The One-sided Worldview of Eco-Pessimists

By Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers – Re-Blogged From Quillette

The Pull of Environmental Narratives

In his critique of Hans Rosling’s optimistic take on the human condition (which Rosling co-authored with son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund),1 Christian Berggren scolds the late professor of international health for ignoring negative trends and for dodging the “preconditions and ecological consequences of the current techno-economic regime” as well as the risks inherent to “continued global population growth.” As Berggren further argues in the longer paper on which his Quillette essay is based, the Roslings illustrate the philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s apocryphal statement that “You do not see with your eyes; you see with your interests.” In this, he claims, the authors of Factfulness failed to present “the world and how it really is.”

Are Berggren’s critique and worldview any more accurate? His facts and positions are squarely in the lineage of thinkers such as Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), William Vogt (1902–1968) and Paul Ehrlich (1932– ) who view human activities as inherently constrained by ecological limits. Environmental policy analyst John S. Dryzek2 labeled this perspective the survivalist discourse; it opposed the Promethean perspective developed by the likes of William Godwin (1756–1836), Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), Henry George (1839–1897) and Julian Simon (1932–1998). Prometheans like the Roslings posit that humanity can, and should, apply the intellects of its most creative individuals and the synergistic effects of large groups of people working to transform the environment in order to improve its lot.

Other sets of names and descriptions exist3 for both discourses but the most accessible are pessimists and optimists. While these perspectives are far from monolithic, their main narratives remain deeply at odds with one another over a significant point: the role of humanity in environmental change. The philosopher Alex Epstein4 contrasted them as follows: Pessimists see the goal of human activity as minimizing human impacts; optimists understand the goal of human activity to be maximizing human flourishing.

The Roslings’ book and Berggren’s critique are good proxies for the assumptions, goals, and values of their respective discourses. Since Berggren challenged the optimistic Roslings’ grasp of reality, we will sketch out the pessimistic narrative he employed, showing how his critique, in turn, failed to present “the world and how it really is.”

The More Times Change, the More Pessimist Rhetoric Stays the Same

Berggren does not deny irrefutable standard-of-living improvements nor dispute that, in market economies, ordinary people are now more numerous, healthier, and wealthier than before, and that every resource for which there is a sustained demand has become more abundant. He does, however, warn that recent progress is unsustainable because of nature’s limited capacity to absorb toxic emissions and to provide for an increasingly numerous middle class wishing for things like cars and meat. His stance of acknowledging some recent progress while decrying its unsustainable character, however, is the oldest rhetorical strategy of the pessimists.

For instance, the pessimistic economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883) had to acknowledge that Thomas Robert Malthus’s proposition that “population tends to outstrip the means of subsistence,” if interpreted as meaning that “population does increase faster than the means of subsistence,” was clearly “not true of England at the present day” and was also debatable in the case of India. In 1954, the chemist and eugenicist Harrison Brown (1917–1986), the mentor of the Obama administration’s science czar John Holdren, acknowledged that the “disaster which Malthus foresaw for the Western World did not occur” and that Malthus’s poor predictive track record would qualify him as “incompetent.”5 Closer to us, the prominent environmental activist Bill McKibben acknowledged that “[n]o prophet has ever been proved wrong more times” than Malthus.

Toynbee, McKibben, and Brown, however, saw all of this as irrelevant because of present-day problems that would soon prove catastrophic. In earlier generations these typically revolved around soil erosion and air and water pollution. Needless to say, McKibben has thrown in his lot with human-induced climate change and the catastrophes it has allegedly induced such as droughts, floods, and wildfires. Not surprisingly though, past catastrophic weather was once blamed on everything  from religious insubordination to the deployment of the lightning rod, wireless telegraphy, First World War ordnance, atomic tests, and supersonic flights. A few decades ago, the kind of evidence now marshalled by McKibben was used to support the hypothesis of anthropogenic global cooling due to particulate air pollution. To give but one illustration, in his influential 1976 book The Cooling, science journalist Lowell Ponte invoked frost damage at coffee plantations in Brazil, the expansion of the Sahara Desert, crop failures in the Soviet Union, severe floods in the American northeast, and severe droughts in the American southwest to prove his point. Global cooling, Ponte argued on the basis of this evidence, “present[ed] humankind with the most important social, political, and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for ten thousand years.”6 Like today, most of the preferred policy solutions of cooling advocates revolved around reducing economic activities and implementing population control.

Whatever one’s stance on human ability to cope with the “global climate disruption,” Berggren and other pessimists have failed to consider that past beneficial trends and subsequent progress were achieved, not in spite of the growing human numbers, but precisely because of them. As we will now argue, the pessimists’ mistake is to assume that greater wealth and material consumption necessarily translate into greater environmental damage.

Model Tautologies

The key point in the pessimist narrative is the existence of hard environmental limits to human development. Such limits are illustrated using a number of metaphors and frameworks, most prominently the I=PAT equation (Environmental Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology), the Ecological Footprint and the Planetary Boundaries frameworks. Berggren critiqued the Roslings’ failure to acknowledge the results of such environmental modeling, citing the Global Footprint Network’s description of human activities as “exceed[ing] the capacity of nature to rebuild the resources consumed.”

Many analysts have long expressed serious reservations about these frameworks because of their inherent biases against population growth and economic development. Ecosocialists Ian Angus and Sean Butler thus described the I=PAT framework as “what accountants call an identity, an expression that is always true by definition. [Paul] Ehrlich and [John] Holdren didn’t prove that impact equals population times affluence times technology—they simply defined it that way… based on their opinion that population growth is the ultimate cause… of other problems.”7

Similarly, the Ecological Footprint has been defined to embody the strong sustainability perspective with respect to carbon dioxide emissions. To be neutral, any human-caused increase in atmospheric concentration of CO2 is said to require a forested area sufficiently large to absorb all the emissions. Bill Rees, one of its creators, acknowledged that the framework was deliberately built to counter the view that “because of technological advances, the human economy is ‘dematerializing’ or ‘decoupling’ from the natural world.” By definition, thus, the Ecological Footprint penalizes the use of modern technologies that deliver more outputs using fewer inputs and deems less urbanized and less industrialized countries—where people are less healthy and ecosystems under much greater human pressure as a result of low-yield subsistence agriculture, lack of alternatives to fuelwood, and greater consumption of game meat—as being more sustainable. One critique stated: “The footprints of all the industrialized countries are artificially inflated […] purely because they are efficient and get high yields.”

Eco-Pessimism and Population Control: Whither Reproductive Justice?

Hans Rosling suggested that a growing population is “fundamentally unproblematic,” and cannot be controlled because “[p]eople are free and decide themselves.” Berggren declares this untenable. For most pessimists, these notions are anathema and thus warrant a rebuttal based on a somewhat specious interpretation of the 2017 UN population report. For instance, while the report stated that “[t]he current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100” and that “the upward trend in population size is expected to continue, even assuming that fertility levels will continue to decline,” Berggren enhances those trends to fit his narrative. His characterization includes both descriptive language and population figures absent from the original text, including his emphasis on the fact that “the world’s population will rise sharply,” and that population growth might reach up to “thirteen billion by 2100,” nearly doubling the UN estimates.

Berggren also fails to discuss other relevant trends, for instance that “during 2010–2015, fertility was below the replacement level in 83 countries comprising 46 percent of the world’s population,” or that the predicted rising trend in world population depends on a combination of factors including “substantial improvements in life expectancy” and decreasing child mortality around the world. An appreciable component of population growth is thus due to the failure of people to die as early rather than to a world quickly filling up with babies. In this light, his rhetoric of birth reduction, when aimed at the portion of the world that has been failing to grow, seems tone-deaf while his calls for socially engineered birth control campaigns in Africa, where fertility is above the replacement rate, bring to mind earlier, often eugenics-inspired, coercive population control policies in developing economies. This is most conspicuous when Berggren suggests: “Effective family planning played a big part in the decrease in fertility—from Iran to China to Korea. In China, fertility was halved before economic development took off, contributing to its rapid improvement in productivity and reduction of poverty.”

Writers such as the anthropologist Carole H. Browner have long disagreed with this assessment. Building on the work of other development scholars, she has argued that “the myth of overpopulation was one of the most pervasive in Western culture, so compelling mainly because of its simplicity” even though there never was “much evidence that the South even had a ‘population problem.’” This, however, never prevented governments and international agencies from promoting “the idea that the widespread use of contraception would bring about a smaller, healthier, wealthier, and a more politically stable world.” In many cases “[c]oercive practices were intrinsic” to most programs, despite the fact that “fertility was already declining in most of the world before family planning programs, much less coercive ones, really gained momentum.”8

Whereas Berggren claims, without citing specific sources or numbers, that “family planning played a big part in the decrease in fertility” and that, in effect, this decrease in fertility caused prosperity to increase rather than the other way around, most credible studies on the topic suggest, to the contrary, that population control programs reduced fertility levels by perhaps between 5 and 15 percent.

Population Growth to the Rescue!

Unlike the pessimist perspective, the case for the economic, social, and environmental benefits of population and hydrocarbon-powered economic growth is far from intuitive. It is nonetheless long-standing and vindicated by the historical evidence. Its key insight is that humans broke from other animals by engaging in the trade of physical goods and by developing the capacity to innovate through the recombination of existing things in new ways. Turning Malthus on his head, Friedrich Engels (of The Communist Manifesto fame) argued in 1844 that science “advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation” and therefore “also in a geometrical progression.” As the economist Fritz Machlup (1902–1983) put it over a century later, “the more that is invented the easier it becomes to invent still more” because “every new invention furnishes a new idea” and the “number of possible combinations increases geometrically with the number of elements at hand.”

As a result of these unique human traits, a larger population that engages in trade and the division of labor will create more prosperity, per person, than fewer people working alone. To modify an old metaphor, humanity does not just pick the low hanging fruit, expending more resources and creating more pollution in a futile attempt to get at the remaining few. Instead, humanity turns to creating orchards with more productive and easier to tend trees that grow tastier and more durable apples.

As documented most famously by the development economist Ester Boserup (1910–1999), even in poor economies increased numbers triggered improved agricultural innovation and higher productivity because “population density facilitates the division of labour and the spread of communications and education. The important corollary of this is that primitive communities with sustained population growth have a better chance to get into a process of genuine economic development than primitive communities with stagnant or declining population.”9 Boserup further observed that “the need to feed larger populations led to technology transfers from one society to another or to the invention of new methods and tools.”10

The history of technology in market economies makes it abundantly clear that humans routinely came up with methods that increased the efficiency of agriculture, resource extraction, industry, transportation, and communications. Instead of releasing more toxic effluents into the environment over time, people did the reverse. This happened spontaneously because of a few recurring processes: increased efficiency, resource creation, and transformation of waste into valuable by-products. Another key piece of the optimistic argument is that in the last two centuries humans have increasingly replaced resources extracted from the surface of the planet (for instance, fuelwood, lumber, rubber trees, wool, indigo plants, whale oil, animal labor) with resources that ultimately originated from below it (for instance, transportation and heating fuels, plastics, synthetic rubber, fabrics, and dyes), in the process delivering greater material wealth while sparing nature and allowing numerous ecosystems to recover from past human exploitation. A few vignettes will illustrate this.

On the Environmental Benefits of Hydrocarbon-Based Development

Synthetic products are typically frowned upon by pessimists because of the raw materials (at first coal, later petroleum and natural gas) they are derived from, their persistent nature, and their non-renewable character. Yet, as the historical demographer Edward Anthony Wrigley observed nearly 50 years ago, their development allowed one sector after another to become “independent from the soil,” thus “by-passing of the bottleneck” caused by the limited supply of flora and fauna humans could draw upon.11

For instance, the first significant commodity created out of petroleum in the late 1850s was kerosene used as a substitute for whale oil in lighting. No matter how they distilled petroleum, however, early refiners were left with a polluting residue. In short order, innovations raised the marketable yield from about 50 percent to about 75 percent through the creation of by-products such as lubricating oils, greases, paraffin, petroleum jelly (better known by the trademark Vaseline), candles, insect repellents, and solvents. Unfortunately, (light) gasoline and most heavy residuals remained problematic.12

By the end of the nineteenth century, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil chemists and inventors had turned most remaining residues into lucrative and ultimately environment-sparing solutions through the development of approximately 200 by-products.13 For instance, in 1861, petroleum-derived paraffin was introduced into the pharmaceutical industry as a substitute for spermaceti (the highest grade of whale oil), almond oil, and lard. By 1870, it had supplanted spermaceti as the main laundry sizing while gaining market shares in textile manufacturing, lumber production, and by displacing natural rubber in waterproofing.14 The advent of electric lighting and of the internal combustion engine soon revolutionized the petroleum product market by turning gasoline into the main product of refining operations, which, in conjunction with the later development of the diesel engine and fuel, allowed the replacement of countless horses and mules and the liberation of the agricultural land required to feed them. Even natural gas, once flared for safety reasons, had by the early twentieth century been led “through piping for hundreds of miles to feed hungry furnaces engaged in the making of steel and other products.’”

As was widely understood at the time, the main challenge of by-product development was that it required “the greatest specialization of methods, encouragement of invention, investment of capital, and extension of plant,” something beyond the capacity of small operations. In his 1908 book Wealth from Waste, the pastor George Powell Perry thus attributed such transformative success to the “wise use of that which was once regarded worthless” rather than to “financial shenanigans and deceptive practices.”15

Conclusion: What If “We Are what the Biosphere Is Making Right Now”? 16

In a scathing critique of a rant against the industrial economy, the British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859) observed in 1830: “ [T]hough in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. […] On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

While Christian Berggren is but the latest pessimist to invite Macaulay’s criticism, his lack of understanding of the uniquely complex and ultimately beneficial roles played by both population growth and the evolution of carbon fuel-based technologies guarantees him a place in the overflowing pantheon of mistaken pessimistic thinkers. In the short run, fossil-fuel-powered economic development remains the only proven way to lift, and keep, a large number of people out of poverty, to build resilience against a changing climate, and to ensure a sustained reduction of humanity’s direct impact on its environment. Berggren’s call to arbitrarily stall both economic development and population growth will paradoxically help hasten the problems he wants to avoid.

Both Berggren and the Roslings have illuminated two very different views of the world. But what about the world as “it really is”?  Seeing through the lens of a discourse is what people do. It is what we did even as we prepared our response. Could pessimists like Berggren agree to factor human development and innovation into their models? The future of humanity might depend on acknowledging and synthesizing perspectival insights, not combating them. Since “we are what the biosphere is making right now,” to paraphrase the astrophysicist Adam Frank, we may have to embrace our inevitable role in environmental change to move on.



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