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Reasons for optimism – population

Summary:
Some commentators, famously including Sir David Attenborough, are pessimistic about the world’s population, especially about what they see as its likely future population, and think the planet is headed for a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich led the charge with his 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” in which he predicted worldwide famines in the 1970s and 1980s because we’d be unable to grow enough food to feed the rising population. This is the argument by which Thomas Malthus predicted recurring world famines as food supply would necessarily fail to keep pace with rising numbers of mouths to feed. Paul Ehrlich in April 1970 predicted that: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during

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Some commentators, famously including Sir David Attenborough, are pessimistic about the world’s population, especially about what they see as its likely future population, and think the planet is headed for a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich led the charge with his 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” in which he predicted worldwide famines in the 1970s and 1980s because we’d be unable to grow enough food to feed the rising population. This is the argument by which Thomas Malthus predicted recurring world famines as food supply would necessarily fail to keep pace with rising numbers of mouths to feed. Paul Ehrlich in April 1970 predicted that: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

It was not just famines that the increased numbers, some suggesting 50 million people, would bring. They would pollute the planet, consume its resources, degrade the environment. wipe out most species, fight over scarce water, and lack decent living space.

Ehrlich wrote just before Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution turbo-charged the world’s food yield. In the years before Ehrlich wrote, the world’s rate of increase in population had itself been increasing, but just as his book was published, it began to decline. Ehrlich and others had missed out on two important things. They underestimated humanity’s capacity to solve problems creatively, and they failed to spot what happens to fertility rates as people grow wealthier.

People in poor countries need children to work to augment the family budget, and to support their parents in old age. But as countries become richer, they can afford to put children into schools instead of fields and factories, and can afford social welfare to support the elderly. This is why population increases have tailed off as wealth has increased. They are negative in rich countries. Fertility rates suggest that the world’s total of over 7 billion will perhaps reach no more than 10 billion, maybe by 2050, and then decline. This is happening because more countries are becoming richer.

The world can handle 10 billion. It has increased its food production, and new technologies including GMOs and cultured meats indicate that it can do so much more. It has developed ways to produce energy and to provide transportation with far less pollution. It can produce more food without depleting rainforests. It has found ways to substitute new plentiful resources for scarce ones, using carbon composites instead of steel, and fibre optics instead of copper. Julian Simon’s “Ultimate Resource” of human creativity has shown itself capable of producing innovative solutions to humanity’s problems.

Paul Ehrlich was systematically proved wrong in his predictions by events, as his pessimistic forecasts never came about. The world is already responding creatively to the challenges that an increased population will bring, but it will be nothing like the increase that a straight-line graph or a rising curve suggested. There is reason to suppose that the world can cope, aided perhaps by the addition of the new creative and better educated minds that are joining it. The outlook on population does not support the pessimism that doomsayers spread. On the contrary, it is grounds for optimism.

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