Happy facesIt’s unnerving how often one is faced with declarations about the desirability of fewer people on Earth, in response to criticisms of environmentalist politicking. Fewer of us, so the reasoning goes, would improve quality of life and be good for the environment.

Forgive me for not joining this little death cult. Forty years ago almost to the day, Paul Ehrlich predicted a population explosion that would result in mass starvation and catastrophic resource depletion. Yet resources stubbornly refused to be exhausted. People stubbornly refused to starve en masse.

Thanks to the consistent and often spectacular failure of such predictions of developmental disaster, it has become clear that the Earth can sustain rather more people than expected. Why is this so? Because population growth isn’t exponential after all. It doesn’t simply grow until resources are depleted, at which point Gaia takes Mathusian revenge and decimates the parasite that is Homo sapiens. (This suggests that terms such as “parasite”, “virus” and “cancer”, which are habitually used by Gaia’s death cultists to describe you and me and humanity in general, might not be entirely fair either.)

In fact, global human population is likely to stabilise over time. Already, global population growth is slowing, both in relative and absolute terms, and the UNDP estimates that the Earth’s total population will reach a plateau of about 11-billion people, ca 2200. Why is this so? Because as more people get more prosperous, life expectancy increases and mortality rates decline. As a result, people tend to have fewer children, and the children they do have contribute to this prosperity, rather than detract from it.

And why can the Earth sustain this? Why have resources become less scarce rather than more scarce? Because Earth is pretty large, for one, and because production isn’t a zero-sum game that simply depletes resources in a one-to-one relationship with population size. Not only is scarcity priced into our ability to use resources productively, but again, the more prosperous we get, the more we invest in sustainability, the more sophisticated and technically skilled we get at resource management, the more we care about a healthy and productive environment, and the more we value future sustainability over present consumption. And the fewer children we have.

As the rich world amply demonstrates, successful economic development is not the problem; it’s the solution to uncontrolled population growth and unmanaged resource exploitation. There’s no reason why the same would not hold true for the developing world. Opposing its development, on mistaken sustainability grounds, is not only a selfish type of neo-colonialism on the part of the rich world’s environmentalists, but it also strikes me as pretty misanthropic.

Even assuming that one can handle the rather sociopathic notion of reducing the Earth’s population by a few billion and leaving the remainder poorer than they are today, such a situation would be unlikely to relieve the pressure on animal populations and environmental resources that really are deserving of protection.

On the contrary: some of the worst historical environmental damage was caused on a planet peopled by only a fraction of today’s population, at only a fraction of today’s living standards. The evidence simply doesn’t bear out the theory. With fewer people around, well-meaning do-gooders would still be fretting about some messianic mission of “saving” the planet, but ironically, they’d have a harder time doing so.

The environment turns out to be pretty robust. In general (as opposed to localised exceptions), the image of a fragile, super-sensitive system that could be tipped into disaster by the slightest human (as opposed to natural) disturbance is simply false.

The environment is, of course, very much worth caring about and investing in, even if only for purely selfish reasons of maintaining a productive resource base. One doesn’t, however, achieve this by getting hysterical about human population and its use of natural resources. One doesn’t save, say, the tiger, by discrediting endangered species’ protection with ill-conceived, politically motivated and unnecessary listings of emotional-appeal icons such as the polar bear. One doesn’t achieve a better world by activist obstructionism, designed solely to limit the economic development of the world, and halt the modern world’s remarkable progress towards longer, healthier and more prosperous lives for all.

And one certainly doesn’t earn the buy-in of other people when you’re telling them that the world would be better off without them.

The other day, I encountered a new mother who was all apologetic for having contributed to the population. I told her that her kid would either produce more than it would consume, or die. Therefore, it would be a net benefit to the world. How tragic that she couldn’t conceive of her child being anything other than a burden to humanity.

(This is a shortened version of an article first published on my own blog)


  • Ivo Vegter writes and argues for fun and profit. He is a columnist, magazine journalist and apprentice model shipwright. In his spare time, he helps run a research company. He specialises in the tech and telecoms industries, but keeps a blog on politics, economics and other curiosities on the spike


Ivo Vegter

Ivo Vegter writes and argues for fun and profit. He is a columnist, magazine journalist and apprentice model shipwright. In his spare time, he helps run a

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