Keywords: Indur N. Goklany; Malthus; economic development; technology; environment; population; affluence; hunger; education
A friend recommended a new book by one Indur M. Goklany (see photo) called The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet. I’ve spent the last few days with it, and now I heartily recommend it to you too. It’s not light reading, but that’s not the point. This book should not be necessary in this day and age — but it is. What the author tries to do is pin down with hard data some facts that run counter to prevailing — extremely dangerous — neo-Malthusian assumptions.
Goklany’s argument no doubt has a hole or two in it but, bless his heart, he’s clearly more right than wrong. And the world is full of people who are promoting harmful policies because they tragically lack a grasp of basic facts that he establishes here with such meticulous care.
(Sometimes I get a cold chill thinking about the potentially horrible consequences of holding a mistaken, but crucial, belief. Imagine, for example, being a Marxist, leading one of the revolutions that took place throughout the twentieth century. Or imagine being a well-meaning but foolish fascist, dedicated to “the cause.” Or becoming a devout suicide bomber, flying into the World Trade Center. Imagine the terrible mistakes that I could make with my life if I don’t hold onto reality! Brrrrr!)
Possibly the most grievously misleading theory still on offer today is the one Malthus created. Goklany has served humankind by disproving its main assumptions, which unfortunately are still assumed by many who acquired university degrees without taking Sociology 101 or a economics or demography course. (You don't come out of those courses as a Malthusian.)
Malthus believed that the natural inclination of human beings was inevitably to reproduce, almost without limit, inevitably running up against the finiteness of food and natural resources, which might be increased somewhat, but never as much as the human population. Only death, disease, and famine would bring our numbers back into balance with nature.
Today we see contemporary versions of the same theory in the notion that humankind is “living beyond the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity.” The predicted outcome of this over-consumption is catastrophic; indeed, the more that economies develop, the faster and more devastating will be the catastrophe. This is because every economic act supposedly uses up nature’s resources and disturbs the pristine beauty of the natural environment. In particular, technology destroys the natural ecosystems that we share with other creatures.
As a corollary of this theory, Malthusians see human beings as ethically obliged to reduce their consumption to a minimum. Indeed, though the human population now numbers 6.5 billion, this is supposedly unsustainable and most of us must, therefore, perish. Nature itself will thin us out, after which the few human survivors must scale down their “ecological footprint” to a much smaller size. We should begin now by consuming, per person, only a small fraction of amount we use today. (I agree that living simply is a virtue, but it does more for the soul than for the preservation of the environment.)
There is a formula that expresses this Malthusian theory: I=PAT. Here, I represents the impact on the environment, P represents the size of the population; A represents affluence (production or consumption per capital), and T represents technological development.
All of these variables have unfavorable meanings to Malthusians, for the impact is supposedly a bad outcome resulting from the combination of population size, affluence, and technology. The Malthusian challenge is to minimize all these factors. However, it is supposedly far too late to bring humankind back into a sustainable relationship with nature. Perhaps, these theorists hope, a million human beings will survive the coming disaster and begin civilization again, living in harmony with nature. Already, right-thinking citizens who care about the planet will seek to halt economic growth and bring the economy into a “steady state.”
Goklany does not believe any of this. He shows the tragic effects that would come to the poor of this planet if economic growth were halted. Numerous graphs display the changes that have taken place in human well-being over time — all of which disprove Malthus’s predictions, as well as the doomsday prophecies of his like-minded successors. In Malthus’s day, the human population numbered about 900 million. It has multiplied seven times over, while vastly improving the food supply per person, along with the average life expectancy, material well-being, educational level, political rights, and overall human development index of humankind.
Whereas Malthusians claim that economic development and technology regularly harm the environment and deplete natural resources, Goklany shows that the impacts are not linear, but almost always take the shape of an “inverted U.” In the early phases of an economic and technological development, the effects do tend to be harmful. But then — usually as the public comes to perceive the pollution or depletion of resources, there are new measures that reduce the damage and the population. As a result, modern urban, technologically advanced societies are healthier, richer, longer-lived, and more comfortable than any other societies that ever existed. There is every prospect that these patterns will continue in the future, unless economic and technological development are unwisely curtailed.
All these variables interact, supporting each others. For example, as Goklany points out,
“wealthier is more educated, less hungry, and healthier. But the converse is also true: more educated, less hungry, and healthier is generally also wealthier. Less hungry and healthier people are more energetic, less prone to absenteeism, and, therefore, more productive in whatever economic activity they undertake.”
Elsewhere Goklany notes that
“as societies have become more affluent, their economies have generally followed a common path growing, first, from an agricultural to an industrial economy and, then, to a knowledge- and service-based economy. ... Affluence also helps establish conditions that moderate population growth rates, and, predictably, the richer nations have lower population growth rates.
I cannot begin to summarize the tables and graphs that Goklany has compiled in this extraordinary work. I can only promise this: a thorough reader will come away with a restored confidence in the unlimited potential of our civilization to feed the hungry, heal the sick, provide political and social rights and freedoms to individuals, educate, protect, and inspire. When we run short of one natural resource, we are capable of replacing it with another. Technology is not our enemy; it is vitally necessary as a way of providing for our collective future. As Goklany writes,
“The richest countries are also the cleanest environmentally, because they have gone past their environmental transitions for most of their environmental problems. The richest countries are returning land to the rest of nature. They have the cleanest air in populated areas both outdoors and, more important, indoors, as well as the cleanest waters. ...
“I contend that one of society’s critical choices is its attitude toward and openness to technological change.”
I agree. Read the book. It may keep you from making the worst mistake of your life.