Bryan Farris

How Social Entrepreneurs Are Doing More for the Environment Than Tree Huggers

Could it be that by working to cure the ills of poverty, we are in fact “saving the planet?” Is it possible that #SOCENT is doing more to save the polar bears than solar roofing companies?

My answer: maybe, probably.

It is not that the environmental movement is erroneous, but rather that it lacks an emphasis on poverty reduction.

Greener light bulbs remain critical, but if poverty continues on in rampant style, it is unlikely that any of the newfound efficiency will make a difference.

The rationale for this is hidden in plain sight. As early as the 70’s, Paul Ehrlich proposed an over-simplified mathematical expression that makes the case clear: I=PAT.

In an address titled “Too Many Rich People“, he explained, “Impact [to the environment] is equal to Population size, multiplied by per capita consumption (Affluence), in turn multiplied by a measure of the damage done by the Technologies chosen to supply each unit of consumption.”

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technological Inefficiency or, alternatively:

CO2 Emissions = Population x (GDP/Population) x (C02 Emissions/GDP).

At present, the environmental movement is focused (rightly) on improving T, or technological efficiency. This is a critical and noble task, but by itself it is meaningless.

Suppose that after an intense green effort we are able to create technologies that produce 70 percent less CO2 emissions, and that we are able to spread those technologies to 50 percent of the world. This would mean a global reduction in CO2 emissions of 35 percent per person.

Except that, the global population (which is already too big) is expected to increase by at least 35 percent by 2050, offsetting the entire efficiency gain.

Here’s a fact from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA): “World population is projected to rise by 2.3 billion people, from 6.8 billion in 2008 to 9.1 billion in 2050, assuming that fertility continues to fall in developing countries.”

I’m not sure I want to ask, but what happens if fertility doesn’t continue to fall? “If fertility remains constant, world population will reach 11 billion by 2050, with the population of less developed nations rising almost 2 billion.” That means a %7E60 percent increase in the global population in 40 years.

Poverty has long been associated with high population growth. As a poor carpenter in India put it, “If I have sons, they will work outside, labor even as animals do, but save. While the rest work, one son will learn the new skills. And maybe we will even be able to get some machinery with the savings of the other sons. A rich man invests in his machines. We must invest in our children.”

The UNFPA supports this anecdote: “For the past seven decades, high fertility and poverty have been strongly correlated, and the world’s poorest countries also have the highest fertility and population growth rates.”

Last year, Hans Rosling, a famous statistician and regular TED speaker, gave a talk about global population growth, in which he cited child survival rates as the key influencer of family size, “As the years go by, child survival is increasing…when they get up to 90 percent child survival, then family sizes decrease.”

Simply put, poor families have lots of children to ensure enough survive to contribute to household income, but as poverty decreases, families have less children and are more likely to send them to school.

We are far from living in a sustainable, efficient world and we still need the green movement (particularly because its impacts are more immediate). But, without poverty alleviation global sustainability is certain to remain just out of reach.

Of course, if we can “end poverty,” we’ll eventually be faced with the issue of rising consumption, but let’s cross one bridge at a time here.

Rosling concludes, “So the only way of really getting world population growth to stop is to continue to improve child survival to 90 percent. That’s why health investments by Gates Foundation, UNICEF and aid organizations, together with national government in the poorest countries, are so good. Because they are actually helping us to reach a sustainable population size of the world. We can stop at nine billion if we do the right things. Child survival is the new green.

Here’s to you social entrepreneurs: Keep fighting climate change!