Using Our Heads: Solving Human Overpopulation

The solution to human overpopulation and increased strain on nonrenewable resources may lie in human ingenuity, as it has in the past.


People have been using intellect to solve environmental problems since prehistory, and we still have the ability to adapt to changing conditions today.

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Ronald Bailey takes another look at environmental doom in The End of Doom (St. Martin’s Press, 2015). Without denying that ecological problems exist, he argues that human ingenuity has found solutions to every previous problem we faced — and steadfastly believes that we will find solutions to contemporary challenges. From man-made global warming to human overpopulation and overuse of nonrenewable resources, Bailey proposes that the solutions we need lie in innovation. The following excerpt is from the introduction.

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A little over two decades ago, I wrote a book, Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, in which I looked closely at prevalent and generally accepted predictions of imminent planetary-scale environmental dooms. I analyzed the psychological appeal of doom, how predictions of disaster function as a political technique aimed at frightening people into handing over power to self-selected elites who want to enact drastic transformations in social and economic institutions. As I explained in my introduction twenty-two years ago, I was initially fascinated by these prophecies of global catastrophe because I had believed them.

Why? Because I had read and absorbed the messages of the classics of ideological environmentalism — Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, and The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind — and believed that I and all of my fellow human beings were headed straightaway into a hopelessly bleak and hellish future. Synthetic chemicals were poisoning the natural world and human bodies. Overpopulation would soon outstrip the ability of farmers to grow enough food, and hundreds of millions would die in massive famines in the 1970s. And the world would shortly run out of oil and other nonrenewable resources, thus crashing modern civilization well before the year 2000.

More on global warming and population issues

Enough is Enough
Bill McKibben: The Climate Change Crisis Needs a Movement
Preparing for a Beautiful End

Two decades after these and other dire predictions had been made, I noticed that we were still here and that civilization had not collapsed. Not only that, but people were actually living longer and healthier lives, famine had been held at bay, and the world was becoming more prosperous, not less. Naturally I was pleased that I was alive and that the dire environmentalist predictions had evidently not come true. At the time, I was a staff writer at Forbes magazine, where I conceived of a project in which I would go back and reread the classic prophecies of doom. I would write a series of articles after I interviewed their authors to see what they had to say about their prognostications. Obviously I couldn’t talk with Rachel Carson, since she had died in 1964, but Ehrlich and the folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who had devised the computer program at the heart of the resource projections in The Limits to Growth were still around.

To make a long story short, I spoke with Ehrlich and he assured me that he had simply gotten his timing wrong. Globe-spanning famines would break out some time between 2000 and 2010. I also talked with Jay Forrester, the MIT systems dynamics professor who was the developer of the computer model used to make the forecasts in The Limits to Growth. He told me, “I think in retrospect that Limits to Growth overemphasized the material resources side.” Well, yes. As I did more reporting on environmentalist doomsaying, it became increasingly apparent that the doomsters were not making scientific predictions, but instead were promoting a world view, an ideology — that is to say, ideology as properly defined as a body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

Chief among the doctrines in the ideology espoused by environmentalist doomsters is that nature is innocent and good and humanity evil. Environmentalist thinker Jeremy Rifkin explained the creed this way: “To end our long, self-imposed exile; to rejoin the community of life. This is the task before us. It will require that we renounce our drive for sovereignty over everything that lives; that we restore the rest of creation to a place of dignity and respect.” He added, “Nature offers us the sublime resignation that goes with undifferentiated participation in the world around us.” In other words, a secularized version of the myth of the Garden of Eden motivates many modern environmentalists.

Back in 1992, my book delved into the reasons why various prophecies of environmentalist doom had failed. Human beings are not like a herd of deer that simply starves to death when it overgrazes its meadow. Instead we seek out new ways to produce more food and do it ever more efficiently. I described how breakthroughs in plant breeding spawned the Green Revolution, which dramatically boosted global food production. When supplies of a resource run low, people use it more sparingly and find new sources and substitutes for it. Canadian environmental researcher Vaclav Smil calculates that back in 1920 in the United States it took about 10 ounces of materials to produce a dollar’s worth of value, but that same value is now accomplished using only about 2.5 ounces, yielding a 75 percent decline in material intensity.

I discovered that it is almost always the case that wherever someone sees an environmental predicament in the world, it is a commons problem. The problem is occurring in an open-access commons, an area no one owns and for whose stewardship no one is responsible. The classic examples are fisheries. Frequently they are an open-access resource that is being overexploited. If a fisher leaves a fish in the water to spawn, the next guy will catch it and sell it. Thus no individual fisher has the incentive to protect the health and productivity of the fishery. It’s a race to the bottom, with both fish and fishers losing out. Similarly, pollutants are pumped into rivers and into the air and tropical forests are chopped down because all too often anyone can use those resources without paying for the costs of the harm they cause.

One such commons problem I considered in my 1992 book was the “ozone hole” over Antarctica that was produced by chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants floating up into the stratosphere. Ozone consists of three oxygen atoms linked together. At ground level ozone is a pollutant, but it functions as a sunscreen in the upper atmosphere, protecting living things against damaging ultraviolet light. The CFC pollutants were reacting in the cold stratosphere over Antarctica to erode the ozone layer there. I cited research that suggested that the apocalyptic assessments of many alarmists were unwarranted, but did agree that an international treaty was needed to phase out and replace the harmful refrigerants. The good news is that French researchers in 2013 reported that the Antarctic ozone shows a significant positive trend toward its recovery.

Another two decades have now passed and environmental gloom continues to be widely preached. For example, in 2013, Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown asserted, “The world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity.” During a lecture in 2013, the author of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, rhetorically asked, “What are the chances a collapse of civilization can be avoided?” Ehrlich answered himself: 10 percent. The German think tank Energy Watch Group declared that global oil production had peaked in 2006 and that supplies would be cut in half by 2030, triggering the “meltdown of society.” Similarly, in 2010, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg, stated: “The world is at, nearing, or past the points of peak production of a number of critical nonrenewable resources — including oil, natural gas, and coal, as well as many economically important minerals ranging from antimony to zinc.” And in 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity warned, “It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.” In 2013, the United Nations Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change affirmed, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”

Globe-spanning famines have yet to occur; instead, average life expectancy has increased and a higher percentage of people are enjoying the benefits of modern technology than ever before. World population growth is slowing; and the number of human beings on the planet will likely peak and begin to fall toward the middle of this century. Pollution levels are falling in rich countries and will begin to drop in poor countries as they become wealthier. Similarly, forests are regrowing in many parts of the world. In fact, except in the cases of Indonesia and Brazil, globally the forests of the world have increased by about 2 percent since 1990.

As this present volume will make clear, I have changed my mind since 1992 about how big a problem man-made global warming might become. On the other hand, more than twenty years of reporting on United Nations climate change negotiations has convinced me that the ongoing attempt to hammer out a global treaty imposing hard, legally binding limits on the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to man-made warming is doomed to failure. Instead, I show how human ingenuity will likely solve this problem just as it did those that provoked earlier (and incorrect) predictions of environmental apocalypse. In this case, promising research suggests that it will be possible to lower the price of clean energy below that of fossil fuels in the next four decades and thus to lessen concerns about future disruptive climate change.

When I presented my book proposal to my editor, Thomas Dunne, at St. Martin’s Press back in 1992, he actually told me: “Ron, we’ll publish your book and we’ll both make some money. But I want to tell you that if you’d brought me a book predicting the end of the world, I could have made you a rich man.” Human beings do have a psychological bias toward believing bad news and discounting good news. But besides that, the sciences surrounding environmental issues have been politicized from top to bottom.

As the researchers at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project have shown time and again, what people believe about scientific issues is chiefly determined by their cultural values. They use a theory of cultural commitments devised by University of California at Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky that “holds that individuals can be expected to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce values that they share with others.”

Based on Wildavsky’s  typology, the Yale researchers divvy up Americans into four cultural groups: Individualists, Communitarians, Hierarchicalists, and Egalitarians. In general, Hierarchical folks prefer a social order where people have clearly defined roles and lines of authority. Egalitarians want to reduce racial, gender, and income inequalities. Individualists expect people to succeed or fail on their own, while Communitarians believe that society is obligated to take care of everyone.

The Yale researchers report that people whose values are located in Individualist/Hierarchy space “can be expected to be skeptical of claims of environmental and technological risks. Such people, according to the theory, intuitively perceive that widespread acceptance of such claims would license restrictions on commerce and industry, forms of behavior that Hierarchical/Individualists value.” On the other hand, Egalitarian/Communitarians “tend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as the source of unjust disparities in wealth and power. They therefore find it congenial, the theory posits, to see those forms of behavior as dangerous and thus worthy of restriction.” According to this view, then, Egalitarian/Communitarians would be more worried about all sorts of alleged environmental risks than would be Hierarchical/Individualists.

As the Yale Cultural Cognition Project researchers depressingly show in their numerous studies, people are adept at seeking out information that confirms their values while determinedly ignoring data that challenges them. While I have tried hard to avoid succumbing to confirmation bias in what I report, I suspect that it will be apparent when you read this essay that I am, culturally speaking, an Individualist. So be skeptical on that account, but also be wary of your own susceptibility to confirmation bias.

In my introduction to my 1992 book, I concluded:

"This book demonstrates the reality of human progress, and I hope it will thereby help restore the next generation’s belief in its future. I do not counsel mindless boosterism or Panglossian optimism. The world faces some real problems, but those problems do not portend the end of the world. And yes, there are sometimes unintended consequences to human actions. However, history shows that our energy and creativity will surmount whatever difficulties we encounter. Life and progress will always be a struggle and humanity will never lack for new challenges, but as the last fifty years of solid achievement show, there is nothing out there that we can’t handle."

Add twenty-two years to that.

I aim to again remind the public, the media, and policymakers that the foretellers of ruin have consistently been wrong, whereas the advocates of human resourcefulness have nearly always been right. So instead of ecological collapse, I predict that humanity can look hopefully forward in the twenty-first century to an age of environmental renewal.

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From THE END OF DOOM: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century by Ronald Bailey. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.