Ipsa scientia potestas est
28 July 2017 00:39 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

WWF report proves the sustainability of growth

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

There is one chart in the recently-released WWF Living Planet 2014 report that undermines all their recommendations and exhortations about sustainability. Their own data say our ecological footprint is surprisingly modest, and is not a serious crisis.

Last week, we looked at the panicked headlines about a 52% species population decline. This is the new fear, because actual species decline, which was the supposed crisis in the 1980s, never materialised. The news reports were based on a single sensational headline figure from a lengthy report, but that number turned out to be baseless.

The figures were based on the least conservative estimates and assumptions that the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) could possibly come up with. The Living Planet 2014 report that produced these numbers did not support the exaggerated claims.

Another chart caught my eye, however. On page 32, they show humanity’s ecological footprint, as measured in a special unit invented by environmental alarmists. That unit is a “planet Earth”, and it is equal to 12 billion hectares, or 0.0008% of the planet’s total land surface.

Leaving aside how this magnitude was obtained, note that it is a very specific constant. It’s pretty cool that they reduced the Earth’s staggering complexity and chaos to a single number, but I still reckon 42 is a better answer.

A constant limit implies that no future innovation could possibly lead to more efficient use of resources. It also supposes that our resource base will not change with new discoveries and inventions. It is a uniquely literal-minded interpretation of the notion that because the earth is finite in spatial extent, there is also a hard practical ceiling on the resources it could provide its human population.

The use of such a specific hard limit on resources reveals a stunning ignorance of both history and economics. Beyond what the price mechanism tells us about relative scarcity, there is no reason to suppose that any such limit exists in any practical sense.

Besides physical availability of land that can produce raw materials, such a simplistic limit ignores other resources, and other factors of production, like capital and labour. Since these are often substitutable, a simple limit is meaningless.

But let us suppose that however the report’s authors chose to measure a notion as vague as the productive capacity of the planet, or humanity’s ecological footprint upon it, they got the relative magnitude of the historical data right.

If so, their own data proves that the ecological footprint of humanity is not a crisis. On the contrary, it seems to be a model of sustainability:

1-eco-footprint copy

Humanity’s ecological footprint, measured in a unit called “planet Earths”, which for some reason is fixed at 12 billion hectares.

If you thought the comparable chart in the 2012 report looked different, you’d be right. You see, in that report, carbon was at the bottom of the pile, making all the other components look like they’re rising too. This time around, the caption suggests that they wanted to emphasise carbon dioxide emissions, but by doing so, the report’s authors revealed a reassuring feature of the rest of our ecological footprint. Let us call these – cropland, grazing land, fisheries, built-up land, and forests – our primary resources.

Whether or not it was the message they wanted to send, their chart says the situation is not too bad at all.

Most components of humanity’s ecological footprint rose remarkably slowly over time. Grazing and forestry have not changed at all, while land under crops, built-up land and fisheries appear to have grown, but not by much. In total these five components have increased by about a third since 1961. Notably, the increase in our ecological footprint, not counting carbon, seems to have flattened out altogether in the last decade or so.

This should be encouraging. It means that humanity isn’t doing too badly at conserving resources and protecting the natural environment.

The WWF is not so optimistic, however: “The number of nations whose Footprint [sic] exceeds their biocapacity has been steadily increasing with each passing year. Domestic demands continue to rise as a result of increasing populations and growth in per capita consumption. And for many nations, their biocapacity is subject to even greater pressure as more and more biocapacity is used to meet export demands.”

Notice the causes of all this anxiety about running out of resources: population growth, economic growth, and the global trade that grows out of peaceful relations between nations.

The lack of growth in resource consumption is illustrated by a milestone that environmental lobbyists are apparently content to ignore: peak farmland. Since about 2012, the amount of arable land we need to produce the world’s food started to decrease. Farming has become so efficient that farmers are able to relinquish land back to nature, and turn food farms into game farms.

Meanwhile, population growth is also slowing down. Reaching the 7 billion mark from 6 billion took 13 years, which was longer than the 12 years it took to reach 6 billion from 5 billion. The population explosion is imploding.

Projections for where population numbers are headed vary wildly. The United Nations has a Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which houses a Population Division, in that contains a Population Estimates and Projections Section. They need a paragraph to properly express their bureaucratic importance, but they do have spreadsheets.

Assuming low fertility, the UN predicts population to peak at 8.3 billion in 2050, and dropping back below 7 billion towards the end of the century. A medium fertility estimate (which the Living Planet report cites as if it were the only one) would anticipate population growth to slow right down, and reach a total of 9.6 billion by 2050, and less than 11 billion by the year 2100. A high estimate would get us to 16.5 billion by 2100.

The question is, will this outstrip the resources we use? Even if you add a large speculative slice to account for carbon dioxide emissions, as the Living Planet report does, historical resource use does not keep pace with population growth.

If we overlay population onto the chart, we can see this clearly.


The world’s population has grown faster than our resource use.

Using the UN-sourced numbers, with the zero at the origin of the chart, and scaling 1961’s population to the total ecological footprint, it turns out that even if you add carbon dioxide emissions to primary resources, humanity uses its resources ever more efficiently. The planet’s population grew by over 122%, on a primary resource base that grew by little over 30%.

Put differently, each of us uses about one sixth of the primary resources that we used in 1961, according to the WWF’s own chart. If this is not sustainability, what is?

An even more startling picture is created when you overlay economic productivity, and scale it relative to the ecological footprint in the same way we did with population.


Remarkable GDP growth accompanied the more efficient use of resources to provide for a growing population.

Global GDP is notoriously hard to estimate, because of complex relationships between currencies and price levels over time. In fact, the IMF’s World Economic Outlook does not report global GDP in constant currency terms. Many economists use the historical GDP data compiled by the late OECD senior economist Angus Maddison, and published by the World Economic Journal. I did the same, to obtain a total for each year up to 2008.

This shows that as the world’s population doubled, more efficient use of resources produced a sharply rising GDP. Economically, each person used fewer resources, while producing more.

That is the very definition of sustainability: the assurance that we are not limited to one so-called “planet Earth”, but that resource use keeps declining by comparison with both economic growth and population growth. Unless you assume that we will run out of creativity, there is no crisis. If you do think innovation is likely to stop, we’ve left the scientific realm, and entered into religion: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Conversely, there is plenty head-room for both population growth and economic growth. We don’t need “a path to sustainable development”. We’re already on it. We do not need to curtail anyone’s consumption, or their other rights and freedoms, beyond what the market naturally does by pricing scarce resources higher.

On the contrary, we need to let people’s industry and innovation pursue progress and combat challenges. We certainly don’t need rules and restrictions crafted by alarmists who lack even an intuitive feel for economics and human behaviour, and apparently don’t read their own charts. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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