On April 25, British Vogue published an article titled “Is Having a Baby in 2021 Pure Environmental Vandalism?” The author, Nell Frizzell, “worried about the sort of world” that she would bring her “child into — where we have perhaps just another 60 harvests left before our overworked soil gives out.” In the end, she decided to have a son and teach him to live within humanity’s “environmental means” and free of “the fever of consumerism.”
Frizzell is not alone in worrying about the increasing size of the world’s population and the accompanying growth in resource consumption. In the last few years, books, articles, and organizations arguing in favor of limits on population growth have proliferated in line with the increasing radicalization of the environmental movement. Where did that radicalization come from, and do the environmentalist extremists have a point?
Let’s start with a few examples. In February 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) told her Instagram viewers that, unless humanity takes urgent action on CO2 emissions, there is no hope for the future. “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”
In May 2019, a CNN segment on the newly released report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services remarked that, to prevent an environmental catastrophe, “we must act now, consuming less, polluting less, having fewer children.”
The logical continuation of the concern with population growth is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, or VHEMT. The founder, Les Knight, told the Daily Mail in January 2019, “I’ve seen more and more articles about people choosing to remain child-free or to not add more to their existing family than ever. I’ve been collecting these stories and last year was just a groundswell of articles, and, in addition, there have been articles about human extinction.”
Most anti-natalists are content with voluntary reduction of birth rates. Others hope to achieve that goal through government enforcement. Prominent environmentalists, including Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Travis Rieder and science popularizer Bill Nye, have advocated — à la chinoise — in favor of special taxes or other state-imposed penalties on those with “too many children.”
As COVID-19 spread across the world in 2020, some environmental extremists rejoiced at the growing human death toll. The New York Times has noted that an upside of social-distancing efforts is that they may help fight climate change, and CNN ran the headline “There’s an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: The planet.” The BBC’s environmental correspondent gleefully reported that air pollution and CO2 emissions fell rapidly as the virus spread. Some environmentalists worried that, when things get better, post-recession economies might see a surge in harmful emissions.
Of course, most environmentalists are not anti-humanist or anti-natalist. But extremist rhetoric from the fringe of the environmental movement could have a lasting effect on America’s total fertility rate (1.779 births per woman in 2020), which is already well below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman — with serious consequences for U.S. economic growth and tax rates, as well as for the national fisc and the payment of unfunded liabilities accrued by the U.S. government.
A 2020 study in the journal Climatic Change found that 60 percent of U.S. respondents between the ages of 27 and 45 “reported being ‘very’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about the carbon footprint of procreation,” and 96.5 percent of respondents “were ‘very’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world. This was largely due to an overwhelmingly negative expectation of the future with climate change.”
The word “ecology” was coined by the 19th-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Ecological concerns in Western Europe were largely rooted in the Romantic opposition to industrialization and urbanization. Such concerns were particularly prevalent in Germany, which was the center of the Counter-Enlightenment and a hotbed of the general disgust with “modernity.”
Environmentalism took longer to emerge in the United States. According to the EPA Journal(1985), “many environmental ideas [in America] first crystallized in 1962. That year saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first in serial form in the New Yorker and then as a Houghton Mifflin best seller.” In her book, Carson attacked “indiscriminate use of pesticides, . . . causing a revolution in public opinion.” Within a year, Congress passed the 1963 Clean Air Act, giving the federal government more power to regulate the environment.
Five years later, The Population Bomb, by the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, caused a sensation of similar proportions. The book, which sold millions of copies and was translated into many languages, warned of the coming depletion of natural resources. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich began, following with his famous prediction that “in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
The speed and extent of environmentalist triumphs in the United States are noteworthy. Earth Day was born on April 22, 1970. In September of that year, the U.S. Congress beefed up the 1963 Clean Air Act. By December, President Richard M. Nixon inaugurated the Environmental Protection Agency. Private environmental organizations also flourished, along with militant groups such as Greenpeace, which was established in 1971.
As the 1970s rolled on, American environmentalism became increasingly anti-capitalist. Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute avers that it was the American writer Charles A. Reich who, with his book The Greening of America (1970), brought the German ideas to America. Herman notes that “modern ecology” in the United States “replayed the same enthusiasms that had animated every modern cultural regeneration movement since the German Romantics.”
Reich’s book was a best seller in 1970 and 1971. “For most Americans,” he wrote,
work is mindless, exhausting, boring, servile and hateful, something to be endured while “life” is confined to “time off.” At the same time our culture has been reduced to the grossly commercial; all cultural values are for sale, and those that fail to make a profit are not preserved. Our life activities have become artificial, vicarious and false to our genuine needs, activities fabricated by others and forced upon us.
That is exactly the Marxist critique of capitalism as “alienation” of labor. Instead of acknowledging that, however, Reich veered straight into environmentalism. Yet, like a typical Marxist, he predicted revolutionary turmoil. “There is a revolution coming,” Reich prophesied, and its “ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty — a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.”
Other voices critical of capitalism’s effect on the environment soon emerged. They included the American biologist Barry Commoner, who argued that modern society was unsustainable. Unlike Ehrlich, who focused on “overpopulation,” Commoner focused on capitalist production techniques (e.g., synthetic textiles and pollution-causing detergents) and advocated “eco-socialism.”
In 1972, the British economist Barbara Ward and the Franco-American microbiologist René Dubos warned that the exponential economic growth of industrial society threatened the survival of the entire planet. In their view, wealth generation was no longer capitalism’s saving grace. It was a problem that needed to be tackled.
By the 1980s, environmental demands became more radical. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, for example, thought that reforming industrial society was not enough. Instead, he called for a change of the culture that allowed ecological destruction to exist in the first place. In his philosophy of “deep ecology,” Naess argued that the problem with modernity was that it placed humans above other life-forms, creating an inflated ego that enabled our species to destroy nature.
In The Modern Crisis (1986), the American social theorist Murray Bookchin called for the replacement of environmentally destructive capitalism. His utopia was radically egalitarian, with people, plants, and animals living on equal terms. As he saw it, such utopia had existed for thousands of years in the form of primitive societies. His vision amounted to an inversion of human progress. Civilization, he thought, was just domination over nature, wrenching away the last remnants of an earthly paradise that still existed among the aborigines of Africa and South America.
In his book In the Absence of the Sacred (1991), the American activist Jerry Mander argued that primitive societies are based on a rejection of modernity, not ignorance of it. He saw the subsistence lifestyle as a conscious cultural choice to avoid civilization. To this day, deep ecologists view primitive societies as not only ecologically harmonious but free of the desire to exploit nature.
In Earth in the Balance (1992), his critique of modernity, Al Gore fused some old ideas: that modern society was ecologically destructive, materialist, and shallow, that it shielded us from authentic experiences. The culprit, however, was new: humanity itself. In Gore’s vision, culture represented control over nature. To wit, stone tools and cave paintings were simply early human attempts to impose artificial order on the organic world. The West, capitalism, technology, and even sexism and racism were extensions of the innate human desire to dominate.
Some ecologists began to salivate at the thought of the end of the world. The American writer Edward Abbey dreamed of dams bursting and cities crumbling, forcing the last remnants of humanity to return to a primitive lifestyle. The French ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau called the idea that suffering and disease might be eliminated “not altogether a beneficial one.” He thought that “we must eliminate 350,000 people per day.”
The American environmentalist Christopher Manes called HIV/AIDS “the necessary solution” to environmental degradation. Paraphrasing Voltaire, he said that “if the AIDS epidemic didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one.” In his 1994 best seller The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, Richard Preston of the New York Times wondered whether super-deadly viruses such as Ebola and Marburg might be the biosphere’s reaction against “the human parasite” and the “cancerous rot-outs” of advanced industrial societies.
The environmentalists of yore were concerned that we would run out of resources. Today’s environmentalists are concerned about, in addition to the well-known issue of rising CO2emissions, the possibility of “running out of nature.” As the American environmentalist Bill McKibben has explained, “it’s not that we’re running out of stuff. What we’re running out of is what the scientists call ‘sinks’ — places to put the by-products of our large appetites. Not garbage dumps, . . . but the atmospheric equivalent of garbage dumps.”
Overconsumption, in other words, will not exhaust planetary resources. Instead, the environmental catastrophe will be brought about by the destruction of humanity’s broader environmental support systems, such as high-quality soil, groundwater deposits, biodiversity, and so on. The key to understanding this “problem” is the concept of an ecological threshold, or “the point at which a relatively small change or disturbance in external conditions causes a rapid change in an ecosystem.”
Unfortunately for the environmentalists, scientific debate about “ecological thresholds” remains unsettled — even when it comes to the basic question of measurement. In August 2020, for example, the monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution published a study based on 36 meta-analyses of more than 4,600 individual studies covering the past 45 years of research on ecological thresholds. The nine authors — German, French, Irish, and Finnish ecologists — found that
threshold transgressions were rarely detectable, either within or across meta-analyses. Instead, ecological responses were characterized mostly by progressively increasing magnitude and variance when pressure increased. Sensitivity analyses with modeled data revealed that minor variances in the response are sufficient to preclude the detection of thresholds from data, even if they are present. The simulations reinforced our contention that global change biology needs to abandon the general expectation that system properties allow defining thresholds as a way to manage nature under global change.
Put differently, nature adjusts to human activity in a multitude of ways and, the greater the human impact, the greater the natural adjustment. So, instead of seeing natural collapse, humans are encountering nature’s resilience.
Several additional points are in order. First, many environmentalists assume that humans will continue to reproduce with abandon. In reality, birth rates are falling throughout much of the world. Writing in The Lancet, researchers at the University of Washington estimate that the global population will “peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion people and decline to 8.79 billion in 2100.” Other estimates, such as that of Wolfgang Lutz from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, see the world’s population peaking at 8.9 billion in 2060 and declining to 7.8 billion (i.e., exactly where it stands today) by 2100.
Environmentalists worry that even if the human population shrinks, consumption of resources and the concomitant pressure on the environment will increase. Yet, as Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered when he looked at U.S. consumption of 72 resources (from aluminum to zinc), the absolute annual use of 66 resources peaked prior to 2019. Even energy use decreased between 2008 and 2017, while the U.S. economy expanded by 15 percent in the same period. The U.S. economy, in other words, has reached such a level of efficiency and sophistication that it is possible for it to produce an ever-increasing amount of goods and services while, at the same time, using ever fewer resources.
To give just one simple example: When aluminum cans were introduced in 1959, they weighed 85 grams. By 2011, they weighed 13 grams. Why pay more for inputs if you don’t have to? The universality of the profit motive should drive other economies in the same approximate direction.
Economic growth does not have to come from bigness — bigger and deeper mines, larger and more-polluting steel mills, and so on. It can and does come from “smartness” with processes such as miniaturization (the computing industry, for example, saw the replacement of massive mainframe computers with smaller and much more efficient personal computers) and dematerialization (a smartphone, for example, combines functions that previously required a myriad of separate devices, including a telephone, camera, radio, newspaper, compass, television set, alarm clock, photo album, voice recorder, and maps).
Environmentalists assume that humanity will sit idly by and allow environmental problems to overwhelm our planet. That is highly improbable given our species’ track record of tackling challenges. According to Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute in California, it took six times as much land to feed a single person in the Neolithic period as it does now. If we were still harvesting einkorn with sticks and stones, we would certainly transgress our “environmental means,” as Nell Frizzell put it. Instead, we’ve improved our agricultural efficiency so much that less than 2 percent of the U.S. population has to farm at all.
In fact, if the productivity of the world’s farmers increases to U.S. levels, humanity will be able to restore at least 146 million hectares (about 560,000 square miles) of cropland to nature, according to Jesse Ausubel et al. in their article “Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing” (2013). Such efficiency-driven “human withdrawal from the landscape,” noted Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine, could be a “prelude to a vast ecological restoration” over the course of the 21st century.
Many additional problems identified by the environmentalists are being addressed or are on the cusp of being addressed. Forest coverage is growing in rich countries, species are being protected at record levels throughout the world, freshwater reserves are being replenished through desalination in the Middle East, soil erosion is being reduced through precision agriculture in Israel, and CO2emissions have fallen in nuclear-friendly France and Sweden. In the future, genetically modified crops could lead to a decline in the use of nitrogen and phosphorus, and wild fish stocks could bounce back through greater use of aquaculture, which is rapidly expanding in China.
What’s needed to address current and future problems are freedom, brainpower, and rational optimism, not hysteria, fatalism, and anti-human nihilism.
This essay first appeared in National Review.