From the caves to creating a telescope that allows us to peer back into time to show a galaxy formed a mere (in cosmological terms) 300 million years after the formation of the universe, humans are the solution to the problem, not the problem.
Not only do humans tend to take a myopic view of human progress, capability, and capacity, but I fear some take a downright pernicious view of humanity in terms of a conceptual view informed by the aforementioned latter: That humans are the problem, or taken unironically from a George Carlin comedy sketch, we are a virus unto the Earth itself.
The way this viewpoint is most commonly expressed by a good many serious people, and to be sure, it is expressed with sincerity and good intentions in most instances, is by arguing that the Earth is overpopulated with humans. In fact, we’ve been hearing that overpopulation is a problem for many decades, and its purveyors have been wrong and contradicted by human ingenuity every single time.
I’m thinking about this because a 2020 clip of famed primatologist Jane Goodall at Davos (I believe this is the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, bringing together political, business, cultural, and media leaders to talk about international agenda, which necessarily involves overpopulation talk related to environmental concerns) was circulating on Twitter the other day in which Goodall said, “All these [environmental] things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.”
Before we get into everything, as usual when people talk like this, I would implore (and caution!) them to think through what they are actually implying by their words. If you’re seriously suggesting that the world would be better now with something around the order of 461 million people (the estimated population of the world in 1500) instead of the current amount (7.753 billion people), then you’re talking about a world with 7.292 billion fewer people in it. How would we prevent that build-up of humanity? Something akin to China’s former one-child policy? Something else? Whatever the solution, it probably would be awful!
Also, as an important aside, I have a sneaking suspicion that most of those 461 million people living in the 1500s weren’t environmentalists concerned with the Earth, the plants, the air quality, and other species. Primarily, that is, because they were peasants hoping to survive their brutal station in life at the time.
What is great, among other things, about getting wealthier as people and as countries is that we can care more about the environment instead of centrally-focused on when our next meal will come and from where. I’m not saying that there was not any concerns for the welfare of animals, plants, and the environment prior to modern times; that would be ludicrous. I’m only suggesting that for a great many people, they couldn’t possibly have considered it.
Humans are wealth-generators, and wealth generation is based on human ingenuity, and the free exchange of ideas and goods. These mechanisms, along with others, like the price system, allow humans, unlike other animals, to solve problems like what to do in a world where population continues to rise along with corresponding consumption? More division of labor, economies of scale, more efficient modes of production to generate bigger returns with less, and so on.
As one Tweeter put it, if the population of chimpanzees grows, and if chimpanzees like bananas, you end up with fewer bananas. If the population of humans grows, and humans like bananas, you end up with 100 billion bananas. In fact, I would add, the only way chimpanzees get more bananas is with the intervention of humans!
I’m also fond of this quote I saw from a source I linked above by British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who said, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
I don’t think it is necessarily the case that progress behind us implies progress is before us, either, but I also think it is weird how many seem certain that we are destined for deterioration.
Are such people alarmists and pessimists, or earnestly concerned about the future? Or are those one and the same? I’m not quite sure, but I think the proven track record is more on the side of human ingenuity to solve problems, even ones of our own making!, than it is on the side of those who protest that the real problem is us, and the solution is fewer of us. Or even if they don’t exactly say it like that, they might suggest that the lot of us should consume less, which while not as draconian as population control, has the outcome of making us poorer and worse off.
So, yes, that is one takeaway I have from the wonders of the James Webb Space Telescope: Humans are awesome, and ingenious problem-solvers. More humans gives us hope, because it means generating more problem-solvers, like people who create telescopes that allow to peer back in time at the near-beginnings of the universe.