There’s just not enough to go around. Mass depletion, and eventual elimination, of resources seems inevitable for a species that just can’t seem to ever have enough. We consume everything we can get our hands on. We waste so much. In fact, some estimates suggest we waste roughly one third of all the food produced in a year. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes (source). We waste electronics at a stunning pace, with one estimate totaling 53.6 million tonnes in 2020. We plow through vast quantities of natural resources, sully our water supplies, destroy habitat, and so much more. We keep hearing about the climate crisis, with a possibility of an uninhabitable world in just a few decades. With a world population almost closing in on 8 billion people, how can we expect to keep this going? How will we survive?
We won’t just survive. We will thrive. I’m going to show you how the growing world population isn’t one of humanity’s greatest liabilities, but one of its greatest assets. How the question of whether we can feed a growing population has already been answered. How every apocalyptic prediction made about our kind has been flat out, dead wrong, and the ones we’re making today are wrong too. I’m also going to show you that efforts to curb population growth have led to some of the most vile, cruel, and catastrophic destruction of human life in our known history. I’m going to give you reason to believe the future for our children has never shone brighter.
Apocalypse Now? Or… never?
In 1798, Thomas Malthus made the infamous prediction that population would grow at a geometric rate, while food production would only grow at an arithmetic rate. Meaning, food production would eventually be outstripped by population growth, and widespread famine and poverty were guaranteed once that happened. Following up on these Malthusian principles, Paul Ehrlich, in 1968, wrote a famous book called The Population Bomb, which, like Malthus, predicted the end was near: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. Hundreds of millions… are going to starve to death. Nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” When was this mass starvation going to happen? In the 1970’s, or so Ehrlich thought (source).
There have been countless adaptations of this narrative. In Dan Brown’s Inferno, the plot centers around reducing the excess human population, described in the book as humanity’s only hope. In Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, the mad titan Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe to control unchecked population growth. The thing is, all of these predictions have been absolutely wrong. The human existence has never been wealthier or better off than it is right now.
You might be asking, though, was this an issue that needed apocalyptic predictions for action to be taken? Did these dire predictions spark interest in a subject that needed attention?
Ideally, these predictions would have led to a focus on generating greater innovation in producing food, leading to higher yielding crops around the world. Instead, it led to an excessive focus on population control, giving governments legitimacy and urgency to enact horrific actions, such as forced sterilizations and coerced abortions. Some of these atrocities go beyond belief. For example, in 1866, Britain cut off food aid to India during a terrible famine. The British government allowed over one million Indians to starve to death, believing that saving them would only contribute to overpopulation. It didn’t end there, with as many as ten Indian famines occurring throughout the remainder of the 1800’s, resulting in a total death toll of 15 million people. A similar situation happened in Ireland just two decades before, with the British again deciding no relief was the best relief. Today, this style of campaign continues to be used in Africa. Take Golden Rice, for example: a variety of rice fortified with Vitamin A, offered out for free in many African countries, continues to wait on shelves due to fears from it being genetically engineered. Numerous organizations, like Greenpeace, continue to campaign against it, sentencing 250,000-500,000 children to blindness every year, scores of them dying. Many of the goals of the anti-GMO movement can be traced to population control.
Equally as disturbing is China’s disastrous one-child policy. Imposed under Deng Xiaoping in 1980, the idea of the one-child policy was to spur economic growth and limit overpopulation. By all accounts, this policy was a grim failure. China’s birth rate had already collapsed from 6.2 in 1965 to 2.7 in 1980, without any policy at all. By 2010, China’s birth rate was only 1.18, far below replacement level and resulting in a rapidly aging population. Worse, this population was increasingly made up of far more men than women, which will lead to its own crisis, soon. Imagine 30 million young men unable to find a partner.
The actions China took to enforce this policy were brutal and horrifying. It’s estimated that at least 336 million abortions, the majority of them female due to a preference for sons, were a direct result of this policy. Women who resisted the policy, attempting to have a second child, were often dragged into abortion clinics well into the third trimester. Many of them were sterilized during this as well. Hidden second children, discovered by police, were often killed. I won’t mention how here. If you want to read more, click here and here.
It’s hard to read about all these horrifying actions, but they did happen, and not very long ago. Making apocalyptic predictions leads to real policy changes that hurts real people. The unintended consequences of these policies are often catastrophic.
But how about the environmental issues 8 billion people are causing? What will happen if we have 11 billion by 2050, as the UN has claimed? According to CNN in 2018, “Earth has 12 years to avert climate change catastrophe.” You’ve heard piles of these claims; there are countless examples of doomsday predictions (go here for 50 failed doomsday predictions). Are they real? Are we doomed?
Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a temperature rise of about 7.4oF by 2100. Will this result in the destruction of the planet? Their models say no. It will be expensive, costing about 3.64% of GDP in 2100, so attempting to reduce emissions is a valid and reasonable goal, and the costs of a warming planet will affect the poor more than the rich. But climate change will not destroy the planet. In fact, by all accounts, we will be far, far richer in 2100 than today; we will likely see at least a 500% increase in GDP by then. With the right policies, we could be 1,040% richer than today. That is with a world 7.4oF warmer than now. This is a United Nations study, by the way. Climate change is and will be a significant challenge, but it will not destroy the planet.
What’s the harm in fighting it though? Don’t we need apocalyptic predictions to inspire action?
Remember the law of unintended consequences?
We live in a finite world. We must decide how to allocate resources. If we decide to allocate them based on return on investment, which I would argue is the most logical way, we’d be far better off investing in freer trade, access to contraception, health care, food security and nutrition, and many other strategies that directly improve the lives of ordinary people. With what we spend on climate change policy, much of it ineffective, we could virtually eliminate poverty. The harm of apocalyptic predictions on people’s well-being should not be overlooked, either; believing the world is about to end when you’re a teenager is not good for your mental health, and we just don’t know what kind of an effect that will have them in the future. Telling people to have less children, to “save the planet”, is a morally bankrupt and, frankly, incorrect message. More young people create more innovation and opportunity, generating new ideas that could eliminate climate change as a threat at all. The world needs a workforce, a way to develop new ideas and concepts; we get that through young people.
The Benefits of a Growing Population
All we ever seem to hear about is how too many people is a problem. This is simply wrong. Our exponentially growing population in the 20th century is one of the reasons we have the prosperity we do.
Think about it this way. Thousands of years ago, when agriculture was young and cities even younger, what did you spend your time with? Well, growing food was hard, and you need it to live, so, that’s pretty much it. You worked your whole life to grow enough food to survive. There wasn’t a lot of thought given to bettering your future generations; you just survived. This is most of the human experience in our known history.
Does that still happen today? Of course; there are people alive now – millions of them – who still live in misery and pain beyond even the worst experiences in the Stone Age. But the majority, the vast majority, live in a world of far greater wealth. Life was not better in the past. Since 1800, the world’s population has increased six-fold, while life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has increased more than nine times. We have less disease, war, infant deaths, cancer, deaths from extreme weather, and generally just less misery and catastrophe than ever before in human existence.
Why did this happen? There are lots of reasons. Trade may be the most important. Trade led to specialization, granting people the opportunity to work at what they’re best at. Property rights allowed individuals to own their own houses and land. Freedom and capitalism set the right incentives in place to encourage individuals to seek better lives for themselves and their families. Did all this go off without a hitch? No. Were there some bumps along the way? Definitely; the terrible world wars of this past century can attest to that, along with the hundreds of millions that still live in abject poverty. But, by and large, you have capitalism and freedom to thank for our explosion in prosperity.
This exploding wealth developed something of a feedback loop. More specialization created more innovations, developing better nutrition, medical care, engineering, and so on. This increased life expectancy and decreased infant death rates. More brains allowed more ideas to develop, combine with each other, and develop even better ideas. Cities created the opportunity for more brains to share ideas more often. A growing young workforce kept the economic wheels turning, faster and faster. A burgeoning workforce is much of what we have to thank for our wealth today.
Despite what Malthus and Ehrlich thought, we never skipped a beat feeding this exponentially growing population. People like Norman Bourlaug, the founder of the Green Revolution, ignored the talk of overpopulation and famine and went to work. He has been credited with saving a billion lives. Or how about Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, developing a method of extracting nitrogen from the air, rather than from manure and guano? Their invention may be the greatest innovation in human history, developed in a time when it was believed famine was just around the corner. We won’t struggle to innovate our way into feeding a population far beyond what we have today – as long as government regulation doesn’t get in our way. Individuals need freedom and incentives to generate new, innovative ideas – like growing and improving their farm businesses.
A Population in Decline
The idea that we will have 11 billion people by 2050 has become somewhat of an assumed fact. What if this doesn’t happen?
“Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”Darrell Bricker, Empty Planet
Imagine a Chinese population of 560 million. By 2100, this may very well happen. How, though, could a country of 1.4 billion possibly drop that far, that fast? In Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, they carefully and methodically lay out the birth rate statistics that generate the clear possibility and even plausibility of this being the Chinese future. And China is not alone. Developed countries all over the world are not having enough children to hold populations up, and developing countries are following suit, fast. The European average birth rate is only 1.6; you need at least 2.1 to keep a population steady in size over time. Many other nations, like Japan, Korea, even Russia and the United States, are below replacement as well. This demographic reality has not yet set in, but it will.
A declining population is an aging one. A population with fewer young people means less taxpayers to support their increasing health care demands and pension costs when they get older. Fewer children growing up means fewer homes being built, fewer cars, refrigerators, TV’s, and jeans, generating weaker economic growth. Currently, there are 6.3 working-age people in the world for every person in retirement age. By 2100, that number will slide to 2.4, or even less. Are children expensive? Absolutely. But without a workforce to maintain economic growth, how can you sustain the cost of an increasingly long-lived society?
Declining birth rates do have some tremendous benefits. Economic growth and increased equality has drastically reduced the number of women forced into marriages in their teens, having several children and struggling to keep them all alive into adulthood. Extremely high birthrates create incredibly difficult lives for many people around the world today, much of it due to a lack of rights for women. These are real problems that economic growth tends to help to solve. A declining population will put less pressure on the environment. The children we do have will be better cared for than any in known history. Women will have greater career opportunities and more freedom.
The concept of population decline is, however, just a theory. It would be wise to remember that sometimes human beings do things scientists don’t predict, and it is entirely possible that this trend reverses itself, especially as our population lives longer and longer, and stays healthier longer, too. There is no joy in life like that of having children.
Regardless, someday, whether in a generation or a hundred years, our planet’s population will likely peak. Once it starts declining, it may never stop. This will create massive upheaval in our children’s and grandchildren’s society.
Did it have to be this way?
Our myopic focus on an exploding population created policies that discouraged having children, and allowed vast and catastrophic suffering to so many people, all in the name of managing the population. It was all for nothing. They were wrong. Malthus was wrong. Ehrlich was wrong. We didn’t need to reduce the population. It would reduce itself, all on its own, as economic growth continued to accelerate.
The world isn’t about to end. We will adapt to our changing climate, as we have countless times in the past. We have survived calamities like ice ages, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and more. We don’t need to fear our nearly 8 billion people destroying the planet; as wealth increases, care for the environment grows commensurately. If you want to save the environment, allow people to become richer.
A declining population won’t destroy the world, just like all our other problems won’t. We’ll figure it out, and muddle through, like we always have. And we will be far, far wealthier than we can even imagine today, as we let the wheel of innovation continue to turn and generate countless new ideas. But maybe, as we move forward, it’s worth changing how we think about ourselves, how we view our impact on the world. The great science fiction author David Brin puts it perfectly:
“We aren’t a curse upon the world. We are her new eyes. Her brain, testes, ovaries… her ambition and her heart. Her voice. So sing.”David Brin, Existence
We don’t stand apart from nature and our planet. We are a part of it. Enjoy the ride.
The Rational Optimist and How Innovation Works (And How It Flourishes in Freedom), by Matt Ridley
False Alarm, by Bjorn Lomborg
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Apocalypse Never, by Michael Shellenberger
40 Chances: Finding Hope in A Hungry World, by Howard G. Buffet
The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, by Thomas Hager
The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles Mann
Merchants of Despair, by Robert Zubrin
Existence, by David Brin