There is nothing quite so tiresome as an environmental cynic—the guy who believes that eco-doom is always just around the corner, that we’re one carbon dioxide fart away from inundating New York City, that unless we switch everything over to 100% windmill power by 2027 then the United States will be carted off into the Pacific Ocean by a series of Extreme Weather Events (brought to you by the Koch Brothers™, of course). It’s not that these peoples’ hearts aren’t in the right place—just that there heads don’t seem to be there. They don’t seem to realize that none of these doom-laden predictions adds up, that everyone who believes the world is going to end believes it’s either going to end fifteen minutes ago or ten years from ten minutes from now unless we do something about it or thirteen months from a week from Tuesday unless we really do something about it. Nothing squares up. If the eco-pocalypse is so self-evident, shouldn’t there at least be a more vigorous standard to herald its coming?
If you want a great example of this baffling approach to climate politics, consider Paul Ehrlich. He’s the fellow who famously predicted that the “population bomb” would go off in the 1970s, resulting in the starvation of hundreds of millions of people (the “bomb” never went off); he also once predicted that England would disappear underneath the waves by the year 2000 (it’s still there). New Scientist was so convinced of Ehrlich’s predictions that they declared of him: “In praise of prophets!” I’ll put my money on Ezekiel, thanks.
Anyway, Ehrlich is at it again, this time at the Vatican, once more declaring an imminent end to everything you know and love:
“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?…”
He remained uncompromising on population control: “If you value people, you want to have the maximum number you can support sustainably. You do not want almost 12 billion living unsustainably on Earth by the end of the century – with the result that civilisation will collapse and there are only a few hundred survivors.”
A world population of around a billion would have an overall pro-life effect, Ehrlich argued. This could be supported for many millennia and sustain many more human lives in the long term compared with our current uncontrolled growth and prospect of sudden collapse.
Hmm. Overpopulation, civilization collapse, an ecological wasteland…it seems like we’ve heard this before. But maybe he’s right this time! After all, he was only, what, 100% wrong last time?
I suppose the greatest rebuke to Paul Ehrlich, and people like him, is just to live well—to be fruitful, multiply, enjoy your life, and tell your grandkids to thumb their noses at him sometime around the turn of the century. Just the same, it is worth pointing out certain things here and now—certain absurdities inherent in Dr. Ehrlich’s proposition. His utterly dismal and humiliating failed track record is one. The other is this: in spite of the dire and repeated warnings of ecological doom-mongers, the standard of living for most people on Earth has only gone up as the population has increased drastically. The last time the population was “around a billion,” it was the beginning of the 19th century, when the world was in a permanent power outage and you had to poop in a bucket and air conditioning didn’t exist, not even in the South. Now, two hundred years later, we’re at a little over seven billion souls on the planet, and the standard of living is better by several thousand orders of magnitude for billions and billions of people, and we’re chipping away at global poverty more and more each year.
And note that this is not just a matter of technology: these incredible changes didn’t come about simply because we figured out how to channel electricity and transport potable water. All of these lifesaving and life-easing developments—all of modern life, really, from the big stuff to the seemingly-insignificant creature comforts we take for granted every day—are made possible because we have enough people to make them. You can’t have a 21st-century standard of living with an 18th-century population: you need warm bodies and live hands to make the stuff, to transport it, to fix it, to grow food and pack it and ship it, to create the electricity and send it shooting through the wires, to make your computer and fix it, to make your car and fix that. If you dial back the population to effectively preindustrial levels, you’re almost certainly going to get a preindustrial economy. A high standard of living is predicated on a high population to provide it. Have you ever tried to pave an interstate with just you and ten other guys? What about build a skyscraper?
We must, of course, be conscious of the possibility that fellows like Paul Ehrlich do not believe that we should be paving any more interstates or building any more skyscrapers. Presumably they think that a primitive, largely agrarian society would be good—good for the environment, which seems to be their main concern, and maybe even good for some of the people that try to eke out a living in that society. But they should at least be honest about it. “Yes,” they should say, “our preferred policies will basically send the world back to the late 1600s. But think how nice it will be—New York City will still be above-ground!” Yes. I’m sure that would be comforting to the few hundred thousand people still living in that city, even as the buildings started to decay and the subway stopped working and the trees started to grow up through the sidewalks. “Thank goodness,” New Yorkers would say, “there aren’t very many people here to suffer through this.”