The Ultimate Resource: Human Beings
“Multitudes of people, necessity, and liberty, have begotten commerce in Holland.”
~David Hume (1711-1776) “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences” (113).
The thesis of this argumentative essay is sustainable development requires the growth of the human population to promote division of labor or labor specialization, the expansion of the market and individual economic and political liberty with limited government intervention into the economy. Many of the advocates in the sustainable development movement are environmental activists, socialists and collectivists who argue for the opposite, namely limiting the growth of the human population because they believe natural resources are scarce. These advocates argue for government intervention into the economy and use the precautionary principle as a tool to stop economic development they consider harmful to future generations.
Humans throughout time have struggled to survive and obtain scarce resources such as food, water and energy. Only in the last 400 years have most humans been able to gradually rise above a subsistence level of existence and increase both their numbers and standard of living. In the sweep of time humans have progressed from the age of hunting and gathering to the age of farming and shepherding to finally the age of commerce.
Regarding the first two ages, Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel wrote: “Around 7 million years ago, all humans on Earth fed themselves exclusively by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. It was only with the last 11,000 years that some people turned to what is food production: that is, domesticating wild animals and plants and eating the resulting livestock and crop” (86).
Food production resulted in food surpluses that enabled the human population to grow in numbers and specialize in their activities. Diamond described the consequences of this development: “In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence denser human populations. The resulting food surplus, and (in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses, were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, social stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies” (92).
Diamond identifies four sets of factors that he argues constitute the “big environmental differences that can be quantified objectively and are not subject to dispute” (408). The fourth set of factors is a large area or population. Diamond describes this important set as follows: “A large area or population means more potential inventors, more competing societies, more innovation available to adopt – more pressure to adopt and retain innovation because societies failing to so will tend to be eliminated by competing societies” (407).
Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations published in 1776 wrote: “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment which it is anywhere directed or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor” (3).
For a nation to increase its wealth and develop economically required a large and growing population to enable a division of labor or labor specialization. According to Smith the division of labor’s increase in work and production resulted from several factors:
This great increase in quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances: first, to the increase dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species to another; and lastly to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many. (7)
Individuals exchanging goods and services encourage the division of labor which is limited by the extent of the market (Smith 13-21). For Smith an individual’s freedom, security and work ethic are of critical importance:
The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations (508).
The writers and philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment shared Smith’s optimism in economic progress. One such optimistic thinker was Marie-Jean-Antonine Nicholas Caritate (1743-94), known as Marquis de Condorcet. He predicted that in the next 200 years there would be a substantial increase in world population and life expectancy resulting from greater productivity in agriculture and manufacturing, improvements in food and housing, and advances in medical technology that would diminish disease and illness (Skousen 70).
Condorcet also anticipated Malthus by allowing that there could be a scenario where “the increase in the number of men surpassing their means of subsistence” could result in “either a continual diminishing of happiness, or, at least, a kind of oscillation between good and evil.” Condorcet predicted a smaller family size when individuals “will know that, if they have a duty not to give them existence but to give them happiness” (Sen 213-214).
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English economist and demographer who agreed with Condorcet’s analysis but disagreed with his views concerning declining fertility rates. Malthus formulated a simple theory that food production grows slower than the growth in population. In the long-run food production will lose the race to population growth and as a result people will starve and die (Skousen 71-91; Lomburg 60).
Malthus’ pessimistic doomsday theory was first published in 1798 as an essay under a pseudonym and then updated in his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, in five subsequent editions through 1826. Malthus’ first law of nature is that population tends to grow geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 …). His second law of nature is food production tends to increase arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 …) (Skousen 71-72; Kahn).
Malthus’ first law of nature was empirically wrong because population did not grow geometrically. The world population did, however, grow from about 1 billion in 1800 to more than 7 billion today. The causes of this growth are chiefly a sharp decline in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy due to rising standards of living, improvements in hygiene, sanitation and health care and advances in medicine (Skousen 76-78).
Malthus second law of nature regarding food production is simply false for both plants and animals are far more fertile than humans. Malthus argued that there was not enough fertile land or natural resources to sustain life (Skousen 81-82).
Malthus’ preventive checks on population growth included delaying marriage, birth control and celibacy. Positive checks on population growth included war, disease, epidemics, plagues, pestilence and famines (Buchholz 49-50).
For Malthus famine was the last resource that haunts humans everywhere and always:
Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and they often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete; gigantic, inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world. (Malthus 139-140)
What Malthus clearly missed and Condorcet did not is affluence or high standards of living is an effective way to limit population growth in the long-run. The world’s population is determined by the combined effects of fertility and mortality rates. The world’s population continues to rise because of generational lags between fertility and mortality changes and population changes (Huber 142). When Malthus first wrote his essay in 1798 the world population was about 1 billion. A hundred years later in 1900, the world population had grown to 1.6 billion. By 1950 the world population had increased to 2.5 billion. By 2000 the world’s population had increased to 6.5 billion. Today the world’s population exceeds 7 billion people. According to the United Nations’ long-term projections the world’s population will be somewhere between 7.5 billion and 9.5 billion in 2050. However, population is projected to start shrinking to about 6 million in 2100 and 4.3 billion in 2150 (Huber 148).
In the 215 years since Malthus first published his essay, the west has grown steadily wealthier as free market capitalism expanded globally. Both fertility and mortality rates dropped resulting in fewer children and a longer life expectancy (Huber 141). The economic wellbeing of a country’s population depends upon raising per capita living standards through the expansion of economic activity measured by total aggregate production and consumption. This, in turn depends upon the rate of growth of the population (Friedman 391-392).
Rapid population growth rates are almost entirely a problem for developing countries. “The forty-two countries where per capita income is below $2,000 – nearly a billion people – average population growth is 2.2 percent per annum. Their average fertility is 4.9 births per woman” (Friedman 392).
Rapid population growth rates in emerging countries such as China and India are less of a problem. “In the thirty-eight countries with per capita income in the $2,000 to $5,000 range, population growth averages 1.4 percent per annum, and the average fertility rate is 3.” (Friedman 392)
Rapid population growth rates are not a problem for developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia. “Among the thirty countries with the world’s highest incomes, the average population growth net of immigration is just .3 percent per annum. The average fertility rate is 1.7 births per woman, well below the population replacement rate (Friedman 392). In the United States over the last 200 years, the fertility rate has dropped from about 8 children per woman to 2” (Huber 147).
The last 100 years has by far seen the largest improvement in life expectancy of the world’s population. In 1900 the estimated world life expectancy was just 30 years. By 1950 people lived for an average of 46.5 years. By 1998 the life expectancy increased to 67 years. The world population’s life expectancy had more than doubled in just 100 years. This improvement in life expectancy was largely due to a significant decline in infant mortality in both developing and industrialized countries by more than 50 percent. Less people died at an early age and more people die of old age (Lomborg 50-59).
The declining infant mortality rates and increasing life expectancy were due to rising standards of living that provided better food, clothing and housing and higher disease resistance. Better water supplies, sewers, public hygiene and quarantine measures also suppressed the spread of infections. Higher living standards, better hygiene and advances in medicine also defeated infectious diseases (Lomborg 55-56).
Malthus’ pessimistic doomsday vision has nothing to do with reality when it comes to food production and daily intake of calories per capita in developed and developing countries. Since 1961 the world’s food production has more than doubled and in the developing countries has more than tripled. Calorie intake globally has increased by more than 24 percent and in the developing countries has increased by 38 percent (Lomborg 60-61).
What caused this significant improvement in food production and consumption? The Green Revolution was the cause. A number of technologies including high-yield crops, irrigation and controlled water supply, fertilizers, pesticides and farm management skills produced more food during the Green Revolution that began in the 1940s and continues into the present. Norman Borlaug is the “father of the Green Revolution.” His vision was to get more food out of each and every hectare of land. Borlaug focused on developing high-yield varieties of cereal crops including wheat, corn (maize) and rice that are resistant to disease and drought, germinate earlier and grow faster (Borlaug; Briney; Fogel 54; Hazell 1-3; Lomborg, 62-64; Courter).
Despite the growth of the world’s population to over 7 billion, the Green Revolution’s dramatic increase in world food production has continued the long-term trend of lower food prices. Food prices in 2000 cost less than a third of their prices in 1957 (Lomborg 62).
The United Nations General Assembly established and chartered the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983. Gro Harlem Brundtland, three-term prime minister of Norway, former environment minister and first vice-president of the Socialist International, was chosen to chair the commission (Friedman 390).
The Brundtland Commission’s report published in 1987 introduced the concept of “sustainable development” and the need for intergenerational equity and continuity by meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Friedman 391; World Commission on Environment and Development 8). The Brundtland Commission called for both reduced population growth and changes in the life-styles of the more affluent. The report stated:
Sustainable global development requires those that are more affluent adopt life-styles within the planet’s ecological means – in the use of energy, for example. Further, rapidly growing populations can increase the pressure of resources and slow any rise in living standards; thus sustainable development can only be pursued if population size and growth are in harmony with the changing productive systems of the ecosystem. (World Commission on Environment and Development 8-9)
Environmentalist Paul Hawken writing about the “movement for equity and environmental sustainability” (13) provides a more expanded definition of sustainable development:
Sustainable development encompasses economic and social development. It takes full account of the environmental and social consequences of economic activity and is based on the use of resources that can be replaced or renewed, meeting the needs and improving the quality of life of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own environmental, social, and economic needs (288).
Where did this movement come from? According to Hawken, “The movement has three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives and indigenous culture’s resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined” (12). One tool of this movement is the precautionary principle used to stop economic development, globalization of the market and technological innovation, considered harmful to sustainable development. Hawken defines the precautionary principles as follows: “The principle of taking pre-emptive action to forestall long-term environmental damage despite scientific uncertainty of such damage occurring. Where the potential damage is severe and irreversible, as in the case of climate change, a lack of scientific proof is insufficient reason to justify inaction to prevent such damage occurring” (266).
Hawken summarizes the detailed analysis and final verdict of “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report” on the planet’s carry capacity: “the earth is wearing out and will soon become exhausted, incapable of supporting life as we know it” (173). If you believe in this movement, the planet is on the brink of disaster (173).
Humans and the planet need a second opinion. The skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg reached a different conclusion regarding the real state of the world. Humans have never been healthier and living longer with more food to eat, higher incomes, more leisure time, and on average are better educated. “Things are not everywhere good, but they are better than they used to be” (87).
Is this progress sustainable? Can the progress humans have made be maintained and improved? Lomborg answers in the affirmative. He concludes his exhaustive analysis as follows:
Our consumption of the essential resources such as food, forests, water, raw material and energy seem to have such characteristics that it will leave the coming generations not with fewer options, but rather with ever more options. Our future society will probably be able to produce much more food per capita, while not threatening the forests – or perhaps even allowing us to allocate more space and money to reforest the Earth to achieve higher living standards. (159)
Economic growth provides both material and moral benefits. The material benefits of a rising standard of living include less infantile mortality, malnutrition, hunger and disease, a healthier life and greater life expectancy (Friedman 3). In his book the The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin Friedman argues that economic growth provides moral benefits: “Economic growth – meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens – more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy. Ever since the Enlightenment, Western thinking has regarded each of these tendencies positively, and in explicitly moral terms” (4).
Peace and prosperity require individual political and economic liberty. Individuals require incentives to work hard and take risks free from government coercion and intervention. This requires a framework where there is respect for the rule of law, private property, fair and sensitive rules in the market and economic liberty (Simon 11).
The United Nations’ Brundtland Commission wanted to control population growth for they view low standards of living as being caused by excessive fertility rates and limited resources. Many economists disagree that the long-term problem is population growth and scarcity of resources. For example Julian Simon concludes:
On balance the long-run effects are positive. The mechanism works as follows. Population growth and increase in income expand demand, forcing up prices of natural resources. The increased prices trigger the search for new supplies. Eventually new sources and substitutes are found. These new discoveries leave humanity better off than if the shortages have not occurred. (579)
The economics of population and resources demonstrates that the world’s long-run problem is not too many people or too few resources, but the lack of political and economic freedom (Simon 11). Powerful evidence comes from pairs of countries that had the same culture and history and much the same standard of living when they split apart after World War II – Communist China and Taiwan, East and West Germany, and North and South Korea. In each case the centrally planned Communist country began with less population “pressure,” as measured by density per square kilometer, than did the market-directed economy. And the Communist and non-Communist countries started with much the same birth rates. But the market-directed economies performed much better economically than the centrally planned economies (Simon 11).
The cure for hunger and poverty comes from the individual and their desire to improve their condition. However, the path to prosperity can be a long and difficult one. In his book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor, David Landes eloquently expresses the need for a strong work ethic:
The people who live to work are a small and fortunate elite. But it is an elite open to newcomers, self-selected, the kind of people who accentuate the positive. In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement and success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays: pessimism can only offer empty consolation of being right. (523-524)
Unlike the pessimist Malthus who believed famine was the last resource of nature, the optimists believe the ultimate resource are human beings.
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