“As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it."
In the backwaters of Blogosphere there is nothing worse than speaking the obvious. The flip side of that coin is that there is nothing better than taking a viewpoint that the majority of people believe to be right and showing it to be wrong. This is what I’m going to do with the 'overpopulation' myth.
The reason that the overpopulation scaremongering seems to be back in vogue is because of the continual literature on climate change, and also because recently the world population exceeded 7 billion (people love a good round number as a catalyst for such pronouncements), which must mean the world is overpopulated and that we are consuming far too many resources. Also Professor Stephen Emmott of Oxford University has been pulling in the crowds with his 'Ten Billion' lecture which is a proclamation of doom and gloom for the 21st century.
Professor Stephen Emmott is preaching to the choir, because if you ask people whether they think the world is overpopulated, most will tell you they feel sure it is. There are two reasons for this (well three actually, but I’ll come to the third in a while).
The first reason is that ideas are like memes – they are passed on in the form of cultural viruses (just like the biological analogue). ‘The world is overpopulated’
is one of those memes – it has been heard so often that people just accept it must be true. The second reason is a development of the first reason; it is because people start with the natural assumption of overpopulation that they find it very easy to observe evidence to support their view. Whether it be a huge metropolitan city ring road full of traffic at a standstill, or a London tube station in rush hour, or a crowded African region struggling for food and water, or a diminished animal community on the verge of extinction, it’s easy to assume the world has too many people1
People are wrong about the over-crowdedness issue in a similar way to how they are wrong about the over-pollution issue – in both cases they have their reasoning backwards. To see why, we first need to see why it is a good thing that you and I were born – and to do this we must go back to 1798. The bad idea that “the earth is overpopulated” was started most prominently by Thomas Malthus in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population
, in which he argues that the population increases geometrically
but food supplies only increase arithmetically
, which means an eventual and inevitable case of worldwide famine and disease. I’ll explain what that means in a moment, and why Malthus was wrong.
Now there is no denying that in some parts of the world increased population, poor resources and lack of birth control is a problem. But that doesn’t mean that the world is overpopulated - it means that the population of people that are alive are not doing as well as they could in aiding those that need more help than they are getting.
It is true that humans do damage to the environment and to other animals, but a counter-sceptic could point out that animals have been doing harm to other animals for millions of years before humans came about - and also that environmental events have ‘damaged’ parts of the planet for even longer. If you take the entire history of life that has ever lived on this planet, over 99% of that life lived and became extinct before humans came about – so it seems absurd to suggest that humans being alive is a unique and unprecedented cost to the animal kingdom.
Here’s what the sceptics fail to realise. Yes, we certainly can do more to be mindful of other animals, but the fact that there are parts of nature that are worse off because of humans is not an argument that says there are too many humans, it is an argument that humans need to be more mindful of the effects they have on nature, and seek better ways to improve the status quo. Similarly, the fact that there are so many divorces is not an argument against marriage, it is an argument that humans need to be more mindful in selecting the right partner, and work at being better husbands and wives.
I’m going to show why the solution to the ‘natural’ problems that overpopulation proponents describe is not fewer people; it is more
people – which is why I say the world is under populated, not overpopulated. To see why, let’s look at how Malthus got his reasoning wrong. Malthus’s distinction between Arithmetical ratios and Geometrical ratios is as follows:
Arithmetical ratios (technology growth) are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 etc
Geometrical ratios (population growth) are: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512 etc
What he’s saying is that as the population grows and grows with increased rapidity, the food supply grows at a much slower rate, leaving us eventually over-populated and out of resources. That’s what the ratios mean. Malthus was right about these ratios up to the time of writing his essay – but what he didn’t predict was how the world was about to change, most notably with the Industrial Revolution2
and later contraception. The reason Malthus got it wrong was that he didn’t work out that progress in technology is proportional to the number of people alive in the world, which means that technological growth will eventually grow geometrically along with the population. In simple terms, with more people alive there are more innovative ideas being produced at a greater rate.
Before the world’s big population boom in the past two centuries, technological progress was so slow that Arithmetical ratios and Geometrical ratios were all but indistinguishable, because population increase and technological innovation were slowly and steadily moving along the same coterminous lines in history.
Geometrical ratios become more noticeable when you have a large foundation to facilitate the exponential increase, and that happened after the Industrial Revolution, and will continue to happen henceforward at an even greater rate.
This is the key distinction between qualitative changing and quantitative changing – the former gives us the real breakthroughs in economic and technological change, the latter only gives us more of the same. Here’s an example. It was once forecast that economic progress in Manhattan was coming to a close because the island had nearly reached its capacity regarding the horses it could contain. If you’re just focusing on quantitative change your narrow vision only has you looking to see where you can fit more horses; whereas if you’re focusing on qualitative change you look to advance beyond horses to industrial machinery, and eventually from industrial machinery to computers.
Another example, the Great Irish Famine wasn’t just due to unfortunate infestations in potatoes – it was over-reliance on one single crop that severely added to the plight. Whether it is potatoes for food or horses for transportation, it is important to diversify, because diversification leads to increased qualitative change. That's another reason why you can be sure that our technology will continue to progress - we diversify our skills and our imagination by not having an over-reliance on too narrow a range.
Consider this in terms of an analogy in which we are recording planetary temperature. Planet A increases its global temperature of 100 degrees at a rate of 1 degree per year (arithmetical), whereas Planet B increases its global temperature of 100 degrees by 1% per year (geometrical). In one thousand years Planet B, which is increasing geometrically, would be 2000 times hotter than Planet A, and growing 2000 times faster too. If you looked at the temperature differential in the first few years the difference between the two planets would be minimal – whereas after a couple of thousand years it would be immense. That’s what is happening with our technological progression – it is getting hotter and hotter because technological progression is increasing like the heat on planet B, not Planet A as Malthus thought.
Our probability of running out of any resources has always been superseded by our ability to advance the sufficient technology or innovation to wean ourselves off the dependency of those resources. It is the geometrical ratios of both population growth and technological progression that make this exponential progression more or less inevitable.
If you want some kind of qualification for that, it’s easily done. I’ll give you some empirical indication based on how the world has gone for the past 200,000 years. For the past 199,800 years we’ve had low global populations, and humans lived in meagre conditions, with lots of primitivism, low life expectancy and frequent infant mortality. Until recently in our 200,000 year history we have lived in pretty poor circumstances, just above the subsistence level. Then a couple of hundred years ago something changed. People started to become more scientific, more empirically minded, richer, and populations began to increase more rapidly (it’s still going on).
This progression can be explained by a simple rule of thumb – people innovate, improve and provide answers to problems - and the more people, the more innovation, improvements and problems solved. The more ideas and the more people to share those ideas with, the more humans prosper.
It’s no coincidence that each half century has been progressively better than the last, and that the most recent times have been the most globally prosperous than any time in history. That’s largely because we have 7 billion people on the planet – more ideas, more innovation, better technology, improved economic freedom, peak human liberation, and more global communication and potential to help the neediest3
When the world has 8 billion people it will be even more prosperous; when it has 9 billion, yet even more prosperity. It’s no coincidence – the recent burst in population in the past 200 years has been the primary cause of our burst in prosperity (200 years is only 0.1% of 200,000 years). That we have a maximal population and progression dialect in 0.1% of the entire human history suggests that the answer to our worries about the world is that we haven’t had enough children in the past 200 years, not that we’ve had too many.
It is easy to look at some of the worst places in the world, like Africa4
, and say that many of the countries there have too many people in relation to the available resources, and this is true. But those countries do not amount to an argument that supports the overpopulation proponents – they show that there are places in the world in which the economic conditions are unable to take advantage of the benefits of having a large pool of potential innovators, and fruitful trade potential. This is usually because the countries in question are run by dictators or oppressive political groups that keep the masses starved of food and knowledge. They are being denied the very thing my argument says will enrich them – the ability to contribute to their nation, and to the wider world. If simply having a densely populated nation was inimical to success then Japan and Hong Kong would be as bad as much of Africa.
It’s good that you were born
Now that’s cleared up, let’s consider the costs and benefits of an individual being born. First off, you probably know all the facts about the incredibly tiny probability of the unique 'you' being born - 1 in the millions of sperm that made it...same for your ancestors…etc., etc. - so the upshot is you're very fortunate to be alive to experience a life on this planet. I'm glad you were born, and I don't think you'd wish you weren't here to experience life on this incredible planet. If you'd never been born, your family would have ever so slightly more resources consumed, due to your not being born to consume them – but your family probably are the ones most glad you were born.
Notice I said “your family
would have ever so slightly more resources” not “the rest of the world
would have ever so slightly more resources. Let’s consider the resources humans consume. It is thought by many that if you weren’t born the rest of the world would gain from what you don’t consume. That’s not true. When you were born you cost the world very little; the only people who would have felt a cost would be the people whose resources (time, energy, economic) you took up – and that would only really apply to your immediate family. And as I said, your immediate family are the ones who have gotten most pleasure out of you – your parents spent a lot of time, energy and money on your upbringing, but you (and any siblings you have) are probably their greatest joy in life. If you hadn’t have been born your family would have more resources, and the rest of the world would have the same as before.
It is clear that life has a multitude of net benefits that have no attached costs, as well as costs that do have concomitant attached benefits, and also some net costs too. I said the main costs you bring are to your family – the reason being is that your external spill-over costs mostly have benefits for others, and most people’s net costs that confer no benefits are comparably tiny. Over-population theorists tend to only see the costs and miss the benefits.
The car in front of you in the morning rush hour is imposing a cost because the driver is delaying your journey slightly. But he is probably going to his place of work in which the benefits he brings to the company, and to society, far outweigh the costs of delaying your journey by a minuscule amount. You partaking in the auction on Sunday helped bid the price up, which was a loss to the eventual buyer. But the buyer’s loss is simultaneously the seller’s gain. If you are successful in a job interview the other candidate sees you as a cost to his aspirations, but you succeeded because the interviewers saw that you could bring more to the company than the other candidate. His loss is yours and the company’s gain. The upshot is; it is easy to focus on the costs and omit the benefits.
Now then, seeing as though the costs are minimal, let’s look at the benefits to your being born. Apart from all the obvious benefits you bring to your closest family, look what else you bring to the world; you contribute skills, you earn money, you work, you are a friend to many, a caring neighbour, a parent, a lover, you think up new ideas, you bring a unique perspective based on a unique experience of the world, you bring support, and conversation, and with that comes anecdotes, wisdom, retrospective prudence, humour, and many more things. The reason why your existence is a blessing to the world is the same reason why increased population has made the world more prosperous; you have brought much more into the world than you have drained from it.
Now let’s consider the cost-benefit analysis from the point of view of the people who chose to bring you into this world – your parents. When your parents decided to have you, they knew that you would be a drain on their resources – both their financial resources, and their time and energy. But I’ll bet having you was one of the best days of their life – and I’ll bet they haven’t regretted it since. In other words, they focused on all those costs, weighed them up with the benefit of having you, and thought you were worth having, even though they must have overestimated the costs and underestimated the benefits. I say “underestimated the benefits” because to begin with most parents think of a having a child only in terms of that effect on the family life – they are not taking into account all those benefits I mentioned above, because they are spill-over benefits that come later, not direct benefits to your parents. Hence, they overestimated the costs and underestimated the benefits, and still thought you were worth having – and that single case can be applied to the parents of just about all children.
The ‘overcrowded’ myth
I’d guess by now you’ve got ahead of me and realised how fallacious the over-crowded argument is. Crowded cities are popular because people like to live in crowded cities. They like crowds because crowds have more people, and more people mean more of the benefits I mentioned above. Rural areas are quieter because fewer people like to live in them, and house prices are very expensive in Central London and Manhattan because more people want to live there. It’s simple logic - the reason London has 8.6 million people and rural towns have only a few thousand is because more people prefer to live in London than they do rural towns. The reason being, not only is there is a greater abundance of the aforementioned benefits in more populous areas, there is also better career prospects, higher salaries, better nightlife, greater choices of restaurants, a richer choice of entertainment, more tourist attractions, better public transport, greater diversity of people – the list goes on.
On the pollution argument, well, my 0.1% observation is a bit like the reverse of pollution. The benefits of pollution (profits from owning a factory, pleasure from driving a Subaru, etc) are outweighed by the costs of pollution to others, which means polluters pollute too much. Parents and prospective parents vastly underestimate the benefits that children bring to the prosperity of the world, so they end up having too few children. Progression and increased population is an inevitable concomitance because each generation reaps the benefits of the inventiveness of its ancestors. Not only that, but population growth drives technological and industrial innovation, which drives economic growth. The ‘overpopulation’ proponents have got their reasoning backwards; our improved technological abilities and economic prosperity have both engendered significant population growth as well. Economic prosperity has continued to increase for the past two thousand years, with every century more prosperous than the last, and this is because there are more people on earth to contribute to the strategic and technological advancements.
So not only is overpopulation a clear myth – the reverse is true - if you want to help solve the problems of the world like damage to the environment, bad living conditions for the neediest, and the diminishing populations of endangered animal species, you’ve got more chance if you have six kids than if you have none – because one of them just might be the one who puts a better solution in place.
The entire world’s population could be housed quite comfortably in the State of Texas.
It may actually be true that things like the industrial revolution had to wait until humans had the capacity to support large-scale innovation.
One point of note: despite increases in population it's not the masses that drive us forward; it is the top 1-2% of every generation as a rule. Were it not for the top 1-2%, humanity probably would have remained in the Middle Ages. The reason why the model I gave you works is that with each increase in population the 1-2% of innovators increases numerically too. When there were only 300,000 people in the world the top slice 2% innovators were only 6000 per generation. In a population of 7 billion the top slice 2% innovators can be as many as 140 million. That's a lot of people with a lot of ideas - so despite a justified pessimism regarding the overall abilities of most humans, such pessimism doesn't impinge on my model of progression. Once an idea is conceived it can be shared by millions. Once cat's eyes are invented, the whole world benefits. Once a computer chip is prototyped by the first innovator, the whole world reaps the rewards, and so on.
You may also like to note that the countries with the largest populations - China, Brazil, Russia, India (and several African nations) – are actually showing the world’s fastest economic growth rates.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users.
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