Seven billion people like you

In: Daniel In The News|Uncategorized

31 Oct 2011

My blog post published by the Independent today.

When the world’s population reaches seven billion in late October it should be a cause for immense celebration. Not only has the population increased seven-fold since 1800 but we have become enormously better off through economic growth and technological innovation. On average we live much longer, are taller, more intelligent (at least as measured by IQ), better fed and better educated. Among the technological wonders we have developed are air travel, cars, computers, contraceptive pills, dentistry, electricity, phones and washing machines.

Rather than bombard you with statistics, take just one. The average lifespan has increased from about 30 in 1800 to nearly 70 today. That is a global figure. It is perhaps the most striking single indicator of how life has improved for humanity during the era of rapid population growth.

Of course stark inequalities remain. The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe, for instance, is only 45. But, bad as that is, it is still much better than that for Britain in 1800. The life expectancy gap should also be taken as an argument to raise living standards in Zimbabwe, rather than to reduce them in the West.

If things have improved so much over the past two centuries it begs the question of why pessimism is so prevalent. Back in 1798 Thomas Malthus, an Anglican priest, famously argued that population growth would inevitably outstrip the food supply. As a result, overpopulation would be checked by mass starvation and war.

In the event, Malthus’s predications have proved hopelessly wrong. We have increased the food supply, and found countless other ways to improve our living standards, despite the rapid rise in population.

Yet Malthus’s contemporary heirs, proponents of green thinking, insist on making equally gloomy predictions. They argue that population growth, along with accompanying affluence, will inevitably lead to resource shortages and runaway climate change.

The reason they will be proved wrong, as long as we do not succumb to green pessimism, is that they underestimate human ingenuity. They see us as merely consumers while underestimating or even ignoring our creative power. Greens fail to recognise our capacity to produce more resources and to overcome difficult challenges.

Take a thought experiment to illustrate the point. Imagine two mice, one male and one female, in a laboratory. Every day the mice are fed 1kg of grain (evidently they prefer it to cheese).

For mice, and all other animals besides humans, the Malthusian model works. At first the mice will grow fat as they have ample food between them. But as the population grows they will find it increasingly difficult to feed themselves with just 1kg of grain. Eventually, some mice are likely to die of starvation, as the limited food supply brings their population into check.

But humans are different from mice in an important respect. We have the ability to produce more grain, rather than rely on what is available. Modern industrial agriculture has freed us from the Malthusian trap.

What is true of food applies to other resources. If we run short of oil, for example, there are several different measures we can take. We can use oil more efficiently, say by producing cars than do more miles per gallon, or discover new sources of oil. Or we can use alternative fuel sources such as turning coal into oil or using biofuels. We even have the option of using nuclear power to generate electricity that can be used to drive electric cars.

Our ingenuity can also be used to tackle climate change. There are plenty of energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases, including hydroelectric and nuclear power. We can also develop new technologies such as those for extracting carbon dioxide direct from the atmosphere.

The main thing holding us back is the mood of green gloom that has enveloped contemporary society. If we follow its lead, we will retreat into an intellectual bunker rather than boldly tackling the challenges we face.

Reaching a global population of seven billion should be a cause for joy. Seven billion consumers, it is true, and also seven billion producers, seven billion creators and seven billion problem solvers.

A world of seven billion people like you.