WORLD readers ask me many hard questions, but once in a while an easy one comes across the plate like a hanging curve ball. A graduate student from Illinois sent me an article that claims the world has too many people. The student called the article “obviously flawed and horrendous. It’s embarrassing that we as a civilization would even consider forced starvation of the developing world in order to reduce their population to ‘sustainable’ levels. … How would you answer people who make these claims?”
This is easy. Overpopulation gurus tend to forget a crucial truth: One mouth brings with it two hands. Fifty years ago, neo-Malthusianism was on the rise in the United States, and that ethos contributed to the legalization of abortion, among other evils. But three developments since then have undercut the theory.
First, we’ve seen that predictions of population increase leading to vast starvation were way off: As the lead paragraph in an article published last year put it, “Some of the poorest people in the world are becoming significantly less poor, according to a groundbreaking academic study which has taken a new approach to measuring deprivation. The report, by Oxford University’s poverty and human development initiative, predicts that countries among the most impoverished in the world could see acute poverty eradicated within 20 years if they continue at present rates.”
(OK, it’s good stuff and I’ll quote a bit more: “The study comes after the UN’s latest development report published last week which stated that poverty reduction drives in the developing world were exceeding all expectations. It says: ‘The world is witnessing a epochal “global rebalancing” with higher growth in at least 40 poor countries helping lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a new “global middle class.” Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast.’”)
Second, predictions that we would run out of essential materials were also way off. See The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future (2013). As Amazon.com’s summary puts it, “Ehrlich, author of the landmark book The Population Bomb, predicted that rising populations would cause overconsumption, resource scarcity, and famine—with apocalyptic consequences for humanity. Simon optimistically countered that human welfare would flourish thanks to flexible markets, technological change, and our collective ingenuity.” Simon won.
Third, as the world urbanizes and children’s health improves, women have fewer children, so population is unlikely to keep growing quickly. Among the new books that explore this is Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting (2014), which is largely about the United States but also summarizes world trends: Population growth has been slowing for two generations and, if present trends continue, world population in several decades will begin shrinking.
So, don’t pay attention to Chicken Little squeals. Population growth is not a bad thing when people are free to work, achieve, and explore the world for stuff that’s useful. But even if worriers do not value such evidence, the sky is not falling. Population growth is.