Why malthus was wrong

There are a lot of expressions of pessimism these days about whether we can save the environment — and thereby ourselves. Some of this pessimism is self-serving, but most of it is quite genuine. People look at the trends, and they despair — or else go into denial. And those who despair will almost invariably point to one factor above all others — the threat of overpopulation. No matter whether we recycle all our waste, switch entirely to non-polluting energy sources, sponge the skies of CFCs and greenhouse emissions, turn the deserts into gardens, and save the rainforests and the poor whales, all these gains will be washed away, these people say, by a surging tide of hungry hominids. My topic today, therefore, is the population boom. I want to consider the following question: is it inevitable that humanity must overwhelm itself in hungry babies? And I shall argue that the answer is a firm no — that while it is possible, and maybe even probable, that this catastrophe will happen, it is not inevitable. First, let’s take a clear-eyed look at some worrisome numbers, so that no one can say we are ignoring the facts. The world population clock has recently clicked over the six billion mark. I myself remember when it passed three billion. That was back around the time when the Beatles were driving teenie-boppers into hysterics; not all that long ago, really. We are currently adding nearly 90 million new hungry mouths every year, roughly three Canadas. Try to imagine the consequences if 90 million immigrants showed up at our borders in one year. In fact, the rate of increase has slowed down a little bit since the sixties and early seventies. Demographic experts are desperately trying to project on the basis of current trends, but the best they can do is to guess that world population will level out around ten billions or so, roughly around 2050. Will we all breathe a sigh of relief at that point, convinced that we have dodged the bullet? The problem is, of course, that it is not clear that we can continue, much longer, to provide even for the present world population, let alone a few billions more, given our current, highly wasteful methods of land use and resource extraction..
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