A question for those who believe “more people solve more problems”

May 18, 2024 by Joshua
in Nature, Visualization

Several bestselling authors on the environment suggest that people solve problems, so more people solve more problems. They conclude that we should keep growing the population.

A century and a half ago people believed “rain follows the plow.” They created what looked like science proving that settlers moving west across North America creating farms would cause rain to fall more. To me, “more people solve more problems” looks like a similar belief. We should be careful if they are similar because “rain follows the plow” led to the Midwest becoming a dust bowl and many parts of Midwestern agriculture becoming, according to Cadillac Desert, “the country’s foremost examples of socialism for the rich.”

Regarding infinite population growth, in the words of the economist Julian Simon:

Adding more people causes problems. But people are also the means to solve these problems. The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge; the brakes are our lack of imagination and unsound social regulations of these activities. The ultimate resource is people—especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty—who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefits, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well.

They also tend to promote growing the economy, suggesting “a rising tide lifts all boats” and, from Poverty Reduction and Economic Growth:

Broad-based growth, defined as the process that raises median income, is far and away the most important source of poverty reduction. There is no instance of a country achieving a headcount poverty rate below 1/3 of its population (at moderate poverty line of $5.50) without achieving the median consumption of that of Mexico. This is not to say that there do not exist anti-poverty programs that are cost-effective and hence should be expanded, or, conversely, that there are anti-poverty programs that are not cost-effective (or even have zero impact on poverty) and should be cut back or eliminated. Analyses of these types of programs would enable a more efficient use of resources devoted to poverty reduction. But large and sustained improvements in global poverty will almost certainly have to focus on how to raise the productivity of the typical person in a poor country, which is a key source of national income growth.

They also tend to suggest people who “repudiate technology and economic growth, and to revert to a simpler and more natural way of life” are part of a “quasi-religious ideology … laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer,” as Steven Pinker wrote.

For those who believe we can grow forever and can’t overpopulate the Earth, if we can decouple, dematerialize, and substitute forever, what would a world where material limits could lead to a collapse look like? A world where this graph could happen:

overshoot and collapse

Imagine there was a world where humans could deplete resources and pollute so much that it caused civilization to collapse. How would that world differ from ours? Or would the people be different?

Can those people imagine such a world and such people? I’m not clear how it would differ from ours. Many civilizations have collapsed, generally for many reasons, but overtaxing the environment contributed. Those civilizations were peopled by people, suggesting that the difference wouldn’t be different people.

It’s not obvious to me such a world would be any different than ours. If you can’t clarify that difference, I suggest you may consider we live in that world.

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