Hospitable Earth, Cont’d

My column today is on the idea, touted by Bill McKibben, that the Earth is less hospitable thanks to global warming. It’s generated some underwhelming criticism from some readers. The chief complaints boil down to worries about overpopulation. For instance one commenter writes:

You don’t need to be Malthus to figure this out. Look around. I live in a Boston Suburb that ten years ago had country roads now impassable ninety percent of the time. China is moving 250 million people off of farms and into the city. Have you looked at the high rises? That was 250 MILLION people. If you have burrowed deep into the heart of NYC, maybe you haven’t noticed, but it is bloody crowded and getting worse all the time. Everywhere. Bees are dying, lobsters are dying. How many hints do you need?

China faces some real challenges to be sure, but high rises aren’t one of them. Population density is, all things being equal, a good thing. If the whole world lived with the population density of New York City, you could fit all of humanity into the state of Texas. That would leave the rest of the world for agriculture, wilderness etc. I’m not advocating that, obviously, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Indeed, environmentalists have rethought their aversion to cities in recent years:

And here’s one more change since then: Urbanization is now good news. Expert opinion has shifted profoundly in the past decade or two. Though slums as appalling as Victorian London’s are now widespread, and the Victorian fear of cities lives on, cancer no longer seems the right metaphor. On the contrary: With Earth’s population headed toward nine or ten billion, dense cities are looking more like a cure—the best hope for lifting people out of poverty without wrecking the planet.

As Stewart Brand says, “cities are defusing the population bomb.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that global population is slated to crest fairly soon and start dropping. Let’s leave aside the fact that many of the fiscal challenges faced by the West stem from the aging and shrinking of the work force. Let’s leave aside that the fact that shrinking lobster stocks stems more far from mismanagement than overpopulation (as for bees, we don’t yet really know what’s wrong, but fewer people strikes me as an ill-considered solution). Instead let’s get back to the Boston suburbs. Let’s stipulate that traffic there is just awful. How does that stack up against the comparative material misery of life prior to the industrial revolution? Sitting in an air-conditioned car in traffic may be less than ideal, but I’m hard-pressed to see how it’s proof the world is so much worse than it was in say, 1800.


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