Overpopulation: The Perennial Myth
The prospect of the Malthusian nightmare is growing steadily more remote.
SEPTEMBER 01, 1993 by DAVID OSTERFELD
Dr. Osterfeld is Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana.
“What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint) is our teeming population. Our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly support us . . . . In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.”
This was not written by professional doomsayer Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968). It is not found in the catastrophist works of Donella and Dennis Meadows (The Limits to Growth, 1972; Beyond the Limits, 1992). Nor did it come from the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of State’s pessimistic assessment of the world situation, The Global 2000 Report to the President (1980).
It did not even come from Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on Population (1798) in the late eighteenth century is the seminal work to which much of the modern concern about overpopulation can be traced. And it did not come from Botero, a sixteenth-century Italian whose work anticipated many of the arguments advanced by Malthus two centuries later.
The opening quotation was penned by Tertullian, a resident of the city of Carthage in the second century, when the population of the world was about 190 million, or only three to four percent of what it is today. And the fear of overpopulation did not begin with Tertullian. One finds similar concerns expressed in the writings of Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., as well as in the teachings of Confucius as early as the sixth century B.C.
From the period before Christ, men have been worried about overpopulation. Those concerns have become ever more frenzied. On an almost daily basis we are fed a barrage of stories in the newspapers and on television—complete with such appropriately lurid headlines as “Earth Near the Breaking Point” and “Population Explosion Continues Unabated”—predicting the imminent starvation of millions because population is outstripping the food supply. We regularly hear that because of population growth we are rapidly depleting our resource base with catastrophic consequences looming in our immediate future. We are constantly told that we are running out of living space and that unless something is done, and done immediately, to curb population growth, the world will be covered by a mass of humanity, with people jammed elbow to elbow and condemned to fight for each inch of space.
The catastrophists have been predicting doom and gloom for centuries. Perhaps the single most amazing thing about this perennial exercise is that the catastrophists seem never to have stopped quite long enough to notice that their predictions have never materialized. This probably says more about the catastrophists themselves than anything else. Catastrophism is characterized by intellectual arrogance. It’s been said of Thomas Malthus, for example, that he underestimated everyone’s intelligence but his own. Whenever catastrophists confront a problem for which they cannot imagine a solution, the catastrophists conclude that no one else in the world will be able to think of one either. For example, in Beyond the Limits, the Meadows tell us that crop yields, at least in the Western world, have reached their peak. Since the history of agriculture is largely a history of increasing yields per acre, one would be interested in knowing how they arrived at such a significant and counter-historical conclusion. Unfortunately, such information is not forthcoming.
But isn’t the world overpopulated? Aren’t we headed toward catastrophe? Don’t more people mean less food, fewer resources, a lower standard of living, and less living space for everyone? Let’s look at the data.
As any population graph clearly shows, the world has and is experiencing a population explosion that began in the eighteenth century. Population rose sixfold in the next 200 years. But this explosion was accompanied, and in large part made possible, by a productivity explosion, a resource explosion, a food explosion, an information explosion, a communications explosion, a science explosion, and a medical explosion.
The result was that the sixfold increase in world population was dwarfed by the eighty-fold increase in world output. As real incomes rose, people were able to live healthier lives. Infant mortality rates plummeted and life expectancies soared. According to anthropologists, average life expectancy could never have been less than 20 years or the human race would not have survived. In 1900 the average world life expectancy was about 30 years. In 1993 it is just over 65 years. Nearly 80 percent of the increase in world life expectancy has taken place in just the last 90 years! That is arguably one of the single most astonishing accomplishments in the history of humanity. It is also one of the least noted.
But doesn’t this amazing accomplishment create precisely the overpopulation problem about which the catastrophists have been warning us? The data clearly show that this is not the case. “Overpopulation” cannot stand on its own. It is a relative term. Overpopulation must be overpopulation relative to something, usually food, resources, and living space. The data show that all three variables are, and have been, increasing more rapidly than population.
Food. Food production has outpaced population growth by, on average, one percent per year ever since global food data began being collected in the late 1940s. There is currently enough food to feed everyone in the world. And there is a consensus among experts that global food production could be increased dramatically if needed. The major problem for the developed countries of the world is food surpluses. In the United States, for example, millions of acres of good cropland lie unused each year. Many experts believe that even with no advances in science or technology, we currently have the capacity to feed adequately, on a sustainable basis, 40 to 50 billion people, or about eight to ten times the current world population. And we are currently at the dawn of a new agricultural revolution, biotechnology, which has the potential to increase agricultural productivity dramatically.
Where people are hungry, it is because of war (Somalia, Ethiopia) or government policies that, in the name of modernization and industrialization, penalize farmers by taxing them at prohibitive rates (e.g., Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya), not because population is exceeding the natural limits of what the world can support.
Significantly, during the decade of the 1980s, agricultural prices in the United States, in real terms, declined by 38 percent. World prices followed similar trends and today a larger proportion of the world’s people are better fed than at any time in recorded history. In short, food is becoming more abundant.
Resources. Like food, resources have become more abundant over time. Practically all resources, including energy, are cheaper now than ever before. Relative to wages, natural resource prices in the United States in 1990 were only one-half what they were in 1950, and just one-fifth their price in 1900. Prices outside the United States show similar trends.
But how can resources be getting more abundant? Resources are not things that we find in nature. It is ideas that make things resources. If we don’t know how to use something, it is not a resource. Oil is a perfect example. Prior to the 1840s oil was a liability rather than a resource. There was little use for it and it would often seep to the surface and get into the water supply. It was only with the dawn of the machine age that a use was discovered for this “slimy ooze.”
Our knowledge is even more important than the physical substance itself, and this has significant ramifications: More people mean more ideas. There is no reason, therefore, that a growing population must mean declining resource availability. Historically, the opposite has been true. Rapidly growing populations have been accompanied by rapidly declining resource prices as people have discovered new ways to use existing resources as well as uses for previously unused materials.
But an important caveat must be introduced here. For the foregoing to occur, the political and economic institutions must be right. A shortage of a good or service, including a resource, will encourage a search both for additional supplies and for substitutes. But this is so only if those who are successful are able to profit from their effort. This is precisely what classical liberalism, with its emphasis on private property and the free market, accomplishes. A shortage of a particular resource will cause its price to rise, and the lure of profit will attract entrepreneurs anxious to capitalize on the shortage by finding solutions, either additional supplies of the existing material or the development of an entirely new method of supplying the service. Communicating through the use of fiber optics rather than copper cable is a case in point.
Entrepreneurs typically have drawn scientists and others with relevant expertise into the field by paying them to work on the problem. Thus, the market automatically ensures that those most likely to find solutions to a particular problem, such as a shortage of an important resource, are drawn into positions where they can concentrate their efforts on finding solutions to the problem. To cite just a single example, a shortage of ivory for billiard balls in nineteenth-century England led to the invention of celluloid, followed by the entire panoply of plastics.
In the absence of an efficient and reliable way to match up expertise with need, our efforts are random. And in the absence of suitable rewards for satisfying the needs of society, little effort will be forthcoming. It was certainly no accident that the takeoff, both in population growth and economic growth, dates from the decline of mercantilism and extensive government economic regulations in the eighteenth century, and the emergence in the Western world of a relatively free market, characterized by private property, low taxes, and little government interference.
In every category—per capita income, life expectancy, infant mortality, cars, telephones, televisions, radios per person—the performance of the more free market countries far surpasses the more interventionist countries. The differences are far too large as well as systematic to be attributed to mere chance.
Living Space. But even if food and resources are becoming more abundant, certainly this can’t be true for living space. After all, the world is a finite place and the more people in it, the less space there is for everyone. In a statistical sense this is true, of course. But it is also irrelevant. For example, if the entire population of the world were placed in the state of Alaska, every individual would receive nearly 3,500 square feet of space, or about one-half the size of the average American family homestead with front and back yards. Alaska is a big state, but it is a mere one percent of the earth’s land mass. Less than one-half of one percent of the world’s ice-free land area is used for human settlements.
But perhaps “living space” can be measured more meaningfully by looking at such things as the number of houses, the amount of floor space, or the number of rooms per person. There are more houses, more floor space, and more rooms per person than ever before. In short, like both food and resources, living space is, by any meaningful measure, becoming more abundant.
Finally, it should be noted that the population explosion has begun to fizzle. Population growth peaked at 2.1 percent per year in the late 1960s and has declined to its present rate of 1.7 percent. There is no doubt that this trend will continue since, according to the latest information supplied by the World Health Organization, total fertility rates (the number of births per woman) have declined from 4.5 in 1970 to just 3.3 in 1990. That is exactly fifty percent of the way toward a fertility rate of 2.1, which would eventually bring population growth to a halt.
Everything is not fine. There are many problems in the world. Children are malnourished. But the point that cannot be ignored is that all of the major economic trends are in the right direction. Things are getting better.
Contrary to the constant barrage of doomsday newspaper and television stories, the data clearly show that the prospect of the Malthusian nightmare is growing steadily more remote. The natural limits of what the earth can support are steadily receding, not advancing. Population growth is slowing while the supplies of food, resources, and even living space are increasing. Moreover, World Bank data show that real wages are increasing, which means that people are actually becoming more scarce.
In short, although there are now more people in the world than ever before, by any meaningful measure the world is actually becoming relatively less populated.