The fact that the the world’s population has increased to an estimated 7 billion people has been all over the news this week, with the appropriate amount of hand-wringing from the Greens. When I was growing up, I was terribly worried about overpopulation. The settled science of the day was that the increasing number of human beings in the world would inevitably lead to mass starvation. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” declared the first sentence of Paul Ehrlich‘s classic The Population Bomb, published just a year before I was born.
In his book, Dr Ehrlich predicted a dire future of mass starvation, general poverty and unrest, even in the richest and most developed countries in the world. In his most optimistic scenario, he had over half a billion people starving to death. The End of Affluence was upon his, to quote the title of another of his books. As far as Dr. Ehrlich was concerned, the only way to ameliorate the problem was to develop a totalitarian government that would be empowered to determined how many children each couple could have, as well as regulating their use of energy and resources. Does this sound a little familiar?
The facts have been rather different. The battle to feed all of humanity is not over yet, but we are clearly winning. The greatest health concern in the world today is the alarming increase in obesity. Although, this is a problem largely for the developed world, even nations generally considered poor or “third world” are beginning to have this problem. There are, of course, many hungry people in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but this is not due to any lack of food in the world. Rather, it is a problem of distribution. Whenever you see a country or region lacking in food, I can guarantee you will find one of three things; primitive or non-existent infrastructure, a government that is trying some form of Socialism, or war. Often you will find all three factors in play.
This concern with over-population began way back in 1798 with the publication of Thomas Malthus’s essay “An Essay on the Principle of Population“. In this book, Malthus explores the relationship between the wealth and poverty of various nations and their populations. He covers a lot of ground on many subjects including, towards the end, an attempt to explain the problem of evil in terms of natural theology. The points that concern us, however, are at the beginning, in the first two chapters. In these chapters, Malthus sets out his principle of population growth. To oversimplify the argument, he stated that population grows in geometric progression, or exponentially, while the production of food grows in arithmetic progression, or linearly. This means that population will inevitably exceed the supply of food unless the population is checked, usually by famine or disease.
The logic seems unassailable. Yet empirical evidence suggests that there is a flaw in this argument. The population of the world when Malthus published his essay was about a billion people. In the two centuries since, the population has grown seven-fold, the great majority of those people are far better off in terms of standards of living than even the wealthiest kings were in 1800. Where did Malthus go wrong? And why, since he was wrong, why do his modern disciples continue to believe his message?
The problem with Malthus and Ehrlich is that they view each human being as simply a consumer of resources. They seem not to consider the idea that each person is also a producer. To put it another way, every one of the 7 billion people in the world is another mouth to feed, but is also a pair of hands that can grow food and manufacture the necessities of life and a brain that can work to solve our problems. Put that way, it is clear that a growing population is not a liability but an asset.
Another mistake that they seem to have made is not to have considered that most couples do not want an unlimited number of children. Malthus can be forgiven this error since he lived before the days of effective contraception but what about Ehrlich? The demographics of most developed countries and even an increasing number of undeveloped countries show that most families are content with two or fewer children, when given a choice, and many prefer to be childless.
If you think about it, the Malthusians don’t seem to have a very high opinion of their fellow human beings. They see a large population and see only so many bellies to fill. Their first impulse is always too many people in the world. Consider Dr. Ehrlich’s beginning to the first chapter of The Population Bomb. He describes his reactions to a busy street in India.
The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.
since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation
I don’t like to be in crowds either, but I don’t usually think, “This world would be a whole lot better, if only there were a few billion fewer people in it. ” And, I have to wonder if he has the same sort of reaction in a shopping mall, or a crowded classroom, back home.
In any case I am not too proud to admit that my worries of my youth were unfounded. I welcome baby 7 billion to the world and I look forward to the contributions he or she will make.
- Population bomb bogus (macleans.ca)
- Paul Ehrlich, a prophet of global population doom who is gloomier than ever (guardian.co.uk) He hasn’t learned his lesson. I note he seems worried about rising affluence in the world. Let those brown people live in poverty I suppose.