Ralf Bodelier: ‘We can also manage with ten billion.

Interview

Is the world overpopulated and are we overusing the planet? The progressive philosopher Ralf Bodelier does not see the problem. That fear has always been there, and humanity has always proved ingenious enough to feed more and more mouths and house people, he argues in his latest book Long live man.

Wouldn’t it be better to have fewer children all together to prevent further exhaustion of the planet? No, says theologian, philosopher and publicist Ralf Bodelier in his latest book Long live man (subtitle Can we also manage with ten billion?).

The fact that there are more world citizens than ever before does not have to cause insurmountable problems, goes his argument. After all, the fear that there are too many of us is as old as humanity itself. Bodelier refers, among other things, to the philosopher Plato, who already claimed that a growing world population would inevitably lead to shortages and war.

More and more people live on the planet. How can the fear that it will be too busy and that the food will run out one day be unfounded?

‘Time and time again, humans have proven capable of feeding and housing a larger world population. The population of India exploded in numbers, but instead of famine, the Green Revolution took place in the second half of the last century. New technology increased agricultural yields and significantly lowered food prices. We once thought that the earth would be overcrowded with a few hundred million people, now we live with almost eight billion people and we are heading towards ten billion. And there is no reason to panic. Time and again we manage to design, maintain and expand our own world.’

Wherever people become prosperous, you write, population growth slows, including in India and China. Population growth will continue longest in Africa. Is there anything that can be done to limit it?

‘Let us learn from history. Every time humanity has tried to slow population growth with targeted measures, it has led to escalations. Consider the one-child policy in China, where millions of girls were killed or pregnancies terminated. During the Famine in Ireland in the nineteenth century, British policy starved entire groups of people in certain regions. In my opinion, the right direction, supported by science, is to improve education in poor countries, give women more rights and create a pension system. All of these things contribute to families having fewer children. In the poorest countries, having six or seven children is now the only guarantee that you will be looked after when you get older. There is only one humane way to reduce population growth, and that is more prosperity and more freedom for people.’

Ralf Bodelier
1980-1990: study history and theology
1985-present: lecturer, journalist, essayist and moderator
2012: promotion Tilburg Law School
2020: walks from Jerusalem to Bouillon
2022: publication of the book Länge leve mansetten.

Ralf Bodelier. Karel Hemerijckx’s photo

Why is Africa an exception? The number of people there is growing rapidly.

“Prosperity is also increasing in Africa, although it may be slower than we would like. This may be because – and this sounds counterintuitive – many areas in Africa are actually too sparsely populated: rural areas with the occasional small village. Anyone who grows up there can only become a farmer. The big city, Nairobi or Dar-Es-Salaam, offers many more possibilities. There you can specialize and work in a bank or in another office, you can become an ICT specialist. So it’s best to be in the city to increase your wealth.’

In his book, Bodelier describes his walks through former mining areas in the Ruhr area. Between the abandoned shaft towers and dismantled industrial plants, new nature has emerged with bushes, trees that spontaneously emerged from the ground and even all kinds of animal species.

You write positively about the ‘nature’ you found there. But is it really nature? It’s just a former industrial area, with rusty things and contaminated soil, right?

‘Well, what really is nature? Does what we call real nature still exist in countries like the Netherlands? We have intervened in the landscape for fifty thousand years. We have moved rivers, dug canals, planted forests for production. We had original nature in the Netherlands, but with the arrival of man it quickly disappeared. What matters to me is that we have beautiful nature, with sufficient biodiversity, and which produces oxygen. Which is useful for us, in short.’

Technological progress can solve many of our problems, we agree. But anyway, isn’t it a good idea to try to slow population growth and use less energy and raw materials?

‘You and I agree, as do many readers of De Ingenieur. Nor did I write this book for them. With my book, I especially hope to reach the second group: the alphas, who are more emotionally based. Those who look at the world with a romantic eye, as if they would rather go back to the way it once was. I think it’s a shame that technology is sometimes so defensive in that group. Where I exaggerate my belief in technology in my book, I do so on purpose. I hope to convince that group of romantics. It is of course good to try to use fewer and fewer raw materials. But there is a deeper layer. Something strange is happening with those raw materials. The phrase “the stone age did not end for lack of stone” applies here as well. Because we have invented or found new raw materials, such as sustainably produced energy, we can leave some of the oil and coal in the ground. In the 1970s there was an extremely high demand for the metal copper for the construction of electrical cables. But then came silicon computers and fiber optic cables, and later data transmission over the air, and now we need much less copper. When a commodity becomes really too expensive, we find something else, I learn that from this.’

You write about the difference between animals and humans: ‘The predatory fish eats so many fish until all the fish are gone. People deliberately release young fish so that the population of fish does not decrease, but increases’. At the same time you also write: ‘Man is the only animal that is never satisfied.’ Isn’t there a problem there?

‘Man always wants to continue to evolve and develop. At the same time, in the West we seem to attach less and less to things, to material wealth. Of course, this does not apply to the emerging economies, and rightly so. I visit Malawi regularly and people there also want power and access to a hospital. About three billion people will benefit from the prosperity. It will require a lot of land, but there is still reason for optimism. There is so-called decoupling there.’

With his book, Bodelier follows the trend that preaches so-called ‘decoupling’, which says that economic growth is often also possible without further increased use of energy and raw materials. The examples are numerous. Previously, we needed a room full of things for office work – typewriter, bookcases, audio carriers – now we do this on the smartphone that fits in the pocket. Thanks to advanced production techniques, aluminum cans have become many times thinner and just as strong. And in new African countries, they skipped landline telephony with its copper pipes and immediately switched to smartphones and 4G.

This is all good news, but surely that decoupling does not apply to, for example, the production of meat? This will require a huge amount of land, water and raw materials.

‘Eating a lot of meat is definitely problematic. There is much to be said for a vegetarian diet. But the fact is that people in emerging economies often eat more meat. They could never do that before, so they want to allow themselves that luxury. The hope for the production of meat is therefore linked to cultured meat. Eerily slowly, that hope is beginning to be fulfilled, the first cultured meat chicken nuggets in stores in Singapore. It would be good if this technology had a wide breakthrough, but we will have to see it first.’

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of De Ingenieur.

Opening illustration Depositphotos

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Long live man
Ralf Bodelier
171 pp. | € 22

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