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Will technology save us from overpopulation?

As the globe’s population passes 6 billion, some economists are predicting that technology will ensure that future generations will have long, productive lives. MSNBC’s Julia Sommerfeld reports.
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While environmental groups are citing Tuesday’s 6 billion person milestone to highlight the challenges facing the globe, some economists are cheerfully wishing baby 6 billion a happy birthday. They predict technology will ensure that today’s and tomorrow’s children will have longer, more comfortable and more productive lives than those who came before them.

This viewpoint, most vocally expressed by some optimistic economists and members of conservative think-tanks, is based on the idea that humans don’t deplete resources but, through technology, create them. Thus, as the globe’s population grows, resources will become more abundant.

“We shouldn’t fear the arrival of more people because they are the bearers of the real resource, human intelligence,” said Sheldon Richman, editor of the libertarian publication “The Freeman.” “Technology is the result of applied human intelligence. And technology helps us push back the carrying capacity of the world. It creates resources. In effect, it makes them infinite.”

This line of thinking is anathema to most environmentalists.

“Pretending that technology will give the earth an unlimited carrying capacity for humans is very dangerous. It ignores the environmental damage and human health implications of what we already do,” said Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.

Scarcity or abundance?
Environmentalists say if present population and consumption trends go unchecked, the earth will face a future of overcrowded cities and scarce resources. They picture bumper-to-bumper cars spewing toxins into the atmosphere, wresting the earth’s crust of its last pockets of fossil fuel. They fear more malnutrition and less available fresh water.

Economists like Richman, however, predict an abundance - of food, water and fossil fuel (or whatever energy source may replace it). They envision desalination plants making seawater potable, a “Gene Revolution” eradicating food shortages and nuclear science making energy too cheap to meter.

That argument, for many, is counterintuitive. How can more people using more resources result in a net gain of resources?

Basically, their argument goes as follows: More people and more consumption cause problems in the short run, such as pollution or resource shortages. But short-term scarcity raises prices and pollution causes public agitation and this attracts entrepreneurs who will come up with technological solutions and develop better ways to do things.

And in the long run, these developments will leave us better off than if the problems hadn’t arisen at all. In other words, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

The environmentalist view, it might be said, is more along the lines of it’s always darkest before it goes black. They see present shortages as harbingers of future resource dearth.

Julian Simon, the late University of Maryland professor and original “optimistic economist,” based his argument on historical evidence that resources have become cheaper and more abundant over time with increases in population. The standard of living has risen across the world as its population has grown, and there’s no reason to think this trend suddenly will reverse itself, he argued.

Six billion and counting
While world population is still rising fast, no one argues it will hit the astronomical numbers like the 15 billion predicted 20 years ago. The United Nations now believes that population will likely peak at 8.9 billion in the middle of the next century.

But some environmentalists say even this modified figure could spell disaster. They say we aren’t doing that well providing for the 6 billion people we already have.

The “optimistic” economists envision another future. About water shortages, they cite water reclamation, efficiency technologies and desalination. Of increased agricultural demands, they believe higher-yielding seeds will continue to be developed. And when asked about pollution, they note that new, non-polluting energy sources are in the works and fuel efficiency has already drastically improved in recent years.

More traditional environmentalists respond that such technologies are too expensive. They argue that desalination plants may be feasible in places like Tampa, Fla., but are simply not affordable in places like India, which is facing a devastating water shortage.

“Technology is a tool,” says Alex Marshall of the United Nations Population Fund. “But first it has to be available, and to a large extent it isn’t available in Third World countries.”

But economists say that as technologies get more advanced and shortages more apparent, new technologies will become more cost-efficient and within the reach of Third World nations.

“As soon as a resource becomes truly scarce, it becomes economical to try to replace it,” said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.

“Fusion, fission, wind power, solar power and fuel cells are all alternative energy sources that aren’t economic yet because we aren’t experiencing a shortage of fossil fuels. There has to be economic incentive. Marketplace actors figure out the cheapest way to give people what they want. And when it becomes cheaper to use solar power or wind power, we will do so.”

Some environmentalists are particularly critical of the future of agricultural technologies. The Worldwatch Institute cites evidence that crop yields per person have been dropping in recent years, suggesting the “Green Revolution” is over.

Predictably, some agriculture experts disagree. “The ‘Green Revolution’ has not run its course. Agricultural production continues to go up and it is nowhere near the ceiling,” said Paul Waggoner, former director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

He says that the data Worldwatch is citing represents not agricultural shortages but simply the fact that cereal production is not going up as fast as it has in the past because there is a surplus - and so there is less incentive to grow more agriculture supplies.

Dennis Avery, director of Global Food Issues for the Hudson Institute, adds that new farm technologies are also helping the environment.

“Without these new technologies, increasing population would mean deforestation, soil erosion and loss of wildlife habitat because we would need to expand agricultural land into these areas,” he said.

Bigger pie or fewer forks?
Ronald Utt, an economist at the Heritage Foundation, says the two sides can’t agree on population growth because “one looks at what we have now and says that is all we will ever have and the other sees change and opportunity and improvement.”

Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich, the most famous proponent of the environmentalist view of population growth, is very critical of the optimistic school of thought.

“Large-scale technologies take a long time to deploy. It is crazy to think some magic bullet will save us,” he said. “And we’ve invented a lot of technological rabbits out of hats but they have toxic droppings.”

The economists admit that new technologies often have unforeseen negative consequence, but argue that only Luddites would not acknowledge that conditions generally are improving.

“We’re not saying that when we do things, it doesn’t produce unwanted consequences,” said Richman. “We are always moving ahead. Six billion people are living a lot better than 1 billion were in 1800.”

New technologies may push back some resource limitations, some environmentalists like Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute concede, but they are not ultimate solutions.

“No doubt technology will come up with solutions to specific problems, but I think it is absurd to think that the underlying causes of these problems like water shortages and malnutrition are technological in nature,” he said. “And dependence on technology also creates a kind of complacency - a quick fix mentality.”

Joel Cohen, a populations professor at Rockefeller University, says there are three schools of thought on overpopulation:

“The bigger pie school,” the optimistic economist view that technology will increase the amount of resource we rely on;

“The fewer forks school,” the environmentalist argument that we better rapidly decrease population growth and consumption patterns; and

“The better manners school,” the humanitarian view that we should reduce inequality in income and be more rational in the pricing of goods.

It isn’t an matter of the economists versus the environmentalists being right, Cohen says, “Each alone is too simplistic and the world can’t do without all three of these approaches.”