The National Post

Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft

by Howard Fienberg
July 11, 2002

A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study released Tuesday warns that overconsumption will force human colonization of other planets within 50 years unless it is curtailed immediately. The WWF report warns that the seas will become emptied of fish, all forests will be destroyed and supplies of drinking water will become polluted or disappear. However, according to reliable data, the Day of Judgment is not just around the corner. In fact, economic and scientific advances have made it possible for the developed world to be more efficient in its natural resource usage, to find or make new resources, and to maintain or revive endangered species.

The WWF follows in the footsteps of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who famously predicted in his 1798 tract An Essay on the Principle of Population that exponential human population growth would inevitably outstrip food supplies, leading to starvation, war and mass deaths. The WWF are not alone, as Paul Ehrlich reworked Malthus' mathematically based theories for the modern era, predicting large numbers of fatalities from famine in the 1970s in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. Others, like the Club of Rome, have adhered to essentially the same arguments. But we never starved to death, and humans and Earth survive to this day. Will "present trends" continue, forcing us to begin terra-forming Mars for a mid-century move? The data says no.

Will deforestation leave us with no trees? Data from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization show a relatively consistent trend line from 1948 to the mid-1990s, with about 30% of the planet's land surface covered by forest. If these trends continue, nothing bad will happen. It is likely that forest coverage will increase rather than decrease. Ongoing improvement in modern agriculture means that less and less space is needed to produce more and better food, decreasing the need for clear-cutting. The developed world is already increasing conservation and replacement efforts, which might offset any decrease in cover caused by excessive consumption in the developing world. Indeed, commercial growers are making use of faster-growing pine stocks -- a good example of market adaptation at work.

Will the seas be empty of fish? Not likely. The WWF claims that stocks of cod in the North Atlantic have declined from an estimated spawning stock of 264,000 tons in 1970 to less than 60,000 in 1995. Yet while overfishing of particular stocks and particular regions has yielded a decline in many wild catches, scientific aquaculture and genetically modified fish development mean that farmed fish production is increasing dramatically every year. Already, it accounts for about 20% of seafood production. Increased reliance on farmed fish implies lower reliance on wild fish, perhaps giving their stocks a chance to recover and even thrive.

Will we run out of drinking water? No way. While certain regions appear destined for shortages (if they don't have them already), the planet as a whole has an abundance of drinking water. The WWF might make a credible case for new policies in water management and pricing, so that these regions may benefit from other regions' abundance. But drinkable water is not disappearing. Besides, over 70% of the Earth's surface is water of some kind (if the worst-case-scenario climate change models are correct, that percentage will grow even further). That water can recycle through the climate, eventually into drinking water, or we can desalinate it if need be.

In short, while many major events are bound to befall us in the next 50-odd years, the complete eradication of natural resources isn't one of them.

This study comes hard on the heels of other doomsaying research, like Mathis Wackernagel's recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article. Dr. Wackernagel and his co-authors claimed to have measured humanity's "footprint" on the Earth. By their calculations, humanity's footprint had already outgrown the planet's "capacity" by 25% in 1999. However, the researchers' model fails to account for any kind of scientific or technological innovation. While charting the need for farmland, the researchers do not control for agricultural advances which will dramatically reduce the requisite amount of land. Efficiency gains in all kinds of resource consumption combined with resource restoration make Dr. Wackernagel's claims seem outlandish.

Why was the WWF study released at this particular moment? At the end of August, the United Nations will hold an Earth Summit. Both the Wackernagel and WWF studies seem to single out developed nations for environmental transgressions. It is possible they hope to shame them into concessions at the conference. As the Observer reported on July 7, "WWF wants world leaders to use its findings to agree on specific actions to curb the population's impact on the planet." One would hope that, whatever dramatic proposals are considered at the Earth Summit, policymakers will at least consult freely available scientific data before making any rash decisions.

return to Howard Fienberg's page