Should there be a new way of living for the top one billion? – The iPat edition

Malthus cautioned law makers on the effects of...

T. Robert Malthus. Image via Wikipedia

Andrew Revkin asks on his blog, Dot Earth, ‘Would the world benefit from a set of millennium development goals for the “top billion”?’

Michael Schesinger, a climatologist at the University of Illinois, among other things, wrote,

“Perhaps humanity and the Earth can survive with 9 billion people in 2050, but what type of world will that be?”

I answer:

It’s a misanthropic question framed as one of great concern for the lives of the yet unborn, animal and plant.

By all indications the world of 2050 will be wealthier, happier, better fed (using less acreage than is used to grow food today), less violent, more interconnected, and more urban than today. Because it will be more urban and therefore denser, it will use less land.

I know, I know, I’m naive. Edward Abbey wrote, “[W]e can see that the religion of endless growth–like any religion based on blind faith rather than reason–is a kind of mania, a form of lunacy, indeed a disease…Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

People are less than worthless, in Abbey’s curmudgeonly view, they are an invading virus.

Schesinger’s pessimistic assessment of the world of 2050 apparently mirrors Abbey’s, Lester Brown’s, Tertullian’s, Thomas Malthus’s, Paul Ehrlich’s and others. The world careens toward a Tertullian/Malthusian catastrophe. Brothers and sisters the end is near and we stand upon banana peels between vipers and the abyss. We stand on the brink of droughts and mass starvation; forests reduced to stumps, no oil, foul air, frozen earth [scratch that frozen bit, put in scorched due to global warming instead] and polluted water. The high prophet of 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich summed it up for us: “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Why? Ehrlich sprinkled scientific dust on his Malthusian catastrophe with what is now called the IPAT formula: I = P × A × T (where I = Environmental Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology). There you have with mathematical clarity, we’re the seven hundred pound gorilla playing with china plates.

Yet, that’s the wrong way to look at it; it’s not a zero-sum game.

You may have noticed Ehrlich miscalculated by 40 years and counting. Humans are still here. The world’s population has almost doubled since his prediction, yet things are better. Instead of cleaning off every whit of resource and the world being poorer, sicker, and hungrier, we find that since 1970: we are three times richer (in real terms), the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped by over two-thirds, a greater percentage of people are better fed, the average person in a developing country eats more, the world’s forests cover 98% of what they did in 1970, and the known oil reserves have nearly doubled.

Why? Because, IPAT is Malthus dressed up as mathematical empiricism and empirical evidence points otherwise. For instance, the development of agriculture reduced the acreage needed to support one person thereby freeing up land for wildlife. The development of oil meant kerosene lighting which meant that whales were preserved and not hunted to extinction. The use of petroleum products to power plows and conveyances freed up 1/3 of agricultural acreage needed to feed the animals so that it could be available for wildlife. Technological advances have generally meant lowered impact on land not more.

IPAT’s pseudo-formula leaves out a resource that weighs heavily in earth’s favor and ours: the ingenuity of humans to solve problems is inexhaustible.

I suspect I won’t change anyone’s mind here. As the late Julian Simon said, “First, humanity’s condition will improve in just about every material way. Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.”

Malthusian die-hards, cheer up. I don’t want to completely pee on your parade. Things may yet grow worse. As Bullwinkle J. Moose used to say, “This time for sure.”

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