For years, economic historian Robert Fogel has been using a version of this picture in class and in various research articles. Though one might quibble with a feature or two of the graph, it tells a powerful story of the history of humanity. For millennia, human population was relatively stable and limited, and human life was, to quote Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” High mortality among infants, children and adults was the norm; plagues, pestilence, and famine were frequent; and humans could do very, very little about any of it. We were more or less completely subject to the environment.
Hobbes was making a statement about man in his “natural” state in the political sense of that term (I’ll leave it to my philosopher colleagues to delve more into that), but his description, written well before most of the tremendous growth in the human population would occur, was an apt description of how mankind fared for most of its natural history. Out of the Enlightenment (which would come after Hobbes) came a set of economic, political, and scientific ideas that generated a new world completely unknowable by anyone coming before. Humanity began to gain a measure of control over its environment and its condition, and that control led to the population explosion.
For many in the modern world the term “population explosion” has a negative connotation, indicating a lack of control and a movement beyond the carrying capacity of the earth. Yet in the past century alone, life expectancy has nearly doubled; health is better across the world; literacy, education and the arts are widespread; the environment is much cleaner and healthier in many (not all) ways than it was previously; and vast numbers of people live in freedom, prosperity and comfort (though vast numbers still do not–though their lack of prosperity has nothing to do with the earth’s carrying capacity). In all likelihood, our descendents a century from now will look back at our day wondering how we lived in such poverty as they enjoy unimaginable prosperity.
The story told by this graph is the greatest human accomplishment of all time. Yet human progress has always had enemies of one sort or another, people Virginia Postrel refers to as “Enemies of the Future.” Fools attack democratic capitalism as the cause of poverty rather than the most successful anti-poverty tool ever developed. They claim a concern for the earth, with precious little appreciation that human beings are the “ultimate resource,” as the late Julian Simon taught.
It is true that the disaster in the Gulf reveals our myopia, our hubris, our institutional failings. But we need to be careful not to listen to the enemies of the future in moving forward. Population is a simple metric for the success of a species. The story of this graph is magnificent, not alarming. A rejection of continuing human progress in controlling our environment is to accept that the natural hell described by Hobbes is desirable.