The world reached two important milestones toward the end of last year. First, the human population passed eight billion in November, a whopping increase of one billion people since 2011. Then, in December, representatives of 188 governments adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, promising to conserve and manage at least 30 percent of the planet for biodiversity and restore 30 percent of currently degraded ecosystems.
Press coverage did not generally link these two events, but it should have. The major driver of plant and animal loss is habitat destruction caused primarily by the encroachment of a swelling human population. More people “has meant that ever more natural habitat is being used for agriculture, mining, industrial infrastructure and urban areas,” says the Royal Society, one of the world's leading scientific groups. About one million plant and animal species are nearing extinction, and at least 1,000 breeds of mammals used for human food and agriculture are threatened.
We ought to have a plan for slowing the destructive surge in human population. But we don't. In fact, many people defend it. Consider a recent Washington Post editorial saying eight billion people is “probably a good thing.” The authors' reasoning: Population has “more than doubled since 1968, and living standards around the world have vastly, though unevenly, improved.” With an ever increasing population, the editorialists write, “millions of new people—with their new ideas and fresh energy—are on the way,” and this will spur innovation that will solve our problems.
This argument is a retread of a theoretical framework that was named cornucopianism in the 1980s. Cornucopians, led by economist Julian Simon and military strategist Herman Kahn, argued that anxiety over limited natural resources is misguided because human ingenuity can overcome any limits. Let populations grow alongside markets operating under minimal government constraints, and people will invent solutions to whatever problems they face.
It's true that technological innovations in the 19th and 20th centuries created more agricultural productivity—enough to feed much of a growing population. But the cornucopian perspective ignores other important facts. For instance, an enormous number of these inventions came into being through government actions. From the canals and railroads of the 19th century to the interstate highways and Internet of the 20th, most large-scale technological achievements have relied, at least in part, on government initiatives and support. Big gains in health and life expectancy stemmed from state investments in scientific research and public health. In the early 21st century the price of renewable solar energy fell dramatically, largely because of state-funded research and policies to help ensure demand.
And although much of our population grew healthily in the 20th century, hundreds of millions died in famines, pandemics and wars. Scientists have been warning us about the risks of anthropogenic climate disruption since the 1950s, but technological progress has not stopped the unfolding climate crisis.
It's both counterfactual and illogical to imagine that more people will solve the problem of too many people. Most population growth is occurring in poor countries, where most people lack educational opportunities that might enable them to develop the kinds of ideas and skills they would need to apply their “fresh energy.” And, as the biodiversity agreement makes clear, the issue isn't just living standards as measured by per capita income. It's also quality of life, which is threatened by widespread degradation and destruction of nature.
Population control is a vexing subject because in the past it has generally been espoused by rich people (mostly men) instructing people in poor countries (mostly women) on how to behave. Prior attempts at limiting population surges have been tainted by racism, sexism and class prejudice. But there are reasonable ways to slow growth. For one, women and girls should have greater access to education. Studies show opportunities to learn are an effective means to slow population increases. Focusing on that goal—which has many other benefits—most likely will produce the fresh energy and ideas that we need across the globe. It is much more realistic than fatuously assuring listeners that in the future, somehow, all will be well.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.