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…”
Let’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.
If 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.