World population is growing rapidly, and will continue till it levels off around 9.5 billion by about 2050, after which it will start to fall. (9.5 billion is a lot of people, but let’s not treat it as if it will be a major catastrophe. Some doom-mongers are already predicting mass starvation, riots and so on, but the numbers need put in perspective. I live in the South of England. I can easily go on a walk and meet 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. Other countries with massive populations are actually less densely populated. India only has 345 people per square kilometre, 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. So there is plenty of 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 typically provide 5 or 6m deep of living space. They live on top of 6000km deep of materials, a million times more, and much denser. 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 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. Asteroid mining will also come into use in a few decades, bringing us any essential materials that are in short supply. Organic resources such as forests and fisheries are a different matter, but they can be managed and farmed sustainably.
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 environmental activists who preach that technology and economic growth are enemies of the environment, and who therefore want to 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. Poverty is one of the greatest causes of environmental destruction. The result would be miserable future for humanity and a wrecked environment. Those people are the true enemies of the earth, and of humanity. Thankfully, most environmentalists are not so extreme. 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. Before modern engineering, structures had to use far more resources than today’s, but now we can make materials with known and consistent strength, and can model the forces precisely, so we need far less material to do the same job. With nanotechnology and improved materials, we will need even less in future. The environmental footprint of each person will be far lower in the far future if we encourage technology development 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 don’t 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.
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, this will prove 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. This solar energy can be generated in deserts, where it is actually sunny, 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.
By 2050, fusion power should be up and running, alongside efficient solar power, thorium-based nuclear, shale gas power generation, and various 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, 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. 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, for one thing, there will be more people. That means more brains. Those people will be richer; they will be better educated; many will be scientists and engineers; 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. The total intellectual resources available to solve problems will be far greater than they are today. So we can be absolutely certain that technological progress will continue to accelerate. And as it does, the environment will become cleaner, healthier, because we will choose 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 the far future, when far more people are wealthy, we will see that care being even 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 maybe 60 million people. If we try to restrict technology development now, it will be a death sentence for humanity and nature. People and the environment would both suffer. No-one wins if we stop progress. That is the fallacy of environmental dogma shouted at us by doom mongers. They would go back to yesterday, rejecting technology, living on nature and punishing everyone who disagrees with them. They can indulge such stupidity when there are only a few of them, and the rest of us make their lifestyles possible, but we can’t all 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 forests for us all to live that way. It is a simple choice. We could have 60 million miserable post-environmentalists living in a post eco-catastrophe world where nature has been devastated by the results of stupid environmental policies invented by environmentalists with contempt for science. 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.
The full report is completely free and can be found at http://futurizon.com/articles/sustainingtheearth.pdf