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The Royal Society Gets It Wrong on 'People and the Planet'

By Mark Lynas, author of The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. Originally published at “High Tides” weblogs.
The Royal Society – Britain’s premier scientific institution – has just released a major report called People and the Planet, arguing that per capital resource consumption in the richest parts of the world needs to come down dramatically if the poorest 1.3 billion are to be lifted out of extreme poverty whilst protecting the Earth’s environment from irreparable harm. (Do join Leo Hickman’s debate on the Guardian site here, and my thanks to him for prompting this piece.)

I wouldn’t argue with most of the data underpinning this report, but I do have problems with some of the assumptions. The first is that population growth is necessarily a bad thing, and that there is therefore a pressing need to reduce the rate of growth in developing countries. The report states early on:

“At a time when so many people remain impoverished and natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, continued population growth is cause for concern.”

What it fails to acknowledge however is that population growth is correlated with economic growth – and therefore if developing countries are to continue to escape from poverty then reducing their rate of population growth should not be the initial priority. In a recent blogpost the World Bank’s Wolfgang Fengler starts by reminding us:

Africa’s population is rising rapidly and will most likely double its population by 2050. Depending on the source of data, Africa will soon pass 1 billion people (and it may already have) and could reach up to 2 billion people by 2050 [ I am using the UN’s 2009 World Population Prospects, which projects Africa to exceed 1.7 billion by 2050 based on sharply declining fertility rates]. This makes it the fastest growing continent and Africa’s rapid growth will also shift the global population balance.

Sounds scary. But what no-one mentions is that in terms of population density Western Europe is far more over-populated than Africa:

If we look at Western Europe – where I come from – there are on average 170 people living on each square km. In Sub-Saharan Africa there are only 70 today. This gap will narrow in the next decades but even by 2050, Western Europe is expected to be more densely populated than Africa.

He then concludes:

…population growth and urbanization go together, and economic development is closely correlated with urbanization. Rich countries are urban countries. No country has ever reached high income levels with low urbanization. And this is critical for achieving sustained growth because large urban centers allow for innovation and increase economies of scale. Companies can produce goods in larger numbers and more cheaply, serving a larger number of low-income customers.

Population growth may therefore put us on the edge of a “golden age of development” for Africa – hardly the message from the gloomy Royal Society report. As the excellent book Emerging Africa, by Steven Radelet, shows, seventeen sub-Saharan African countries have seen sustained economic growth since 1995, vastly improving their prospects and – I suspect – further reducing fertility rates in the process.

Whilst using a lot of dark language about increasing numbers of humans globally, the report nowhere acknowledges that the current median level of total worldwide fertility has fallen dramatically from 5.6 in the 1970s to only 2.4 today. In other words we are already close to natural replacement levels in terms of total fertility – the reason that the absolute population will continue to grow to 9 billion or more is that more children are living long enough have their own children. To my mind a reduction in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy are self-evidently good and desirable – and their impact on world population levels should be celebrated, not bemoaned.

Secondly, the report seems to be largely predicated on a neo-Malthusian version of economics, where resource use is a zero-sum game, and therefore the rich need to get poorer if there is to be any increase in comsumption for the poorest. It states:

Human impact on the Earth raises serious concerns, and in the richest parts of the world per capita material consumption is far above the level that can be sustained for everyone in a population of 7 billion or more. This is in stark contrast to the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, who need to consume more in order to be raised out of extreme poverty.

Therefore:

The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels…

This redistributive model has been shown in the real world to be completely wrong: China, India and now many African countries have seen rapid and sustained economic growth (and the concurrent lifting out of poverty of hundreds of millions of people) not because we have had to reduce our own wealth and consumption in an absolute sense, but through trade and other globalisation-related liberalisation benefiting both parties (and the poorest most).

Moreover, a dramatic decline in inequality is already actually happening, because the richest countries are either not growing now (due to the post-2008 economic crisis) or are growing very slowly, whilst the emerging economies and even many sub-Saharan African countries are growing at 5% or more per year. The big Malthusian error – which was repeated by the Limits to Growth approach of the 1970s, and many times afterwards – was to see ‘natural resources’ as some kind of absolutely-limited cake which would have to be shared equally if all were to exit from poverty.

In actual fact the stock of natural resources (natural capital) change both both because of consumption patterns and technology. Take fisheries – it is often assumed that because many are over-exploited at the moment then there will never be enough fish for everyone’s wants to be satisfied. However, as a scientific report only last week showed, if fisheries and aquaculture are properly managed there can be at least the same levels of per capita fish consumption by 2050 as today (for a 9.5 billion population). There is no reason to assume collapse is inevitable.

Similarly for energy – if we deploy sufficient clean energy resources (renewables, nuclear and gas with carbon capture) there is no fundamental limit on human potential energy consumption. Energy is essential for water supply (increasingly with desalination), agricultural production, urbanisation and so on – and here the Limits to Growth assumptions are both anti-development and nonsensical.

To conclude: I would love to see a much more positive approach from scientists on these issues, one acknowledging human development as a much more positive prospect, and treating environmental resources not as a fixed quantity but as a dynamic part of a rapidly-changing (and in many ways improving) world. This does not mean denying biophysical limits (‘planetary boundaries’) insofar as they can be scientifically determined, but it does mean taking a radically-different, and much more human-centred, approach to tackling them.

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Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Apr 27, 2012

This article takes an extremely optimistic view about limits to growth, offering as its main supporting argument that if limits to growth have not bitten us yet, the principle of induction implies that they will never bite us in the future. Unfortunately the logical force of ‘If it has not happened yet, it will never happen’ is negligible. The tendency of the growth based economics of the past three centuries has been to constantly accelerate the consumption of the earth’s mineral and biospheric resources. Stabilization of the earth’s population over the next few decades would, of course be a welcome development, but if exponential per capita growth is the unchanging goal of human economic activity the pressure on the earth’s resources will continue unabated.

 

Most people apparently do not realize that Malthus did not predict a human disaster at some future date when the earth’s human population reached some ultimate carrying capacity. He was attempting to explain why large masses of miserable, malnourished people existed in the 19th century. His thesis was that human population growth always outruns improvements in agricultural productivity so that the percentage of hungry, miserable people would never be reduced by any advance in human technology. If the human population stabilizes then Malthus’s argument does indeed fail, but such a stabilization does not imply that continued per capita economic growth will not run into physical limits.

 

I realize that per capita economic growth does not proceed merely by brute force extraction of more resources, but also involves an increasing efficiency of resource use. However, in an economic system in which growth is the ultima thule of economic activity, increasing efficiency is automatically and reflexively invested in increasing the variety and quantity of products and services. Ecological footprint is always a secondary consideration. If pollution has large, measurable effects on human health then controls are put in place to ameliorate the worst effects of such pollution. If a large middle class emerges which has leisure and means of transportation which allows them to recreate in  wilderness areas, then wilderness preservation becomes a priority. And so forth. But truly long term ecological systems thinking will always be subjugated to the need to prime the growth machine and keep private credit markets ‘healthy’. Then inability of the OECD nations to reach any substantive agreements on GHG emission is clear evidence of this fact.

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Apr 28, 2012

Mark – “Similarly for energy – if we deploy sufficient clean energy resources (renewables, nuclear and gas with carbon capture) there is no fundamental limit on human potential energy consumption. Energy is essential for water supply (increasingly with desalination), agricultural production, urbanisation and so on – and here the Limits to Growth assumptions are both anti-development and nonsensical.”

So show us the modelling.  In Limits to Growth – the Thirty Year Update sever different scenerios were modelled.

So where is your peer reviewed research that shows unlimited growth is possible.  As you are so confident of this assertion then you evidence must be pretty strong.

Otherwise you are just assuming because we grew for the last 50 years then we can automatically grow for the next 50.

In the words of Alfred Bartlett:

“The greatest shortcoming
of the human race is our
inability to understand
the exponential
function.”
 – Prof.
Al Bartlett”

http://www.albartlett.org/

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 28, 2012

Great article!

Why all the fuss from commenters about exponential growth?  The article is about asymptotic growth (i.e. towards a limit).  The poor people of the world can (and should) grow their prosperity level to reach ours.

It is easy for us to set up hypothetical models claiming to show that their growth is really exponential (ie. bad because it lacks a natural asymptote), but that does not match what we see in the real world, based on European and American experience.

Let’s fix the global poverty problem first, and only then worry about whether it’s our job to force an asymptote on them.

———–

Of course the dispute isn’t just about us and them, there is that ever-present underlying battle between the nuclear vs renewable world view.  With sustainable nuclear (ie. breeders), we can supply plentiful clean energy (and therefore also water, food, and steel) to a practically unlimited number of people.  With renewables, the total available dispatchable energy, land, and water all start to look  pretty limited; thus smaller populations make everything easier.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Apr 29, 2012

Nathan,

You write:

Why all the fuss from commenters about exponential growth? The article is about asymptotic growth (i.e. towards a limit).

and afterwards say:

With sustainable nuclear (ie. breeders), we can supply plentiful clean energy (and therefore also water, food, and steel) to a practically unlimited number of people.

Does anyone besides me see a contradiction in these two statements? Mark’s article displays the same kind of contradiction. He spends considerable energy debunking the limits to growth concept (e.g. The big Malthusian error – which was repeated by the Limits to Growth approach of the 1970s, and many times afterwards – was to see ‘natural resources’ as some kind of absolutely-limited cake which would have to be shared equally if all were to exit from poverty.) and then cites factors like the demographic transition to low birth rates and the recent slowing down of the European and American economies which are irrelevant unless limits to growth are real.

I think your claim that abundant GHG free energy is the only barrier to a ‘practically unlimited’ expanion of human economic activity is ecologically naive. Even if by the end to the next decade we are globally pumping out new nuclear power plants the way China has been pumping out new coal fired power plants over the last decade (a doubtful proposition in my view) we will still be accumulating ecological debts which will have to be paid sooner or later.

By the way I agree with you that it is entirely unreasonable in a globalized economy that, Africa, Asia, and South Americal should permanently accept a postition of economic inferiority relative to the rest of the world. In order the for the global economy to transition to a form with long term stability (asymptotically or otherwise) substantial equality in global standards of living is required. What the Royal Society report being discussed suggests is that the possibility exists that this equitable, sustainable standard of living will require significantly lower per capita resource consumption than that currently practiced in the richest parts of the globe. Are you suggesting the the Royal Society is a nest of anti-nuclear activists? If so please present some evidence supporting this claim.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Apr 29, 2012

Seems to me that he’s saying that :-

a) Population and development growth is assymptotic, up to a level similar to ours

b) Energy supplies through sustainable nuclear on the other hand could support a practically unlimited number of people.

Condition “b” need not preclude or prevent  condition “a”.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Apr 30, 2012

So let me see if I have got the argument straight:

1. There is a natural limit to productivity (or to human desire. I not sure of the precise nature of the argument) which limits per capita resource consumption.

2. There is no ‘practical limit’ (whatever that means) to the number of people who can be supported at this level of resource consumption.

3. The demographic transition to low birth rates which occurs as the natural limit of resource consumption is approached guarantees that the ‘impractical limit’ of human population growth which could theoretically be a problem as some far distant date will never be approached.

4. Nevertheless the people who make these kinds of arguments without giving any detailed resource analysis supporting their optimism are in no way denying the denying the physical reality of limits to growth.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 1, 2012

Not quite:

1. There is a natural limit to productivity: I didn’t say that.  My argument is simply that today’s consumption level in developed countries is viable, or close to it.

2. There is no ‘practical limit’ to the number of people who can be supported at this level of resource consumption: For the key resources of energy, water, food, and steel, yes.  If there is a limit, it is very much higher than current the population.  Obviously, recycling and prudent resource management are in order.  There are presumably some resources that are not abundant, they are secondary resources that can be substituted for or synthesized from something that is abundant, or mined in outer space.

3. The demographic transition to low birth rates which occurs as the natural limit of resource consumption is approached … Again this does not match American and European experience.  Our transition to low birth rate has been accompanied by prosperity, education, freedom, mostly non-farm based employment, access to birth control, gender equality, and retirement security.  One or more of those factors is the likely cause of our low birth rate.

4. … resource analysis… Actually, Charles Barton just posted an essay about urananium resoures here: http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2012/04/uranium-is-renewable-resource.html . Also, Bernard Cohen’s free book: http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/ has a very good description of uranium’s sustainability in chapter 13.  We live on a rocky planet that is full of iron and other metals.  Water is infinitely recyclable because all water on earth always finds it way back to the ocean, and with energy for desalinization, fresh water will be available.  Food is made from water and air and energy.  The burden of proof is clearly on those who believe that there is some other ingrediant that we can’t live without.

But plentiful energy does not require nuclear power. solar energy is also plentiful.  It justs costs a lot more (especially when used with energy storage), which implies a lower standard of living for societies that rely on it predominantly.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Apr 30, 2012

Nathan,

 

You appear to be an out and out limits to growth denier. That is you believe that an indefinitely large expansion of human economic activity is possible without serious damage to the biosphere of which humanity is a dependent part. This is certainly a possible belief system, but it is utterly inconsistent with your comments about asymptotic growth to a limit.  If per capita resource consumption does not approach a natural limit and total resource consumption is capable a large further expansion, then why do expect that America and Europe will be content with currents level of consumption? Either you have no clue about how capitalism actually functions or your statement dissing environmentalist concern with exponential growth is pure political BS.

 

As for resources other energy, water and steel:

 

Biodiversity: Biologist Edmund O Wilson, in his book The Future of Life has estimated a lower on current species extinction rates is 1000 times the pre-human level

 

Phosphorus: Even Scientific American, a bastion of  ‘What me worry?’ techno-optimists like yourself, seemed pretty seriously concerned about this issue. Are you planning to mine this on the asteroids?

 

Soil: Are you planning to grind up bedrock with cheap nuclear energy?

 

Considering the possible consequences of ecological over shoot, I think that the burden of proof is on the ‘no practical limits to growth’ people rather than on conservationists.  

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on May 1, 2012

Nathan,

You write:

“It is easy for us to set up hypothetical models claiming to show that their growth is really exponential (ie. bad because it lacks a natural asymptote), but that does not match what we see in the real world, based on European and American experience.”

and afterwards:

There is a natural limit to productivity: I didn’t say that. My argument is simply that today’s consumption level in developed countries is viable, or close to it.”

So what is this ‘natural asymptote’ that you are referring to? If today’s consumption level is viable for an indefinitely large population then why isn’t a larger level of consumption also viable? And why would not the natural momentum of capitalism drive us towards these higher consumption levels?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 2, 2012

Roger, I should be more clear:

  1. I believe that our population is growing towards a limit because birthrates in developed countries are below the replacement rate, i.e. someday we will need to encourage higher birthrates to avoid extinction!
  2. I believe that the important aspects of our modern lives can be made sustainable: i.e. automobile-based personal transportation (in suburban areas), air conditioning, health care, etc.  Obviously there are many minor details that have to change for sustainability.
  3. I don’t claim that indefinite increases in per capita consumption are possible, and don’t believe we are currently on that track.  Every time we discover a new efficiency improving technology, our prosperity increases.  But there is a finite amount of technology waiting to be discovered (e.g. transistors will stop shrinking when they reach atom scale, we may never have warp drive, etc).
  4. Concerns raised by scientist about looming resources shortages (e.g. phosphorus or topsoil) as well as concerns about environmental damage need not be treated as mandates for smaller population, but instead can be addressed as resource management challenges.  We’ll undoubtedly make a lot of changes over the next ten thousand years (could it be that fear of over-population is really fear of change?).

One generalization which can be made from the claims of nuclear sustainability is that a resource which is presently inexpensive and which is currently being used at an unsustainable rate, may in fact be sustainably utilizable when used with aggressive but achievable recycling technology (many things will become more expensive than they are today, but that’s a detail).  Of course, this generalization cannot be disproved in any specific case, except by the failure of prolonged society-wide attempts! 

One more thought I would like to add is that I’m an engineer, so the technical problems are the ones that interest me.  Obviously our society has to make many adjustments to our consumption patterns to become sustainable, many will be difficult politically.  But the political ones are for someone else to solve. 

 

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on May 3, 2012

Jim,

When I talk about the desirability of dropping growth in the total volume of economic exchanges as the universal goal of human productive activity, I do not mean to suggest that the current system of production and exchange should be frozen in place just as it now exists. For one thing such a strategy would freeze in place large income inequalities which are unacceptable. For another thing the prospect of fossil fuel depletion makes it certain that no such strategy of treading water will be sucessful.

We certainly need growth in certain subsystems of the economy: e.g. GHG free energy sources, energy efficient housing, energy efficient transportation, food production systems which preserve top soil and recycle nutrients, etc. However, I do not think that Europe and America need growth in total indoor space per person, transportation kilometers per person, ton-kilometers of freight transportation per person, number of electronic toys per person etc. For quite some time to come I think that we should be leverging efficiency improvements to lower our ecological footprint and for transitioning to an infrastructure that is capable of supporting human welfare in the long term.

In order to bring about such an emphasis in economic development a fundamentally new way of making decisions about infrastructure creation and maintenance has to come into existence. Considerations of effiency are naturally important, but that efficiency needs to be directed to some other goal that making sure that this year’s volume of economic exchanges is larger than last year’s, without much concern about what the long term implications of those exchanges might be.

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