For 218 years—since Thomas Robert Malthus published the first edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population—people have been coming up with new rationales for limiting or even reducing human population.
For Malthus, the fundamental reason is that people ate too much, so increasing their numbers would lead to starvation as farmers’ ability to raise enough food fell behind a mushrooming population. Others since then have expanded his argument to all kinds of other resources—forests, coal, oil, natural gas, lead, copper, silver, gold, iron, you name it, it’s been claimed that growing population spells imminent depletion of the resource. Think “peak oil,” for instance.
Julian Simon, in The Ultimate Resource and other books, and I in Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future, provided both theoretical and empirical evidence that such fears were baseless. Why? Because by using their minds and hands, people, on average, create more resources than they consume, making resource exhaustion theoretically impossible—theory with which empirical observation so far agrees.
Some people, like Paul Ehrlich, have added to Malthus’s resource-exhaustion argument a different argument: all those people using all those resources are poisoning the planet. The bigger the population, the more pollution, and eventually we’ll reach (something we’ve already reached) the point beyond which there is no prospect for recovery.
Ehrlich summed it all up in a neat formula: I=PAT: environmental Impact (always bad) = Population x Affluence x Technology. The more people there are, and the richer they are, and the higher their technological level, the more their (always bad) Impact on the environment.
Trouble is, empirical observation—history—falsifies Ehrlich’s simple model. The worst resource depletion and pollution occur not in wealthy societies but in poor ones (especially those with autocratic governments, e.g., socialist and communist ones, as I argue in a chapter in the forthcoming book Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, from our friends at The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics). That’s because a clean, healthful, beautiful environment is a costly good, and richer people can afford more costly goods than poorer people.
Now, a study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden, celebrated on National Public Radio, tacitly assuming the principles of Malthus and Ehrlich, urges another reason to control or reduce human population: fighting global warming.
The idea isn’t new. Indeed, in 2007 China claimed credit for fighting global warming by pointing out that its one-child policy (hideously enforced by forced abortions and sterilization), by preventing 300 million births (nearly equal to the population of the United States), had prevented the deposit of 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2005 alone. Perhaps showing some uncharacteristic humility, though, Su Wei, a senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official, “told Reuters that Beijing was not arguing that its policy was a model for others to follow.”
But Lund University researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas imply that it is. As the abstract of their study puts it:
We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less). Though adolescents poised to establish lifelong patterns are an important target group for promoting high-impact actions, we find that ten high school science textbooks from Canada largely fail to mention these actions (they account for 4% of their recommended actions), instead focusing on incremental changes with much smaller potential emissions reductions. Government resources on climate change from the EU, USA, Canada, and Australia also focus recommendations on lower-impact actions. We conclude that there are opportunities to improve existing educational and communication structures to promote the most effective emission-reduction strategies and close this mitigation gap.
Well, if people are fundamentally consumers and polluters, as environmentalists picture them, this makes sense. But if they are instead made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) to be creative and productive as He is, then His instruction for them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over” everything in it makes better sense.
Consider this new study just one more fruit of a science that has lost its foundations in the Biblical worldview—and science that therefore becomes handmaiden not of liberty and flourishing but of slavery and poverty.
Image from Wikimedia commons.