Population pessimists have been braying about overpopulation for more than two centuries, but the doomsayers notwithstanding, life is getting better all the time.
On Oct. 31, the 7 billionth person was born. Maybe. Well, probably not. Sometime between last Summer and next Summer the 7 billionth person was added to the global population, depending who you believe and how accurate the statistics are.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) took the estimate of the UN Population Division (UNPD), whose numbers and estimates seldom match the UNFPA’s, that the 7 billionth baby would be born in the second half of 2010 and symbolically scheduled Oct. 31 as the date to reach the milestone. The UNFPA admits a one per cent margin of error which doesn’t sound like much but which puts actual arrival of number seven billion up to six months of either side of Oct. 31. The U.S. Census Bureau’s World Population Clock says “Baby 7 Billion” will arrive March 1, 2012. It assumes that the collected national stats of populations, fertility rates, and population growth are accurate. Looking forward, estimates just five decades out can have top and bottom limits billions of people apart. Population growth is not a pre-ordained destiny and models are often inaccurate.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Population Division predicted the world’s population could reach 10.1 billion by 2100. Could. The media focussed on the nice, round 10 billion number but the UNPD’s projections included a high variant, medium variant, and low variant. It gets a little technical, but it all depends on certain assumptions and the 10 billion figure was the medium variant projection between a high of more than 15 billion and a low of 6.1 billion – or about 900 million fewer souls than are alive today. Let us be clear: the UN’s own projections for 89 years from now has a spread of 9 billion, from a low of just over 6 billion to a high of more than 15 billion. Those very projections tell you how predicting future populations is a mug’s game because there is no way to know what might impact child-bearing decisions 20, 40, 60 and 80 years from now. Which countries might suffer declines similar to Oman’s which saw fertility rates fall from 7.9 in the late 1980s to just 2.5 now.
Estimates that take into account the fact that fertility rates generally fall as economic well-being increases – and most of the developing world is experiencing economic development consistent with declining fertility – show an increase of another billion or so over the next 50 years and then a gradual decline in global population.
Thomas Malthus, the Anglican vicar and population pessimist, famously predicted in the early 1800s that “population, when unchecked increases in a geometric ration,” while “subsistence increases only in an arithmetrical ratio.” In other words, food increases incrementally while population increases by leaps and bounds. Except, that’s not quite how it works.
In July 2008, The Interim published a cover story entitled “Why concern with overpopulation is wrong.” In it we looked at economic growth from the time of Malthus – and his prediction of a future that would be nasty, short, and brutish because population pressures would lead us to a Hobbesian war of all versus all as we fought over ever smaller pieces of what could be produced – to the present. In brief, technological and agricultural innovation in the early 19th century and late 20th century led to improvements in harvesting and yields that prevented mass starvation; indeed, the economy and its ability to feed the growing number of mouths increased faster than population, and people, rather than becoming poorer and hungrier, became wealthier. It is a continuing shame that Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution – the agricultural changes that increased crop yields in the late 1960s and early 1970s – is less famous than Paul Ehrlich, the modern Malthus, who has been incorrectly predicting population-growth related catastrophe for nearly a half century.
Borlaug helped feed billions of people by increasing wheat and rice yields in precisely the countries (most notably Pakistan and India) Ehrlich was predicting doom for in his book The Population Bomb, published in 1968. Despite having failed massively in his predictions – writing in ‘68 that “if I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000” and “the battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famine (and) hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now” – Ehrlich is something of a celebrity in population control circles. MSNBC invited Ehrlich to address the arrival of baby number 7 billion and on cue Ehrlich predicted end-of-world scenarios: “a billion hungry people,” “catastrophic climate disruption,” and “a global civilization … in peril.” To have any chance of survival, he said, family size had to be limited to a pair of children and penalties imposed on “over-producers.”
It is no consolation that Ehrlich’s dystopia permits twice as many children as Red China’s one-child policy; it is barbaric to punish future children for a problem that does not exist. Whether by abortion or contraception, population control fanatics think the solution to the problem of famine, global warming, or war is fewer people.
But why eliminate the babies. Population growth is the result not of too many babies being born but an ever-increasing number of adults living longer. If population growth is a problem, so is a long life.
In 8000 B.C., the global population was about 5 million and it took nearly a half-million years to reach that point. As the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last points out, “the reason it took so long to get to 5 million was that it was devilishly hard to keep 5 million people alive at once.” Then man learned about agriculture and world population grew to approximately 300 million by 45 B.C, and added another 500 million people from the time of Julius Ceasar to the Middle Ages (1750). Once it reached a billion later that century, it took another century to add the next billion people. From 1925 to 1960, global population grew from 2 billion to 3 billion. By 1974, the world’s population hit 4 billion. Another two billion were added by 1999 and it took another 12 years to reach the 7 billion mark. Until the mid-1900s, fertility rates did not change much; what changed was life expectancy, roughly doubling in two centuries.
In 1810, only two countries had a high life expectancy of 40: the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The industrial revolution made Europe richer and slowly life expectancy grew and in the 1850s, the first country reached an average life expectancy of 50. By the turn of the century, most people in the United States and western Europe lived to be 50. It is no coincidence that population growth in the 19th century was mostly in the U.S. and Europe.
During the Great War and the Spanish Flu Epidemic populations declined, as did how long people could expect to live. As the BBC’s Hans Rosling has noted, “despite the Great Depression, western countries forged on to greater wealth and health,” although no country had a life expectancy of 75 until the 1950s (with Sweden being the first to reach that level). By the 1970s, many Latin American and Asian countries were becoming wealthier and most had life expectancies in the 60s and 70s. By 1995, only three war-torn countries had life expectancies under 40 and all but a few African states had life expectancies in the 60s. Red China’s population is growing not because so many children are born; indeed, its brutal one-child policy has pushed fertility rates below replacement and within a generation, China, like Japan today, is expected to experience population decline. Rather, as wealth and health both improved in the past three decades, life expectancy reached Western rates in the mid-70s (and in cities like Shanghai, it is in the high 80s). Economist Julian Simon said “the increase in the world’s population represents our victory over death.”
While life expectancy increased to the late 70s and early 80s for most wealthy western nations, nearly every developed country and a growing number of developing countries have birth rates under replacement level (2.1 children per woman of child-bearing age). By 2020, the majority of the world’s population will live in countries with sub-replacement level fertility, including China, all of Europe, and Canada. Indeed, we’ve known this since Malthus’s time; the old Anglican vicar predicted world food supply would run out by 1890 due to decreased mortality rates, not the rapid increase in offspring.
So blame senior citizens for population growth, if you must, but not babies. Of course, it is easier to eliminate the unborn through abortion because it is done in private; culling grandparents would be a public relations nightmare which is probably why the UN and population control supporters haven’t advocated it (yet). As the saying goes, it is no coincidence that all the advocates of abortion are already born. A population control program that relied on euthanasia rather than abortion might mean a few population control advocates surrendering their lives, but none are volunteering to personally reduce the world’s population. As Chesterton said, those who fret about over-population always point to other populations; Englishmen don’t think there are too many Englishmen and doctors and lawyers don’t think there is an over-abundance of doctors and lawyers.
As the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt has noted, real demographers do not use the term over-population. By which measure are there too many people? The term is too subjective. If population growth is mostly the result of rising life expectancy, it should be considered a good thing. Improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and basic medicine produced most of the initial increase in life expectancy from about 40 to near 60 or 65. But who doesn’t think soap, garbage pickup, healthy food, inoculations, antibiotics, and basic surgery are not things that have improved the world?
The world produces enough food. Malthus and Ehrlich were simply wrong, Ehrlich pig-headedly so. In 1950, there were 2.2 billion people in the world and they produced 692 tons of grain. By 1992, there were 5.6 billion people and they produced 1.9 billion tons of grain. There was a 220 per cent increase in global population, but a 280 per cent increase in global wheat production. As Nature magazine reported last year, with new agriculture technologies and genetically modified food, the nutritional needs of everyone should be met even with the addition of another billion or so people. Giovanni Federico in his book Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000, says that given the right policy environment, farmers have successfully risen to the challenge of meeting rising demand and he is confident that they will continue to do so.Right now, the world produces more calories than is necessary to meet the needs of the people who populate it. Unfortunately for those who are undernourished and malnourished, the distribution of the global food supply is far from efficient. MSNBC reported in 2007 that the number of people who are clinically overweight exceeds those who are undernourished. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the problem of hunger is not related to population or supply, but poverty. Both the FAO and England’s Royal Society say that with the right agricultural policies, the necessary 70 per cent increase in food production to meet growing demand due to changing diets and increasing populations, is achievable. Obviously, the focus should be on getting the right agricultural and food policies and distributing production more efficiently, not in actively reducing population.
Neither is over-crowding a problem. Robert L. Sassone, author of the Handbook on Population, pointed out that every human being could be given 1000-square feet of land (about the population density of New York City) and everyone could fit comfortably in the state of Texas. That’s a decent sized-house with a yard for the average family. There is obviously enough space for the seven billion people in the world now and another billion or so.
The doomsayers have predicted that with more people comes more war and conflict. Well, just like their predictions that population growth inevitably comes with famine and poverty – just the opposite has occurred over the past five decades, with the UN’s Human Development Report indicating almost universal increases in the standard of living – the warnings about conflict have proven false. As development economist Peter Bauer pointed out in the 1970s, “rapid population growth has not been an obstacle to sustained economic advance either in the Third World or in the West.”
Famines are caused by bad government policies. Democratic and accountable governments can get food to the hungry in emergencies, but corrupt governments do not. Most of the worst famines of the 20th century — Russia, Red China, North Korea, and Ethiopia — occurred in communist countries while other cases of starvations (Zimbabwe) occured as a direct result of agricultural central planning. What most places need is better government, not fewer people.But if having billions of people populate the world doesn’t cause poverty or famine, doesn’t it lead to more conflict? With less room to stretch out before we bump into our neighbours, people are likely to get testy, aren’t they?
According to the Simon Fraser University “Human Security Report” released in 2010, the number of conflicts and wars has actually declined over the past six decades. In 1950s, it noted, the average international conflict killed 21,000 people annually, but today the average conflict causes under 18,000 deaths, and there are fewer conflicts. It finds the “world is getting more peaceful.” That is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that human beings have never lived through such peaceful times as they do now at the beginning of the 21st century. Since the end of World War II, there have been a growing number of countries amongst which war is unthinkable. Indeed, the greatest violent international threat is Islamic terror which is ideological in nature and has nothing to do with population density or any supposed population-related problems.
This may sound like Voltaire’s Pangloss who always thought this was the best of all possible worlds. But the evidence overwhelmingly backs the so-called Cornucopianists who know that human ingenuity will help a growing population meet the challenges of tomorrow. The late economist Julian Simon, who battled with Ehrlich in the 1970s and ‘80s, called human beings “the ultimate resource” – the world needs more people, not less. The most important biological fact about people is their brains (which create things), not their mouths (which consume resources); the former helps solves problems related to the latter.
Eliminating people, even if it were “necessary” – which it isn’t – is barbaric. As Steven Pinker notes in his book, we have largely evolved as species to a point where most people do not think violence is the solution to their problems. So why would governments and non-governmental organizations promote violence against the unborn to solve the non-problem of population. Ultimately, however, the population control crowd sets up a false dichotomy between Earth and its people. The evidence of the past two centuries, but especially the past 40 years, indicates that man is perfectly capable of coping with living among a growing number of his own species.