"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘overpopulation’

Population Control, Part Deux

(This is a follow-up to my first post on the subejct.)

I was in the process of addressing this comment by a population control advocate:

Though nine billion is only a projected figure, based on assumptions about birth and death rates that may or may not be accurate between now and 2050, it is most often accepted as a fait accompli. That leads us, then, not to ask questions about whether we should intervene in that growth somehow, stop it, or even reverse it, but rather to focus on questions about how we are going to provide for it. Rather than ask why we want or need another 2.1 billion humans on the planet, researchers focus almost exclusively on how we are going to provide those additional people with safe drinking water, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and other needs, even though billions already do without some or all of those things.

I promised to note “two things” about this argument, but only noted one: that there’s no evidence that more people means more poverty and starvation, andthere’s ample evidence that they do not.  My second point involves the poster’s use of the word “we”, as in “rather than ask why we want or need another 2.1 billion humans”.  Now “we” and its sidekick “us” have caused controversy before.  In Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem, the totalitarian bad guys ban first-person singular pronouns and require the use of plurals instead, thus displaying their collectivist tendencies.  The heroic good guy eventually rediscovers the power of “I”.

That’s absurd, of course.  There’s nothing intrinsically evil about first-person plural pronouns.  Sometimes human beings make decisions as groups, and in such cases “we” is perfectly appropriate.  The American people will elect a President this November.  It’s quite all right to say that we will elect a President.  When my family decides to go to Florida on vacation, it “we” who make the decision.

Those are instances in which a group makes a decision, and it’s a decision that must be made as a group.  Other decisions are not made by groups, however.  The decision about how many human beings should inhabit earth is not a group decision.  If my wife and I choose to have children, no one else gets any say in the matter.  Likewise we get no say in the decision of whether or not anyone else has children.  As far as populating the earth is concerned, there is no “we” involved, save the two-person we’s known as couples.  There is certainly no global “we” who makes a global decision about what the population of earth will be.  Anyone should be able to see easily that in this case, treating all these individual decisions as if they were a single decision made together would be a gateway to authoritarianism and tyranny.  China’s One-Child Policy testifies to that clearly enough.


Lately I’ve been debating a fellow online about the topic of overpopulation.  He argues that world is overpopulated and we need to sterilize people to solve the problem.  I argue that it’s not and we don’t.  While the facts appear to be on my side, my opponent keeps pulling out sources which he claims are on his side.  Most of his sources in are either anonymous internet posts or badly out-of-date or both.  Nonetheless there’s no doubt that there have been serious people with serious credentials who have insisted that the world will soon run out of food or space or both.  For example, in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich wrote:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over.   In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.

He followed that up in a 1970 interview with:

The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.

In 1997, Lester Brown said, “Food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding, much as ideological conflict was the defining issue of the historical era that recently ended.”  This was a follow-up to what he said in 1994: “The world’s farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to our numbers.”  And in 1981: “The period of global food security is over.”

As one born in the 80’s and growing up in the 90’s, the established fact of overpopulation was a steady drumbeat throughout by my schooling.  Almost every science and social studies textbook included some mention of the fact that earth had too many people and we would soon run out of food and oil and other vital stuff.  Yet, oddly enough, time went on and none of those things happened.  Hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  There were not at least 100-200 million people per year starving to death during that time.  Food scarcity is not the defining issue of our times.  The world’s farmers have been able to feed the projected additions to our numbers.  Indeed, the biggest health problem in the USA and a growing number of other nations is obesity, which implies that we have a lot more food than we used to.  While some experts predicted dramatic increases in world poverty as resources ran out, we have instead seen dramatic decreases, according to this paper.  So, in short, all the experts who have predicted imminent starvation and poverty due to overpopulation have been dead wrong.

Why were they so wrong?  Many reasons.  They didn’t take into account new technologies that would drastically improve agricultural yields.  They didn’t take into account the fall of communism and the benefits that would accrue from the spread of economic freedom.  They didn’t take into account virtually any of the things that they should have taken into account.  But most of all, they didn’t take into account the fact that projections are only projections, and they can be wrong.  It’s possible to predict every eclipse that will occur in the next thousand years, but it’s not possible to predict what the human race will do over the next thousand years, or even over the next year.  No one a year ago was predicting the Arab Spring or any of the other major events in human affairs that shook the world in 2011.

So, in sum, overpopulation gives us a cautionary tale.  Scientists can make predictions and projections, but they should always be taken with a grain of salt.

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