Posted : 2009-07-15 15:36
Updated : 2009-07-15 15:36

Apocalypse When?

By Indur Goklany

For many groups like the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), World Population Day, which fell on July 11, is another chance to bemoan ``the relentless growth in human population," while the United Nations Population Fund says ``stabilizing population would help sustain the planet." The problem, however, is not population but poverty.

The UNFPA's current brief, ``Family Planning and the Environment," echoes the WWF and its many precursors such as the 1960s best-seller, ``The Population Bomb," whose author Paul Ehrlich laments in the latest Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development: ``perhaps [its] most serious flaw … was that it was much too optimistic."

Overpopulation alarmists have always claimed there is not enough land or resources for everyone and, even as their predictions of apocalyptic famines, epidemics and shortages failed to come true, they gained support from many environmentalists.

Exponentially increasing wealth, population and technology, they allege, will cause pollution, climate change and irreversible losses of biodiversity, pushing the Earth to a tipping-point, threatening humans and the planet itself.

On the contrary, our lives are now longer, wealthier and healthier.

At early stages of development, societies give priority to acquiring wealth over environmental protection, to get basic needs and wants like food, shelter, health, education and material goods.

But, once these are met, societies soon have the desire and, importantly, the wealth and technology to solve environmental problems.

What is more, evidence indicates that as countries grow richer, their population growth slows. The global population growth rate, far from rising exponentially, has tumbled since the 1960s.

Recent projections expect population to peak this century at around nine billion. Initially, growth and technology do increase population as better healthcare, sanitation and nutrition cut deaths. But, in the long run, births fall, for example, through better education and work opportunities for women.

Although the world population has quadrupled since 1900, food, energy and raw materials are cheaper today than for much of history. Agricultural technology and trade have made food more affordable and available around the world.

In the early 1970s, 37 percent of the developing world's people suffered from chronic hunger, but it is now down to 17 percent, despite ill-advised biofuel subsidies which divert food to fuel.

The combination of increased prosperity, trade and technology has lowered the real prices of food and many raw materials, effectively making them less scarce. Food and metals are now eight times cheaper in India than in 1900, and 13 times cheaper in the United States.

Human well being has never been greater, mostly due to greater wealth and better technology. Basic hygiene, cleaner water, sanitation, more food and developments in medicine such as vaccinations and antibiotics have reduced mortality for infants, children, mothers and everyone else.

Consequently, global average life expectancy, perhaps the single most important measure of human well being, increased from 31 years in 1900 to 47 years in the early 1950s to 67 years today.

Rising literacy, falling child labor and greater political and economic freedoms also show that people are living better, in developed and developing countries alike.

And this progress allows environmental improvements.

Hybrid seeds and other advances in agricultural technology (such as fertilizers, irrigation and pesticides) have saved vast acres of forests and wildlands from conversion to farmland.

In the United States, for example, despite the population tripling and consumption increasing 19-fold, cropland has remained steady at 330 million acres since 1910: technology actually saved about 1,300 million hectares. Similar trends around the world slow deforestation for fuel and grazing.

Air quality has followed a similar path, with soot, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide falling in the United States. Though air quality in newly industrializing countries is much worse than in rich countries, they are making quicker improvements than developed countries did in the latter half of the 20th century.

China, India and South Africa, like many others, have curbed substances like leaded gasoline much earlier in their development than the United States. Yet wood and dung fires indoors for heating and cooking remain the biggest air pollution killers: modern fuels and stoves prevent deaths and save trees.

Although carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have not peaked, the quantity of emissions per dollar of gross domestic product (literally, the carbon intensity of wealth) has peaked and is falling rapidly in many places.

Virtually every critical measure of human well being ― food, mortality, education, liberty ― has improved due to economic and technological development and the freedom to pursue them.

But many environmentalists and population alarmists want to restrict economic growth, technology and human freedoms, damaging both humans and the environment.

Billions in developing countries still suffer from poverty and its consequences such as hunger and malaria. They must be allowed to improve their lives.

Indur Goklany is author of ``The Improving State of the World" (Cato, 2007) and co-editor of the peer-reviewed Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development (EJSD). He can be reached at
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