Overpopulation fears betray an ignorance of human history

Marcus Roberts
September 17, 2013
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

Wow, the New York Times really has come over to the dark side. Last week I reported on an article from the grey lady about the German efforts to arrest its population decline that shows that the problem for so many countries isn't a population explosion, but a population implosion (albeit in slow motion). Now, an op-ed from that same newspaper from Erle C Ellis (Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland) has made the claim that overpopulation in relation to the environment is a myth! That must have caused some raised eyebrows in NYTimes heartland (if they weren't still raised from seeing Vladimir Putin in their paper a few days ago!)

Ellis starts with the oft-repeated claim that:

"we are undermining the very life support systems that sustain us. Like bacteria in a petri dish, our exploding numbers are reaching the limits of a finite planet, with dire consequences. Disaster looms as humans exceed the earth's natural carrying capacity."

But as Ellis states, this is "nonsense". Why? Because, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, humans do not just passively dwell in their environment, we shape our environment.

"Yet these claims demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the ecology of human systems. The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistory, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered 'natural' ecosystems."

Humans are special. Each baby born is not just another mouth to feed from the Earth's ever-limited resources, he or she is also a potential inventor, scientist, innovator that will help the rest of humanity to adapt, survive and grow. We can this throughout our long history:

"Even before the last ice age had ended, thousands of years before agriculture, hunter-gatherer societies were well established across the earth and depended increasingly on sophisticated technological strategies to sustain growing populations in landscapes long ago transformed by their ancestors.

The planet's carrying capacity for prehistoric human hunter-gatherers was probably no more than 100 million. But without their Paleolithic technologies and ways of life, the number would be far less - perhaps a few tens of millions. The rise of agriculture enabled even greater population growth requiring ever more intensive land-use practices to gain more sustenance from the same old land. At their peak, those agricultural systems might have sustained as many as three billion people in poverty on near-vegetarian diets."

So where did all this nonsense come from? Well, Malthus has a lot to do with it of course. But according to Ellis, it is essentially the problem of treating humanity as another set of data that you can plug into a biological or physical model. The trouble is, the study of human population necessarily deals with humans:

"...I discovered the agricultural economist Ester Boserup, the antidote to the demographer and economist Thomas Malthus and his theory that population growth tends to outrun the food supply. Her theories of population growth as a driver of land productivity explained the data I was gathering in ways that Malthus could never do.

The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future."

Exactly! How could Malthus be right when since he was writing the Earth sustains many billions more people at a better lifestyle than he could dream of? And as for Paul E...no I promised I wouldn't mention him again. To suggest that we are just about hitting carrying capacity seems to be blind to historical progress. Turning back to the analogy that started his piece, Ellis comments:

"Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future? The important message from these rough numbers should be clear. There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish."

Or, to answer an eminent TV personality, we are nothing at all like a plague. To conclude, while we are the ones who make it possible for this planet to feed billions of people to a degree impossible even 100 years ago, we are also the ones that mean that today people go hungry. Not because there are too many of us, but because we fight, are greedy and cannot efficiently share resources:

"There is no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future. There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity - increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature - a goal that is both more popular and more possible than ever. The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems."

I hope that people read Ellis' piece carefully. Because if people take his message onboard, then they are less likely to consider China's population policies as a necessary solution to "overpopulation".