A recent episode of 60 Minutes covered the scientific community’s attitudes toward climate change and other biodiversity issues. Speaking on overpopulation’s impact on the world’s resources, Stanford biologist and doomsayer Paul Ehrlich said, “I and the vast majority of my colleagues think we’ve had it; that the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.” While the issues of climate change and loss of biodiversity are indeed serious, environmental doomism ignores the innovation and advancements that humanity has made, which is often why Elrich’s famed predictions have failed to come true.
Ehrlich’s appearance on Sunday was reminiscent of the many other times he’s voiced concern over the fate of humanity. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb Ehrlich predicted that overpopulation in the 1970s would see the end of humanity’s ability to feed itself, leading to mass starvation and death across the world. Despite Ehrlich’s apocalyptic predictions, the 1970s saw the rise of the Green Revolution and, thanks to the work of scientists such as Norman Borlaug, innovation and technological progress saved billions of people from starvation.
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What Ehrlich failed to account for then, as he does now, is humanity’s ability to adapt and innovate. Because of innovation the trajectory of humanity is trending up, not down, according to many key metrics. In the last 30 years child mortality has fallen dramatically and global life expectancy, prior to COVID-19, increased from less than 30 years to more than 72 years. This means that we are living more than twice as long as our ancestors.
This increase in life expectancy is at least partially attributable to the increase in economic prosperity worldwide. From 1990 to 2015, more than 1 billion people were lifted out of extreme poverty worldwide, according to the United Nations. Since 1980, real GDP has increased by 2.7% worldwide and 3.7% in developing countries alone. Not only does this mean that people are now living longer and more prosperous lives, but it also means that countries can address climate and environmental issues because the basic needs of their citizens are being met.
And while Ehrlich and like-minded thinkers may believe that an increase in the world’s population is depleting our food supply and resources, we are actually becoming more innovative and efficient. As Ron Bailey of Reason points out:
While the issues of climate change, our impact on the environment, and food security for a growing population should be addressed, the answer to our greatest challenges is not to simply deem humanity “unsustainable,” with environmental doomism as Ehrlich does. Rather, it is to double down on innovation and economic freedom which is making people’s livelihoods better and safer. Humans are living longer, happier lives. That is something to celebrate in 2023.