The Earth is degrading at a rapid pace, and mankind is to blame. As many as 1 million plant and animal species on this planet are at risk of extinction. If even a fraction of the amount of life threatened by human civilization were to cease to exist, the chain-reaction could cause a cascading collapse of the food chain and yield a humanitarian disaster of nightmarish proportions.
Those are the findings of the scientific studies compiled in a report by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Though the full report is not yet released, the synopsis’s conclusions about the planet’s vulnerability to mass extinctions are terrifying. Indeed, at least as terrifying as the last time we heard this prediction—12 years ago.
In 2007, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity estimated that the rate of species extinction had accelerated to a point at which over 150 varieties of plant and animal species were disappearing per day. That means up to 55,000 of the estimated 1.9 million species on Earth would disappear every year, yielding up to a 10 percent decline in biodiversity on the planet over the course of a decade. In retrospect, though, that estimate was flawed. It was based on faulty data, fallacious straight-line projections, and a number of assumptions and extrapolations. Like so many apocalyptic predictions, the Convention’s ominous forecast received breathless press upon its publication but little scrutiny when its projections failed to materialize.
The IPBES report does deserve all the attention it is receiving, in part, because it so dangerously couples the planet’s ecological woes to the increasing number of human beings populating it. The authors warn that approximately three-quarters of all land on Earth has been significantly altered by human activity over the last half-century. Endeavors like land use for farming, ranching, and property development will have to be limited to a smaller footprint. Illegal poaching, logging, and waste dumping in the developing world will have to be dramatically curtailed. Though global warming is driving this process, even climate change mitigation efforts are part of the problem. After all, sustainable practices that use land to develop biofuels or exploit renewable resources contribute to the reduction of wildlife habitats and release “stored carbon” into the atmosphere.
“The negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystem functions are projected to continue or worsen in many future scenarios in response to indirect drivers such as rapid human population growth,” the report reads. “In contrast, scenarios and pathways that explore the effects of a low-to-moderate population growth . . . will better support the achievement of future societal and environmental objectives.”
With the glaring yet unstated conclusion that people are the problem, CNN took the next logical step and reached out to the world’s leading misanthrope to state the subtext out loud. “For a species that named itself homo sapiens, the wise man, we’re being incredibly stupid,” said Stanford University Professor and author of the book, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich. Among the recommendations adopted by the report’s authors, summarized by CNN reporter Clint Watt: “Consuming less” and “having fewer children.”
No idea should be as discredited as the irrational fear of too many people, yet this Malthusian temptation has somehow managed to avoid the stigma it deserves. The belief popularized by Ehrlich, that the planet has a finite “carrying capacity” and that we’re currently running up against it, has justified some of the most abhorrent episodes of state-sponsored bigotry and eugenics since the end of World War II. The United States, in cooperation with groups like the International Planned Parenthood Federation, justified the sterilization of low-income Native American and Puerto Rican women through population control hysteria. In the developing world, the goal of ensuring “sustainable” population levels led organizations like the World Bank to create incentives for voluntary sterilization and punishments for larger families. The campaign went so far as to include the USAID-backed dissemination of untested and potentially hazardous contraceptive devices in 60 developing countries.
Ehrlich has a habit of being wrong. He claimed that the average American lifespan would decline to just 42-years-old by 1980. In 1970, he predicted that “the death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” That same year, he warned that “all important animal life in the sea will be extinct” by 1980. At least 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in what he dubbed “the great die-off” between 1980 and 1989. “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people,” Ehrlich said in 1971. The Stanford Professor evinces no contrition about his errors. “As I’ve said many times,” he warned as recently as last year, “‘perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell.’”
Though the population controllers have not altered their diagnosis or recommendations in the last 40 years, the world around them has changed dramatically. Between 1981 and 2008, 700 million people emerged from extreme poverty even as the world’s population increased by 48 percent. The elimination of subsistence living is no longer a utopian prospect but an attainable goal. Global life expectancy grew by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016, with the gap between the sexes remaining stable. Global food production has risen to meet demand, and the number of people suffering from undernourishment declined by half between 1960 and 2008. Deaths attributable to global conflict have declined to proportional rates almost unknown in human history. This revolution in human existence is a product of two conditions: the triumph of the market over its socialistic alternatives in the last decades of the 20th century and the increasing number of people who participate in that market, augmenting the incentives associated with innovation and growth.
“The Earth has cancer,” read the Club of Rome’s 1974 manifesto, Mankind at a Turning Point, “and the cancer is Man.” Surely, most environmentally conscious activists and organizations do not believe that, but Ehrlich and his disciples most certainly do. The wing of the environmentalist movement that seeks not to preserve the Earth for humans but to keep it safe from humans will find false vindication in this report. The belief—and it is a belief—that mankind cannot innovate its way out of the problem of scarcity is the usual impetus for war and oppression. The evidence that their worldview is unsound is all but inescapable. They’re fortunate that the United Nations manages to scare up some reassurances every now and then.