Background

Many scholars, writers, activists and policy-makers have linked growth in population to environmental degradation, especially catastrophic climate change.

They argue that:

  • A more numerous and increasingly affluent population creates a growing demand for resources of all kinds. This increased demand requires increased combustion of fossil fuels.
  • Burning ever larger quantities of these fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas) increases atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels said to cause catastrophic global warming.
  • Because having fewer children is the best way for people to reduce their overall environmental impact, curbing population growth is the most effective way to prevent dangerous climate change.

In the words of business magnate Ted Turner:

We have global warming because too many people are using too much stuff. If there were less [sic] people, they’d be using less stuff.

In the last few years, however, a number of writers and academics have documented significant improvements in human wellbeing, resource availability and the general state of our environment (see, for instance, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018c) and the Roslings’ (2018) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think). Among other incontrovertible facts, these writers have shown that:

  • people the world over live longer and healthier lives, and are wealthier and better educated than ever before;
  • despite increased consumption, reserves of scarce and non-renewable resources such as petroleum are more abundant than they have ever been;
  • in advanced economies, the air and water quality are better than they have been in centuries,while inmany parts of theworld, includingmany developing economies, the forest cover has expanded significantly over recent decades.

While eager to highlight positive trends, however, optimistic writers rarely argue systematically for the spontaneous market processes that made these trends possible.

Distinctive contribution

This book is an attempt to present a relatively concise case for the environmental benefits of economic development, population growth and the use of carbon fuels.

  • It explains how, paradoxically, economic prosperity and a cleaner environment are the direct results of both population growth and humanity’s increased use of fossil fuels. Today’s positive outcomes would have been impossible without them.
  • It argues that while the predicted catastrophic impacts of climate change remain still largely uncertain, and in need of open scholarly debate instead of rigid consensus, the ongoing campaigns to reduce or constrain the development of fossil fuel use in the absence of truly affordable and electric-grid-friendly alternatives guarantee several negative outcomes:
    • a large death toll in developing economies;
    • a growing number of economically vulnerable people being pushed into energy poverty in advanced economies;
    • an alarming trend of replacing products ultimately extracted from underground (for instance, synthetic products derived from fossil fuels) with resources that are produced on the ground (for instance, renewable but unsustainable products made from plants and animals), a process that can result inwidespread damage to ecosystems.

The distinctive features of this book are:

  • Its comprehensive historical coverage of:
    • the long-standing debate between people who fear the economic and environmental impacts of population growth and those who believe that, in the context of market economies, more people are more hands to work and more brains to innovate, not merely more mouths to feed;
    • how fossil-fuel-derived products alleviate environmental pressures by replacing resources extracted from the biosphere by resources extracted from below the ground.
  • Its insight into why looking at human population growth as though it were similar to that of any other species (for instance, bacteria in a test tube full of food) is profoundly misleading and mistaken. In the book, we highlight that, unique among other species, modern humans transmit information and knowledge between individuals and through time, innovate by combining existing things in new ways, and engage in long distance trade, thus achieving, to a degree, a decoupling from local limits.
  • Its detailed discussion of why, even after two centuries of evidence refuting the pessimistic narrative on population growth, resource availability and environmental impact, that viewpoint still dominates academic and popular debates. The issues the book examines range from financial incentives among academics and activists to behavioural insights into why well-meaning people are unable to change their mind when confronted by contrary evidence.