Readers may remember Agent Smith’s comments in The Matrix: “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”
Some environmentalists, in the heat of debate on global warming, also charge that human beings are parasites or a disease of the natural biological world. Such sentiments are profoundly unhelpful, breeding hopelessness and despair. They are also technically incorrect.
Humans can live in harmony with the wide biological world and are neither parasites nor disease. But, what is usually overlooked in these debates is that the human ingenuity present in the global population is virtually infinite; ingenuity available to solve worldwide existential problems, as explained by Ryan Bourne in The Telegraph in December 2018.
Humans are self-conscious intelligent animals living in orderly free-market economies and adapt their behaviour to master difficult circumstances
The charge is made, most famously by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, that burgeoning world population on our finite planet rapidly depletes the world’s resources. But, perhaps surprisingly, history has shown this prediction is mistaken. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968) predicted that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s due to burgeoning population numbers and the world would decline into chaos.
Ehrlich’s views, which he still holds, seem to make biological common sense. Naturally, burgeoning human population numbers press harder on Earth’s resources, just as increasing cattle numbers grazing a field tenfold will soon strip the field of grass. Ehrlich thinks in strict animal biological terms, but humans are also self-conscious intelligent animals living in orderly free-market economies and adapt their behaviour to master difficult circumstances.
University of Maryland economist Julian Simon (1932-1998) contradicted Ehrlich, pointing out that human brain power is a vital resource and that, working under the right institutions and market-based incentives, society continually invents new ways of making or doing things and of discovering and extracting raw materials.
Higher demand leads to higher prices encouraging a shift to alternatives in the short term, then seeking out new supplies or rethinking our overall approach. Under healthy market conditions therefore increased population numbers and resultant increased brain capacity should generate ideas to increase abundance of these resources and should reduce the price.
Simon challenged Ehrlich to pick any raw material he wanted and select any date more than a year away and Simon would bet that the commodity price on that future date would be lower than on the date of the wager. Ehrlich predicted five metals would increase in price – chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten – and notionally bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using September 1980 as the index price and September 1990 as the pay-off date.
Confidence in our ingenuity will both motivate us to work hard and provide an antidote to despair
From 1980 to 1990 world population increased by over 800 million – a record growth rate – but by September 1990 the price of each metal had fallen. Simon mailed a cheque to Ehrlich in the amount of $576.07 – the amount by which the basket of metals fell in price, settling the bet in Simon’s favour.
It seems to me that, while not infallible, there is much merit in Julian Simon’s analysis. But I also think there are reasons other than natural resource supplies why we might want to limit world population numbers. Overcrowding springs to mind. I wouldn’t like to live in a world where it would be very difficult to find solitude.
Although not invincible, human ingenuity shows remarkable capacity to overcome adversity. Examples include the discoveries of vaccination in 1796 and of antibiotics in 1928, both vital in combating deadly diseases; mobilisation of scientific expertise to develop an atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project (1942-1945) when it was believed the Nazis were developing their own bomb that would guarantee their conquest of the entire world; mobilisation of scientific/engineering efforts in the Apollo project (1961-1972), culminating in Neil Armstrong stepping on to the Moon in 1969; the global Covid pandemic recently sprang upon us.
No other disease in history was investigated so intensely, by so much talent and in such a short time. A Covid vaccine was developed in 10 months; a feat equivalent to putting a man on the moon.
I’m not saying we needn’t worry about global warming, for example, because human cleverness will save us. We have no such guarantee and we must continue to make every effort to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
But we can have well-justified hope that hard work plus ingenuity will solve this problem. Confidence in our ingenuity will both motivate us to work hard and provide an antidote to despair.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC