Each species has a rate of reproduction that adapts or has adapted to its risk of death. As a result, populations will fluctuate but will in most cases remain more or less stable over time.
Human beings are the animal that has creativity and as a result, technology. When the first people started making the first tools, this changed their survival rate. Their risk of death reduced. As a result, populations started growing.
Initially, our ancestors started to spread. They moved into new territories and used their creativity to adapt to the new conditions they found there, like finding out what was edible and adapting to the climate.
When or where unsettled land was no longer available, people entered a crisis. They then used their creativity in one of three ways:
- they could either take what their neighbors had; inventing fight and war,
- they could start exchanging things with their neighbors if they had a surplus of one thing and someone else had a surplus of something else, starting trade, or
- they could use their inventiveness to develop more efficient methods of food production, producing more food from the same area.
While war and trade initially where only local short term solutions, inventing new things solved the problem at least for some time. For example, by inventing bow and arrow, people could hunt prey that they would not have been able to hunt before. Another example is the invention of bread making from gathered grains – both in Africa and Australia – that enabled people to produce more food from areas that would not have yielded this much before.
The result would have been an increase in food production that would lead to a further increase in population. Groups that had advanced hunting methods or ways of using resources would now grow faster than other groups and would assimilate, push aside or extinguish those who did not grow as fast. In some cases, others would adopt the superior technology and start growing faster themselves.
After some time, a number of large species of animals went extinct, while populations grew further. The hunter-gatherer-lifestyle entered a crisis in many areas. In areas with harsh climatic conditions, populations might have crashed. In some areas, like Australia, people actually developed means of stopping population growth, in this case by developing a system of marriage taboos, resulting in extraordinarily stable societies. In most areas, however, population growth created a crisis.
Where climatic conditions allowed it, people now invented methods of food production, either by breeding livestock or by starting to farm. Agriculture was invented in several places in the world, like the Middle East, Africa (four times independently), India, China, South East Asia, New Guinea and in several places in the Americas. This was made possible by a change to a more stable climate after the large ice age.
Agriculture and animal breeding allowed for the production of much more food per area compared to what was possible before. As a result, populations grew. The farmers and their life style spread over large parts of the world. This resulted in large-scale deforestation. The older hunter-gatherer life-style was increasingly restricted to areas that were either too cold or too dry for agriculture, like Australia and the Arctic.
Agriculture provided surpluses that lead to population growth. However, some people started selling their surplus to buy things produced elsewhere. For example, in one part of Peru, people started growing cotton and producing fishing nets from it, which they exchanged for fish from neighboring fishermen. As a result, population growth could happen in places where not enough food was grown if these areas could produce something that could be sold.
While some kind of barter trade on a smaller scale probably existed in older times, when, for example, salt was traded in some areas, it was only after the invention of metal smelting that trade really started becoming important on a larger scale. The reason for this was that metal ores where not available everywhere. First, copper smelting was invented in the Middle East and independently in the Air mountains in what is today Niger. Later, based on the copper technology, iron smelting was invented, again in the Middle East and independently in central Africa. Some people now specialized in mining and in the production of metal products, exchanging them for food.
The result was that wealth and power began to be concentrated in some areas. In some places, like West Africa, this process happened more slowly because there was so much land available that for a relatively long time people retained the option of going away and settling elsewhere. In other areas, like the Nile valley or Mesopotamia, this was not possible, so centralized power systems emerged when some people who became richer by trade monopolized power.
With the invention of money, trade increased further. The world started to be split up into richer areas and poorer areas selling their surpluses or raw materials. Large trade networks started forming and empires like the Persian Empire, the Chinese Empire and the Roman Empire emerged. Growth continued but was to some extent limited by the limits of agriculture, resulting in famines and wars.
With the industrial revolution and the increased use of fossil fuels, first coal and then oil, the energetic base of economies was decoupled from the agricultural basis of the previous economies. Population growth (i.e. the growth of the number of consumers) was now increasingly accompanied by growth of consumption per head.
Technological innovation more and more became a leading factor of economic growth. With the beginning of modern science and engineering, the European economies finally emerged as the dominating ones on a global scale
Without going into the details of history, the general patter was now that the fastest growing economies either overgrew and replaced the more slowly growing ones or integrated them into a system where they became dependent, either economically or, in the case of colonialism, through military power based on advanced weapons technology like the invention of machine guns.
In the competition between economies, economic systems and companies, the ones that became dominant where the ones that were growing fastest.
Any ideas, attitudes or ideologies that increased growth therefore spread and multiplied while ideas and attitudes that would result in less growth or in a stable state (like the Australian cultures mentioned above) where pushed to the side, forced into a condition of dependence or were destroyed.
What I see here is a dynamics that shows some parallels to biological evolution: the know-how, ideas, attitudes and ideologies that are controlling what people do are comparable to the genes of organism. Those that lead to steeper growth will be multiplied faster and thus will become the dominant style of thinking.
The result of these tendencies was a globally dominating culture with certain growth-inducing traits like:
- An ideology of growth. People think that economic growth solves their problems. They do not see that the growing economy is only part of a lager system that includes ecosystems and raw material resources and that – while the economy is growing – this larger system is actually shrinking. People believe that economic growth can go on indefinitely.
- An attitude of consumerism. People try to have as much as possible. Advertising becomes part of the culture, creating and increasing artificial needs.
- Laws of ownership, inheritance and a capitalistic market economy.
- Fashion. This results in products becoming artificially unusable although they actually are still fine, increasing turnover and thus growth.
- Attitudes of showing-off and of people defining their self-worth in terms of what they have.
I will not present an exhaustive analysis of all the ideas, attitudes, habits and ideologies that stimulate growth. If you think about it, you can easily identify such aspects of our culture, from the habit of exchanging gifts in a commercialized Christmas season to keeping pet dogs. Each such idea will amplify economic growth, ultimately resulting in its own increased proliferation, resulting in a world economy growing faster and faster.
Since the resources of the planet are limited, the resulting economy is becoming increasingly destructive. People in less rich areas are being integrated into the system in an exploitative manner. Ecosystems are being overexploited and destroyed, species become extinct at an ever increasing rate, raw materials are being used up at an ever increasing speed, and pollutants are dumped into the environment beyond its capacity to absorb them, including large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
Such a growth economy on a finite planet is necessarily unstable and unsustainable. There are only two possible outcomes: catastrophic collapse or transformation into a non-growing steady-state economy. It seems to me that a catastrophic collapse of our world economy and our technical civilization is by far the more likely course of events. I don’t think human beings will go extinct in that case, but a civilization like ours will not be built a second time because all the easily exploitable resources that enabled its start will be gone already. Instead, I think people would live on a much lower technological level, inhabiting a devastated planet. And I fear they would be fighting among each other for the rest of the time our species exists.
Creativity, i.e. the ability to invent new things, is the defining characteristics of humans. I wonder if it will inevitably result in such a development each time it occurs. Does this destructive course of event happen whenever and wherever human beings pop up in the universe? Is the universe filled with human-induced mass extinctions? If so, we will never know, because in that case technical civilizations like our own would be in most cases so short-lived that a contact is almost impossible since any nearby civilizations will probably not overlap in time with our own.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valltorta_(escena_de_caza).png.)