Sir David Attenborough is once again in the news, arguing that humans are a plague on the earth. He has been an excellent presenter over the years, but he does himself no favours by making such claims. Doomsayers are invariably wrong. I’ve written a few times about this, but here’s a quick refresher to save you looking them up.
Let’s get rid of a silly straw man before we start – exponential growth continuing forever. Nobody sane think the Earth’s human population will carry on increasing exponentially forever. Obviously it will level off. Exponential growth all the way to infinity isn’t sustainable, but since the population will level off around 10 billion, we really don’t need to spend too much time worrying about the mathematics of infinite consumption. I would personally put the maximum capacity of the Earth at around 100 billion, but I don’t expect us ever to have more than 10 billion here, and nobody sensible does. Other planets will house some more, but they will have their own economics.
First, we aren’t running out of physical resources, just moving them around. Apart from a few spacecraft that have moves some stuff off planet, some excess radioactive decay induced in power stations and weapons, and helium and hydrogen escaping from the atmosphere, all of which is offset by meteorites and dust landing from space, all we have done is convert stuff to other forms. Almost all materials are more plentiful now than they were 40 years ago when Sir David’s predecessors warned of the world running out imminently. They were wrong, so is he. If we do start to run short, we can mine key elements from rubbish tips and use energy to convert back to any form we need. We can engineer substitutes And we can gather them from space. Another way of looking at this issue is that we live on top of 6000km of resources and only have homes a few metres deep. When we fill them, which doesn’t take much, we dispose of one thing to make room for a new one. Recycling technology is getting better all the time, at the same time as material technology means we need less stuff to make something, and can do so with a wider range of input elements.
We are slowly depleting some organic resources. For example, fossil fuels, but there are several hundred years supply left, and we will not need any more than a tiny fraction of that before we move to other energy sources. Also, fish, many stocks are threatened around the world, so fishing needs some work in designing and implementing better practices, but that is not unachievable by any means. Forestry is being depleted in some areas and expanding in others. Some of the areas that are being wiped out are because environmentalists and other doomsayers have forced daft policies through that perversely encourage people to burn forests down to make the land available for biofuel plantations and carbon offset schemes.
We certainly are not short of space. If the inhabitable land in the world were inhabited at the same density as southern England, we could house 70-80 billion people. The UK sometimes feels full when we get stuck in traffic jams or queues for public services, but these are mainly a matter of design. Self driving vehicles can increase road capacity by a factor of 5, regional rail capacity by a factor of 200. Replacement of most public sector workers by machines, or better still, good system design, would eradicate most queues and improve most services.
Energy isn’t a problem in the long term in spite of what doomsayers claim. Shale gas is already reducing costs in the USA at the same time as reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In Europe, where doomsayers and environmentalist have more power to influence policy, CO2 emissions are increasing while energy costs threaten many areas of the economy. Obama’s recent speech threatens to undermine the USA’s advantage but that’s another story. Nuclear energy currently depends on uranium but thorium based power is under development and is very likely to succeed in due course, adding several hundred years of supply. Solar, fusion, geothermal and shale gas will add to this to provide abundant power for even a much great population, within a few decades, well ahead of the population curve. The only energy shortages we will see will be doomsayer-induced.
Future generations will face debts handed on to them without their consent, but will also inherit a physical and cultural infrastructure with built in positive feedback that ensure rapid technological development. Among its many benefits, future technology will greatly reduce the amount of material needed to accomplish a task. It will also expand the global economy to provide enough wealth to buy a decent standards of living for everyone. It will also clean up the environment It will also produce far more food from less land area, allowing land to be returned to nature. Food production per hectare has doubled in the last 30 years. The technology promises further gains into the foreseeable future.
The world Attenborough is scared of will actually be a greener and more pleasant land, with nature in a better state than today, with a larger world population that is richer and better fed, almost certainly no more than 10 billion. Providing that is, that we can stop doomsayers forcing their policies through – the only thing that would really wreck the environment. A doomsayer-free human population is not a plague but a benefit to the Earth and nature. The doomsayers themselves and their daft policies are the greatest proven threat. If Sir David really cares about nature, he should focus on letting us be inspired by nature as he does so brilliantly, and let technologists get on with making sure it can flourish in the future