This completes our two-part review of the development and worldview of Joanna Szurmak, whose work with Pierre Desrochers is at the forefront of classical-liberal scholarship in sustainable development.
Q. And the shorter pieces led to something bigger—a book, Population Bombed!
A. Yes. Since Julian Simon’s influence and inspiration was in our minds, in late 2017 we realized that Simon’s nemesis, Paul Ehrlich, was approaching the 50th anniversary of his bestseller, The Population Bomb (1968). This slim book—really a collection of Ehrlich’s lecture notes that his wife and life-long collaborator Anne Ehrlich stitched together into a narrative—became a manifesto to population-control activists around the world.
Like Simon, we disagreed with both the premises and the arguments of those who Pierre likes to call the “population bombers.” But we had been noticing an upsurge in calls to impose controls on world population in the name of environmental health and climate justice. It seemed like a great time to refute the claims that a growing population is, on its own, a threat to humanity’s continued survival on the planet, undermining the Earth’s chances of becoming cleaner and healthier for both humanity and other species.
Q. A book is a hard thing to write, particularly among those of us who research deeply and find new material that we can’t just leave alone.
A. We were both already on it, so to speak. Pierre was working on a report reiterating the differences between Simon’s and Ehrlich’s views in the context of the famous Simon-Ehrlich Wager. Taking advantage of the draft of the report, to which I had already started contributing, we approached the publisher (Global Warming Policy Foundation) to see if it would be possible to expand the report into a longer, co-authored piece also tackling the anniversary of The Population Bomb.
We wanted to present a key argument so rarely available to the contemporary environmental and sustainability audiences: Only a relatively large population able to engage in a complex division of labour in the context of trade, industrialization, and urbanization can reap the benefits of the feedback loop between technological innovation, increased economic prosperity, and population growth.
This feedback loop of intensive growth leads to Earth-sparing developments inherent in dematerialization, re-wilding, and other long-term environmental benefits, but it cannot be established and maintained without a large population. In other words, the most resilient solution for a cleaner earth and better climate, even with the spectre of anthropogenic climate change, is that of intensive growth thanks to, and not in spite of, a large population.
Q. This certainly is in the Simon tradition, but I sense that his argument is being extended. What did Simon see versus your framing?
A. That’s a great question. Simon’s arguments were focused on the general case that more people doing what they are best at, given a rational division of labour, were always better than fewer people forced into self-sufficiency. The more abundant is our human capital (a phrase with such a rich history in economics that is now, apparently, off the table in polite company), the more solutions humanity could offer to forestall crises and solve negative developments.
Climate change would be an example of such a crisis. Simon would argue, as would we, that with more human beings engaged in finding sustainable solutions supporting human flourishing, the more likely that such solutions would arise, get tested, and be implemented in a timely manner.
Simon described his “road to Damascus” moment at a war memorial when he realized the lost potential contributions of all the young men who, had they not been killed in their 20s, would have added in unquantifiable ways to the world by generating ideas, economic output, and life experience.
Robert Zubrin expressed this position lucidly in his 2012 work where he asked rhetorically which of the two, Louis Pasteur or Thomas Edison, should not have been born in an effort to reduce population.
Q. So how did you tackle the argument in the context of a book?
A. The book extended these fundamental insights in four ways:
First, we sketched out the history of the rival intellectual perspectives for and against innovation and growth, showing that this clash for worldviews is not new, nor is the worry about overpopulation and running out of resources.
We then showed how the neo-Malthusian population-control perspective equates fossil-fuel-driven growth (of both the economy and the population) with the catastrophic breaching of limits in a zero-sum universe, effectively re-using old catastrophist language to introduce a new issue into an old – and previously refuted – argument.
Thirdly, we emphasized the feedback loop between intensive growth (in the economic sense), increasing worldwide prosperity, technological innovation that truly accelerated with fossil fuel use, and the growth of population in the industrializing countries. The factors, in fact, are interdependent and inconceivable without each other.
Moreover, we argue that it is because of the technological acceleration, and because there are more people who are interconnected – all thanks to the fossil-fuel based energy and the industrial and communication infrastructure – that such phenomena as increasing urbanization, demographic transition (interwoven with better education and healthcare), re-wilding and dematerialization are taking place.
Finally, we argued that these phenomena are of key importance; they are the long-range payoffs of our Great Acceleration. Abandoning the infrastructure that brought humanity to the point of unrivalled prosperity, technological flexibility, and, for the first time ever, the ability to thrive in any physical setting on earth, is civilizational suicide.
When threatened by issues such as climate change, a larger but much more prosperous humanity has a better chance at weathering and, in fact, solving the environmental crisis not in spite of, but because of the greater numbers of educated, healthy and well-fed individuals. This is an insight straight out of Simon. We marry it with the argument that this unprecedented human family has the best chance of surviving and thriving if it uses the fossil fuel infrastructure as a stepping-stone to a greater future stability, flexibility and resilience.
Q. Where did the Ehrlich et al., school become misled?
A. The population numbers and densities proposed by environmental catastrophists are all based on pre-industrial population estimates, showing a lack of understanding for the economic and technological underpinnings of all technological solutions, including the kinds of renewable technologies recently exposed by the Michael Moore-backed documentary Planet of the Humans (2020).
Without the critical mass of humanity to power the technologies moving us past survival, people will be back to environmentally exploitative subsistence strategies that will be more damaging to the planet, in the long run, than a high but stabilizing urban population working towards a post-industrial economy.
Q. This gets from a fixed knowledge, repetitive economy to an evolutionary, process, progress economy….
A. Yes. While magical environmental thinking abounds in literature, our book was meant to demonstrate that the static concept of “balance with nature” is as much of a crude approximation as equilibrium models in economics.
Any momentary appearance of stasis is a result of dynamic processes always emergent and pushing against each other. As we wrote the book, I started seeing the bias of contemporary environmentalists as asymptotic thinking that fixes us into an eternity of solving the limits of an equation at a time t held constant, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Q. How has the reaction been to Population Bombed!?
A. In one word, disappointing.
We were braced for vitriolic critiques and heated responses from the eco-pessimist, catastrophist majority in the academia and the commentariat. But despite some talks we gave and a few detailed reviews, including yours, the book has generated little attention.
Perhaps this may be attributed to the fact that academics are not great at being their own publicists, and our publisher specializes in policy reports, not books. In fact, ours was the first book they had published.
We did benefit from excellent – thorough and insightful – copyediting. We were also fortunate to inspire the creativity of the digital artist who nailed our book cover.
Our book did make the short list of the prestigious Canadian public policy book award, the 2018-2019 Donner Prize on May 1, 2019. While we did not win the top prize, being named one of the five top non-fiction books in the broad policy arena remains an achievement.
Q. The muted reaction—and certainly the lack of fair, penetrating evaluation from the other side—should not be surprising. This was done with Bjorn Lomborg until favorable reviews appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, which caught the Malthusians by surprise.
A. It is generous of you, indeed, to bring up Bjorn Lomborg’s work in this context. You are absolutely right to note that insightful evaluations tend to take a longer time from book publication to analysis than does the dismissive, immediate criticism we so often see in response to anything that does not match the official narrative.
Perhaps Pierre and I are not helping ourselves by packing as much as possible into every page, footnoting generously as we go. But scholarship should beget scholarship.
Bjorn Lomborg’s work is exemplary at synthesizing the quantitative impacts of specific climate policies. Pierre and I are hoping that in time, readers will see our work as a synthesis of intellectual perspectives on the question of population control as (bad) policy for climate change. For this to happen, however, we must attract a critical mass of readers.
Q. Yes. And MasterResource wants to help reach the next generation.
A. In history of science, and specifically in scientometrics, the discipline that measures the spread and impact of published scholarly work, we have the concept of the “sleeping Beauty,” an article that attracts no attention for a while – sometimes for decades – but is rediscovered by a wider audience once an influential author cites it in a new context.
Even though Jane Jacobs’s work was truly rocking the urban planning literature, it was invisible to economists working on development and growth until Robert Lucas used her work in an influential 1988 paper.
Perhaps our book will be a “Sleeping Beauty” as well, needing a catalyst citation to gain exposure. Perhaps one of your readers, Rob, will take it to the next level.
Q. Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans was ignored for the year between its preview and release on Facebook with free viewing. Once the views piled up—one million, two million, eight million—the other side did the predictable: find its weakest parts to insinuate that the whole project was flawed and illegitimate.
A. Moore did struggle to find a distributor, as far as Pierre knows. The film’s preview was rather limited and created something of a backlash among Moore’s supporters. It was not until Earth Day 2020 when we were all sitting out the pandemic stay-at-home orders that someone on Moore’s team had the brilliant idea to release the film freely.
While we do have a relatively niche British publisher (GWPF), when compared to the troubled history of the Moore documentary, we have had it easy.
I’m afraid that in the case of our book, many potential readers will likely not get to the wealth of historical narratives they might find stimulating because they tend to reject the premise of our work out of hand. When I admit in conversation that I don’t think overpopulation is a problem, I lose a listener immediately, and not just for that conversation. I am permanently branded as irrational, deluded, or a corporate hack. Or all of the above, and then some.
Q. We need rational conversation and scholarship.
A. That’s why I tend to start conversations about the book gently, feeling out what are the firm ideological limits of my audience, and which issues allow us room for a stretch. We all work within our cognitive biases….
As I see our colleagues accept the narrative of limits implicitly and never question the zero-sum game assumptions of the neo-Malthusian arguments they reflexively reach for, I sometimes despair that our book is a great resource for people who are curious enough to ask why or how would anyone write an optimist work defending economic and population growth in the time of climate change. Bingo! That’s a great conversation starter. But that kind of intellectual flexibility seems like a lot to ask for.
In our case, the assumption – not even the insinuation – that our project is flawed and illegitimate seems to be the default reaction, not the “evidence-based” position of those who have read it.
Q. This is a sad commentary on intellectual endeavor. Most of us are inspired and rewarded by presenting the best arguments. But the other side wants to ignore and holistically denigrate.
A. We need rational conversation and scholarship. My dream would be to see researchers in every discipline doing work that is motivated first and foremost by the desire to test unpopular hypotheses about our pressing issues – in energy, environment and demographics – and not by what will secure their funding.
This would be research open to falsification according to the Popperian ideal, research that is done with reproducibility in mind and can be published even if – o horror! – its results are not statistically significant. This is not a lot to ask for….
It goes without saying that I would embrace the results of such research even if they would necessitate that Pierre and I reconsider and re-write parts or all of Population Bombed!
Q. How about media exposure?
A. This did not materialize either. To be fair to our fellow short-listed Donner Prize authors, it may be easier to hit the news with a book about police brutality, indigenous issues, or universal basic income than with a speed run through decades of climate activism and population policy.
Q. Still, this is a very young book with staying power. And you are in the middle of promoting it.
Q. For scholars, one thing leads to another. What are your current research interests and activities?
A. Pierre and I have extensive documentation for a second edition of Population Bombed! But this is not the next project on my plate.
At around the time I started working on the book, I found the confidence to go back to graduate school for my PhD, but this time in the correct field: history and philosophy of science repackaged as science and technology studies at York University in Toronto.
Now that I have passed my comprehensive examination, I am about half-way in my journey to document the widely dispersed and fascinating traces of Jane Jacobs’ influence in various areas of economic thought.
Q. The Jacobs project is great news—and can be the subject of a future interview with you here at MasterResource. And an expanded edition of Population Bombed! –I see treatise potential in that 250-page book.
A. Knowing Pierre, we will be hard at work on Population Bombed II even before my PhD defense!
Finishing your question, the two projects I’m presently working on are a final revision of my doctoral research proposal and the preparation of a conference talk on Jacobs’s thought on the socio-economic promise of the future.
While I will have to address my least favourite of Jacobs’s works, Dark Age Ahead, I plan to focus on the many strands of optimist thought in Jacobs’s output, spanning theories of spontaneous urban innovation, discussed previously by Pierre, Sanford Ikeda, and, through a different lens, by Peter J. Taylor.
There is also Jacobs’s insightful take on the clash of perspectives between the innovators and the guardians found in Systems of Survival.
Q. So Jacobs’s work is complementary to the Simon-versus-Ehrlich clash? She is mentioned several times in Population Bombed!
A. Yes, I am responsible for dragging Jane Jacobs into Simon-Ehrlich territory. Jacobs’s illuminating Systems of Survival description of the two complementary moral syndromes, the Commercial/Trader and the Guardian/Raider, had caught the interest of the regional science scholar Peter J. Taylor before I had found it invaluable in Pierre’s and my work.
Jacobs had defined the syndromes as part of the interplay between different ways of making a living. Her key question was: Why are there diametrically opposed value systems in our society? She found that the two syndromes define what is necessary to make sense of mutually exclusive sets of activities and pursuits.
The Traders and the Raiders are like the yin and the yang: two value systems that are mutually exclusive in their daily practice but that need the support and the existence of the other for a stable and generative society to exist. Societies suffer when one set of values eclipses the other.
When I read Jacobs, I realized she was characterizing what amounted to different intellectual and moral perspectives. In our book, Pierre and I were describing value-based perspectives as well when contrasting Ehrlich’s and Simon’s views.
Upon closer examination, the values of Jacobs’s Guardians correlated with those of neo-Malthusians and eco-catastrophists like Ehrlich. Simon’s values aligned more closely with those of the Commercial syndrome. Bringing Jacobs’s insight helped us to see just how fundamental and how emotionally entrenched these perspectives are.
Q. And more on your second project?
A. The clash of perspectives and the ability of humanity to integrate new information into existing knowledge structures are perennial interests of mine. They underlie so much of what happens around the rise and failure of innovation.
I’m hoping to publish something on the difficulty of accepting the optimist viewpoint on population and climate change in the fall issue of Breakthrough Journal.
Q. Thank you Joanna. There is so much ahead for you as a rising figure in classical-liberal scholarship in the all-important area of sustainable development and human progress. We will be watching.
A. Thank you Rob.