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Matt massacres Malthusians

Matt Ridley has a great article about global population:

Already huge swaths of the world are being released from farming and reforested. New England is now 80 per cent woodland, where it was once 70 per cent farm land. Italy and England have more woodland than for many centuries. Moose, coyotes, beavers and bears are back in places where they have not been for centuries. France has a wolf problem; Scotland a deer problem. It is the poor countries, not the affluent ones, that are losing forest. Haiti, with its near total dependence on renewable power (wood), is 98-percent deforested and counting.

Read the whole thing.

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Reader Comments (37)

As countries become more affluent the birth rate drops, bring the whole world up to the same level and the population growth will stall.

Sep 21, 2011 at 9:04 AM | Unregistered Commenterbreath of fresh

I posted this at Matt's site:

The population has risen by 79 million each year since 1999. The decline in the absolute rise as predicted by the UN "begins" in a couple of years - I doubt this will prove to have any basis in fact.

I graphed it here.

"That is why I predict that by the second half of this century nine billion human beings will be living mostly prosperous lives, eating chickens and pigs and cattle while coexisting with about as much nature as was there before we even came on the scene."

That is indeed optimistic. My own prediction is that about half of all species will be extinct by then.

Sep 21, 2011 at 9:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterJit

I see I got my tags backwards again...

[BH adds: fixed]

Sep 21, 2011 at 9:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterJit

Jit... Couldn't find your posting at Matt's site. Anyhow you must believe that Matt's fears for the future will actually occur then?

"If there are three things I fear, as a passionate environmentalist who wants to see wild habitats restored all over the world, they are biofuels, renewable electricity and organic farming. Each would demand much, much more land from nature."

Sep 21, 2011 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered Commenteroxonmoron

Dear Mr. Ridley,

You show a naivety that is charming. Have you not heard from people that have your own best interests at heart that the prosperity you observe is a false prosperity? Have no fear of politics as it is merely the vehicle that delivers that demanded by society. The control of demands is what delivers real results: results that reflect what is truly good for mankind. In this, we assure you that you are in safe hands.

Your faith-full overlords,
(Insert name of favourite off-the-wall pressure group)

Sep 21, 2011 at 10:20 AM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth

Jit - your tags are fine but Squarespace requires them in lower case.

Sep 21, 2011 at 10:26 AM | Unregistered Commenterandyscrase

Mlthus' predictions are a perfect example of what I have termed "static analysis". Simply put it is looking at a chaotic system and moving only two parameters without regard to the other known and, of course, unkown, parameters. The current classic example of this is the IPPC AR4 SPM.

There are simpler examples, one of which, is if you were a taxi driver in 1900 and were told that almost every house would have a car and that public transport would be ubiquitous and cheap would you think there would be more or less taxi drivers in 2000? The obvious answer is there would be less, or none. There were, of course, many more, because the parameters such as disposable income, had changed dramatically in that period and it was beyond the imagination of anyone in 1900 to believe such a world would ever exist. Not one science fiction book from the period saw supermarketscoming.

Sep 21, 2011 at 11:51 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

BH/andyscrase - thanks for the fix/tip.

Oxonmoron - somewhat naively, I think that overpopulation is the problem whose name cannot be spoken in polite society. Matt fears organic farming, which is hilarious. I am an entomologist some of the time, and can assure you that the difference, in wildlife terms, between low-intensity and high-intensity agriculture is vast. Our cheap cakes have been bought with the quiet deaths of millions of invertebrates.

Biofuels are a stupid idea. Agree there.

Renewables? As an ideal, why not. Problem is, they don't seem to be able to pull their weight.

On population, the sudden downward kink in the population growth rate in a couple of years leads me to believe that this estimate is politically motivated.

Finally, I will share some optimism when an indicator switches direction. We're talking about population GROWTH rates decreasing, not populations; we're talking about deforestation RATES decreasing, not forest areas INCREASING.

Show me net growth in forests globally and I will be the first to do a cartwheel, frozen shoulder or not.

Sep 21, 2011 at 11:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterJit

Sorry, one more thing to add.

The global obsession with AGW really annoys me because it distracts attention from real ecological problems - overpopulation, deforestation, desertification, urbanisation, habitat fragmentation, intensification, pollution, yadda yadda.

7 billion humans are not too many for the planet but apparently 20,000 white rhino are.

Sep 21, 2011 at 12:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJit

Bish, thank you for publicising Matt Ridley's piece. "Rational Optimist", he terms himself. This is a rare breed, less newsworthy than apocalypse merchants and therefore more deserving of attention.

We've always had doomsayers whose apocaplyptic message is loud and vivid and plausible. And wrong. It's only recently that such nutters gained entry to government. If only there were political mileage in Rational Optimism!

What a joy it would be if senior R.O. politicians declared the carbon dioxide scare cobblers, and announced the downsizing of Chris Huhne's Minsitry of Energy and Silly Walks.

Sep 21, 2011 at 12:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrent Hargreaves

I grew up as a country bumpkin,caring for the environment, and in my teens even did voluntary work for WWF.

The hijacking of environmental issues for political purposes angers, and saddens me.

A lot of good work by genuine environmentalists is going to be lost in the post AGW backlash.

As for trees, I like them but am old enough to remember:

Plant a tree in '73
Plant some more in '74
Those alive in '75
Will be sticks in '76

Sep 21, 2011 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charley

Brent Hargreaves

......and if the Crown Prosecution Service would declare an end to Chris Huhne MP

Sep 21, 2011 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charley

Sustenance farming ceased here in Nova Scotia about 2 generations back, all that former farm land has mostly reverted to bush and forest. Here is a comment I left at Matt's blog on the Counting Species Out thread.

"Posted by, mitchel44 (not verified)


I live in rural Nova Scotia, on a 10 acre parcel that up until 50 years ago was a small rural farm, much like every other property for a couple of hundred miles around.

What was once pasture and cropland is now forest and brush, it is all reverting to wilderness, and this is not just happening here, it's happening worldwide as more and more give up sustenance farming and move to the cities seeking a better life.

We've seen a resurgence in local populations of some species, and even had a few new ones appear, coyotes and skunks both are new to this part of the province.

I see good things happening all on their own, without any need for expensive government intervention."

You can walk the old stone walls on my property, my brothers property, and many others.

Trust me, nobody moved all those rocks just to fence off their land.

Sep 21, 2011 at 2:10 PM | Unregistered Commentermitchel44


I'm an entomologist some of the time too, and can assure you that the difference in productivity terms, between low-intensity and high-intensity agriculture is very large indeed. Furthermore, in sustainability terms, organic agriculture fails because it cannot be relied upon fo feed us, and as far as food safety goes, in 2011 organic food has killed more people than Deep Water Horizon and Fukushima combined. Not to mention the scores of people who are condemned to a lifetime on dialysis because of ideological rejection of simple technology (i.e. antibacterials) on organic German bean sprouts.

The impact of agriculture of any sort on ecosystems is also vast - in simple terms the less of it we do, the better for the environment. Matt Ridley's point is that if we focus on producing the food we need in intensive, resource efficient systems and leave as much land as we can to nature, then the net benefit to ecosystems will outweigh failed approaches such as organic farming which claim to 'work with nature'. Personally I've always found this to be a dishonest claim for an approach which relies heavily on dragging cold steel through soil habitats many times in a season. Matt and I aren't alone in backing the use of knowledge rather than ignorance - only a couple of weeks ago a Cambridge University/RSPB team published on this subject in Science (Phalan et al., vol 333, 1289-1291) which showed the benefits of land sparing (high intensity) over land sharing (low-intensity) systems.

Sep 21, 2011 at 2:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers


On population, the sudden downward kink in the population growth rate in a couple of years leads me to believe that this estimate is politically motivated.

Reductions in fertility to below replacement in Russia, China, Europe, Australia and South Africa are a demographic reality. They are not politically motivated.

The growth in population in Sub-Saharan African (exlcuding SA) and India seems unlikely to offset the global fall in fertility to at or below replacement levels.

This is why the rate of population growth will fall to a stabilised maximum of 9 billion by 2050. Urbanisation will almost certainly result in falling SS African and Indian fertility sooner, but I can't present that as a fact.

This is not politics. Claiming over-population as a disaster in the making is, and has always been, political.

Sep 21, 2011 at 2:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD

Reference data for comment above from UN World Fertility Patterns (2009)

View as xls.

Compare total fertility per woman 1970 - 75 [chart column header (2)] to the figures for 2005 - 10 [chart column header (12)].

Note the sharp fall in fertility for N Africa. Falling fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa is evident over the period of comparison.

China has fallen from 5.2 to 1.7 over the period. India has fallen from 5.4 to 2.8. The pan-Asia figure has fallen from 5.4 to 2.4.

And so on.

Sep 21, 2011 at 3:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD

A fine article. Yes, the ONE thing that is guaranteed and well know to improve levels of poverty, healthcare and so on, is the emancipation of women, including giving them control over their own birth cycle. Men, mention this fact to your other half at the dinner table this evening, and you'll get an extra enthusiastic `cuddle' in bed later. She may prefer to hand you the loo brush of course.

Sep 21, 2011 at 6:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobinson

When I said "birth cycle", I of course meant "fertility cycle".

Sep 21, 2011 at 6:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobinson

Amen to that, BBD. The problem that no-one discusses is what is going to happen to the world in the 22nd century because of increasing senescence and a rapidly falling population?

The old Star-Trek cliché of boldly-going Americans will be replaced by octogenarian Chinese and Asians. Let's hope that genetic rejuvenation keeps up.

Sep 21, 2011 at 6:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterPirran

Don't worry, Paul Nurse and friends have a plan to 'cap' the world population at 8.3 billion.

(You just have to hope you are on the right (non-'cap') list).

Sep 21, 2011 at 7:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

overpopulation and deforestation...awful.

Sep 21, 2011 at 7:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterLandscape Enhancements Lawrenceville

Jit : 2:40

I was an Intensive Horticulturist and Agricultural farmer for many years and you do not know what you are talking about.
25 years ago I was part of a group of growers who managed to reduce our chemical usage by 75% by better spraying methods, we also encouraged natural predators by planting plants they liked near the fields, we reduced irrigation by trickle irrigation and planted lots of trees as windbreaks and generally help the countryside.
You should also be aware that the chemical treatments for crops are millions of times better than when I started in the early 1960's, we were using chemicals like Lead Arsenate, Nicotine etc. that are general poisons, now modern chemicals have to have extremely rigorous trials and proof they will not kill anything but the target pest or disease. Of the millions it takes to bring modern chemicals to the market 90% of the spending is proving that it is not harmful to invertebrates, fish or other wildlife.
You can prove to yourself that invertebrates are fine, go out to the country this weekend and watch the Gulls follow the plough looking for the thousands of invertebrates turned up as they have been for hundreds of years.

Sep 21, 2011 at 7:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterChrisM

I never find the argument that there are just too many of us convincing. This is due in part to the fact that there are more ants than people on earth according to estimates. I am not talking population but biomass. Some estimates put ant biomass at 10 times that of people.

Also, termites, krill and squid are right up there in terms of biomass. It would be interesting to know just how far down the pecking order humans are.

Some semi-interesting factoids: If everyone in the world had a double bed we would all fit into Wales; if you didn't mind standing we would all fit into Rhode Island. If you know Paris in France and can imagine a box 3 Eiffel Towers square and two deep then we would fit in there too. We might have to be minced, though!

Sep 21, 2011 at 7:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterGraphic Conception

I think Matt Ridley is correct. It has been an observed fact that smaller families accompany rising prosperity and reduced infant mortality. The key issue in the future, as someone has already mentioned, is more likely to be how we cope with an ageing population and the cost and means of their care. How long before someone comes up with the idea of compulsory euthanasia? I declare an interest.

As for agricultural productivity, it would be interesting to know how ideas like growing vertically, as opposed to horizontally, are coming along. I believe there are interesting experiments in progress in various parts of the world - along the lines of cities and their inhabitants helping to feed themselves in this way.

Sep 21, 2011 at 8:43 PM | Unregistered Commenteroldtimer

rising carbon is measurably changing crop yields

When the IPCC (and Al Gore, and BBD) read this, they must be clamoring for a few 10s of millions of r&d shekels to be invested to go and quantify and measure this , and have many pal reviewed SCIENCE reports on this.

not a pip.

Sep 21, 2011 at 8:54 PM | Unregistered Commentertutut


I would love to think that land-sparing could be a reality in the UK, but there's just no way. Here in East Anglia you can't move for arable. Everything else is squeezed out. Perhaps this is a failing with agricultural subsidies. Certainly in the Brecks, marginal land is cultivated, with all the fertilisation and irrigation that entails.

If organic yields are lower, it just means that the sustainable human population is lower than if we use intensive agriculture everywhere. I would like to know how yields have gone in recent years - and how that compares to the needs of a growing population and a more meat-hungry one globally. Food prices suggest that we are lucky to be an affluent country and import most of our food. Certainly we aren't self-sustaining, industrial farming or not.

Sep 21, 2011 at 8:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterJit


But the kink hasn't happened yet. We've added 79 million every year since 1999. Fertility can decrease constantly and the absolute population growth remains the same, as in the last 10 years.

Sep 21, 2011 at 9:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJit

A lot of people here are missing the point.

Matt's underlying point s that every single one of these "scares" has turned out to be a false alarm.

Why is "the ageing population" going to be any different ?

And who do people mean when they say "we" have to worry about X ? There is not a committee of experts in the control tower, wisely steering the world through the turbulent seas of life.

Sep 21, 2011 at 9:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes


Agreed - the new pesticides are much less dangerous. But that doesn't alter the fact that, go to most arable fields in the UK, and you will see no weeds and hardly any invertebrates. When they speak of monoculture, they mean it. As SayNoToFearmongers says, this sterile environment with maximum productivity is brilliant - provided alternative arrangements are made for the wildlife.

Sep 21, 2011 at 9:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterJit

Pirran at 6:08 pm: "The problem that no-one discusses is what is going to happen to the world in the 22nd century because of increasing senescence and a rapidly falling population?"

I recommend Mark Steyn's very interesting "America Alone" which is just such a discussion about demographics and the changes that are likely coming as the 'natives' of Europe (and Japan and China) depopulate their countries. I think it was Steyn who said, "The future belongs to those who show up for it"

Sep 21, 2011 at 11:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Russell

jit at 9:08 pm: "As SayNoToFearmongers says, this sterile environment with maximum productivity is brilliant - provided alternative arrangements are made for the wildlife."

Which is just the point being made by Mitchel44. In America and Canada, vast amounts of former farmland have now reverted to fields and brush and forest. In the western edges of the Great Plains, the farms have been abandoned as they are uncompetative due to the Green Revolution and the land has reverted to prairie. In theory, that land could now be repopulated by vast herds of buffalo (but probably not likely for a number of reasons).

You seem to be claiming that this has not happened in Britain. Any idea why?

Sep 21, 2011 at 11:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Russell


But the kink hasn't happened yet. We've added 79 million every year since 1999. Fertility can decrease constantly and the absolute population growth remains the same, as in the last 10 years.

I understand your point, and it's there in the demographic calculations.
Again, from UN data

The medium variant of the 2010 Revision produces a world population in 2050 that is 156 million larger than that produced by the 2008 Revision (9.31 billion vs. 9.15 billion). Most of that difference can be traced to a higher number of births projected by the 2010 Revision (147 million more than the 2008 Revision over the period 2010-2050) and fewer number of deaths (22 million fewer than the 2008 Revision over the same period). In addition, the starting population in 2010 is lower in the 2010 Revision than it was in the 2008 Revision (by 13 million).

But when all's said and done, it still looks like ca 9bn by 2050 and a likely fall thereafter.

Sep 21, 2011 at 11:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD

@ Jack Hughes 9:07 pm "A lot of people here are missing the point."

I agree, Matt Ridley concludes that he has no fear of mankind's actions but a subset of such which he calls politics. I believe he is wrong on this: soothsaying pressure groups and their effect on those in society of a pessimistic nature are the problem and they pursue their agenda not by playing with politics but by playing with demands on politics. Let us call them for what they are: Irrational Pessimists. Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist approach is the antidote to the malaise.

Sep 22, 2011 at 8:44 AM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth

BBD: I have a strong suspicion of projections that have sudden kinks some time in the future. Sea level, for example, has an implied kink up some time in the future in order to catch up with projections. I must admit that I haven't investigated the fertility trends in detail. I will do so, and satisfy myself that the kink is in the data, not wishful thinking on the part of the UN.

Andrew Russell: A number of things contribute in Britain. Historical subsidies for one (these are now changing, but should be removed completely). Overpopulation for two (I think the Optimum Population Trust estimated a sustainable level for Britain of about 30 million).

If you can't make a profit from farming, the land will re-wild. However, if you go down the cereal aisle of your local supermarket and compare prices to a couple of years ago, it seems there is definitely profit to be made. The combination of riots over food prices and farmland reverting to scrub is an interesting one.

Sep 22, 2011 at 9:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterJit

News from Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek:

Matt Ridley to Deliver the Annual Hayek Lecture

On Monday, the insight-machine known as Matt Ridley will deliver the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Lecture. Matt delivers this lecture because he is the 2011 winner of MI’s annual Hayek Prize. He won – against an impressive crop of competitors – with his wonderful book The Rational Optimist.

Sep 22, 2011 at 3:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterRandomReal[]


BBD: I have a strong suspicion of projections that have sudden kinks some time in the future. Sea level, for example, has an implied kink up some time in the future in order to catch up with projections. I must admit that I haven't investigated the fertility trends in detail. I will do so, and satisfy myself that the kink is in the data, not wishful thinking on the part of the UN.

It's in the data. The response to falling fertility is lagged. Just as the response of the WAIS to warmed subsurface currents is lagged.

Sep 22, 2011 at 3:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD

@ Jit Sep 22, 2011 at 9:33 AM

"(I think the Optimum Population Trust estimated a sustainable level for Britain of about 30 million)"

It's an old trope, but Jit, I'll be waiting for you to swim out to sea first (along with Paul Nurse and the other billionaires heroically entering the Euthanizer 3000 ("Don't be sad, it's a HAP, HAP, HAPPY DAY for MOTHER EARTH" - I'm thinking Disney Cartoons and animatronic gnomes gaily singing in falsetto unison on the way in) to keep the population below 8.3 billion - thanks ZT).

BTW, the "Optimum Population Trust" now calls itself "Population Matters" (on the whole, I'd have to agree. Perhaps they were worried that a group of billionaires calling for an optimum that always included themselves was not good PR). At least you can't argue they've been wasting their time over the last 20 years. I was stunned by this conclusion:

Sep 22, 2011 at 4:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterPirran

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