Response to Bjorn Lomborg and Olivier Rubin, “The Dustbin of History--Limits to Growth,” Foreign Policy Nov/Dec 2002
Nov 2002 (edited slightly Sept 2005)
Yes, The Club of Rome predictions and those of other “Malthusian alarmists," such as Paul Ehrlich, did not come through on schedule, but it may be unjustifiably sanguine to conclude there is no need to worry about limits to growth. For economists and “environmental skeptics” such as Lomborg & Rubin, there may be no catastrophe on the horizon, but for a biologist and “resource utilization skeptic” such as myself, the catastrophe has already arrived. We are now witnessing one of the greatest mass extinctions in the 2-billion-year history of life on Earth, and this time we are the cause of it; our human population growth and the accompanying expanding "resource utilization." To witness the destruction of much of nature, which has occurred mainly during the last few decades, and which promises to continue for another several decades until there is very little left, saddens not only biologists, but a substantial percentage of people in many countries.
The environmental skeptics seem to have progressed from stating the absurd: "sustained exponential growth is possible," to stating the obvious: "there is no law of nature that says there has to be exponential growth." Human population growth will end. The question is not whether, but how--will it end gently or catastrophically? And what will be left of nature when growth finally does end? The recent decreases in fertility rates mentioned by Lomborg and Rubin are key. Further decreases must occur until total world population growth is zero. The alternative is for the rate of premature deaths to increase--either with a high steady rate of deaths or a with a series of catastrophes.
Lomborg and Rubin point out that standards of living have been improving worldwide. However, the total number of people living in abject poverty is greater now than at any time in the past (fulfilling one of Malthus's original predictions). Improving standards of living for the world's poorest, morally should be the main aim of further global economic growth. If world population growth were to stop tomorrow, to bring everyone's living standard up to that of middle-class citizens of Western countries would require significant increased consumption of agricultural products and natural resources. A tremendous amount of economic growth is required, and the more the world population grows before stopping, the more economic growth and increased utilization of resources will be required. In order to increase the likelihood that a gentle ending to population growth will be achieved, and in order to maximize the amount of nature that will be left, economists and policy advisors in developed countries would be wise to urge increased population assistance to developing countries and to figure out ways in which developed countries can adapt to stable, or even slightly shrinking, populations and still maintain economic health. Laughing at inaccurate predictions of imminent human catastrophe and encouraging citizens of developed countries to have more children in order to delay stabilizing, or shrinking, population size is relatively easy--and foolish.