Hurrah for 8 Billion Humans

Leigh Phillips

Image for article: Hurrah for 8 Billion Humans
December 2, 2022
Illustration: Scott Menchin

In November 2022, the world’s population hit 8 billion, according to a UN assessment. It’s a remarkable achievement in human flourishing—but not if you listen to the eco-misanthropists who increasingly dominate mainstream discussions about growth, development, and population.

Eight billion people: That’s 8 billion instances of the universe becoming aware of itself, as the late astronomer Carl Sagan described members of our species: “We are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of 10 billion, billion, billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”

Eight billion people are 8 billion potential creators of new art and music, pioneers of new science, discoverers of new medicines, inventors of new technologies, builders of new machines and new buildings, explorers of the rest of our cosmos.

“We reached this milestone thanks to myriad wonders of human ingenuity.”

We reached this milestone thanks to myriad wonders of human ingenuity: among others, the germ theory of disease; improvements in sanitation and sewage systems; antibiotics, vaccines, and other victories over our microbial adversaries; unbounded advances across all fields of medicine and health care, especially female and child mortality; and the Third Agricultural Revolution, which delivered high-yield cereals, irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides giving us soaring crop yields and enhanced nutrition almost everywhere.

The full promise of these scientific and technological breakthroughs was realized only in combination with the moral, democratic revolutions of the radical Enlightenment, which ensured that the benefits of these innovations would be extended to all—or at least, to ever more—people, simply by dint of their membership in the human species.

In short, the 8 billion people owe their lives to Prometheus plus Spartacus, to paraphrase the midcentury Marxist Hal Draper describing the starting point of human self-emancipation: technological progress yoked to equality.

Technological advance that is restricted to the wealthy few delimits what new technologies can be invented, for it restricts the number of minds that can be engaged in discovering and inventing. That, in turn, restricts the degrees of freedom there could be otherwise—even for the wealthy. Meanwhile, equality without innovation is merely an equality of poverty, enslaving everyone to the caprices and scarcity of nature. Every peasant must be made a lord, not every lord reduced to a peasant.

To be sure, the Spartacist component of Draper’s arithmetic of liberation remains far from sufficiently included in society’s calculations. We still have a long way to go to lift the bottom billions in the Global South up to a standard of living that will allow all people to realize their potential, to be free to be those scientists, engineers, musicians, carpenters or dancers, or whatsoever they wish. And we should not only speak of the developing world: In the Global North, we must reverse more than four decades of wage stagnation, deindustrialization, and growing precarity and inequality that have constrained freedom, hollowed out our institutions, and vitiated such commonwealth as existed in the middle years of the 20th century.

What wonders we could accomplish once every last one of those 8 billion people are freed from drudgery! In my lifetime, South Korea has leapt from an emerging economy to an industrial and cultural powerhouse. What riddles will we solve, what new forms of art will we invent when the Nigerias, Indonesias, and Vietnams and all the rest join the global conversation too?

Yet instead of celebrating such technological and moral progress and calling for it to go further, The New York Times lamented the birth of Baby 8 Billion. Climate reporter Cara Buckley used the occasion to offer up a grotesque piece of puffery for the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. “Look what we did to this planet,” the group’s founder, Les Knight, tells Buckley. “We’re not a good species.”

Homo sapiens are a net detriment to the planet, and so we should all stop reproducing, the group argues. “People mention music and art and literature and the great things that we have done— it’s funny they don’t ever mention the bad things we’ve done,” he carries on. “I don’t think the whales will miss our songs.”

The Times’ profile of Knight is accompanied by interviews with other assorted anti-natalists and Malthusians from different organizations. These include the Center for Biological Diversity, which, despite its academic-sounding name, is a campaign group that hands out condoms with cartoon pictures of wild animals on them encouraging people not to have children; as well as Population Connection, another Malthusian campaign group, which teaches that having one child fewer is “perhaps the most significant way to reduce one’s carbon footprint.”

It wasn’t the first time the Times has featured anti-humanists in its pages. In 2018, an opinion piece by Clemson University philosopher Todd May suggested that it would be “a good thing” if humans went extinct, for “there is no other creature in nature whose predatory behavior is remotely as deep or as widespread as the behavior we display.” Science, May claimed, gives “us a reason to eliminate … own continued existence.”

Nor is anti-humanism the sole purview of the Old Gray Lady. CNN’s report on the 8 billion milestone warned that such growth “poses more challenges for the planet.” In a widely shared article, Britain’s Guardian newspaper told readers in 2017 that the single best thing to do to fight climate change is to have fewer children, citing a study in Environmental Research Letters comparing this action to foregoing trans-Atlantic flights, going vegan, using energy-saving light bulbs, and so on.

Nature documentarian David Attenborough is a patron of the UK “overpopulation” pressure group, Population Matters, whose former head said in 2013, during the Syrian Civil War, that Britain shouldn’t accept any more refugees. The justification: The newcomers would adopt UK-typical overconsuming lifestyles that would put pressure on the planet. And primatologist Jane Goodall has said that most environmental problems wouldn’t exist if human population declined to where it stood half a millennium ago.

We are confronted monthly by doom-mongering nature documentaries on Netflix almost certainly optimized by the streaming service to provoke fear and anger and thus increase engagement.

The Voluntary Human Extinction movement’s website admits that it isn’t hopeful that its arguments will succeed in “staving off ecological collapse.” But this only provides the group yet another argument as to why couples should still opt against reproduction, as they “may want to consider the possibility that they will be sentencing their offspring to a rapidly deteriorating quality of life and unimaginably horrible death.”

“Misanthropy is just so hot right now.”

Misanthropy is just so hot right now.

To be sure, climate change and biodiversity loss are real threats. But as most scientists on the front lines of these challenges argue, there is a difference between a sober, evidence-based consideration of the considerable danger they pose and what they call “doomerism”: willful exaggeration of their findings for the sake of clicks, likes, and search-engine optimization.

Almost daily warnings of the coming end of the world in the pages of The New York Times and The Guardian are the likely source of the erroneous belief—shared by millions of young people, not least Greta Thunberg—that their future has been canceled. When Roger Hallam, the co-founder of the direct-action group Extinction Rebellion, warned in a BBC interview that “the science predicts” that global warming will cause the “slaughter, death, and starvation of 6 billion this century,” climate scientists such as Ken Caldeira were forced to correct this wildly false statement on the website Climate Feedback, a publication that normally works to correct misinformation from climate skeptics. “I know of no climate model simulation or analysis in the quality peer-reviewed literature,” Calderia wrote with a remarkable bluntness, “that provides any indication that there is a substantially non-zero probability of ‘starvation of 6 billion people this century’ as a result of climate change.”

Bombarded with such fear-mongering, many ordinary people are turning into Malthusians. A 2020 poll found that 1 in 4 Americans who had decided to forego having kids did so out of fear of climate change. The same poll reports that more than 40 percent of childless Hispanics in particular had made their decision due to concerns about global warming.

This isn’t simply an anxiety of the left either; 16 percent of Republicans without children said that climate factored into their decision making about whether to have a family. A wider 2021 study appearing in The Lancet, surveying some 10,000 young people across 10 countries in the Global North and South found that climate change left 40 percent of them fearful of having children.

Given how widespread such anxiety and anti-humanism are, it is worth taking a moment to correct the moral incoherence and common misunderstandings of ecological and evolutionary science that give rise to these beliefs.

Les Knight, Todd May, and, yes, even Jane Goodall and David Attenborough suffer from an unscientific presentism. They appear to believe, despite all evolutionary evidence to the contrary, that the current assemblage of species and current set of conditions on Earth must always remain so for their own sake.

But the Earth’s conditions have radically altered through the eons. There were once palm trees and crocodiles in the Arctic. The first major mass extinction, the Great Oxygenation Event beginning roughly 2.5 billion years ago, was caused by cyanobacteria, the first organisms to be able to photosynthesize. Their production of free molecular oxygen in vast quantities radically altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere far more than anything that anthropogenic combustion of fossil fuels could ever achieve, and produced the first ever snowball Earth. And yet, this oxygenation of the atmosphere and consequent mass extinction also permitted the rise of multicellular life.

The Late Devonian mass extinction may have been at least in part caused by plants’ evolution of vascular systems. This allowed them to conquer land but also to put down root systems that broke up rock. It also created and stabilized the first soils, and the consequent sudden flow of nutrients from such rock and soils into the oceans may have produced widespread oxygen deprivation in much the same way as what happens when nitrogen pollution produces deadly algal blooms offshore.

The hardest-hit groups were marine invertebrates and corals. “Higher” taxonomic groups were less affected, but among marine vertebrates, heavily armored fish—the placoderms—essentially disappeared. Yet, as with the Great Oxygenation Event and, indeed, all mass extinctions, the collapse of food webs was only part of the story. The survivors produced descendants whose evolutionary radiation—a rapid increase in evolution into new species—expanded into abandoned niches and helped construct new ones. In the seas, sharks replaced the placoderms, and on land, amphibians began to diversify and the first reptiles emerged.

For this reason, there are researchers who specialize in the study of mass extinction who favor the phrase “biological revolution” over “mass extinction event.” Put another way, we humans and a great many of the animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms wouldn’t be here without all the extinctions that went before us.

“Extinction is as much a necessity for evolution as death is for life.”

Extinction is as much a necessity for evolution as death is for life. Transformations in conditions are the “selection pressures” that drive evolutionary change. Whatever humans are doing—from climate change to agriculture’s land-use change to the invention and dispersal of plastics—represents only nature’s latest set of evolutionary-selection pressures. And, indeed, one of the responses to such anthropic selection pressures is the evolutionary radiation of what are called synurbic species: those that perform far better in human, and particularly urban, environments than do their cousins in wilderness, such as raccoons, pigeons, rats, tapeworms, lice, and agricultural weeds. Common to many of these synurbic species is their adaptability, enabling them to keep up with humans’ constantly changing behaviors.

None of this means we should be indifferent to the environmental challenges facing our species and our common home. While irrational life doesn’t care about extinction and ecological transformation, we rational animals very much do—and should.

We humans evolved within a set of ecological conditions, including a relatively cool climate compared to much of the Earth’s deep history, that are better for human flourishing than other ones. We should want to avoid dangerous climate change and biodiversity loss not because the planet is fragile—it isn’t—but because we humans are fragile. We want to prevent changes to what are called “ecosystem services,” the ecological conditions that benefit us Homo sapiens.

The Times encomium to Voluntary Human Extinction is riddled with errors. It simply isn’t true, for example, that humanity uses two Earths’ worth of resources. This is a reference to the concept known as “Ecological Footprint,” which uses six crude metrics to measure whether we extract more than we replenish.

This isn’t a useful way of conceiving of human impact on ecosystem services, as it assumes that there can’t be technological development whose efficiency gains boost productive capacity, even as the required material or energetic inputs from the environment declines. Granting the value of the model for argument’s sake, humanity is in balance or surplus on five of the six metrics. It’s only greenhouse-gas emissions that are out of whack. Once we decarbonize, as we must and will, the current “overshoot” registered by the Ecological Footprint disappears.

In addition to such scientific errors, there is a moral incoherence to the anti-humanist environmental worldview.

The overpopulationists want girls and women to have access to birth control, education, and abortion rights. But their claim to support reproductive freedom is belied by their indifference to the economic intimidation that forces many couples to forgo having the children they want. A 2018 Gallup poll of US adults found that the average number of children they consider “ideal” is 2.7, about one child greater than the actual American fertility rate. To deliver reproductive freedom in today’s context, then, calls for more generous child tax credits and low-cost or free quality public child care—a pair of policies that exist in some other developed nations. The overpopulationists consider such policies anathema, as they unsurprisingly result in slightly higher fertility rates. Opposition to such policies thus exposes them as the false friends of women’s rights they really are.

The doomsayers, moreover, severely underestimate the special dignity of the human person as a rational, moral animal—even as they themselves use our species’ unique moral capacities to make their arguments in the public square.

Non-human creatures possess incredible capabilities and umwelts (ways of experiencing the world). But when we marvel and wonder at their abilities, we are implicitly comparing them to us—that is, we are taking for granted our position at the moral apex of existence. And it is correct that we do so, for no other organism has the capacity to engage in anything other than the crudest of moral reasoning. In 2016, when a human infant climbed into Harambe the gorilla’s Cincinnati zoo enclosure, and his keepers shot him to save the child, the killing sparked a fierce debate over whether this should have happened. Or to be more precise, it sparked a fierce debate among humans. No gorilla could ever have a debate over whether it should kill a human infant.

None of this excludes the possibility of vegetarianism or veganism, if that is where someone wants to draw the boundary of their circle of moral concern. But it does exclude a moral equivalence between us and anything else in nature.

“We are the way that the universe comes to know itself.”

We are profoundly special. Sagan was right: We are the way that the universe comes to know itself. Nothing else—so far as we know—comes close to the full complement of moral attributes experienced by humans. Perhaps one day we will discover extraterrestrial intelligences or build true artificial general intelligences here on Earth. If either event comes to pass, we might recognize these other creatures as having the same fundamental rights that humans do, because they enjoy the same moral attributes. But until then, we are the only instance of a rational and moral creature through which the cosmos becomes self-aware.

In recent years, anthropologists have told a new story about the long-extinct cousins of Homo sapiens, including Neanderthals and Denisovans; about their rich cognitive abilities and cultures so akin to our own; and discovered so many new branches of the human family tree. This has been both awe-inspiring and eerie. For our branch alone remains, even if some of us contain within our genes a molecular ghost of the Neanderthals.

Such research reminds us of how fragile we are, how easily other human species winked out, how this world is only just barely habitable for us. There is a moral imperative embedded in these stories: We must make the Earth—and, one day, the rest of the cosmos—ever-more habitable for our species. (Your correspondent, an atheist humanist, nevertheless wonders what theologians make of such anthropological findings: How could God have forsaken his other children so?)

Wishing humans extinct, or imagining how much better the world would be without us, is the opposite of what we must do with respect to the environment, for the ecological imperative is ineluctably that we ensure the survival and unbounded flourishing of our species.

So long as we base our environmental policies on anti-humanism, on the scientifically and morally erroneous belief that we humans are doing something bad to the planet, we will unwittingly work to undermine the policies that we need to avoid any undermining of ecosystem services necessary for that flourishing.

Growth, whether of population or the economy, isn’t the cause of climate change or biodiversity loss, and inhibiting human growth has never been what has solved the environmental challenges of the past, such as the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, or lead pollution. It was by technology-switching that we overcame those challenges, and that, in turn, was brought about by policy interventions in and against the profit incentives of the market, industrial policy, public buildout of infrastructure, and state funding of research, development, and deployment.

Such policies would represent a much-needed break with the market fundamentalism that has reigned in the West for at least two generations. So long as we focus on growth as the cause of our environmental challenges, we will remain distracted from the classic social-democratic responses that will actually solve them. The Malthusian misanthropes thus serve as useful idiots to those, such as the fossil-fuel giants, whose financial interests are threatened by such economic and climate policies.

Anyone who says there are too many people, or that we have too much stuff, is working to inhibit what’s really needed to optimize ecosystem services for us, all 8 billion and counting of us—the most incredible thing that has happened to the cosmos in 13.8 billion years.