All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Billions for a Misconception

We Don't Need World Population Control

The children of David Packard, the late Silicon Valley entrepreneur who co-founded the Hewlett-Packard Company, have a monumental job on their hands. Since their father’s death in 1996, they have been charged with fulfilling his most passionate desire: to spend billions of the family foundation’s dollars on behalf of world population control.

If Mr. Packard had understood this issue as well as he knew how to generate a fortune in the computer business, he would not have been a population alarmist and his heirs would be spending his money on more productive things than abortion training in Ethiopia or contraceptives in Seattle. This is a classic case of misinformation compounding itself into a colossal misdirection of energy and resources.

Ever since anyone was willing to listen, scaremongers have been warning us of the imminent dangers of world overpopulation. Thirty years ago in his 1968 best-selling book, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich told us that governments would have to take an active role in forcing population growth down or “we will breed ourselves into oblivion.” Ehrlich warned that in the 1970s, “hundreds of millions of people (including Americans) are going to starve to death.” He said he “would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

Sometimes, the scare talk has been such to make even Paul Ehrlich’s prophecies seem reasonable. A British scientist in the early 1960s calculated that in less than a thousand years, “people will be jammed together so tightly that the earth itself will glow orange-red from the heat.” An article in the July 23, 1962, issue of Newsweek warned that “By the year 6000, the solid mass of humanity would be expanding outward into space at the speed of light.”

A Population Implosion

A wealth of information, cited in two recent eye-opening articles in the mainstream media, makes Chicken Littles out of Ehrlich and the doomsayers. If there’s a danger to the world from its human population, it is from the prospect of too few people, not too many. The Packard family does not have to worry that humans will overrun the planet before their billions run out.

In the Fall 1997 issue of Public Interest, Nicholas Eberstadt writes that some of the world’s best demographers are seriously proposing the possibility that the world’s population, rather than continuing to increase in the next century, will actually peak and then begin to decline. Eberstadt cites a publication from the United Nations Population Division that includes a credible projection that the world as a whole will reach zero population growth by 2040 and will shrink thereafter by roughly 25 percent with each successive generation.

Wars and famines are not factors at all in these surprising numbers. Tumbling fertility rates are. A revealing article by Ben J. Wattenberg in the November 23, 1997, New York Times Magazine puts it bluntly: “Never before have birth rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long all around the world.”

If women were having children at the rate of 2.1, the population would simply replace itself, with no net increase or decrease. From an explosive fertility rate of 5 just a half century ago, fertility worldwide has plummeted to 2.8 and continues to sink. Drawing largely from the same U.N. publication as Eberstadt, Wattenberg illustrates how dramatically this decline shows up in certain countries:

The rate in Bangladesh has fallen from 6.2 to 3.4 in only the last ten years. India now has a fertility rate that is lower than America’s in the 1950s. In 30 years, the rate in Tunisia has dropped from 7.2 to 2.9. Mexico’s rate has plunged as well, and is now “80 percent of the way toward replacement level.”

In Europe, the decline is precipitous, too. Birth rates reached record-breaking lows in the 1980s and have fallen another 20 percent in this decade to an astonishing 1.4—matching those of Japan and Russia. Even if European fertility rates rise back to 2. 1, the continent will likely lose 24 percent of its population by the middle of the 21st century.

Italy’s birth rate of 1.2 is the lowest in Europe and the rest of the world. Wattenberg says that is the lowest national rate ever recorded in the absence of famines, plagues, wars, or economic catastrophes. What makes Italy’s low rate all the more remarkable is that it is happening in one of the world’s most Catholic countries.

In the United States as well, the population explosion is a bust. The U.S. birth rate has been below replacement for 25 straight years.

Longer life expectancies have masked the decline, but current trends will, if they persist, produce an actual decline in the total number of Americans within two or three generations.

Free Versus Unfree

Overpopulation, in essence, is an imbalance between the number of people and the supply of food and living space. Even a cursory view of the world’s nations reveals that free countries don’t have overpopulation problems and that unfree, or socialist, countries do. Socialism squanders resources at the same time it crushes the incentives for people to produce their way out of poverty.

The fact that free countries are producing declining birth rates is explained by what the experts call the “theory of demographic transition”: if there is a general improvement in economic conditions, a decline in mortality, and better education (all invariably the result of a free economy), then there will be a transition toward a declining birth rate. As technology and freer markets the world over produce ever-higher standards of living and a fall in infant mortality, couples neither need nor desire a large number of children.

Where couples commonly had six or more children a few hundred years ago, with perhaps two or three surviving beyond the age of five, most couples today have one or two children with a reasonable assurance that none will die at an early age. This fact, plus more reliable and widespread methods of birth control and birth-control education, largely explains the population bust.

A decline in population produces problems of its own, but overcrowding is not one of them. The Chicken Littles like Paul Ehrlich, can go home and leave the rest of us in peace to work out the problems they never foresaw. And the Packard family, assured that people won’t someday overwhelm the Earth, can spend their father’s fortune promoting freedom instead of condoms.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is