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A Piece Of Wilderness For All? About Our Planet’s Population

Last summer, my wife Greta and I spent a glorious week with old friends in a lovely home on the coast of Maine, immersed in wilderness and beautiful isolation. Isn’t it just wonderful?

Yet a home like this is completely out of reach for the vast majority of the world’s population, isn’t it? Even if everyone could afford such a place, there simply isn’t enough land on the planet to house everyone in such luxury, right? Maybe not. 

Sure, some of the scenarios I discussed last week suggest that global population is limited primarily by scarce resources. In order for global population to stabilize, people must reach a limit of the amount of resources available. Population decline isn’t pretty—it’s accompanied by illness, hunger, and deprivation.

But Friday’s post, while depressing in some ways, also offers a way out. While population is growing rapidly in some parts of the world, it’s slowing in others. Where is population growth slowing down? In the wealthiest nations—with the exception of the U.S., where population increases are sustained primarily due to immigration.

In an essay in Prospect in 2004, Michael Lind argued that a different world future, one with a stable global population that sustains our natural resources, is quite attainable. There are a couple caveats. First, Lind accepts the widely-touted figure of 9 billion as the level where world population will settle. Second, he assumes (hopes?) that the developed nations of the world will take a leadership role in protecting the environment and developing technology that will bring modern conveniences to everyone on the planet.

In order for the population to stabilize, the poorer nations on the planet must either get much poorer or much richer. And there’s a case to be made that the second option is more likely. Although the US economy has stagnated for the past decade, the 2000s were actually very good to developing countries—and not just China and India. As Tyler Cowen observed in a column in January,

Indonesia had solid economic growth during the entire decade, mostly in the 5 to 6 percent annual range. That came after its very turbulent 1990s, marked by a disastrous financial crisis and plummeting standards of living.

Brazil also had a consistently good decade, with growth at times exceeding 5 percent a year. There is lots of talk that the country has finally turned the corner, and, within its borders, there is major worry that its currency is too strong—a problem that many other countries would envy.

Elsewhere in South America, Colombia and Peru have made enormous progress and Chile is on the verge of becoming a “developed” country; it will soon be joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

While he wrote his column before the Chilean earthquake, most observers agree that Chile escaped Haitian-style casualties because of its government’s effective regulation of building codes and—more importantly—its strong economy.

Lind makes a couple thumbnail calculations and concludes that nine billion people can easily live in comfort on the Earth, with plenty of room to spare. The average three-person household would be able to spread out on 1.6 acres! This would still leave millions of square miles for agriculture, and if agricultural technology makes modest improvements, many current croplands could actually be returned to wilderness.

Urban sprawl isn’t the most important threat to the environment, Lind claims. Instead, it’s “farm sprawl.” Pastureland and cropland consume nearly 20 million square miles, while urban areas take only 2 million. We could triple the world’s urban areas and still have more area for wilderness if only the space taken by agriculture could be contained.

Reducing croplands would require substantial additional research into improving crop yields, but the most important change would be in the production and consumption of meat. As human societies get wealthier, demand for meat increases. We’re already beginning to see this in China and India. Lind suggests that synthetic meat could fill that void, using a fraction of the resources required to farm meat and also eliminating the problem of poor conditions for farm animals.

Farm animals, the product of centuries of selective breeding and unable to survive on their own, should be allowed to go extinct.

It’s an ambitious vision. I wonder whether it’s sustainable. As we saw on Friday, a stable population is much older than an increasing population. Where would the economic productivity come from? What if a large part of the world refused to buy into Lind’s sustainable vision? Would Lind’s utopia be possible if only half the world subscribed to its principles? And who wants to eat meat grown in a test tube?

Finally, while there may be enough land in the world for everyone to get 1.6 acres, that’s not to say that every 1.6 acres is equal. Waterfront property like the place we rented in Maine would still be unattainable for most people (as indeed it is for us, more than a week or two out of the year!) Still, it’s intriguing to think that a sustainable planet might not entail a massive reduction in population and/or living standards. It’s something I’ll continue to explore as the month continues.

Lind, M. (2004, June 24). Worldly wealth. Prospect.

*This blog post was originally published at The Daily Monthly*

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