Critique of report on population

In: Uncategorized

7 May 2012

This is my latest column for Fund Strategy

Is your relatively affluent lifestyle depriving a poor person of food? That in effect is the accusation from Britain’s leading science body.

The Royal Society has published a report called People and the Planet warning that global population should be stabilised and western living standards curtailed. Given the organisation’s pedigree it is likely to be taken seriously. It has about 1,500 fellows and foreign members including more than 80 Nobel laureates. Since it was founded in 1660 it has included such distinguished scientific luminaries in its ranks as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

It might come as a surprise then to learn that the report is deeply flawed. As one wag put it on Twitter, it has the intellectual weight of a promotion video for creationism. The report is not so much well-worn as threadbare; with all its key contentions rehearsed many times in the past. It is also marred by a circular argument: the conclusion is contained in the premise.

Let us start with some of the uncontested facts. The world’s population is likely to grow from its present level of about seven billion to somewhere between eight billion and 11 billion in 2050. According to the United Nations the most likely figure is about 9.3 billion by mid-century.

Although the average rate of population growth has slowed sharply since the 1960s, when it was about 2% a year compared with 1.1% at present, the level is rising. So on average people are having fewer children than they used to but still enough for the global population to rise for several decades.

It is also indisputable, and hardly a new insight, that global inequality is high. Most glaringly there are 1.3 billion living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank definition (those living on less than $1.25 a day when calculated at purchasing power parity in 2005 prices).??So far so good. The report then goes on to argue that, assuming the earth’s resources are finite, the combination of increasing consumption and rising population poses three challenges:

• The 1.3 billion poorest people need to be raised out of extreme poverty.

• In the developed and emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be reduced.

• Global population growth should be slowed and stabilised.

The accusation that prosperous westerners inevitably deprive poor people is already apparent. From the assumption of a finite world it appears to follow that those in the affluent world are depriving the poor of resources. Indeed the Royal Society seems to be going even further: the implication is that everyone, even many of these who live in emerging economies, should make sacrifices rather than deprive those in extreme poverty.

Attentive readers will have noticed the logical flaw in the argument. To win the argument the authors of the report have to prove that resources are finite rather than assume it is the case. By starting from the premise of scarce resources they simply engage in a circular argument where the conclusion is given in the premise. In effect they are arguing that the earth is finite because it is finite.

Strictly speaking they should prove two things. Not only that the world is finite but that humanity is approaching the limits of consumption. For it could be that we are still a long way from any putative natural constraints. But the most fundamental question is whether a limit exists in the first place.

The alternative is that there are no fixed limits to human consumption. From this perspective there may only be one planet earth but it is possible to generate ever more resources by harnessing human ingenuity.

Such an approach can take many forms including using resources more efficiently, finding more of the same kind of resources or substituting for a different kind of resource. For example, in relation to petrol it is possible to create more efficient engines, find new sources of crude oil and ultimately perhaps switch wholesale to electric cars. The latter could in principle harness inexhaustible forms of energy including nuclear and solar.

The Royal Society follows the method employed by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) who argued that human population tended to grow faster than the food supply. He maintained that as a result starvation and war over scarce resources would bring population levels into check.

In the event Malthus’s prediction has failed abysmally. The global population has risen from about one billion to seven billion since he wrote it, yet at the same time we are immensely richer and better fed.

Yet the Royal Society, although it mentions Malthus three times in its report, fails to even acknowledge the dramatic failure of his predictions. It simply says coyly that his concerns: “resurfaced in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that an era of unprecedented, rapid increase in the populations of the developing countries had started”. At the very least it should have shown why essentially the same approach could be true this time around.

The report also refers to more recent criticisms of Malthusianism but fails to tackle them head on. Essentially its argument is that the critics fail to recognise the importance of sustainability and of natural capital.

But such a rebuttal is disingenuous as both concepts assume the notion of limits in the first place. The central idea behind sustainability is that humans need to accept environmental constraints for the sake of future generations. Similarly the idea behind the concept of natural capital is that the availability of raw materials is scarce. Once again the report is assuming what it seeks to prove.

Perhaps the supreme irony of this discussion is that the first person to argue against the notion of natural limits to human activity was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He was many things including Lord Chancellor, Attorney General, great philosopher and eminent scientist. Bacon was also the inspiration behind the foundation of the Royal Society.