Many people feel pessimistic about the state of the environment. But there are also many who hold a more optimistic view, believing that human ingenuity can help preserve the environment. The latter view is sometimes called “enlightenment environmentalism” or “ecomodernism.” HumanProgress advisory board member and Rockefeller University professor Jesse H. Ausubel, who was integral to setting up the world’s first climate change conference in Geneva in 1979, has shown how technological progress allows nature to rebound. For example, by increasing crop yields to produce more food with less land, we can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. In fact, if farmers worldwide can reach the current productivity level of the average U.S. farmer, humanity will be able to return a landmass the size of India back to nature. Ausubel envisions a future where humanity is ever less dependent on natural resources.
In addition to technological progress, economic development can also help protect the Earth. As people escape extreme poverty and spend less time and energy on the basics of survival, they often come to care more about environmental stewardship. The incredible decline in Chinese poverty spurred by economic liberalization, for example, has coincided with better preservation of forests. In the most recent year for which the World Bank has data, 2015, China had 511,807 more square kilometers of forest than it did in 1990. While it is true that worldwide forest area is slowly shrinking, the annual rate of deforestation has more than halved since the 1990s, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. That is because while forest area is still declining in the poorest areas of the world, forest area is also increasing in East Asia as well as wealthy Europe and North America. While the state of a country’s environment may worsen during the earlier stages of economic development, once a country reaches around $4,500 in GDP per capita, forest area starts to rebound. This is called the “forest transition” or, more broadly, the “environmental Kuznets curve.”
As for overpopulation, please see an overview of that topic here.
Environmental challenges should be taken seriously, but they are not a reason to lose hope. Just as with so many other problems humanity has faced, environmental problems should be solvable given the right technology and spreading prosperity.
This first appeared in Quora.
Chelsea Follett is managing editor of HumanProgress.org.