This has been my most popular blog article so far so here is an updated version, since the original is 18 months old now. No big changes, mainly a tidy-up, with a long overdue promised section on biological resources added at the end.
Many people are worried now that we have passed the 7Bn mark for world human population, that we are overpopulating the planet and will reap environmental catastrophe. Some suggest draconian measures to limit or even reduce it. 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 9.5Bn as if it is a major catastrophe. Doom-mongers are predicting mass starvation, riots and so on, as doom mongers enjoy doing. But is it so bad? Let’s put it in perspective a bit. I live in the South of England. When I go on walks with my wife I will typically meet only a few people on the way; 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 uncomfortable end of extreme inequality in global 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 thrown on landfill, which could become a future mine if materials ever did become scarce enough. A few spacecraft have left the earth forever over the years, taking a few tons of material away, 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. I’ll look at them later in this article. It won’t change the balance of the argument because we will learn to manage them better.
But of course, 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. For example, bridges hundreds of years ago used far more material than today’s , because they were stuck with primitive science and technology. Technology is better now and needs less material, and is better for the environment. With nanotechnology and improved materials, we will need even less material to build future bridges. The environmental footprint of each person will certainly be far lower in 2050 if we accept new technology than it will 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. Trying to go back to yesterday’s technologies without greatly reducing population and lifestyle would impose such high environmental impact that the environment would be devastated. We don’t need to, and we shouldn’t.
Take TVs as another 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 with a choice from just a few channels. Today, thin LCD/LED displays use far less material, consume far less power, take up far less space and offer far 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. 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 can’t be done with alternative materials, especially as quantum materials can be designed to echo the behaviour of many chemicals. It is highly unlikely that we will ever run out of any element. We will simply find alternative solutions as shortages demand.
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. Cheap electricity won’t come from our UK rooftops as current incentivised by our green-pressured government, but somewhere it is actually sunny, deserts for example, where land is cheap, because it isn’t much use for anything else. 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. Shale gas might still be used because it produces relatively little CO2 and will be very cheap, but even that will start declining as the costs of solar and nuclear variants fall.
By the time we get to our 2050 world with 9.5Bn people, fusion power will be up and running, alongside efficient solar (perhaps some wind) and other forms of energy production, proving an energy glut that will help with water supply and food production as well as our other energy needs. In fact, thanks to the development of graphene desalination technology, clean water will be abundantly available at low cost (not much more than typical tap-water costs today) everywhere. 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 superior crops and animals, so will be able to make enough food to feed everyone, ensuring not only quantity but nutritional quality too. 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 factories more efficiently, and will have crops that are also more efficient. It is true that we may see occasional short-term food shortages, but 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 will be able to make more food with far less space. No-one needs to be hungry, even if we have 9.5Bn of us, and with steady economic growth, everyone will be able to afford food too. This is no fanciful techno-utopia. It is entirely deliverable and even expectable. All around the world today, people’s ethical awareness is increasing and we are finally starting to address problems of food and emergency aid distribution, even in failing regimes. The next few decades will not eradicate poverty completely, but it will make starvation much less of a problem, along with clean water availability.
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 a lot of backing, so will get results. And some will be in IT, and will develop computer intelligence to add to the human effort, and provide better, cheaper and faster tools for scientists and engineers in every field to use. So, total intellectual resources will be far greater than they are today. Therefore we can be certain that technological progress will continue to accelerate. As it does, the environment will become cleaner and healthier, because we will be able to 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, some species will be being resurrected from extinction via DNA banks. People will be well fed. Water supply will be adequate. But all this can only happen if we stop following the advice of doom-mongers and technophobes who want to take us backwards.
That really is the key: more people means more brain power, more solutions, better technology. 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 around 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. Some extremists in the green movement would have us go back to yesterday, rejecting technology, living on nature and punishing everyone who disagrees with them. They can indulge such silliness when they are only a few and the rest of us support them, but everyone simply can’t live like that. Without technology, the world can only support 60 million. Not 7 billion or 9.5 billion or 75 billion. There simply aren’t enough nice fields and forest for us all to live that way.
It is a simple choice. We could have 60 million thoroughly 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 ignore their 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, and 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.
Good times lie ahead. We do need to fix some things though.
I mentioned that physical resources won’t diminish significantly in quantity in terms of the elements they hold at least, though those we use for energy (oil, coal and gas) give up their energy when we use them and that is gone. However, the ecosystem is a different matter. Even with advanced genetic technology we can expect in the far future, it will be difficult to resurrect organisms that have become extinct, and far better to make sure they don’t. Even though an organism may be brought back, we’d also have to bring back the environment it needs with all the intricately woven inter-species dependencies. Losing a single organism might be relatively recoverable, but losing a rain forest will be very hard to fix. Forests are very complex systems. In fact designing and making a synthetic and simpler rainforest is probably easier than trying to regenerate a lost natural one. We really don’t want to have to do that. It would be far better to make sure we preserve the existing forests and other complex ecosystems. Poor countries may reasonably ask for some payment to preserve theirs rather than chopping them down to sell wood. We should also make sure to remove current incentives to chop them down to make room for palm oil plantations to satisfy the demands of poorly thought out environmental policies in rich countries.
The same goes for ocean ecosystems. We are badly mismanaging many fisheries today, and that needs to be fixed. There are certainly some signs of progress. Silly EU regulations that cause huge quantities of fish to be caught and thrown back dead into the sea will soon be history. Again, these are a hangover from previous environmental policy designed to preserve fish stocks, but again this was poorly thought out and has had the opposite result. Other policies in the EU and in other parts of the world are also causing problems by unbalancing populations and harming or distorting food chains. The bans on seal hunting are good – we love seals, but the explosion is seal populations caused by throwing dead fish back has increased the demand of the seal population to over 100,000 tons of fish a year, when it is already severely stressed by over-fishing. The dead fish have also helped cause an explosion in lobster populations and in some sea birds. We may appreciate the good side, but we mustn’t forget to look for harmful effects that may also be caused. It is obvious that we could do far better job, and we must. A well-managed ocean with properly designed farms should be able to provide all the fish and other seafood we need, but we are well away from it yet and we do need to fix it.
With ongoing scientific study, understanding or relationships between species and especially in food chains is improving, and regulations are slowly becoming more sensible, so there is hope. Many people are switching their diets to fish with sustainable populations. But these will need managed well too. Farming is suitable for many species and crashes in some fish populations have added up to a loud wake-up call to fix regulations around the world. We may use genetic modification to increase growth and reproduction rates, or otherwise optimise sustainability and ocean capacity. I don’t think there is any room for complacency, but I am confident that we can and will develop good husbandry practices and that our oceans and fish stocks will recover and become sustainable.
Certainly, we have a greater emotional attachment to the organic world than to mere minerals, and we are part of nature too, but we can and will be sustainable in both camps, even with a greatly increased population.