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Population and Policy—A Rejoinder to Szurmak and Desrochers

S&D argue that market economies will fix all negative side-effects of technological development spontaneously because of the commercial value of the effluents.

· 5 min read
Population and Policy—A Rejoinder to Szurmak and Desrochers

I cannot imagine an event that could cause a ship to founder.
Modern ship building has gone beyond that.

~E.J. Smith, captain of Titanic

In a recent essay in Quillette, I criticized the one-sided view of global development in the Roslings´ Factfulness. In their response, Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers (hereafter S&D) whose new book Population Bombed! is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the UK’s most high-profile climate denier group, disparage my critique by branding me an “eco-pessimist,” and present themselves as clear-eyed optimists. This dichotomy is a poor guide to analysis. Captain Smith of Titanic was obviously also an “optimist.” Were his critics mere “pessimists”?

Three aspects of the S&D-paper require particular scrutiny:

1. The Contradictory View of Technological Development

S&D argue that market economies will fix all negative side-effects of technological development spontaneously because of the commercial value of the effluents. This claim ignores all the research and policy-making related to external economics, where the cost of emitting hazardous substances is negligible for the producer but dire for society.1 If the LA or London authorities had trusted “spontaneous processes,” their cities would still suffer from thousands of premature deaths annually caused by toxic tailpipe emissions. The accumulation of plastic debris in the oceans, and the massive growth of global garbage (estimated at 2 billion tons in 2017) are other indicators of the failure of spontaneous market processes.

But note the pessimism of S&D regarding alternatives to the current oil and coal-based regime. They state: “fossil fuel powered economic development remains the only proven way to lift, and keep, a large number of people out of poverty.” Are greenhouse gases, the greatest market failure of all times, no threat? Despite the huge subsidies supporting the fossil regime,2 renewable alternatives are progressing at a brisk pace. Wind turbines and solar panels are already cost competitive with fossil fueled plants in many part of the world. Electrical vehicles, spearheaded by recent launches from Hyundai, are starting to outcompete fossil-based cars in key vehicle segments.3

The One-sided Worldview of Eco-Pessimists
Pessimists see the goal of human activity as minimizing human impacts; optimists understand the goal of human activity to be maximizing human flourishing.

2. The Authors’ Indifference to Biological Diversity

For S&D only human life matters on Earth and they completely ignore how population growth, pollution, urban sprawl, and deforestation endanger an increasing range of animal species and natural habitats. The weight of the human population is now 10 times higher than the weight of all wild mammals, the weight of cattle is 20 times higher.4 During the last 40 years, the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by 60 percent,5 with no end in sight. Beyond the problem of diminishing ecosystem services, this raises a profound ethical question: humans have the power to crowd out all complex life forms. Shouldn’t we use this power more carefully?

3. The Ideological Attack on the Positive Role of Family Planning

East Asia has been home to uniquely impressive improvements of living standards in the postwar period. An important reason for this has been the reduction of fertility rates, which started before the economies took off. According to World Bank Data, South Korea’s fertility rate declined from 6.1 to 5.0 in the 1960-65 period, and to 4.5 in the next decade, when the economy began to accelerate. In China, fertility fell from 6.5 in 1965 to 2.5 in 1980, in spite of negative growth in several years. When China’s high growth period started in the 1980s, the reduced fertility accelerated the progress in productivity and standards. In a similar way, Malaysia’s fertility rates started to decline in the 1960s before high growth began in the mid-1970s.

As noted in Factfulness, these experiences inspired Iran’s “family planning miracle,” but are ignored by S&D, who characterise family planning as coercive and reminiscent of eugenics instead of discussing what poor nations with rapidly growing populations can learn today. At the same time, S&D are silent about the coercive practices of authoritarian leaders, from Turkey to Tanzania, who attack contraceptives and the freedom of women to control their fertility. As Melinda Gates recently emphasized:

When I meet women in poor countries around the world, they constantly bring me back to the question about contraception, and ask: why cannot we have it? It is a tool that empowers women, one of the greatest anti-poverty tools we have, a tool that empowers women so they can pace and time birth and pregnancy.6


To understand global development means to recognize its complexities and contradictions. On the one hand marked improvements in health, life expectancy, living standards and basic education; on the other hand increasing inequality, ecological destruction, mounting climate change and dwindling biodiversity. Solutions are possible also for the hardest of these problems—but only if the challenges are openly acknowledged and available tools are mobilized without pride or prejudice.


1 For an overview of various policy instruments, see Bergek, A., Berggren, C. 2014. The impact of environmental policy instruments on innovation, Ecological Economics, 106, 112-123.
2 According to OECD, the global fossil fuel subsidies amounted to at least $373bn in 2015, probably much more.
3 Berggren, C., Kågeson P. 2017 Speeding up European Electro-mobility, Brussels: T&E; Auto Motor & Sport, Nov. 29, 2018.
4 Smil, V. 2013. Harvesting the Biosphere. Cambridge, Mass. MITP
5 WWF 2018: Living Planet Report.
6 Melissa Gates, interviewed in Radio Sweden, Nov. 7, 2018.

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