Matt Ridley: Against Environmental Pessimism

  • Date: 08/07/20
  • Matt Ridley, Property and Environment Research Center

Doomsday thinking about the environment has been popular for decades. A rational optimist lays out the many reasons we can be hopeful about the future of the planet.

In 1980, the year that PERC was founded, I spent three months in the Himalayas working on a wildlife conservation project. The purpose was to do wildlife surveys on behalf of the Indian government in the stunningly beautiful valleys of the Kulu region in northern India, among forests of deodar cedar and evergreen oak. One species of particular interest was a bird called the western tragopan, a large, spotted gray forest pheasant with red plumage around the neck and bright blue skin on the male’s throat. The bird was found only in a few places and thought to be teetering on the brink of extinction. 

Though we saw other pheasant species, we never saw a tragopan that year, but some of the people we met knew of the bird, and one even handed me the remains of a tragopan that had been shot for food. I feared it might be the last one. I wanted to come back in the spring when the birds’ mating calls might give them away in the deep bamboo thickets they preferred, but work prevented me.

If you had asked me in 1980 to predict what would happen to that bird and its forest ecosystem, I would have been very pessimistic. I could see the effect on the forests of growing human populations, with their guns and flocks of sheep. More generally, I was marinated in gloom by almost everything I read about the environment. The human population explosion was unstoppable; billions were going to die of famine; malaria and other diseases were going to increase; oil, gas, and metals would soon run out, forcing us to return to burning wood; most forests would then be felled; deserts were expanding; half of all species were heading for extinction; the great whales would soon be gone from the oil-stained oceans; sprawling cities and modern farms were going to swallow up the last wild places; and pollution of the air, rivers, sea, and earth was beginning to threaten a planetary ecological breakdown. I don’t remember reading anything remotely optimistic about the future of the planet.

Today, the valleys we worked in are part of the Great Himalayan National Park, a protected area that gained prestigious World Heritage status in 2014. The logo of the park is an image of the western tragopan, a bird you can now go on a trekking holiday specifically to watch. It has not gone extinct, and although it is still rare and hard to spot, the latest population estimate is considerably higher than anybody expected back then. The area remains mostly a wilderness accessible largely on foot, and the forests and alpine meadows have partly recovered from too much grazing, hunting, and logging. Ecotourism is flourishing.

This is just one small example of things going right in the environment. Let me give some bigger ones. Far from starving, the seven billion people who now inhabit the planet are far better fed than the four billion of 1980. Famine has pretty much gone extinct in recent decades. In the 1960s, about two million people died of famine; in the decade that just ended, tens of thousands died—and those were in countries run by callous tyrants. Paul Ehrlich, the ecologist and best-selling author who declared in 1968 that “[t]he battle to feed all of humanity is over” and forecast that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death”—and was given a genius award for it—proved to be very badly wrong.

Remarkably, this feeding of seven billion people has happened without taking much new land under the plow and the cow. Instead, in many places farmland has reverted to wilderness. In 2009, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University calculated that thanks to more farmers getting access to better fertilizers, pesticides, and biotechnology, the area of land needed to produce a given quantity of food—averaged for all crops—was 65 percent less than in 1961. As a result, an area the size of India will be freed up by mid-century. That is an enormous boost for wildlife. National parks and other protected areas have expanded steadily as well.

Nor have these agricultural improvements on the whole brought new problems of pollution in their wake. Quite the reverse. The replacement of pesticides like DDT with much less harmful ones that do not persist in the environment and accumulate up the food chain, in addition to advances in biotechnology, has allowed wildlife to begin to recover. In the part of northern England where I live, otters have returned to the rivers, and hawks, kites, ospreys, and falcons to the skies, largely thanks to the elimination of organochlorine pesticides. Where genetically modified crops are grown—not in the European Union—there has been a 37 percent reduction in the use of insecticides, as shown by a recent studydone at Gottingen University.



One of the extraordinary features of the past 40 years has been the reappearance of wildlife that was once seemingly headed for extinction. Bald eagles have bounced back so spectacularly that they have been taken off the endangered list. Deer and beavers have spread into the suburbs of cities, followed by coyotes, bears, and even wolves. The wolf has now recolonized much of Germany, France, and even parts of the heavily populated Netherlands. Estuaries have been cleaned up so that fish and birds have recolonized rivers like the Thames.

Global Greening

Here’s a question I put to school children when I get the chance: Why is the wolf population increasing, the lion decreasing, and the tiger now holding its own? The answer is simple: Wolves live in rich countries, lions in poor countries, and tigers in middle-income countries. It turns out that we conservationists were wrong to fear economic development in the 1980s. Prosperity is the best thing that can happen to a country’s wildlife. As people get richer, they can afford to buy electricity rather than cut wood, buy chicken rather than hunt bushmeat, or get a job in a town rather than try to scratch a living from a patch of land. They can also stop worrying that their children will starve and start to care about the environment. In country after country, first in Asia, then in Latin America, and now increasingly in Africa, that process of development leading to environmental gains has swiftly delivered a turning point in the fortunes of wild ecosystems. 

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