Today, you can buy seven cups of coffee with the same amount of work required to buy a single cup of coffee in 1980. You can buy five times as much rice and four and a quarter times as much aluminum. Not only can we work less and get more today than in 1980, but we also consume fewer resources in the process.
The fact that today it takes less time and resources to produce the same amount of goods than 40 years ago is important not just because it’s nice to get the same things for less work, but because there are 3.5 billion more people living on earth today than in 1980. All 8 billion of us consume resources—food, energy, and everything else. This concerns some people. After all, the earth isn’t getting any bigger, but our population is.
In the 60’s, Professor Paul Ehrlich believed that because of population growth the world was on the verge of wide-spread famine. His 1968 book, The Population Bomb, predicted that population growth would outpace production capacity and that resources of all kinds would become more and more expensive as the supply failed to meet rising demand.
Farmland was Ehrlich’s most concerning example. As the population grows, the best plots of land would be used first, leaving the less-productive plots and then none at all, making feeding the Earth’s growing population ultimately unsustainable.
Ehrlich advocated for population controls to prevent these “inevitable” catastrophes. But Ehrlich was wrong. He was wrong largely because of one man, Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug was at the center of a scientific movement called the Green Revolution. Like Ehrlich, he worried about feeding the world. Instead of focusing on population control as the only option, Borlaug believed he could fill the bellies of the world by improving crop production.
Bourlag devoted his career to increasing plant yields. Today he is credited with saving a billion lives worldwide by developing disease-resistant and high-yielding crops.
Even Ehrlich is still at it. In October 2021, he wrote to the editors of Nature that scientists needed to get off of their “peacetime footing” to limit and prevent overpopulation. His letter declares: “All discussions of sustainability should address overpopulation.”
These dire environmental predictions about population growth are wrong, just as Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions have repeatedly proven to be. In fact, we should see population growth as a vital part of the solution to environmental problems.
People don’t just consume, they create
Environmental concerns about population growth treat people primarily as consumers. This is a mistake. People are not just bellies to fill or a carbon footprint to minimize. People create solutions.
Ehrlich believes that more people create scarcity. For every new person, there is less for everyone else. At some point, the Earth’s carrying capacity will be exceeded and cause desolation. What Ehrlich misses is the ability of people to create new ideas and solutions that continue to increase the carrying capacity of Earth.
Andrew McAfee tells the story of Earth’s expanding capacity in his book, More from Less. In it, he demonstrates that humans have been getting more value out of fewer resources over time. As McAfee points out, “A great reversal of our Industrial Age habits is taking place. The American economy is now experiencing broad and often deep dematerialization.”
For example, your phone has replaced a whole collection of goods that you would have bought separately 50 years ago—cds, GPS, clocks, calculators, and cameras.
We continue to produce more wealth from fewer resources. Recent data shows that many countries have separated economic growth from carbon emissions. We’re still growing, but growing without causing the same environmental problems. If you don’t believe it, then you can check McAfee’s work, it’s all online and public.
Other researchers have also studied the value of people in this dematerialization. These are scholars working on why economic growth happens (or endogenous growth theory, for the nerds).
Paul Romer, the 2018 Nobel laureate for economics, describes progress as the product of new ideas–lots of them. Unlike natural resources, ideas are effectively limitless and grow with use. The copper in your phone can’t also be in your car. When you use copper, you leave less for the next guy.
Not so with ideas.
As Romer argues, the pantry of ideas grows with the population. And so our ability to feed people is not just about filling the pantry with ingredients. It’s about filling it with innovative recipes to make better use of those ingredients.
If, as Romer says, ideas create prosperity and people create ideas, population growth is the path to prosperity. We need expanding populations, not shrinking ones.
Michael Kremer, another Nobel laureate economist, tested this theory by studying technological growth from one million BC through 1990. Kremer found that larger populations are correlated with more technological advancement throughout history. Small and isolated populations were less likely to be technologically advanced than larger populations.
Applying Kremer’s history of humanity to today’s environmental challenges reveals a much more optimistic view of population growth that too few environmentalists hold. A larger population will have the innovators to solve the problems that we face today. As environmentalists, we should take a pro-population policy stance.
Pro-population environmentalism doesn’t punish and abstain. It enjoys and creates. It sees people as more than their carbon footprint. Having more people means more ideas, and these new ideas expand the carrying capacity of the world. Pro-population environmentalism celebrates the choice to have children because children bring innovation and prosperity.
The work done by Romer, Kremer, and McAfee supports the hopeful prospect that population growth will get us to our climate goals through the innovation and creativity of many minds working together.
Real challenges exist, but we can solve them together
The urgent need to feed the world and prevent catastrophes from climate change is a real challenge. Policymakers and entrepreneurs are working on these problems. Americans, now used to stories of environmental degradation, are increasingly acknowledging that our precious natural resources must be responsibly managed.
Today our challenges are not in short supply. Climate change is a big one. And it still requires Borlaug-level commitment. We should not be content with the world as it is today. Instead, we should seek public policies that create or support the same resource innovations we’ve had for coffee, rice, and aluminum—innovations that will usher in a cleaner and wealthier future.
None of this is to say that the work of solving these problems is simple. At times Borlaug put the yoke on his shoulders and pulled the plow himself. Our cleaner, more prosperous future is conditional on our choices today.
Many hands make light work. The plow is easier to pull with more hands, but easier still with the tractors that we’ve created. And thanks to Borlaug, we can drive the tractor through disease-resistant wheat, which means that our efforts go farther than a century ago. These are the changes that have made life both possible and pleasant for the additional 3.5 billion earthlings since 1980.
With more people working today’s environmental problems, we’ll find answers. That’s what we’ve been doing all along.