Monday, July 13, 2009

Population boom - are we still doomed?

Again, any title that includes the word "doomed" perks my interest.

The "population bomb" was written 40 years ago and has had a lot of attention for its neo-Malthusian stance. It is interesting that the authors think that:

"perhaps the most serious flaw in The [Population] Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future".

Not looking good is it? Read on because the optimists then join in the debate. Do they have a point?

Interestingly, 1968 was also the year that saw the publication of "tragedy of the commons" and look where that got us - 4 hours of lectures a year on Econ211.


The Population Bomb is one of the founding texts of the modern environmental movement. It popularised neo-Malthusian concerns that current rates population growth would lead to human and environmental disaster, a fear revived every year on the UN's World Population Day (Saturday July 11).

Since its release, The Population Bomb has received aplomb and approbation in more or less equal measure. But writing in the new issue of the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, its authors Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich (unnamed co-author of the original book) have few regrets: indeed, they argue that "perhaps the most serious flaw in The [Population] Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future".

From global warming and ozone depletion to collapsing fisheries and industrial agriculture, the Ehrlichs say that "the environmental and resource impacts of past and future population growth will haunt humanity for a long time."

But another paper in the new issue of the EJSD suggests that the Ehrlich's doom-and-gloom scenarios are unwarranted. Indur Goklany - co-editor of the EJSD - argues that "despite unprecedented growth in population, affluence, consumption and technological change, human well-being has never been higher."

Reduced hunger and malnutrition, improved access to clean water and sanitation, higher literacy and schooling - all of these things mean that we now live longer and better lives than we did forty years ago - a stark contrast to the scenario painted in the Population Bomb.

Goklany concedes that the record is mixed for the environment - but argues that this justifies more, not less, wealth and technology: "Initially, in the rich countries, affluence and technology worsened environmental quality, but eventually they provided the methods and means for cleaning up the environment... After decades of deterioration, their environment has improved substantially."

The main worry for Goklany and others is that the "policy preferences of some environmentalists and Neo-Malthusians, founded on their skepticism of affluence and technology, would only make progress toward a better quality of life and a more sustainable environment harder. Their fears could become self-fulfilling prophecies."


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