Environmentalists Who Dream of a World without Themselves

By William M Briggs Published on November 3, 2015

As night follows day, China announced that it was moving from one- to a two child policy and then an academic at Bowdoin College, Sarah Conley, took to the pages of the Boston Globe to argue that not just the Chinese but everyone should limit themselves to, at most, one child. Why? Because the Earth can’t hold so many people.

This is now an old argument. In anno Domini one thousand nine hundred and sixty-eight, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich gave the world only months to live. Doom was inevitable. A population bomb was going to explode and kill millions, tens of millions, billions.

People were breeding like rabbits, eating like locusts, and polluting the air like NPR. So much grime was going to be cast into the atmosphere that the sun’s rays were going to be knocked back into space and plunge the globe into an ice age. Yes! Human popsicles everywhere!

So what. Nobody believed such tall tales, did they? Oh yes they did. Like kids at a summer camp gathered around a midnight fire and anxious to be frightened, over the following decade nearly every politician, member of the intelligentsia, and inveterate do-gooder swallowed the whole story. They were convinced something had to be done.

What about the children? China asked. Answer: don’t have any. Or don’t have more than one. This would “solve” the population dilemma and prevent economic collapse and mass starvation. The world, or at least China, would avoid a Malthusian apocalypse.

Everybody gets Malthus wrong. The nineteenth century reverend was not a doom-meister like our modern-day environmentalists. Malthus loved people and did not hate them as some environmentalists do. He especially cared for those unable to fend for themselves. He tried in vain to teach the poor that labor costs would rise, and their condition would improve, if they would have fewer children, because the job pool would be smaller. (Advocates of open immigration make something like the opposite argument.)

Malthus abhorred abortion (and sexual perversity), and contraception contrivances didn’t really exist, so he thought that people would have to have fewer children the old-fashioned way: abstinence. But as the late philosopher David Stove emphasized in his Darwinian Fairytales, creating children was one of the few avenues of free entertainment available to the poor, and so Malthus’s solution was not generally heeded.

Now Malthus did surmise that plant and animal species tend on average to produce as many offspring as the food supply supports. But Malthus also noticed the human species does not tend to reproduce to its maximum extent. From these two true observations, he inferred several things.

First, the world has not yet reached doom in spite of non-human species’ enthusiastic breeding tendencies. Mere increases in the population of some plant or animal is not enough to destroy the planet. Indeed, something like the reverse is true. For instance, after every encounter earth has with killer rocks from space, life soon thrived again.

Second, there cannot be too many people. Locally there can be and are famines. The majority of these are caused by strife, war, and politics. Yet women don’t get pregnant and have babies when they’re starving. The reason women can and do have children is because they are well fed enough to have them, and those children are well fed enough to grow and to eventually make more babies.

Environmentalists have the story backwards. Human population increases throughout history were minor until around the turn of the last century, when they rocketed. Why? Because of the internal combustion engine, mostly, powered by cheap, efficient, and plentiful fossil fuels.

A great deal of the increase was caused by people not dying as early as they did when food was scarce and energy expensive. Baby-making rates then began dropping as food availability and economic opportunity driven by cheap energy increased.

So have we learned our lesson in the fifty years since Ehrlich’s Chicken Little act? No, sir, we have not. The concern now is that the population will continue to increase and that it will use so much energy that this will cause doom from rampant global warming. What about pollution causing an ice age, you ask? What are you, some kind of denier?

The “solution” to global warming is the same as it was in Ehrlich’s heyday: cut down on the number of people. This is why Bowdoin’s Sarah Conley is displeased that China amended its draconian one-child per-couple policy, upping it to a still-nervous two-child policy. Incidentally, can you imagine choosing a culture in which there is no word for uncle, aunt, brother, sister, cousin? Apparently China couldn’t either, though it came close.

Politicians want us to “minimize” our environmental “impact.” What does that mean? If it simply means to be good stewards and to avoid being wasteful, then fine. But that’s rarely what it means. Too often, environmental activists and the politicians who listen to them treat any human effect on the environment as a bad thing. It is impossible — not unlikely, impossible — to have no environmental “impact.” You have to eat, and eating affects the environment. Even if you jumped into a hole and covered yourself with dirt this very instant, your rotting corpse would still affect the environment! If you exist, you are going to have some impact on the environment, and there’s no reason to assume that’s bad.

Somewhere in the backs of their minds, those who take this line must realize what they ask for is nonsensical. This is why they lapse into calling for fewer, fewer, ever fewer people. This anti-human ideology is lurking behind far too much environmental activism, and the sooner the rest of us realize it, the better.

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