Climate Politics & Capitalism: Is the World Enough?

Illustration by Sadia Tariq, LHR (Apr. 2022)

Will Glovinsky at Public Books: It was 1968, and the “battle to feed all of humanity” had already been lost. In the coming 1970s, soaring populations and finite global resources would lead hundreds of millions of people to starve to death. Or so prophesized Paul and Anne Ehrlich in their book The Population Bomb. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford entomologist, gained unlikely fame as an outrider of the apocalypse. He went on Johnny Carson and declared that “the end” was near.

But, notoriously, the Ehrlichs were wrong. They had predicted that vast swathes of humanity would die, yet by 1990, the human population had added some 1.5 billion people. Moreover, famines became much rarer, malnutrition decreased, and living standards rose across the industrializing world. To top it off, the Ehrlichs’ prognostications of scarcity came with generous servings of first-world environmentalist racism (he suggested food aid to India was pointless). They even inspired, from Mexico to Bangladesh, horrific campaigns of coerced sterilizations. As such, Ehrlich has become a byword for one of environmentalism’s most shortsighted—and morally bankrupt—impulses.

Yet one might also say, in hindsight, that the Ehrlichs were only wrong about which species would starve. In the second half of the 20th century, global human famine was averted by the Green Revolution’s formula of high-yield, semi-dwarf cereal varieties, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, monocrop agriculture, and intensified irrigation. These advances helped save perhaps two billion lives, yet the planet is strewn with the costs of this miracle. What The Population Bomb failed to predict was that we would largely survive by starving and poisoning countless species and ecosystems to the point of collapse.

The Green Revolution’s pesticides and habitat destruction are the main drivers of a mass die-off of insects at the astounding rate of 2.5 percent per year, a harbinger of death for the birds, fish, amphibians, and mammals that rely on them. The release of carbon into the atmosphere—perhaps a third of which comes from agriculture and deforestation—has raised global temperatures by 0.15 to 0.20 degrees Celsius every decade since 1975. It has also rendered the oceans 26 percent more acidic than they were in the Holocene. As a result, coral reefs, which nurture one in four marine species, are collapsing. About a fifth of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth, has been clear cut, mostly to raise beef.

Today, eco-leftists know that population itself does not drive climate change. Rather, the problem is the ravenous consumption fueled by the Global North’s vision of the capitalist good life: with suburban Versailles, trips to Bali, and hot tubs, an airmailed salmon in every pan and two SUVs in every garage. Contemporary “degrowth” advocates are, thankfully, more ethically attuned than the environmentalists of the sixties like the Ehrlichs: they call not for single-child policies, but, rather, for a dialing back of economic development in rich countries and a redistribution of resources to the Global South.

But the debate between eco-pessimists and techno-optimists remains structured around an abiding question: Is our relation to the earth mainly a story of scarcity, of insatiable wants curbed by a finite planet? Or is it about humanity’s marvelous aptitude for discovering new ways to extract fresh abundance from finite resources?

To a sobering extent, this argument has been dominated by invocations of its most disreputable participants. Muse loudly enough about planetary limits and someone will likely call you an “Ehrlichian,” as a friend who works in biotech once half-jokingly labeled me. (The mockery was esoteric, but because I, like many of my generation, spend a fair amount of time doomscrolling through the annals of climate catastrophe, I knew enough to take offense.) To fall on the side of scarcity, then, exposes one to allegations of underinformed naysaying or even “neo-Malthusian” callousness, after the English cleric and demographer who railed against poor relief around the turn of the 19th century.

In other words, to worry about human limits is to find oneself thrust into truly awful company.

More here.