To end poverty, must we exhaust all the world’s resources?
Some readers of our book, The Business Solution to Poverty, remarked that we had assumed the carrying capacity of the planet Is unlimited, since we advocated building new businesses to serve the poor — and businesses inevitably use resources.
So far as we’re concerned, this is the most substantive of the concerns that have been raised about our book. As we acknowledge in the text, the dominant paradigm in the corporate world—indeed, in the world at large—is that growth is always good, and that without economic growth the poor will always remain poor. There is enough truth in this conventional wisdom that it’s difficult to refute.
Although we strenuously object to the notion that growth is always good—there are many businesses that reach optimal performance with few employees—there isn’t enough wealth today on Planet Earth to enable every inhabitant to live a comfortable life free of want, even if all the wealth were equally shared—which, of course, will never happen. That’s why we feel it essential to generate new economic activity at the village level.
To a minor degree, the work of the companies we wrote about in The Business Solution to Poverty will add to the strain on the planet’s limited natural resources. The impact of these companies would be limited, primarily for two reasons: first, we build environmental sustainability into each business model; and, second, a large proportion of the activity these companies will generate simply recycles existing resources (such as water, agricultural waste, sunlight).
There’s no doubt, however, that any manufacturing effort that transforms natural resources into artifacts of any kind (for instance, solar electric generators, torrefaction ovens, or jerry-cans to transport water) will deplete the Earth’s reserves to some degree and may also discharge greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
We’re committed to limiting these unintended consequences as much as humanly possible, but under existing circumstances, we know they can’t be entirely eliminated. This is a problem because there’s simply not enough stuff to go around. If we humans were all content to live on minimum rations and own a single outfit of clothing, the Earth might be able to support a population three to four times the ten billion figure the UN projects we’ll reach by 2100. However, if everyone on Earth were to adopt the middle-class lifestyle of the United States, it’s likely we’d find that the planet could support no more than one or two billion people indefinitely (“Carrying Capacity,” Our Changing Planet).
Clearly, a time of reckoning will eventually come—unless the human race finds a way to colonize Mars or the Moon. We’re not holding our breath for that.