A Free-Market Energy Blog

Population Bombed! (revisiting a modern classic)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 22, 2021

“You have been led to water–please drink and pass the cup. The Malthusian worldview, while stubbornly mainstream, is in trouble. Studying Population Bombed! is the road to optimism–and away from the road to serfdom.”

A very important book has turned three years old. Population Bombed!: Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change (Global Warming Policy Foundation: 2018) by Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurkmak is a tour-de-force, with a deepness of research and full presentation that is missing from almost all books on sustainable development.

The authors should be familiar to readers at MasterResource. A two-part interview with Ms. Szurmak is here and here; with Pierre Desrochers here.

The authors have usefully provided a summary of their book, inviting one and all to read and assess, pro or con. This is a book that should not be ignored, and one that will stand the test of time.

Their summary follows:

The introduction [Chapter 1] shows how prominent individuals (including Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Gates) have linked climate change to population growth and called for population control policies.

Chapter 2 summarizes the key historical arguments for and against population growth and their links to environmental health, resource depletion, and economic development.

Pessimists believe that:

  • In a finite world, continued demographic and economic expansion is impossible.
  • Everything else being equal, a reduced population will enjoy a higher standard of living.
  • Decreasing returns will always apply to natural resource use. In a world where resources are finite, the cream will always be skimmed first and developing more remote mineral deposits or less fertile lands will become increasingly more expensive and more environmentally damaging.
  • Technological innovation and synthetic products cannot do away with the need for natural resources. Manufactured substitutes, including fossil fuel based ones, such as plastics, cannot extend the Earth’s finite capacity to supply the needs of human beings. Population control must be given priority: reducing humanity’s drain on natural resources is the only way to avert catastrophe.
  • Past successes in overcoming natural limits are irrelevant to present conditions. Every generation believes that a new global environmental catastrophe changes everything and warrants severe constraints on population and economic growth.

Optimists believe that:

  • A larger population that engages in trade and the division of labor will create more prosperity, per person, than fewer people working alone. A larger, denser population creates economies of scale that make both resource use and human labor more efficient and productive.
  • Human creativity delivers increasing returns. Human beings routinely come up with progressively less damaging ways of doing things that increase the efficiency of agriculture, resource extraction, industry, transportation and communications.
  • Human standards of living are not completely constrained by local resources. Biological metaphors and ecological concepts such as carrying capacity do not apply to economic systems because of trade, innovation, and ongoing optimization of resource use.
  • Past successes are grounds for optimism. Of the 7.6 billion people now alive, fewer live in abject poverty than ever before; nature is rebounding despite larger and wealthier populations.

Chapter 3 compares the predictions made by pessimists and optimists over the last two centuries. The evidence is clear: the pessimists have been repeatedly and decisively proven wrong, often sooner rather than later.

In market economies people have became more numerous, healthier and wealthier while resources have become more abundant than ever. In advanced economies the environment is cleaner than it has been in centuries while in the most prosperous developing economies similar positive trends are beginning to emerge.

The pessimists have only been proven right in the context of centrally planned communist and socialist economies where people have become poorer and the environment increasingly worse over time.

Chapter 4 explains how positive results were achieved spontaneously via market activities and humanity’s increasing use of fossil fuels. The key processes behind these trends are:

  • Increased efficiency: Creative individuals have every incentive to save resources by developing processes that generate more or better outputs using fewer inputs.
  • Resource creation: When reserves of key resources start to run low, their prices increase. This automatically encourages people to use the resource more efficiently, but also to look for more of it and to develop more efficient and plentiful substitutes.
  • Transformation of waste into valuable by-products: Far from rewarding wasteful behaviour, such as polluting the environment, the profit motive has always encouraged people to create lucrative by-products out of waste materials.

These processes are discussed in detail through a number of historical developments, showcasing their key environmental benefit: the replacement of resources extracted from the surface of the planet (for instance, fuelwood, lumber, rubber trees, wool, indigo plants, whale oil, animal labor) by resources that ultimately originated from below (for instance, transportation and heating fuels; plastics; synthetic rubber, fabrics and dyes).

Chapter 5 demonstrates that the main pessimistic intellectual frameworks (‘IPAT’, ecological footprint and planetary boundaries) have significant conceptual flaws. Alleged negative future outcomes, along with extreme climate change scenarios, are built into their assumptions.

Instead of objective actual evidence of environmental harm, they reiterate these assumptions in a circular fashion, playing the role of axioms or tautologies, not unbiased scientific practices. Furthermore, population control advocates take for granted both the unique benefits of fossils fuels and of large population numbers while downplaying or being blissfully unaware of the full costs and implications of their policy recommendations.

Chapter 6 is a reflection on why, after two centuries of repeating the same arguments and being proven wrong, population control activists and sustainable development theorists remain wedded to a demonstrably false worldview and are unwilling to address anything more than a simplistic caricature of their opponents’ case.

We use evidence from behavioural science, political science, sociology and economics to show how even demonstrably false worldviews become entrenched intellectual positions. We examine the self-preservation mechanisms behind the survival of the iron triangle, we delve into the consequences of confirmation bias and motivated scepticism, and we dissect disciplinary mindsets.

In addition, we offer a discussion of the limits and promises of scientific research and publication, highlighting how all the cognitive practices and biases may shape, and in the end distort, a scientist’s motivation to gather and disseminate knowledge, to the point of turning it into an elitist’s yearning to control and condemn.

Our Conclusion reiterates our case for both population growth and fossil fuel-powered economic development as the only practical way, now and in the near future, to lift much of humanity out of poverty, to build resilience against any downsides of increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and to make possible a sustained reduction of humanity’s impact on its environment.

You have been led to water–please drink and pass the cup. The Malthusian worldview, while stubbornly mainstream, is in trouble. Studying Population Bombed! is the road to optimism–and away from the road to serfdom.

Other notable articles by Desrochers and Szurmak include:

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