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The End is Nigh…Or Not

October 4, 2013

Reviews of Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott, and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman. This review appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 4, 2013.

Bad news books about the next looming catastrophe have a long literary pedigree that far surpasses those representing good news and progress. As John Stuart Mill noted in 1828: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” The two sage seekers under review here focus primarily on the coming calamities that they project will be the result of overpopulation and resource depletion when our planet reaches ten billion people.

Stephen Emmott is head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, and by his computations when the world hits ten billion people we’re doomed. His conclusion is as colorful as it is misguided: “I think we’re fucked.” He despairs beyond even the most pessimistic of doomsayers. “We urgently need to do—and I mean actually do—something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.” This is an odd little book with one or two short sentences per page that if compressed would barely amount to a magazine article. It flows like a PowerPoint presentation, with text slides alternating with hockey-stick curves of population growth, CO2 levels, global warming, and resource depletion and pictures of overcrowded cities and landfills. There are no references to support any of his claims, and his extrapolations from geometric growth curves are mired in 19th century Malthusian thinking, as if science and technology were stuck in the past and as if time stops in the year 2050.

In fact, the rate of population growth is slowing and in many Western countries there is a birth dearth. For example, the UN projects a 2050 population for Russia of 111 million, down from 147 million in 2000. Europe as a whole will shed 70 million people by 2050 as the current fertility rate of 1.59 children per woman is below the replacement rate of 2.1 (0.1 is added to account for childhood deaths and a small male-biased sex ratio). Half the world now has fertility rates below the replacement rate, with the high end fertility rates of nations such as Niger (7.19), Buinea-Bissau (7.07), Burundi (6.8), and Liberia (6.77) decreasing as they become developed nations, and the low end countries such as Japan (1.27), Singapore (1.26), South Korea (1.21) and Hong Kong (0.97) scrambling to deal with the economics of substantially smaller populations. Many scientists predict that the ten billion figure will drop back down to around where we are now—or lower—by 2100. At the very least, a responsible scientist would include the UN’s own projections of low (6 billion), medium (10 billion) and high (16 billion) world population figures for 2100; instead, Emmott simply presents his own unsubstantiated projection of 28 billion and spindoctors his doomsday scenarios from there.

Worse, environmental extremists like Emmott actually hurt the very movement they want to help by causing thoughtful people to discount more modest works that identify very real problems (such as water resources). When such extreme accounts are debunked—as this book has roundly been—many people tend to discount other books in the genre as more of the same apocalyptic hyperbole. As an antidote to Emmott’s self-proclaimed “rational pessimism” I recommend Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Peter Diamandis’s Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.

At the more reasonable end of the genre’s spectrum is Alan Weisman’s Countdown. His 2007 book, The World Without Us, was a surprise bestseller in creatively imagining (and documenting) what would happen to the planet were all humans to suddenly disappear. Turns out nature would in short order erase pretty much everything we’ve done. Countdown imagines the opposite, and by Weisman’s account, at the rate we’re going nature may very well do what she did in the prequel, given the biological phenomenon of population collapses caused by famine, disease, ecological degradation and—in the case of our species—warfare, pollution and other byproducts of a big-brains. Countdown is a gripping read by a fair-minded investigative journalist who interviewed dozens of people in 21 countries as well as scoured the literature (all well documented) to deliver not so much a doomsday narrative but a warning followed by practical solutions employed by various countries to get control of their population, such as in Iran, where education and incentives for voluntary state-funded birth control stanched their looming overpopulation problem.

Of his interlocutors Weisman asks four basic questions: (1) How many people can our planet hold? (2) Is there an acceptable, nonviolent way to convince people to limit their family size at or below replacement level? (3) How much ecosystem is required to maintain human life (or what can’t we do without?) (4) Can we design an economy with a stable or shrinking population? As Weisman discovers, these are extremely difficult questions to answer and they admit many complications and qualifications. On the first question, for example, the answer very much depends on the standard of living—mud huts or massive mansions—along with a host of related factors, including available local resources or the opportunity to trade for them, political stability and the like, along with the ability to cope with Black Swan events (from extreme weather to economic bubbles).

Weisman defines an “optimum population” as “the number of humans who can enjoy a standard of living that the majority of us would find acceptable,” which he says is European: “far less energy-intensive than the United States or China, far more hospitable than much of Africa or Southeast Asia, and with the highest possible percentage of educated, enabled women—which may be the most effective contraceptive of all.” And that might be the most poignant observation in the entire book.

In the end we would all do well to respect the “Law of Prediction,” described by the population biologist Joel Cohen in his definitive 1995 book How Many People Can the Earth Support? (anywhere from 4–16 billion!): “The more confidence someone places in an unconditional prediction of what will happen in human affairs, the less confidence you should place in that prediction.” Nevertheless, Cohen predicts that by 2100 the world’s population could be back down to six billion with only an average decrease of half a child per woman, an effect that can be achieved by simply educating and enabling women everywhere on Earth.


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