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Pierre Desrochers is an Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto. Vincent Geloso is a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics.
In 1968 Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich burst into American popular consciousness with his best-selling book, The Population Bomb. Like many doomsayers before him, he argued that in a world of finite resources, the biggest slices of pie get cut at the least-crowded table and that a reduced population would leave each individual a greater share of scarce resources.
Because low hanging fruits are always picked first, resources would become more difficult to access and more expensive over time. Increased population and consumption would unavoidably result in greater environmental degradation.
While Ehrlich’s arguments were nothing new, he was especially good at communicating them. Among other achievements, he became a regular fixture on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show because of the confidence he exuded in turning up the volume on apocalyptic predictions. “The battle to feed all of humanity [was] over,” he said in no uncertain terms. Soon hundreds of millions of people would die no matter what emergency measures were adopted. Things were so bad he was even willing to bet England would not exist by the year 2000.
Because humanity’s only options were either planned decline or utter collapse, he called for drastic measures such as mandatory sterilization, temporary infertility (achieved through pills or tampering with public drinking water), draconian restrictions on immigration, triage (selecting a small number of survivors out of a mass of doomed individuals) and tying food aid to strict population control measures. And if his diagnostic and prescriptions were wrong, he argued, fewer people would enjoy more resources per capita and the environment would be better off.
On this day 25 years ago, however, Ehrlich’s apocalyptic rhetoric was dealt a crushing blow by economist Julian Simon who argued that humans are not only mouths to feed, but also hands to work and brains to think up new solutions. Prior to the emergence of humanity, Simon and others had long pointed out, the Earth was replete with fertile soils and hydrocarbon and mineral deposits, but there were no resources.
It was human action that turned otherwise useless physical stuff into valuable things, a process that could go on forever as it was ultimately powered by the always renewable and expanding human intellect. Creative and entrepreneurial populations could thus grow almost indefinitely as, building on past advances to which they added new ideas, they would find ever better ways to feed themselves and improve overall standards of living. Any notion of natural limits or “carrying capacity” was therefore nonsensical.
Proponents of what is sometimes labeled “resourceship” observed that a population that engages in trade will deliver greater material abundance per capita than more self-sufficient individuals and communities.
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