In his famous text An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), English clergyman Thomas Malthus argued that the human population tends to increase more rapidly than food supplies and that population growth would ultimately lead to disease, starvation, and war. Malthus’s argument remained popular for decades, and his ominous forecasts are currently mirrored in various predictions that the human population will be unable to sustain itself in the future.
Many researchers and scientists calculate that because the world’s population could double to more than ten billion as early as the year 2050, increased human consumption and activity will rapidly deplete or exhaust the earth’s vital natural resources. Others disagree, arguing that human activity is not critically reducing supplies of global resources. They contend that due to frequent discoveries of new reserves, known supplies of many resources are in fact increasing.
Some researchers blame industrial societies, particularly the United States, for extensive resource depletion. Dartmouth College environmental studies professor Donella Meadows states, “If everyone on Earth lived like the average North American and we utilized fully every productive acre (leaving no wilderness), we would need three Earths to support the present world population.” According to these experts, humanity’s growing impact on land and natural resources is straining the world’s ability to support its increasing population. University of British Columbia planning professor William Rees calls this effect the “ecological footprint.”
Many observers warn that humanity’s ecological footprint is growing at a dangerous pace. Stanford University professor of population Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Stanford biologist Anne H. Ehrlich, maintain that the “explosion of human numbers has been combined with a four-fold increase in consumption per person. The result is a twenty-fold escalation since 1850 of the pressure humanity places on its environment.” The Ehrlichs are among those who contend that population increases will exert more pressure on land, soils, forests, water, and other resources. As Princeton University sociologist and demographer Charles F. Westoff writes, “Growing populations multiply whatever environmentally destructive behavior is present.”
Beginning in 1970, Meadows and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology administered a computer simulation model called World3 that studied such variables as population, pollution, and the use of energy and other resources. In their 1972 book The Limits to Growth, these researchers cautioned that humanity was fast approaching the limits—especially the environmental limits—to the rapid growth of civilization and its consumption of global resources. They maintained that if increases in population, industrialization, and resource depletion continued unabated, limits to growth would be reached early in the twenty-first century, causing drastic declines in energy use as well as food and industrial production. The preface to their 1992 update, Beyond the Limits to Growth, notes that “the world has already overshot some of its limits, and if present trends remain unchanged, we face the virtually certain prospect of a global economic collapse.”
However, other observers disagree with these predictions. They argue that although human consumption of global resources has increased, the supply of resources is not in jeopardy and remains abundant. These experts note that because of technological advances, more supplies of global resources are being discovered or conserved. Some maintain, for example, that raw materials such as lead, tin, wood, and zinc, which are used in manufacturing, are being conserved due to the increased use of other materials, including aluminum, glass, plastic, and rubber. Also, new mining methods use bacteria, electricity, and foaming agents to recover copper, gold, and other minerals from lowgrade ores that would otherwise be discarded. Economist Julian L. Simon asserts that the prices of most resources are decreasing, suggesting that they are in ample supply. In Simon’s words, “The real prices of food and of every other raw material are lower now than in earlier decades and centuries, indicating a trend of increased natural-resource availability rather than increased scarcity.”
Simon and others also contend that since the known supplies of many global resources are increasing, humanity will not be hindered by limits to growth. As Cato Institute economist Stephen Moore writes, “The introduction of new technologies and innovations, which make us more efficient in consuming and producing natural resources, has meant that the earth’s resources have continually become less of a limit to growth over time rather than more so.” The downward trend in resource prices, Moore and others maintain, proves that resources are abundant and disproves the findings of the World3 model, which they claim did not use accurate data as input. Simon points out that the Club of Rome, an organization that sponsored the World3 model, later disavowed the Limits to Growth report for exaggerating the extent of resource depletion.
Furthermore, according to Eco-Scam author Ronald Bailey and researchers Michael Sanera and Jane S. Shaw, the dire predictions of The Limits to Growth have not come true since the book’s publication. Sanera and Shaw write, “Oil is plentiful and cheap. The world did not run out of gold by 1981, or zinc by 1990, or petroleum by 1992, as the book predicted.” Bailey adds, “America’s population has risen 22% and its economy has grown by more than 58%.” He notes that “humanity hasn’t come close to running out of any mineral resource.” Even if some resources do become more scarce over time, Sanera and Shaw assert, price increases will cause producers to seek cheaper substitute materials, thus maintaining consumers’ access to products and services. In their words, “The resources that we use will change over time. Materials that were previously unknown or neglected will provide the services we want.”
The debate over the effects of population growth on the availability of global resources is a main theme in Global Resources: Opposing Viewpoints, which poses arguments on resource scarcity in the following chapters: Are Global Resources Being Depleted? What Agricultural Policies Should Be Pursued? What Energy Sources Should Be Pursued? How Can Global Resources Be Protected? The contributors in this anthology examine the availability of and dependence on the world’s vital natural resources.