It has come into vogue to decry having children because of climate change. If you’re a bright and perceiving mind, then you’ll see this as an opportunity to make some money. That’s what famous economist Julian Simon did in his bet with the ecologist Paul Ehrlich. Far from being solely a regrettable environmental cost, more people on the planet means more perspectives on possible solutions to every problem — including climate change.
Simon and Ehrlich's Wager
Simon and Ehrlich are both standard-bearers for two opposing camps of thinking about population and the environment. Simon minced no words in staking his own position: “There are no finite resources,” he famously argued, because scarcity encourages innovation and the discovery of new solutions. If some natural resource is being used up, there is a powerful incentive for individuals to invent new methods and technologies that will use that resource more efficiently or not at all. Ultimately, Simon believed, ingenuity is the ultimate resource humanity can rely on for prosperity even in the face of scarcity.
They famously wagered whether five scarce and expensive metals would be more expensive in 10 years. Ehrlich, by contrast, advocates exactly the opposite of Simon. He feared chiefly that unchecked population growth would lead to overpopulation. The resulting “population bomb” would result in mass starvation unless population controls were enacted.
Although the two never met while Simon was alive, they famously wagered whether five scarce and expensive metals would be more expensive in 10 years than they were at the time of the bet. Ehrlich bet they would be more expensive and Simon believed they would be, adjusting for inflation, cheaper. Simon and his rational optimism prevailed, and he collected a check for his winnings from Ehrlich by mail.
Now, however, instead of scarce metals, much of the focus in similar discussions is on slowing the rate of population growth because of the environmental cost of having children. The planet is getting crowded, environmentalists complain, and that’s certainly true. The United Nations predicts that there will be almost 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 and that population growth, many argue, will require deforestation as land is cleared for development. Deforestation, in turn, will exacerbate the problems climate change presents.
Population Controls Target the Less Fortunate
But population growth is not the terror it’s made out to be. Instead, top-down efforts to control population often are.
Population controls have been targeted at lower classes and groups facing the greatest racial animus. Paralleling a wry observation by Simon, it seems few people learn from experience. In fact, a central problem with the kinds of population controls thought to be so vital under the philosophies of commentators like Ehrlich is their past performance. Many, if not all, have hurt the least well-off in society most. Author and science expert Matt Ridley documents many of these examples in his books, pointing out that population controls have been targeted at lower classes and groups facing the greatest racial animus.
Consider, for example, the many reports of forced sterilization of women in Uzbekistan. Women of ethnic minorities are the most likely to be sterilized according to a 2013 Open Society Foundations policy report. Or the Myanmar government’s Population Control Health Care Bill that is expected to be targeted at the Rohingyas, a small ethnic group in Myanmar that has faced discrimination and violence for decades.
More Mouths, More Hands, More Minds
Of course, not all efforts to control population are bad. In fact, according to the Copenhagen Consensus, voluntary family planning efforts can be one of the most cost-effective forms of aid. Perhaps most obviously, this includes access to contraceptives. These measures give individuals more control over their lives and allow them to provide more effectively for the children they want to have. Many of the problems with population control policies stem from their top-down and involuntary nature. If anything, voluntary population control and expanding individual autonomy over one’s own body should be encouraged.
More mouths to feed, certainly, but more hands to build with and minds to invent with as well. People actually voluntarily choose to have fewer children as they become wealthier, something Bill and Melinda Gates recently pointed out while answering questions about their charity work. Growing populations are really just a problem in poorer countries where most of the growth is predicted to happen. Yet the solution to this is relatively clear. As Melinda Gates concludes, “... if we invest in providing access [to contraceptives], families will use it to lift themselves out of poverty and build a better future for their children.”
What individuals like Simon and Ridley understand — that many seem to misunderstand — is that while resources often become scarce, by virtue of that very scarcity individuals begin searching for more effective and less expensive measures. Thus, children are not merely consumers but problem-solvers and wealth creators. More mouths to feed, certainly, but more hands to build with and minds to invent with as well.
In 2011, the world population reached 7 billion people. Now, it’s hovering at around 7.4 billion. It’s fair to say that Ehrlich’s population bomb has exploded. Yet statistics compiled by Our World in Data show that living standards are rising, poverty is falling, and lifespans are growing.
It seems the bomb turned out to be full of confetti to celebrate the extreme wealth and prosperity that innovation has unleashed. Climate change will bring serious policy challenges, but we’ll be ready to take them on.