Population Burden and Benefit

Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and many other thinkers, social commentators and writers view people essentially as a burden. It is this perspective that leads to conclusions of doom and gloom not only for humanity but for the planet in general. In contrast to this pessimistic view of humanity is the view epitomized by Julian Simon that people have a lot to offer.

Both points of view are essentially stereotypes. People are neither angels or devils. Rather the writers are talking about the aggregate impact of people on resources such as food, water, fossil fuels and minerals.

Ehrlich is right that human activity spreads over the globe. As population numbers increase the need for new land for housing, factories, entertainment centers etc. follows. As a result wilderness areas are becoming fewer and fewer. The Amazon is being chopped down to clear space for new farming settlements (as well as for logging companies).

In the second bet that Ehrlich proposed with Simon he wanted to count clean air, clean rivers, and unpolluted soil as his indices. Simon wisely turned down the bet because he would have lost. Pollution continues to spread despite attempts by governments, NGOs, charities and communities to clean up nature.

On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for Julian Simon’s insistence that human inventiveness and resourcefulness will finds ways to overcome problems. Scientists and engineers constantly make designs and systems more efficient. Ways of generating clean energy have been pioneered. Agricultural innovation keeps abreast with human numbers. As a problem arises the conditions force humans to find solutions.

The only concern is that the crisis might happen to fast for us to respond with a solution. If global warning accelerates with the release of trapped methane in the perma frost we might not have time to respond. If Antarctic ice melts and the glaciers in Greenland do too 60% of the land mass will be flooded. London, New York, Tokyo, Koh Phangan in Thailand, Fiji, Mombasa, Rio will all become submerged.

We need to take the threat of global warming seriously now.