Understanding Exponential Growth

Understanding the challenge we face is difficult unless and until you really grasp how growth works. Take the world’s population, for example. As we write this, it stands at about 6.7 billion souls, and it increases at about 3 per second. Here’s a great way to watch that happen. This is an increase of roughly 1.4% per year. Doesn’t sound like a big problem, does it?

Now do the math. Let’s say that 1.4% growth continues for 10 years. By then, the world’s population will be about 7.8 billion. By 30 years out, 10.4 billion. By the end of the century, 25.8 billion. By the year 2200, 111 billion. Run it out just one more century, to 2300, and you’re at 470 billion. Getting a little crowded, huh? And in terms of the human race, 300 years is a heartbeat.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

                           — Dr. Albert Bartlett, Physics Professor and Population Theorist

Now layer onto that the disparity between the resource use per person in the industrialized nations and the same use in the developing world. The average European, for example, uses more than twice as many resources as the average person in the world, and the average U.S. resident uses five times as much. If you’re reading this, you probably use far more than your share of the world’s resources. Let’s say, for example, that you’re just an average, run-of-the-mill American, not some fantastically wealthy corporate executive or movie star with four homes – just an average gal. If the average person in the world used resources at the rate you do now, it would be as if the population of the world increased overnight to 35 billion people. Sobering. And make no mistake, the rest of the world sees no reason why you should be hogging its resources in such a disproportionate way. And in case you need an extra hint, it’s not our freedoms they hate us for.

This same principle governs any discussion about economic growth. But that’s another story.