Another doomsday report – Simon redux

Shades of Paul Ehrlich: WWF in a new report says that the earth cannot support its human population, especially those in the developed world with their insatiable appetite and unsustainable lifestyle.

WWF’s report states:

“Since the late 1980s, we have been in overshoot — the Ecological Footprint has exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity — as of 2003 by about 25 per cent. Effectively, the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand — people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources. Humanity is no longer living off nature’s interest, but drawing down its capital. This growing pressure on ecosystems is causing habitat destruction or degradation and permanent loss of productivity, threatening both biodiversity and human well-being.”

I thought that Julian Simon had decisively debunked doomsday views about the carrying capacity of the earth, especially in his Ultimate Resource (1981) and Ultimate Resource 2 (1996) — and, of course, in his famous bet with Ehrlich.

Here what Simon said in his introduction to the 1996 revision:

‘As you reflect upon the arguments of the doomsters with which “As you reflect upon the arguments of the doomsters with which this book takes issue, you may notice a peculiar contradiction: On the one hand, the doomsters say that there are too many of us; on the other hand, they warn that we are in danger of most of us being wiped out. Usually, a larger number of members of a species is greater protection against being wiped out. Hence there is an apparent contradiction.

“The doomsters reply that because there are more of us, we are eroding the basis of existence, and rendering more likely a “crash” due to population “overshoot”; that is, they say that our present or greater numbers are not sustainable. But the signs of incipient catastrophe are absent. Length of life and health are increasing, supplies of food and other natural resources are becoming ever more abundant, and pollutants in our environment are lessening.

“In reply, the doomsters point to vaguer signs of environmental disruption. I confess that I see none of the signs that they point to except those that have nothing to do with the “carrying capacity” of the earth – I do see profound changes in society and civilization, most of which can be interpreted as either good or bad, and which are entirely within our own control. But you the reader will decide for yourself whether those claims of the doomsters are convincing to you in light of the issues that we can discuss objectively, and that are taken up in the book.”

But — even though “doomster” Ehrlich’s predictions themselves bombed — Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and its Malthusian thesis lives on.