In 1980, despite slow and steady progress in the race against poverty and human immiseration, 44 percent of the world’s population still lived in extreme poverty. In 1820, that number was 94 percent. Despite these massive economic gains, many were worried about the future of planet Earth. In 1980, two of the most significant thinkers of their day, biologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon, brought their insights to bear on the problem. These academics came from vastly different disciplines and perspectives. In 1968, Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which predicted that worldwide famines and apocalyptic resource depletion would lead to social unrest. He wrote:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate ….
Ehrlich is a biologist, not an economist, and perhaps some of his worries about growing populations and the harm they could do under certain conditions are warranted. After all, an infinitely growing population without proper institutions will deplete resources and lead to environmental and social unrest.
Paul Ehrlich was countered by Julian Simon, the University of Maryland economist and author of The Ultimate Resource, who saw human beings not only as mouths to feed but as hands to work. “The world’s problem is not too many people, ”Simon wrote, “but the lack of political and economic freedom.”
These two scientists had opposing viewpoints about the future and human survival. Simon believed that human creativity made resources less, rather than more, scarce. He challenged Ehrlich to a bet that over the period of 1980 to 1990, five resources of Ehrlich’s choosing would decrease in price. This would signal that their scarcity was lessening because of innovation and discovery.
In the end, Simon won the bet. Those five resources became more abundant. And his key insight remains correct: Human beings are good for the planet and are the key resource in assuring better, safer, and more sustainable environmental performance. To achieve those outcomes, we must have the proper understanding of who we are and why we are here. We also need institutions that allow us to live for that purpose and unleash our creativity. Perhaps counterintuitively for the Malthusians, human beings are the solution to environmental problems.
God’s design and desires for creation must inform our purposes in this world. God reveals His purposes in Genesis: We are here to glorify Him and to assist His created order in working as it is intended. Genesis is a story of purpose and abundance. God gifted us everything we needed in the garden and more. He gifted us with minds to create. We are made in the imago Dei; we bear the image of God, which implies purpose and creativity. We are to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:27), and we are to work in our portion of creation and care for it (Gen. 2:15).
These verses imply both cultivation and protection. We are to learn, experiment, and discover with our minds. In this process of human ingenuity and creativity, we can improve our conditions and create value without plundering or destroying the earth. There is a balance between creativity and entrepreneurship, on the one hand, and stewarding the earth’s resources, on the other.
But human beings are fallen and sinful, so we will have opportunistic tendencies to exploit, plunder, ravage, and destroy these resources. Rampant population growth can only harm the environment if it occurs outside the confines of the institutions of human dignity and free markets. Human beings require economic freedom, not only to flourish materially, but to protect scarce resources and to make them more abundant.
The tradeoffs of material production and global commerce bring new environmental problems and raise questions that must be addressed. Life in the days of subsistence farming did not present many looming environmental problems; the advent of industrial production, and its discovery that fossil fuels and other scarce resources are essential to material well-being, brings environmental tradeoffs. Population growth ensures that the demand for material comforts created with scarce resources will grow – but this doesn’t have to result in a Malthusian or Ehrlichean apocalypse. Human beings are both the source of, and the solution to, environmental problems. We need human creativity to discover more efficient and prudent ways of combining those resources, as well as discovering alternate sources of energy.
Economic freedom provides the institutions so essential for environmental stewardship by ensuring entrepreneurship, sound property rights through the rule of law, freedom to enter and exit markets, and a limited government that protects those institutions. Economic freedom allows us to solve problems and provides entrepreneurs with sound incentives to invest in our environmental future.
The humans-are-bad-for-the-planet trope is not new but has gained momentum from American politicians, who recklessly suggest that the only way to save the planet is to slow human reproduction. This is certainly not what God intends, nor is it necessary. People will help us save and preserve the planet; they are our best hope of mitigating the unintended environmental tradeoffs that accompany material progress. Without economic freedom we will destroy, pillage, and plunder our scarce resources. But economic freedom allows us to make great contributions to human flourishing. More people, rather than fewer, add to human prosperity and allow us to live in and actualize God’s purpose for the created order.
After all, what good is a planet with no one in it?