Been tidied and updated. See:
Older original version follows:
I am noticing lots more panicky articles about increasing population in the media this last week, probably because people have noticed that we are set to break the 7Bn mark this year. I am not panicking at all, and refuse even to be particularly concerned. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to have a high population. And to use the doom-monger’s favourite term, sustainable, I think it will be entirely sustainable. OK, so, point by point, here is why.
Population is certainly growing rapidly, and will continue till it levels off around 9.5 billion by about 2050. Then it will start to fall. But let’s not treat 9Bn as if it is a major catastrophe. Doom-mongers are already predicting mass starvation, riots and so on. But is it so bad? Let’s put it in perspective a bit. I live in the South of England. I am about to go on a walk with my wife and will might meet a few people on the way, but mostly it will be empty countryside and most of the time we won’t be able to see a single building or road. I do not feel it is terribly overpopulated here yet, even with the second highest population density on Earth, at 470 people per square kilometre. India only has 345, even with its massive population. China has even less at only 140, while Indonesia has 117, Brazil just 22, and Russia a mere 7.4 people per square kilometre. Yet these are the world’s biggest populations today. Room for expansion perhaps. If all the inhabitable land in the world were to be occupied at average English density, the world can actually hold 75Bn people. There would still be loads of open countryside, still only 1 or 2% covered in concrete and tarmac. So let’s stop first of all from imagining that we are running out of space any time soon. We just aren’t! We panic in the UK because we see the extreme inequality of distribution of people, but that will self limit. If it becomes too dense, people will stop immigrating.
Secondly, westerners’ (i.e. relatively wealthy people’s) houses have typically 5 or 6m deep of living space. They live on top of 6000km deep of materials. So do their neighbours. Not all of it is useful, but it is really hard to see why there is so much panic about physical resources when they lie so deep under our feet. When we discard them, they are still there, just repositioned. If you buy stuff, your house quickly fills up and you have to throw something out to make space before you buy more. It gets recycled or chucked on landfill, which may become a future mine if materials ever did become scarce enough. A few spacecraft have left the earth forever over the years, but space dust occasionally lands too, so actually there are more physical resources on Earth than there were before people came into being. Organic resources such as forests and fisheries are a different matter, but I’ll look at that another time. It doesn’t change the argument here.
But of course, all other things remaining the same, if everyone wants to live to westerns standards, the demands on the environment will grow as the poor become richer and able to afford more. If we try to carry on with existing technology, or worse, with yesterday’s, we will not find it easy. Those who consider technology and economic growth to be enemies of the environment, and who therefore would lock us into today’s or yesterday’s technology, would condemn not only billions of people to poverty and misery but also force those extra people to destroy the environment to try to survive. The result would be miserable future for humanity and a wrecked environment. Ironically, they have the audacity to call themselves environmentalists or greens, but they are the true enemies of the earth, and of humanity. If we ignore such lunacy as we should, and allow progress to continue, we will see steady global economic growth that will result in a higher average income per capita in 2050 with 9.5Bn people than we have today with only 7Bn. The technology meanwhile will develop so much that the same standard of living can be achieved with far less environmental impact. Bridges hundreds of years ago used far more resource than today’s need, because technology is better now. With nanotechnology and improved materials, we will need even less in future. The environmental footprint of each person will be far lower in 2050 than it would be if we restrict growth and technology development. It will almost certainly be less even than today’s, even though our future lifestyles would be far better.
Take TVs as an example. TVs used to be hugely heavy and bulky glass monsters that took up half the living room, used lots of electricity, but offered relatively small displays to show a few channels. Today, thin LCD/LED displays use far less material, consume much less power, take up far less space and offer bigger and better displays offering access to thousands of channels via satellites and web links. So as far as TV-based entertainment goes, we have a higher standard of living with lower environmental impact. The same is true for our phones, computers, networks, cars, fridges, washing machines, and most other tools. Better materials enable lower use. New science and technology has enabled new kinds of materials that can substitute for scarce physical resources. Copper was once in danger of running out imminently. Now you can build a national fibre telecommunication network with a few bucketfuls of sand and some plastic. And we have plastic pipes and water tanks too, so we dont really need copper for plumbing either. Aluminium makes reasonable cables, and future materials will make even better cables, still with no copper use. There are few things that cant be done with alternative materials, especially as quantum materials can be designed to echo the behaviour of many chemicals.
Oil will be much the same story. To believe the doom-mongers, our use of oil will continue to grow exponentially until one day there is none left and then we will all be in big trouble, or dead, breathing in 20% CO2 by then of course. Again, nonsense. By 2030, oil will be considered a messy and expensive way of getting energy, and most will be left in the ground. The 6Gjoules of energy a barrel of oil contains could be made for $30 using solar panels in the deserts, and electricity is clean. Not on our UK rooftops as current incentivised by our green-pressured government, but somewhere it is actually sunny. And where land is cheap, because it isn’t much use for anything else. And the energy will get to us via superconducting cables. Sure, the technology doesn’t yet exist, but it will. Oil will only cost $30 a barrel because no-one will want to pay more than that for what will be seen as an inferior means of energy production.
By the 2050 world and 9.5Bn people, fusion power will be up and running, alongside efficient solar and wind and other forms of energy production, proving a huge energy glut that will help with water supply and food production as well as our other energy needs. Our technologies will be so advanced by then that we will be able to control climate better too. We will have environmental models based on science, not eviro-religion. So we will know what we’re doing rather than acting on guesswork and old-wives’ tales. We will have excellent understanding of genetics and biotech and be able to make far superior crops and animals, so will be able to make foods to feed everyone. While today’s crops deliver about 2% of the solar energy landing on their fields to us as food, we will be able to make foods in labs far more efficiently, and will have crops that are also far more efficient. The Unilever chief complaining in today’s papers about food production is only right in the short term. In the long term, there is absolutely no need to worry about feeding everyone. And no need to worry about the impact on the environment either, because we can make more food with far less space. No-one needs to be hungry, and with steady economic growth, everyone can afford food too. This is no fanciful techno-utopia. It is entirely deliverable and even expectable.
And how can we be sure it will be developed? Well, there will be more people for one thing. That means more brains. Those people will be richer, they will be better educated, many will be scientists and engineers. And many will have been born in countries that value engineers and scientists greatly, and will have lot of backing so will get results. And some will be in IT, and will have developed computer intelligence to add to the human effort, and provided better, cheaper and fast tools for scientists and engineers in every field to use. So total intellectual resources will be far more abundant than they are today. So we can be certain that technological progress will continue to accelerate. And as it does, the environment becomes cleaner, healthier, because we can make it so. We will restore nature. Rivers today in the UK are cleaner than 100 years ago. The air is cleaner too. We look after nature better, because that’s what people do when they are affluent and well educated. In 50 years time we will see that more widespread. The rainforests will be flourishing, species will be being resurrected from extinction via DNA banks. People will be well fed. Water supply will be adequate. But it can only happen if we stop following the advice of doom mongers who want to take us backwards.
And that is really key: more people means more brain power, more solutions, better technology. And for the last million years, that has meant steady improvement of our lot. In the un-technological world of the cavemen hunter-gatherers, the world was capable of supporting a maximum of 60 million people. If we try to restrict technology development now, it will be a death sentence. People and the environment would both suffer. No-one wins if we stop progress. That is the fallacy of environmental dogma that is shouted loudly by the doom mongers. Extremists in the green movement would go back to yesterday, rejecting technology, living on nature and punishing everyone who disagrees with them. They can indulge such silliness when there are only a few and the rest of us support them, but everyone simply cant live like that. Again, without technology, the world can only support 60 million. Not 6 billion or 7 billion or 75 billion. There simply aren’t enough nice fields and forest for us all to live that way. So it is a simple choice. We have 60 million miserable post-environmentalists living in a post eco-catastrophe world where nature has been devastated by the results of stupid policies invented by so-called environmentalists, and trying to make a feeble recovery. Or we can stop the nonsense, get on with our ongoing development, and live in a richer, nicer world where 9.5Bn people (or even far more if we want) can be happy, well fed, well educated, with a good standard of living, living side by side with a flourishing environment, where our main impacts on the environment are positive. Technology won’t solve every problem, and will even create some, but without a shadow of a doubt, technology is by far nature’s best friend. And ours. Not the ‘environmentalists’, many of whom are actually among the environment’s worst enemies, at best well meaning fools.
And there is one final point hat is always overlooked in this debate. Every new person that is born is another life, living, breathing, loving, hopefully having fun, enjoying life and being happy. Life is a good thing, to be celebrated, not extinguished or prevented from coming into existence just because someone else has no imagination. Thanks to the positive feedbacks in the development loops, 50% more people means probably 100% more total joy and happiness. Population growth is good, we just have to be more creative, but that’s what we do all the time. Now let’s get on with making it work.