The planet earth recently reached an important, albeit arbitrary milestone, as the global population reached 7,000,000,000 people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), prompting widespread discussion over whether the planet could sustain the growing population amid unchecked hyper-consumption. Miller and Spoolman (2010) echo the debate, asking, “Can we provide an adequate standard of living for a projected 2.7 billion more people by 2050 without causing widespread environmental damage” (p. 94)? Some, that hold an environmental wisdom worldview, have used the milestone as an opportunity to question our future amid concerns of overpopulation and overconsumption (Miller & Spoolman, 2010), environmental damage and non-renewable energy depletion (Sanjayan, 2011). These modern, global, challenges lead to difficult ethical questions, none more pressing than whether everyone should have the right to have as many children as they want, or whether society should seek to stem or regulate population growth. Regulating population growth is a temptingly simple approach, yet comes with many unintended consequences; rather the consumption side of the equation offers more opportunities for improvement.
Population growth is very concerning, and society should seek to productive ways to stem overpopulation. The regulation of population growth through government policy is in place in China; while effective to reduce the population has numerous unintended, negative, consequences (Miller & Spoolman, 2010). Rather, given that TFR lowers in predictable stages commensurate with the transition from developing to post-industrial economies, the focus should be on economic development; in conjunction with family planning and gender equality (Miller & Spoolman, 2010). In this manner, population growth will eventually reach equilibrium.
In addition, it is important to recognize that the world is changing in interesting ways. Ridley (2010) argues persuasively that prosperity is the result of the interchange and mating of ideas, made possible by trade and specialization. With the advent of the many-to-many communication model made possible by the Internet and the Web, innovation is occurring at an unprecedented pace (Baym, 2010). Shirky (2010) argues that the growing connected population is creating a cognitive surplus that increasingly is being applied to solve problems unaided by government or business, using the power of the crowd. How then is this cognitive surplus and mating of ideas used to address the problems of overconsumption?
Botsman and Rogers (2010) describe unresolved environmental problems and financial uncertainty as catalysts to a growing shift from hyper-consumption to collaborative consumption; enabled by the crowd and the network. They go on to describe collaborative consumption as the fifth ‘r’ of sustainable living; reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, and now redistribute (Botsman & Rogers, 2010). Examples include redistribution markets like eBay or various swap sites, collaborative lifestyle capabilities like Landshare.org, or product service systems like Zip Car for car sharing. The growing perspective on collaborative consumption rises from people tackling unresolved problems through collaboration and innovation; the use of our growing cognitive surplus for the good of the population and the planet we share.
“Can we provide an adequate standard of living for a projected 2.7 billion more people by 2050 without causing widespread environmental damage” (p. 94)? The answer depends on us. A better question is: Can we harness the cognitive surplus of 7,000,000,000 souls to promote economic growth in the developing world, reduce overconsumption in the developed world, and preserve the environment? This steward’s answer is yes.
Baym, N. K. (2010). Personal connections in the digital age. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.
Botsman, R., & Rogers, R. (2010). What’s mine is yours : the rise of collaborative consumption (1st ed.). New York: Harper Business.
Miller, G. T., & Spoolman, S. (2010). Environmental science (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.
Ridley, M. (2010). The rational optimist : how prosperity evolves (1st U.S. ed.). New York: Harper.
Sanjayan, M. (2011, October 31, 2011). A Letter to #7,000,000,000. HuffPost Green Retrieved November 20, 2011, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/m-sanjayan/7-billion-people_b_1067143.html
Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus : creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). U.S. & World Population Clocks. Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau.