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The One-Sided Worldview of Eco-Pessimists

Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers, Quillette

Prometheans like the Roslings posit that humanity can, and should, apply the intellects of its most creative individuals and the synergistic effects of large groups of people working to transform the environment in order to improve its lot.

This essay draws in part on the authors’ new book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change (Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2018).

The Pull of Environmental Narratives

In his critique of Hans Rosling’s optimistic take on the human condition (which Rosling co-authored with son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund),1 Christian Berggren scolds the late professor of international health for ignoring negative trends and for dodging the “preconditions and ecological consequences of the current techno-economic regime” as well as the risks inherent to “continued global population growth.” As Berggren further argues in the longer paper on which his Quillette essay is based, the Roslings illustrate the philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s apocryphal statement that “You do not see with your eyes; you see with your interests.” In this, he claims, the authors of Factfulness failed to present “the world and how it really is.”

Are Berggren’s critique and worldview any more accurate? His facts and positions are squarely in the lineage of thinkers such as Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), William Vogt (1902–1968) and Paul Ehrlich (1932– ) who view human activities as inherently constrained by ecological limits. Environmental policy analyst John S. Dryzek2 labeled this perspective the survivalist discourse; it opposed the Promethean perspective developed by the likes of William Godwin (1756–1836), Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), Henry George (1839–1897) and Julian Simon (1932–1998). Prometheans like the Roslings posit that humanity can, and should, apply the intellects of its most creative individuals and the synergistic effects of large groups of people working to transform the environment in order to improve its lot.

Other sets of names and descriptions exist3 for both discourses but the most accessible are pessimists and optimists. While these perspectives are far from monolithic, their main narratives remain deeply at odds with one another over a significant point: the role of humanity in environmental change. The philosopher Alex Epstein4 contrasted them as follows: Pessimists see the goal of human activity as minimizing human impacts; optimists understand the goal of human activity to be maximizing human flourishing.

The Roslings’ book and Berggren’s critique are good proxies for the assumptions, goals, and values of their respective discourses. Since Berggren challenged the optimistic Roslings’ grasp of reality, we will sketch out the pessimistic narrative he employed, showing how his critique, in turn, failed to present “the world and how it really is.”

The More Times Change, the More Pessimist Rhetoric Stays the Same

Berggren does not deny irrefutable standard-of-living improvements nor dispute that, in market economies, ordinary people are now more numerous, healthier, and wealthier than before, and that every resource for which there is a sustained demand has become more abundant. He does, however, warn that recent progress is unsustainable because of nature’s limited capacity to absorb toxic emissions and to provide for an increasingly numerous middle class wishing for things like cars and meat. His stance of acknowledging some recent progress while decrying its unsustainable character, however, is the oldest rhetorical strategy of the pessimists.

For instance, the pessimistic economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883) had to acknowledge that Thomas Robert Malthus’s proposition that “population tends to outstrip the means of subsistence,” if interpreted as meaning that “population does increase faster than the means of subsistence,” was clearly “not true of England at the present day” and was also debatable in the case of India. In 1954, the chemist and eugenicist Harrison Brown (1917–1986), the mentor of the Obama administration’s science czar John Holdren, acknowledged that the “disaster which Malthus foresaw for the Western World did not occur” and that Malthus’s poor predictive track record would qualify him as “incompetent.”5 Closer to us, the prominent environmental activist Bill McKibben acknowledged that “[n]o prophet has ever been proved wrong more times” than Malthus.

Toynbee, McKibben, and Brown, however, saw all of this as irrelevant because of present-day problems that would soon prove catastrophic. In earlier generations these typically revolved around soil erosion and air and water pollution. Needless to say, McKibben has thrown in his lot with human-induced climate change and the catastrophes it has allegedly induced such as droughts, floods, and wildfires. Not surprisingly though, past catastrophic weather was once blamed on everything from religious insubordination to the deployment of the lightning rod, wireless telegraphy, First World War ordnance, atomic tests, and supersonic flights. A few decades ago, the kind of evidence now marshalled by McKibben was used to support the hypothesis of anthropogenic global cooling due to particulate air pollution. To give but one illustration, in his influential 1976 book The Cooling, science journalist Lowell Ponte invoked frost damage at coffee plantations in Brazil, the expansion of the Sahara Desert, crop failures in the Soviet Union, severe floods in the American northeast, and severe droughts in the American southwest to prove his point. Global cooling, Ponte argued on the basis of this evidence, “present[ed] humankind with the most important social, political, and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for ten thousand years.”6 Like today, most of the preferred policy solutions of cooling advocates revolved around reducing economic activities and implementing population control.

Whatever one’s stance on human ability to cope with the “global climate disruption,” Berggren and other pessimists have failed to consider that past beneficial trends and subsequent progress were achieved, not in spite of the growing human numbers, but precisely because of them. As we will now argue, the pessimists’ mistake is to assume that greater wealth and material consumption necessarily translate into greater environmental damage.

Model Tautologies

The key point in the pessimist narrative is the existence of hard environmental limits to human development. Such limits are illustrated using a number of metaphors and frameworks, most prominently the I=PAT equation (Environmental Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology), the Ecological Footprint and the Planetary Boundaries frameworks. Berggren critiqued the Roslings’ failure to acknowledge the results of such environmental modeling, citing the Global Footprint Network’s description of human activities as “exceed[ing] the capacity of nature to rebuild the resources consumed.”

Full essay