growth sustainability

Smaller people in a bigger world

This week I’ve been reading a collection of essays in a book called A Future Beyond Growth, and I came across an innovative idea from Herman Daly. In an essay on population and our growing need for food and materials, he writes that “smaller people would be the simplest way of increasing metabolic efficiency. To my knowledge no one has yet suggested breeding smaller people…”

cowLet’s think about that for a moment. Put aside the question of how, and consider the benefits. If human beings were two thirds the size, then we’d need two thirds of the food. A population of nine billion would have the same needs as a population of six billion of us at our current size. Every field would feed more people. If animals remained the same size as they are now, but we were smaller, it would be a whole lot easier to produce enough meat for us all. Today’s roast chicken for four would be tomorrow’s roast chicken for six.

Imagine if our infrastructure was built for these smaller people. When I was at boarding school there were dormitories for boys and girls in each year. The one for sixth grade girls was unique in that it was built to their scale – a whole accommodation block built to the size of 11 year old girls, with tiny doors and miniature walk-in closets. Think of the savings in materials if all buildings could be built for smaller occupants – homes, airports, shopping malls. Imagine SUVs the size of Minis, narrow gauge trains as standard, and airliners retrofitted to be double-decker.

old.new500If we were all smaller, we’d need far less space to live in. Each plot of land that came up for development could fit in more houses. We could fill in the gaps between things and build more efficient cities. By shrinking ourselves, the world would be relatively larger – a planetary extension that would buy us more time on meeting our climate change targets.

This, I think you’ll agree, is one of the most promising ideas that’s ever come up on the blog. If the world’s population currently uses the resources of 1.5 planet earths, then an equivalent population of humans two thirds the size puts us on a sustainable footing at a stroke. E F Schumacher was more prescient than he realised when he wrote that Small is Beautiful.

Perhaps we should hear more from Herman Daly, since it’s his idea: “To my knowledge no one has yet suggested breeding smaller people as a way of avoiding limiting the number of births, and neither do I.”

Ah. He writes in jest.

Daly drops in smaller people as an aside, as a way of humorously illustrating the way that fantasy strategies can be more appealing than realistic ones. We don’t want to talk about population growth, or limits to economic expansion, or resource depletion, or limiting our land use to leave room for non-human species. We can’t stand the idea of limiting ourselves, of restraint – easier to talk about nuclear fusion, aeroponic skyscraper farms, the hydrogen economy, or asteroid mining.

Would it really be so bad to acknowledge that if we shared our resources better, we actually have enough already? Is it so difficult to agree that in an age of environmental overshoot, ongoing economic growth is only a legitimate policy goal in low income countries? Can we not at least talk about how progress in the 21st century could be about quality rather than quantity?

If not, then we’re stuck with the fantasy of infinite expansion on a finite planet, which is really no more sensible than a future world of tiny people.


      1. As people have become better fed they are both taller and have on average higher IQs.

        Most short people are more than 2/3 the mass of the average person which similar head size.

  1. I have heard that before, I was talking about the poverty of yesteryear , I remember how small people were, the old, in english villages when i was a child.Today, being small because you dont eat enough has a name and it is meant to reduce intelligence,. Cant say I noticed that such people lacked intelligence. I was talking about how bad things used to be and the heartless person I was talking to suggested it had meant people ate less so that it was a good thing, Disgusting suggestion ,that we go back to the misery of before for any reasona at all. Such things are what i often hear talking to catholics, this one i have heard three or four times from different people who advocate for such a return to the old poverty.that exiisted in Europe most especially.Have you ever seen many small people from islamic countries,, I have not? In England farming takes up nearlyall the land but in the mediteraeanean that is not the case, moorlands cover much bigger areas. We could easily grow more,what is hard is distribution and policing the worldd to stop fights that stop food getting through and the morality of policign others is very questionable. Also economics are something you have to know a lot about to better the distribution of food. You can take charity to poor countries but the system is tricked, you should trace the money to find out how long it gets back into swiss banks or the modern equivilent. ,There is an electric stair ase that carries money back up to the rich Understand that and you might find ways to better local economies so that money really helps development in them and creat ¡e money there and stop money leaching back to the rich. instead of just taking money to them.There is not fixed amount of money i buy a packet of seeds and grow from it two hundred plants the money I spent on the seeds has expanded a hundred fold: MOney expands and decreases as do plants we can cut them down or increase the number of plants on the planet.we can als buy a packet of seeds for two pounds an dend up with plants worth one hundred pounds.

  2. Limiting our numbers is technologically (though not socialogically) easy. Reducing our fear and greed would be the most effective change we could make, but sadly appears to conflict with human nature.

    Good education (particularly of girls) has been shown repeatedly to be the most effective driver of lower birthrates, and produces this result without compulsion.

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