The notion that an ever growing and/or wealthier population can only deliver environmental doom has been the standard foundational belief of the modern environmental movement. The latest variation on this theme was arguably best summed up over a decade ago by business magnate and long-time population control advocate and financial backer Ted Turner who blamed global warming on the fact that “too many people are using too much stuff.” “Hockey stick” climate scientist Michael Mann concurred in a recent tweet, writing that climate change is “simply one axis in a multi-dimensional problem” that “all stem from the same problem – too many people using too many natural resources.” This stance has long been akin to dogma among the most prominent pessimistic climate scientists, bureaucrats and activists.
More optimistic commentators have challenged this notion and its attending doomsday prophesies and calls for radical social transformation by pointing out that the mainstream (IPCC) analysis of the impact of increased greenhouse gas emissions is nowhere near as dire as it is made out to be, that spectacularly failed catastrophist predictions have been a mainstay of environmental activism for more than half a century and that virtually all socio-economic and most environmental indicators clearly indicate that humanity is now much better off than it ever was. What is missing from most recent rebuttals to the green crusade, however, is a broader historical perspective.
Population Growth, Resource Shortages and Environmental Degradation
Basic concerns regarding resource availability and anthropogenic environmental degradation are as old as civilization and were much more prominent before the rise of the modern environmental movement than is now generally believed to have been the case. To give but a few illustrations, fears of deforestation and soil erosion as a result of a growing population are said by some scholars to go back at least four millennia to The Epic of Gilgamesh. Plato lamented a few millennia later that Athens’ back country, whose hills had once been “covered with soil”’ the plains “full of rich earth,” and the mountains displaying an “abundance of wood,” had been turned after years of abuse into a landscape that could “only afford sustenance to bees” because all the “richer and softer parts of the soil [had] fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land [was] being left.” He also warned that “exceed[ing] the limit of necessity” and the “unlimited accumulation of wealth” would trigger expansionary wars, especially in light of the populace’s fondness for meat, which would result in struggles over pastureland. His solution was a vegetarian diet. In the fifth century, Saint Jerome, traditionally regarded as the most learned of the Latin Church Fathers, commented that “the world is… full, and the population is too large for the soil,” a problem he believed best addressed through the creation of monasteries.
Closer to us, the British birth control activist Joseph Symes wrote in The Malthusian magazine in 1886 that, “no matter how large the country, in the absence of deliberate efforts to the contrary ‘the land will be over-stocked with people,” the food supply “too scanty” and “even standing room will soon be wanting.” In 1912, American eugenicist Edward Isaacson argued that “the time must come when the countries which now export food will be filled up to the point where they will need all they produce for themselves, and can no longer supply the over-populated countries at any price.” Although emigration had acted as a safety valve in the past, this could only be done “so long as there is a place for it; but what then?’” Once the capacity of feeding their population through food imports was no longer feasible, he argued, over-populated countries that had not given up on their industrial development and population growth would experience a “distress [that] will be something beyond all human experience.” Isaacson’s solution was John Stuart Mill’s much earlier (1848) call for a steady state of economic development in which “population must be kept down to the numbers which [over-populated countries’] land with the best management can support.”
In their influential 1947 Human Breeding and Survival sociologist Elmer Pendell and Guy Irving Burch, then director of the American Eugenics Society, exhibited the same spirit. As they argued, the land was already full “while our population is large and rapidly growing.” They forecasted that by 1951 one could see “forming for the American people, a future marked by conditions like those which prevailed in the times of scarcity and want which Europe used to know so well in past centuries and under which it now suffers.” In 1948, another prominent environmental writer, William Vogt, warned that “[we]must accept change” and “adjust our lives to it, if we are to survive,” for a failure to understand some basic relationships “of man with his environment” would “almost certainly smash our civilization.” Vogt also predicted famines in the next three decades in countries such Great Britain, Japan and Germany while the “exhaustion of our own [American] oil wells [was] in sight.”
Human Actions and Climate Change
Concerns about human-induced climate change almost certainly predates the dawn of civilization. Be that as it may, as the biogeographer Philip Stott observed over a decade ago, “From the Babylon of Gilgamesh and the post-Edenic world of Noah, all ages have viewed climate change cataclysmically, as a retribution for human greed and sinfulness.” Many individuals throughout history thus blamed extreme weather events (e.g., torrential rains and their resulting floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, unseasonable warmth and cold) and climate change on a wide range of anthropogenic causes, be they insufficient offerings to the gods, witchcraft, deforestation, the lightning rod, wireless telegraphy, cannon shots in the First World War, atomic tests, supersonic flights, and air pollution such as sulphate aerosols (said to cause global cooling, the dominant anthropogenic climate fear of the early 1970s).
In recent decades, however, the emphasis has shifted towards humanity’s increased use of fossil fuels said at first to cause catastrophic global warming, then climate change and more recently climate chaos. For instance, during a 1968 academic conference the Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, identified anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions as a “serious limiting factor” to economic growth. By the 1970s, Ehrlich, his wife Anne and his collaborator (and future Obama administration’s science czar) John Holdren raised fears that carbon dioxide “produced by combustion of fossil fuels in quantities too large to contain” may “already be influencing climate” and, as such, constituted one of the “gravest threats to human well-being. . . [i.e.] the loss of natural services now provided by biogeochemical processes.”
Mainstream historian of science Spencer Weart further observed that by the 1980s the environmental movement, which up to that point “had found only occasional interest in global warming,” made the issue one of their top priorities. In his words, “groups that had other reasons for preserving tropical forests, promoting energy conservation, slowing population growth, or reducing air pollution could make common cause, as they offered their various ways to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.” Weart added that other voices in this chorus included “people who looked for arguments to weaken the prestige of large corporations, and people who wanted to scold the public for its wastefulness. For better or worse, global warming became identified more than ever as a “green issue.” The redistributive policies of climate treaties were also in accord with the broader social goals of many left-wing activists who had come to embrace environmentalism.
The Pessimists’ (Partial) Concessions
Repeated failures of past doomsday forecasts forced many past pessimistic analysts to acknowledge the errors of their predecessors – although, being pessimists, they quickly added that positive trends would soon come to an end.
A case in point is the American chemist and eugenicist Harrison Brown, a man who profoundly shaped the worldview of former Obama administration science advisor John Holdren, who in 1954 acknowledged that the “disaster which Malthus foresaw for the Western World did not occur. Instead, Western populations [are] far beyond the levels he would have considered possible, and the poverty and deprivation so widespread in Malthus’s time [have] enormously decreased.” Brown even added that “so widely divergent were the predictions from the actual course of events that, if we were to look only at the predictions divorced from the reasoning, we would be inclined to say that he was incompetent.” The following year, biologist and population pessimist Marston Bates confessed that human population had multiplied threefold since the days of Malthus “without disastrous consequences” and that people “in many parts of the world are much better off, by any measure, than they were 150 years ago.”
The Problem of Eco-Pessimists
As we have argued in more detail elsewhere, enviro-pessimists have always failed to consider that past beneficial trends and subsequent progress were achieved, not in spite of the growing human numbers and their increased use of fossil fuels, but precisely because of them. Unlike other animal species, among humans more people are not merely more mouths to feed, but also more arms to work and more brains to solve problems. This is because humans have developed unique traits that long ago catapulted them to the top of the food chain, such as the ability to transmit information and knowledge between individuals and through time, to innovate by combining existing things in new ways (meaning that the more that is invented, the more that can be invented because new ideas and technologies are created through their combination), and to become more efficient through ever more sophisticated individual specialization and long-distance trade.
In the more recent past humans have also reaped the benefits of unlocking wealth from underground materials such as coal, petroleum, natural gas and mineral resources. By replacing resources previously extracted from the biosphere (such as fuelwood and timber, animal power that required large amounts of agricultural land to be devoted to animal feed, plants grown for their fiber or dying properties, or whale oil) with resources extracted from below the ground, humans have achieved the remarkable feat of reducing their overall environmental impact while increasing their standard of living. This is why, over time, people in market economies produce more things while using fewer resources per unit of output and are able to devote ever more resources to address pollution problems.
In the end, past and recent evidence largely supports economist Julian Simon’s (in)famous 1995 “long-run forecast in brief”:
The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.
Pierre Desrochers is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Joanna Szurmak is a doctoral candidate in the program in science and technology studies at York University and a librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This essay is adapted from their recent book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link between Overpopulation and Climate Change. (Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2018)
Photo: John McConnell (flag designer)NASA (Earth photograph)SiBr4 (flag image) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons