the population delusion

New Scientist editor Alison George ponders whether the so-called problem of population growth might be a delusion.

There are nearly 7 billion humans alive today, twice as many as there were in 1965, with 75 million more being added each year. UN predictions say there could be an extra 2 to 4 billion of us by 2050. The planet has never experienced anything like it.

Can the world sustain this growing horde? It’s a contentious question. While it is clear that the population cannot go on increasing forever, history is littered with dire but failed predictions of famine and death resulting from over-population. Most famously, Thomas Malthus warned more than two centuries ago that population would be held in check by rising mortality. What he failed to anticipate was the ability of newly industrialised societies to support large numbers of people.

Alison George, “The population delusion”, New Scientist, Issue 2727 (26 September 2009), pp. 34-35.

Alison George asked leading scholars to express their views in three short articles and one interview. On the heels of biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich – well-known for their fear of population growth – Jesse Ausubel responds to questions of Ms George and comes across as an extreme optimist.

I regard myself as neither an optimist nor a pessimist. But I do think that humanity is ingenious and enterprising. Throughout the ages people have doubted that their descendants could exist, with improving health and longevity, in the numbers and densities we do now. In the 19th century it was common to reason that horse manure or chimney smoke would bury or choke cities. Yet air quality in New York City and water quality in New York harbour are better than when I or my mother was a child. Over time people find, invent and spread solutions for many environmental problems.

[snip]

You could say that fear-inducing articles like Hardin’s [1968 Science article “The tragedy of the commons”] are social equivalents of quorum sensing factors [of bacteria amd insects], and we have responded to the signals. Farmers have lifted yields to produce more crops without using more land. Engineers have improved the efficiency of power turbines so that the primary energy needed to serve today’s population is much less than if we were still using the engines of Malthus’s era or those of 1968. In general, humans are involved in “resource sparing” – the increasingly efficient use of land, energy, water and other materials that allows humanity to grow in numbers, lifespan or level of consumption while stopping the burden on nature from becoming too disastrous.

Jesse Ausubel, “Population: Technology will save us”, New Scientist, Issue 2727 (26 September 2009), pp. 38-39.

Environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel is director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, New York City. Mr Ausubel helped organise the first UN World Climate Conference, held in Geneva in 1979. From 1979 to 1981 he led the Climate Task Force of the Resources and Environment Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, coincidentally the current home of Thought du Jour.

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