues to grow at the rate it does. Combine that with other countries wanting to live like the U.S (and its their right!) and you have a global catastrophe going to happen.

mark alterman
5/6/2009 4:28:43 PM

We definitely need to re-invent the economy, or to return to an older vision of a healthy economy based on equilibrium rather than growth. I'm glad you reassured us that you are not seeking Draconian solutions to the problem of overpopulation. Many people cringe and think of the China solution when they hear any mention of overpopulation. Overpopulation is a serious problem, but in those parts of the world where education, opportunity, and some measure of freedom are available, it is taking care of itself. The United States and the democracies of western Europe, for example, are at or below a zero population growth. Since where we live, families with a dozen children are statistically irrelevant, there is no need for us to look askance at those who are blessed with large families. There is no need for us to ask or tell whether the children are adopted or born to the parents. There is no need for a cookie-cutter Kantian universal ethic to be imposed either by government regulations or by moral censure. Probably the best thing we can do to slow population growth is to support volunteer nongovernmental aid groups that are providing education and health services in impoverished areas of the world. Meanwhile in the more developed world vacancies in the older population segments (the educated and affluent who are not replacing themselves) are being filled by immigrants, many of home bring traditional values that include large families. It would be an odd twist of natural selection of the portion of the global population who care about the planet voluntarily vote themselves off the island.

4/28/2009 4:37:11 AM

I would like to offer another opinion on the idea of population control. The author of this article promoted his ideas as part of a "spiritual vision". However, I hardly think anyone who conforms to some standard practice is "spiritual"- that sounds more like "religion" to me. The spiritual approach to conceiving children involves a deep sense of knowing if there is a child meant to come to your family (many women I know, like me, have had the sense that a child is waiting- check out books like "Conscious Conception", and "Soul Trek"). On the flip side, many people seem to have their 2 children as commodities. A house, 2 cars, 2 kids... With current rates of infertility on the rise (some say up to 25% of college kids these days are infertile), and the fact that many people may not marry or will marry and choose *not* to have children, I think it is best left up to individual conscience as to how many children a couple should have. It may be more "spiritual" for some to not have any, and others to have 5. But to propose some across-the-board number for every family to aspire to? I am all for a more conscientious approach to child-bearing- but to me, this means each person doing some soul searching and making sure their motives and actions are pure- not conforming to someone else's ideal. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most simple-minded. Mother of two WITH A THIRD ON THE WAY.

peggy sutton
4/23/2009 10:44:39 PM

I think Bryan Welch is sincere in his ideas that logically controlling population is the way to go. As a Christian, I have to disagree. I believe that as Genesis 1:27 in the Bible KJV says, "God created man in his own image,..." In verse 28, God blessed Adam and Eve and told them to "multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion...over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." That doesn't mean that men and women should destroy the earth and not try to clean up global warming. It does mean that God intends man to continue to have children. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I know that God, our Heavenly Father, sent us here to earth to be tested, to see if we would obey his commandments and follow him. We are the literal spirit children of our Heavenly Father. He has many spirits that are waiting to come to the earth. They will be born to families that are dirt poor, if families with more means decide to "reduce the population." We are ruining God's plan by advocating that each family have 2 or less children. We were not sent to earth to live in luxury. There is plenty of food and room for people on the earth if we share our food and money with the world. We need to be compassionate and caring for our fellow man and we will have enough to go around. On another issue, I'm amazed the Mr. Welch has not published anything about the problems with too many older people when a population is reduced. Japan and Italy are already suffering the consequences of trying to provide for a large population of older people with few younger workers to support them. We definitely won't be able to have Social Security and Medicare if we reduce the size of our families. China also will suffer this problem in the future with its one child policy. Reducing the population is not the answer to the earth's problems.

peggy sutton
4/23/2009 12:03:50 AM

Mr. Welch was trying to couch his article in Christian religious terms, but according to my beliefs, he's forgetting an important issue. God created the earth for man's use. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the Bible, in Genesis 1:28-29, God blessed man and asked him to have dominion over all animals on the earth and that every "herb" or "fruit" would be food for man. We believe that the earth was created for the use and testing of people. All people are literal spirit children of God, our Heavenly Father, and as Genesis 1:27 says, we are created in the literal image of God. God has many spirit children to send down to the earth. They are going to come to earth regardless of whether they are sent to a dirt-poor family, or a family of comfortable means. If we people on the earth take care of our earth wisely, and share our money, food, clothing, and anything else we have with others, the earth has plenty to give everyone. We may have to use greener technologies, eat less food, live in smaller homes, or share our homes with other families. But if we follow God and his teachings, we will be blessed with enough to sustain us and others. We were not sent to earth to live in luxury, but to sustain ourselves and serve others. The other major issue about population control that hasn't been published in the magazine is the problem with caring for our elderly when there are more elderly than young people. We certainly won't be able to sustain Social Security and Medicare when too few children are born. We need to look at the societies of Japan and Italy to see the great burden on society when there are not enough young people to work in the economy and support the elderly. We also need to watch China in the next thirty years and the societal problems when there are a huge number of elderly people and a much smaller group of young people. China also has the problem of more young men than women. What

julie hope
4/8/2009 12:04:47 PM

The authors suggestion of forced reduction of birth rate is flawed as other readers have pointed out. The only way to reduce or stablized the population is to promote equality between men and women, and for women and girls to have equal access to education. In countries where women have basic human rights and education, the population has stablized and in some cases have been reduced. Where women have no education, and are granted no legal rights; the population growth has exploded. It has also been shown when a woman from an opressive society emigrates to country that offers these basic rights and education, her children's generation (the ones educated) choose to have less offspring. I also think that if given a choice, some women would choose to have one or none, and the rare others feel compelled to have more and would make awesome mothers for the next generation. If given the choice i do think that these anomalies would average out. I believe that for a sustainable future, we do need to visualize it the way it should be and work toward that future, but I also believe that without education and universal justice those goals cannot be realized. We are interconnected: environmentally, economicly, socially, and i believe spirtitualy. Peace.

4/7/2009 10:45:13 AM

There is a basic methodical flaw in the article. If every couple were to have just two children. The human species would eventually die out. Just 3 children per couple and there is an ever increasing population. The conundrum comes in where it is impossible to have more than two children, but less than three children.

joan p
4/7/2009 10:02:51 AM

Lisa, your comments about China are so incredibly inaccurate it is comical. The official birth rate in China is 1.8 children per family, so obviously more than a few babies are getting past the government regulations. Forced abortion and sterilization are illegal in China. There were a few cases of overzealous officials, and these were blown out of proportion. The penalty for having too many children is a fine, and many people are weathy enough to pay the fine, or poor enough that the government can't do anything. The vast majority of Chinese see the need for lower population and support the population policy. Compare China to other countries that don't have population policies. In other countries, you will find children starving and begging on the street. Is this preferable? In fact, in most places simply giving people reliable affordable birth control to allow them to have no more children than they can take care of would reduce the birth rate considerably. People who think we can just reduce our rate of consumption don't understand that the impoverished outnumber us 10 to 1 and most of them will adopt our high consumption lifestyle if given a chance. Jesus and his followers did not have children. If we care about ALL people like they did, we will do the same.

4/7/2009 9:22:36 AM

Any serious attempt to limit population growth will lead inevitably to unbearably invasive tactics toward human inhabitants, i.e. forced abortions and sterilization like the Chinese government has forced on its people. If a woman is blessed with more than one child, the Communist party operatives present in even remote village areas see to it that the child is murdered before or shortly after birth. What can we do? Regulate sex? Murder infants? "Euthanize" our elderly or imperfect? The imperfection of this approach is literally fatal. Rather, we can re-examine our standard of living. If we saved our fossil-fuel rich technology for medical care only, and if most of us in "developed" nations lived like the Old Order Amish, things would quickly return to sustainability. But I don't see anybody giving up their conveniences. My family thinks I'm loony , but I would like to live non-electric, and not "need" so much! What if we decided we don't need air conditioning or petrochemical fertilizer or constant motor vehicle transportation? By the way, as the wife of a man who also nearly died on a motorcycle, I have to question why anybody who cares about himself, his family, or this earth rides motorcycles for pleasure. Also, I detect a veiled disrespect for the "Judeo-Christian Bible". If you think the Bible values are passe', maybe you don't know enough about it. Please open your mind and read it carefully before it's too late.

keeping it real
4/3/2009 5:05:13 PM

I find it interesting that Mother Earth News felt the need to re-publish this article (albeit slightly longer than the original), reiterating again the need for population control. The original article was published only a few months back. With the original article, there was a huge outcry from readers either strongly against or supporting the idea of population control. I guess I can see which side Mother Earth News supports. The previous article is called "News from Mother: Three Mountains We Must Climb (at

gordon henry
3/30/2009 3:42:07 PM

I had not read the article (till now), just the letters to the editor (Dear Mother)in the Feb/ Mar issue. I found it disheartening, how many close minded and knee jerk negative reactions there were. To me they are for whatever reason close minded in individuals. More worried about their own personal want's and desires, than what is good for the planet or the rest of mankind. They can watch any number of nature shows, Feed The Children, ect... See the slums all over the world. Famines in Africa for what the last 20 or 30 years. It's all out in the open for all to see. Gordy

3/30/2009 2:13:00 PM

It is a shame that this very important topic cannot be discussed without such turmoil. Is it only we few who see the beginning of the end? I have been a reader/subscriber of MEN's since #1 and have always believed that it was my responsibility not to contribute to the booming population all over the world. Why oh why can't others see the folly of ignoring it?

george works
3/30/2009 12:16:04 PM

Thank you for this fine article on what I agree is the main issue of our age, and the most difficult issue that humanity has ever faced. Controlling our population growth presents huge problems, and the new vision must include their solutions. Many aspects of our culture are based on constant growth such as pension systems, economic institutions and even our debt-based money system. There are many vested interests in continuing growth. But we must either find a way to live sustainably, or nature will do that for us in a way that is not to our liking.

3/26/2009 11:26:34 AM

Thank you, Mr. Welch, for being brave, independent and honest about the subject which appears to have offered your magazine [and readership] an interesting dilemma. Can you imagine? Who would have thought that a group of people that respect Nature, admire conservation and the exploration of cutting edge technologies, advances in 'back to the land' movements and obvious open mindedness could suddenly be unable to wrap themselves around this one? It is apparent that your staff may not have been prepared for the actions that have ensued because of your quiet 'suggestion' that we THINK about population control ["Three Mountains We Must Climb," December 2008/January 2009]. How opportune it is NOW that we face this problem not on the population issue but on the actual economic front. We are coming face to face with the issue which we may not fully understand and your article gives us the opportunity to put these two issues to the forefront. We can visualize success and now is the is our evolutionary responsibility as a species...we have been presented a spiritual vision. Are we ready to see it?