Seven Billion Reasons to Celebrate

Seven Billion Reasons to Celebrate

A Paper by Steven W. Mosher, President, Population Research Institute, presented for the 10th Rhodes Forum

I understand that not everyone is happy that the planet is now home - for the first time - to seven billion human beings.

But what is there not to celebrate?

By nearly every measure of well-being, from infant mortality and life expectancy to educational level and caloric intake, life on Planet Earth has been getting dramatically better.

Take life spans, for example. In 1800, when there were only 1 billion of us, lifespans hovered around 24 years. By 1927, when the world’s population is estimated to have reached 2 billion, a person could expect to live into their forties. Today, as we pass the 7 billion mark, lifespans have reached 69 years and are still climbing. As people live longer, naturally there are more of us around at any given time.

Better health care and nutrition, by driving infant and child mortality rates down to extremely low levels, have played a major role in extending human lives. As late as the 19th century, four out of every 10 children died before reaching age five. Today under-five mortality is under 6 percent and falling.

Despite our growing numbers, both crop yields per hectare and food consumption per capita continue to increase. World food and resource production has never been higher. Enough food is produced for every person on earth to consume 3,500 calories daily. There is no need for anyone to starve in the midst of this plenty.

As our numbers have grown, incomes have soared. Population may have increased seven times over the past two centuries, but per capita income has more than kept pace, growing a remarkable ninety times from $100 to $9,000. The human race has never been so well off.

Economies continue to expand, productivity is up, poverty is down, pollution is declining and political freedom is growing.

So what is there not to like about this picture of prosperity and progress?

The human beings themselves, apparently.

Many of the more extreme environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, see man and nature locked in a kind of mortal combat in which the birth of a baby means the death of a tree, and vice versa. And they are, I need not remind you, firmly on the side of the trees.

Or the fish. Like the fellow from the U.K.’s Optimum Population Trust that I recently debated, who said that if we did not control population growth the oceans would be emptied of fish.

I had heard this fish tale before, of course. It goes like this: We are overfishing the ocean commons. Mass extinctions of commercially valuable fish are just around the corner. We will all starve.

In fact, one of Paul Ehrlich’s scariest scenarios, from his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, has a hypothetical Environmental Advisory Board telling the American President in 1979 that “the decline in fisheries in both the Atlantic and Pacific is now irreversible due to pollution and recommend[ing] the immediate compulsory restriction of births to one per couple, and compulsory sterilization of all persons with I.Q. scores under 90.”

It is not at all obvious to me what the imposition of a one-child policy in the U.S., combined with the forced sterilization of the “unfit,” would do to help restore declining fish stocks or avoid mass famine.

But then I don’t share Ehrlich’s ‘blame humanity first’ attitude, which leads him to presuppose that the solution to all problems, environmental or otherwise, lies in reducing human numbers.

Even if the ocean fisheries disappeared entirely, it wouldn’t matter much in terms of the world’s food supply. While fish is an important source of protein, providing 7 percent of the total, it only accounts for a meager 1 percent of the world’s calories.

It is true that yields in many of the world’s ocean fisheries are no longer increasing. Three-quarters of the world’s fish stocks are now fished at, or beyond, sustainable limits. Of the estimated 100 millions tons of fish a year that the oceans can produce, we are already harvesting roughly 95 percent.

But fish in the wild are not the whole story. To satisfy the increasing demand for seafood, entrepreneurs have turned to aquaculture, producing 45 million tons by 2005. This is why, despite the leveling out of the total marine catch, world fish production continues to climb. More importantly, total fish production has increased so much that fish per capita in the late 2000s set new records.

Certainly the wild fish stocks, which “graze” in the vast commons of the oceans, can be better managed to maximize yield. Establish some kind of ownership rights over the larger, more mobile, and commercially important species, and enforce existing treaties against overfishing and the taking of juveniles.

To save the whales, for example, you should start by reining in the corrupt Japanese commercial fishing industry.

No one would argue that the best way to save the whale population is by forcing the Japanese birth rate—already below replacement—down to even lower levels, even though the Japanese consume all the whales they kill themselves. How much less sense does it make to carry out population control programs in Africa using the same warped more-babies-equals-fewer-whales logic?

As this example suggests, simply reducing human numbers does little or nothing to directly alleviate environmental problems. Population control is neither an effective nor a humane way to protect the world that we live in.

The best way to protect the environment is to recognize that Man is an integral part of nature and to protect him.