The Royal Society’s ‘People And The Planet’

Thursday, 26 April 2012 09:58 Matt Ridley

John Sulston’s committee argues that the more people there are and the richer they are, the more resources they consume. True. But it does not follow that the damage they do to the planet is greater. In important ways it gets less.

Why are many ecological and conservation problems worst in poor countries?  Haiti is 98% deforested, and parts of Africa are seeing the devastation of wildlife populations, whereas in Europe and North America, forests cover is increasing, rivers and lakes are getting cleaner and deer numbers are rising.  It is now more than 150 years since a native European bird species went globally extinct.

Some of that is because rich countries export their problems.  But more of it is because economic development leads to a switch to using resources that no other species needs or wants (iron ore, oil, uranium, radio frequencies), instead of taking resources from living nature.  Above a certain average level, income correlates negatively with many kinds of ecological damage as countries can afford to devote money to conservation. (China just passed that level and is reforesting again.)

Contrast Haiti, which relies on biomass (wood) for cooking and industry, with its much (literally) greener neighbour the Dominican Republic, which subsidises propane for cooking to save forest. Contrast the spasm of megafaunal extinction caused by early hunter-gatherers in America with the resurgence of deer, wolves, beaver and bald eagles there today ­made possible by the fact that people don’t need to eat them or wear their skins.

Above all, economic growth leads to a more sparing use of the most important of all resources – land.  As Helmut Haberl has shown, fertilizer and irrigation can vastly increase the productivity of ecosystems in rich countries sometimes more than compensating for the theft of calories for human consumption and thus not just sparing land for wildlife, but potentially enhancing wild ecosystems.  It is entirely possible that this century will see ecological restoration gradually get the upper hand over ecological destruction, but only if people move to cities, further intensify farm yields, use oil instead of biofuels, un-dam rivers to replace hydro with gas or nuclear, build with steel and glass rather than timber and so forth. Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.  Remember: no non-renewable resource has yet run out, whereas several renewable ones have: great auks, for example.

Of course, if human populations were smaller there would be less impact on the planet’s resources.  But since voluntary mass suicide does not appeal to people, the key question is: what level of economic activity leads to lowest birth rates? The surprising answer from all continents over 200 years is: the higher the better – though of course other factors also matter.  As babies stop dying, people have fewer of them.


The Guardian, 26 April 2012

10.39am: I’ve just received the thoughts of Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, Green Party candidate and host of the Carbon Commentary blog:

What an astonishingly weak, cliché ridden report this is (the Royal Society’s report noted below).  Who let the miserabilists into Carlton House Terrace? ‘Consumption’ to blame for all our problems? Growth is evil? But in the UK and other similar countries, water use is down, travel and car ownership down, metals use down, cement use down, calorie consumption and meat eating is falling.
We’re going to run out of minerals, they imply? Total rubbish. With the exception of copper, there is easily enough to last infinitely. 5% of earth’s crust is iron, for goodness sake, and 7% aluminium. ‘Rare earths’ are more abundant in the crust than copper.
We want people to be rich if we are stop stressing the planet, not poor. A rich economy with technological advances is needed for radical decarbonisation. I do wish scientists would stop using their hatred of capitalism as an argument for cutting consumption.

Written by: Matt Ridley

Mark Lynas, the author of The God Species, which explores the issue of “planetary boundaries”, has now blogged on the Royal Society report. Here’s a taster:

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 to 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 consumption for the poorest…In actual fact the stock of natural resources (natural capital) change both because of consumption patterns and technology…
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.