FEELING CROWDED? Paul Watson is. The founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society writes that human overpopulation is "a virus . . . killing our host the planet Earth," and so the number of people living in the world should be slashed by 85 percent.
"No human community should be larger than 20,000 people," Watson insists in a new essay. "We need to radically and intelligently reduce human populations to fewer than one billion." He describes mankind as "the AIDS of the Earth," and calls for an end to cars, planes, and all ships save those powered by sail.
The views of a fanatic? Yes, but Watson is also a co founder of Greenpeace and a former member of the Sierra Club board of directors, not to mention one of Time magazine's 20th-century environmental "heroes," and even one of the elder George Bush's "Daily Points of Light." Nutty though his support for eliminating 5.5 billion human beings and most modern conveniences may be, it is not likely to hurt his standing among the green elite. On the contrary: Within the environmental movement, antipathy to population growth and technology is utterly conventional.
In their 1990 book "The Population Explosion," for example, Paul and Anne Ehrlich described "the birth of an average American baby" as a "disaster for earth's life-support systems." Al Gore made a similar claim two years later in "Earth in the Balance." A father of four, Gore also declared that "no goal is more crucial to healing the global environment than stabilizing human population" -- i.e., bringing fewer children into the world.
Bemoaning human fecundity has been in vogue at least since 1798, when Thomas Malthus wrote his famous essay arguing that since people multiply faster than the food supply, more babies eventually mean more starvation and misery.
Malthus was wrong (as he later acknowledged), but two centuries later neo-Malthusian misanthropy is as fashionable as ever. A report published this week by the Optimum Population Trust, a British think tank, recommends population reduction as the "most effective" strategy to prevent climate change. "The greatest thing anyone . . . could do to help the future of the planet," suggests OPT co-chairman John Guillebaud, "would be to have one less child."
But that's not what the evidence shows.
When Malthus was writing, just before the turn of the 19th century, the Earth was home to some 980 million human beings. The global population today is about 6.5 billion, a sevenfold increase. If the alarmists are right -- if more humanity means more suffering and devastation -- our lives should be far more impoverished, degraded, and pitiful than those of our ancestors. But they aren't. By and large, human beings today are healthier, wealthier, safer, cleaner, better fed, and more productive than those who lived in 1800.
Anyone tempted to dismiss such a claim as naive should spend some time with Indur Goklany's The Improving State of the World a new compendium of data making the case that as nations grow wealthier, the quality of human life rises. Far from being a disaster for our species and the planet, Goklany demonstrates, economic growth and technological change have been a boon for both, making it possible for ever more people to live ever-improving lives in an ever-cleaner environment. That is not to ignore the fact that there is still terrible misery in the world, or that modern industrialized countries far outstrip the developing world in wealth. At the same time, it is in the world's poorest societies that some of the greatest strides are being made.
Take food. Since 1950, the world's population has soared by more than 150 percent. Yet food has become so abundant that global food prices (in real terms) have plunged 75 percent. Over the past generation, chronic undernourishment in poor countries has been slashed from 37 percent to 17 percent, despite the fact that there are far more mouths to feed. In the United States, meanwhile, staples such as potatoes and flour have dropped in price (relative to income) by more than 80 percent.
Or take infant mortality. Before industrialization, children died before reaching their first birthday at a rate exceeding 200 per 1,000 live births, or more than one in five. "In the United States as late as 1900," Goklany writes, "infant mortality was about 160; but by 2004 it had declined to 6.6." In developing countries, the fall in mortality rates began later, but is occurring more quickly. In China, infant mortality has plunged from 195 to below 30 in the past 50 years.
Life expectancy? From 31 years in 1900, it was up to 66.8 worldwide in 2003.
Health? We are more likely to be disease-free today than our forebears were a century ago. And the onset of chronic illness has been significantly delayed -- by nearly eight years for cancer, nine years for heart diseases, and 11 years for respiratory diseases.
Education, child labor, clean air, freedom, famine, leisure time, global poverty -- Goklany shows that by almost any yardstick you choose, humanity thrives as never before. Living standards do not fall as population rises. On the contrary: Where there are free markets and free minds -- economic growth and technology -- human progress and hope are all but guaranteed.
"Humanity, though more populous and still imperfect, has never been in better condition," he writes.
Our lives are better than our ancestors'. Our descendants' can be better than ours.