Population Bombed!

Commentary, Climate, Pierre Desrochers

Excerpted from Population Bombed! by Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, published by GWBF Books.

In a scathing critique of the romantic poet Robert Southey’s negative assessment of the industrial economy of his time, the British historian and Whig politician, Thomas Babington Macaulay famously observed in 1830 that “[t]o almost all men, the state of things under which they have been used to living seems to be the necessary state of things… Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation.” Macaulay added that while no one can definitely prove that “those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason.” “On what principle is it that,” he then asked, “when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”[1]

Apparently not much has changed since Macaulay’s day, especially when it comes to the conflict of visions between the pessimists and the optimists… Much of the public discussion is still dominated by erroneous ideas such as “Malthusian trap” according to which population growth is absolutely limited by finite resources; that because there is only so much to share, a smaller population will be inherently better off; that technological or social innovations can at best delay the unsustainable character of population growth; and that because of projected future ills, a range of – sometimes drastic – preventive policy interventions is justified in the present. This perspective was repeatedly brought to the fore over the last two centuries under the feather, pen, typewriter or keyboard of some (often highly credentialed) concerned individuals. And almost invariably, each time, scores of public intellectuals, activists, bureaucrats, politicians, academic journal editors, private foundation and granting agency officials echoed, promoted, funded or implemented restrictive policies in the name of preventing the careless lemmings from jumping off the cliff.

In keeping with the pessimist outlook… a group of sustainability scientists recently reported that it would be impossible, without an ecological catastrophe, to provide for more than the minimal survival needs of more than seven billion people on Earth given that the universal achievement of those needs “would require a level of resource use that is 2-6 times the sustainable level, based on current relationships.”[2] According to these scientists, the Earth is, once again, hopelessly overrun by the plague of humanity. But perhaps, the grip of [pessimists] has loosened somewhat as new voices are being heard on different frequencies. The environmental policy expert and left-leaning Breakthrough Institute director Ted Nordhaus[3] found the article just quoted worthy of challenging because of its standard population-linked view of ecological sustainability and its use of numerous sophisticated analytic frameworks[4] with the trappings of scientific precision. Remarkably, Nordhaus was able to reach a mainstream audience in a left-wing outlet despite questioning such “nebulous”[5] and “pseudo-scientific limits”[6] associated with carrying capacity.

What many pessimists truly object to, however, is often not so much just population growth which is now nearing its peak, but the alleged chaos and environmental destruction created by unrestrained capitalistic commerce.[7] Nordhaus noticed this too and brought up this shifting of the goalposts by the pessimists to everyone’s attention, pointing out that, in parallel with population growth, the growth in consumption will also eventually saturate and decline. While many critics still claim capitalism functions like protozoa and “cannot survive without endless growth of material consumption,” he observed:

no particularly well-established basis for this claim and plenty of evidence to the contrary. The long-term trend in market economies has been towards slower and less resource-intensive growth. Growth in per-capita consumption rises dramatically as people transition from rural agrarian economies to modern industrial economies. But then it tails off.[8]

In fact, environmental policy experts such as Nordhaus who originally came from, and are still somewhat closer to, a more pessimistic tradition are slowly catching up to the insights of optimists like Julian Simon who long ago observed that, overall, “human creation is greater than human destruction, in the sense that our environment is becoming progressively more hospitable to humankind…  The movement away from equilibrium is a movement toward safety and sustenance. This progress carries with it some undesirable features for a while, but eventually we get around to fixing them.”[9]

It is, of course, true that environmental degradation and resource depletion can be observed in various locations at different points in time – such as in present day Venezuela and Zimbabwe – but optimistic analysts can explain most of them as temporary and attributable to factors such as bad governance, poor incentive structures, insufficient respect for private property rights and lack of voluntary exchange structures rather than to population growth, resulting scarcity of physical materials, and ecological overshoot.[10]

Rather than emulating the growth pattern of bacteria in a test tube, human population is stabilizing. Rather than being static and constrained, our environment is dynamic. Rather than passively awaiting catastrophe, “we have been engineering our environments to more productively serve human needs for tens of millennia. […] It took six times as much farmland to feed a single person 9,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Neolithic revolution, than it does today, even as almost all of us eat much richer diets. What the paleo-archaeolgical record strongly suggests is that carrying capacity is not fixed.”[11] In other words, now more than ever, pessimists are on the wrong side of the limits to growth debate and must resort to bending the facts and invoking theoretical catastrophes to fit their narrative.

[1] Macaulay, Thomas Babington. 1830. Review of Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society by Robert Southey, Esq., LL.D., Poet Laureate. 2 volumes. London: 1829. Edinburgh Review (January), non-paginated http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/macS1.html

[2] O’Neill, Daniel W., Andrew L. Fanning, William F. Lamb, and Julia K. Steinberger. 2018. “A Good Life for All within Planetary Boundaries.” Nature Sustainability, 1: 88-95, quote on p. 88 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0021-4.pdf

[3]  Nordhaus, Ted. 2018. “The Earth’s Carrying Capacity for Human Life is Not Fixed.” Aeon (July 5) https://aeon.co/ideas/the-earths-carrying-capacity-for-human-life-is-not-fixed

[4] The frameworks are the Ends-Means Spectrum, the Planetary Boundaries biophysical framework, and the eHANPP (embodied human appropriation of net primary production). In O’Neill, Daniel W., Andrew L. Fanning, William F. Lamb, and Julia K. Steinberger. 2018. “A Good Life for All within Planetary Boundaries.” Nature Sustainability 1(February): 88-95, frameworks on p. 89 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0021-4.pdf

[5] Nordhaus, Ted. 2018. “The Earth’s Carrying Capacity for Human Life is Not Fixed.” Aeon (July 5), quote in paragraph 3 https://aeon.co/ideas/the-earths-carrying-capacity-for-human-life-is-not-fixed

[6] Nordhaus, Ted. 2018. “The Earth’s Carrying Capacity for Human Life is Not Fixed.” Aeon (July 5), quote in paragraph 17 https://aeon.co/ideas/the-earths-carrying-capacity-for-human-life-is-not-fixed

[7] Peter J. Taylor has been adamant in his analysis of Jacobs’ work that she never included capitalism in the Commercial syndrome: “And the commercial syndrome is most certainly not ‘capitalist:’ in the next toolkit in this chapter I will show capitalism to be more related to the guardian syndrome, and furthermore, […] I will emphasize the importance of distinguishing between commerce and capitalism.” Taylor, Peter J. 2013. Extraordinary Cities: Millennia of Moral Syndromes, World-Systems and City/State Relations. Edward Elgar, quote and discussion on p. 40.

[8] Nordhaus, Ted. 2018. “The Earth’s Carrying Capacity for Human Life is Not Fixed.” Aeon (July 5), quote in paragraphs 8-9 https://aeon.co/ideas/the-earths-carrying-capacity-for-human-life-is-not-fixed

[9] Simon, Julian L. 2016. The Ultimate Resource II. Princeton University Press, chapter 30: Are People an Environmental Pollution? http://www.juliansimon.com/writings/Ultimate_Resource/TCHAR30.txt

[10] Tupy, Marian L. 2018. “What Are the Exceptions to Human Progress?” HumanProgress.org (February 2) http://humanprogress.org/blog/what-are-the-exceptions-to-human-progress

[11] Nordhaus, Ted. 2018. “The Earth’s Carrying Capacity for Human Life is Not Fixed.” Aeon (July 5), quote in paragraph 13 https://aeon.co/ideas/the-earths-carrying-capacity-for-human-life-is-not-fixed