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The population explosion implodes

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Just as Aliens was scarier than Alien, and Bride of Frankenstein was worse than Frankenstein himself, scary stories often have an even more hair-raising sequel. It might be poor sport not to suspend disbelief, but green scaremongering and socialist soothing have consequences. Scary ones. And they’re hard to deal with if we’re all in a fearful frenzy.

When I was young, we were headed for the next ice age. Now, we’re not headed there fast enough. Then there wasn’t enough oil and when it ran out we’d all die waiting for the bus. Today, there is “enough to fry us all”, in George Monbiot’s turn of phrase.

As if on cue, yet another alarmism u-turn finally earned a mention in the mainstream media last week. Population growth is not only slowing down, but soon we can expect the world population to begin declining.

This will be no surprise to readers of this column. For example, in a 2010 column I wrote about having babies without guilt, and in its follow-up I debunked the fear that we’d run out of resources if we did.

Starting on what appears to be a familiar note, Jeff Wise wrote an unusual piece for Slate magazine last week. “The world’s seemingly relentless march toward overpopulation achieved a notable milestone in 2012. Somewhere on the planet … the seven billionth living person came into existence.”

So far, so dull, and the usual response to this well-known factoid is something much like this five-part series Wise cites in the LA Times, marking the occasion with a depressing lament about how “living conditions are likely to be bleak for much of humanity.”

However, Wise continues: “A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its seven billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the six billionth – the first time in human history that interval had grown … In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.”

This will be news to anyone who has unquestioningly accepted the most common of all green scare-mongery stories. Once you’ve disposed of all the fallacies of the pessimist’s dystopia, and shown that freedom and capitalism have produced a stunning epoch of longer, healthier and more prosperous lives, the doomsayers always play the population explosion as a trump card. “You’re right,” they’ll say, “but this short-termism can’t last, because of uncontrolled population growth.”

The barely concealed subtext is that less developed countries and poor people are endangering the future prosperity of the rich by breeding like rabbits. The LA Times reporters cited above “travelled across Africa and Asia to document the causes and consequences of rapid population growth.”

Though he is far from being alone, the chief prophet of population doom is Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University. Dissatisfied with the social obscurity of a student of butterflies, and inspired by Malthusian mathematical models built on the assumption that resources grow arithmetically while populations grow geometrically, leading to crisis and catastrophic population collapse, Ehrlich predicted our own apocalypse in a series of books starting with The Population Bomb in 1968.

Widespread misery and mass starvation would be our lot, he warned, and death rates would rise until humans died off like flies. He proposed “crash programs” ranging from easy access to birth control, abortion and sterilisation, to incentives for reducing birth rates and punishments for having too many children. He floated several oppressive and coercive measures that only a generous reading would suggest he did not explicitly endorse. Like today’s LA Times journalists, he pointed fingers at Africans and Asians, naming India and Egypt as “hopeless” countries that don’t deserve food aid. For the record, he later denied that he was in any way racist about it.

“In praise of prophets”, a 1971 article in New Scientist, recounts that Ehrlich told an audience in England: “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people of little or no concern to the five to seven billion inhabitants of a sick world. … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Disease would “cause the collapse of British society” and “horrors worse than the Black Death.”

In 1994, he proposed an optimum human population of between 1.5 billion and 2 billion, while conceding that four billion might survive, but even that would be significantly less than the 5.5 billion of the time, which, he ominously adds, means “the policy implications of our conclusions are still clear”.

Now aged 80, he’s still at it, saying that the bomb is still ticking, and that “we might have something like a 10% chance of keeping civilisation from collapsing”. Ehrlich thinks reaching seven billion population is “cause for a lot of alarm”, and so, he says, does every scientist he knows.

Throughout this career of alarmism, Ehrlich has been winning awards from environmental organisations like the Sierra Club and the WWF. He received the MacArthur “Genius Grant”, among a wide range of other accolades in the fields of science, ecology and environmentalism. For him, the highlight of his career was winning the Crafoord Prize, which he says the Swedish Academy of Sciences created “as an explicit substitute for the Nobel (which they also award), but made it harder to get (it’s only offered in my field every three years).”

This guy is as crazy as alarmists get, but with his chest full of medals and his pocket full of cash, he represents the respected mainstream of environmental science.

In a 2009 hagiography in the Earth Island Journal entitled “The Vindication of a Public Scholar”, he described The Population Bomb as “way too optimistic”.

“My view has become depressingly mainline!” he told Grist magazine in 2004, adding, “I try to keep my unorthodox scientific judgments (I have some) to myself and only communicate consensus science to the public.”

Well, that’s a relief. I’d hate to imagine which of his prophesies he thought too pessimistic for public consumption.

The relationship between populations and resources has long been the subject of debates, disagreements and even a bet which Ehrlich famously lost. That wager, with the late Julian Simon, is now a stock argument against environmental doom mongering.

Defenders of the Ehrlich school of doom-mongery point to the fact that it was really a sucker bet, because the environmental costs of resource extraction were not priced in, and that price did nothing to disprove the notion that human resource consumption is not an imminent crisis. Of course, nobody forced Ehrlich to accept price as a proxy for scarcity, but there is now an even stronger argument against Simon. Thanks to the commodity price boom of the last decade, real prices for the five metals that were the subject of the bet have finally risen back to their 1980 levels. 

The Economist suggests that Ehrlich might have considered taking Simon up on his “double or quits” offer in 1990, to renew the bet for any future maturity date, because either 2007 or 2011 (though not the years in between) would have done the trick. 

Of course, as the magazine also points out, it’s not quite so simple. Just as price ignores some environmental aspects of resource extraction, it also moves in response to factors other than mere scarcity. Rising demand from an increasingly prosperous developing world, and investment bubbles blown by easy-money interventionists, will have their effect. And even if scarcity were rising in these particular resources, that is exactly how one expects price to behave. It incentivises greater economy on the part of customers, increased use of alternatives, and better production technology on the part of suppliers.

However, expect holdouts of the notion that overpopulation is a crisis because resources are ultimately finite, to use this observation in support of their view. That they have always confused the physics term “finite” with the economic concept “scarce” will not give them pause. Nor will the fact Simon’s widow still happily wins bets between “Malthusian pessimists” and “Cornucopian optimists”. Or that even 1980 prices were near historic lows, and commodity prices will have to recover much further to achieve their inflation-adjusted peaks of the 1940s and 1950s, when the world’s population was much closer to Ehrlich’s optimum of two billion.

Ehrlich himself has claimed in his defence that the 240 million people who really did die of starvation since he first made his apocalyptic predictions in 1968 constitutes vindication. He said something similar about the rise of HIV/Aids. No doubt, Ehrlich will consider the slowdown in human population growth rate as evidence not that he has been spectacularly wrong, but that he was right. It stands to reason, the argument will go, that faced with critical constraints on their survival the population will eventually implode, as Malthusian models predict. The slowdown we’re now witnessing is a sign of that.

He won’t be right, of course. Today’s lower birth rates are a consequence not of higher death rates, as Ehrlich foresaw, but of lower death rates. The reality is not that there are Limits to Growth, as one popular 1972 book by the Club of Rome would have had you believe. Nor that “society has gone into overshoot”, which will force us to “confront global collapse”, as the same prophets of doom assured us 20 years later in Beyond the Limits.

No, the true situation is that we’re witnessing what economists describe as a “demographic transition”. In the book, The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century, by Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sandersen and Sergei Scherbov, this notion is explained: “The conventional theory of demographic transition predicts that as living standards rise and health conditions improve, mortality rates decline, and then, somewhat later, fertility rates decline. … Different societies experienced the transition in different ways, and today various regions of the world are following distinctive paths. Nonetheless, the broad result was, and is, a gradual transition away from a smaller, slowly growing population with high mortality and high fertility rates to a larger, slowly growing or even shrinking population with low mortality and low fertility rates. During the transition itself, population growth accelerates, because the decline in death rates precedes the decline in birth rates.”

So, Ehrlich and his disciples observed a temporary, natural aberration, which was a symptom of successful socio-economic development, and mistook it for an existential crisis of a humanity hurtling headlong to its doom. And for being a famous alarmist, he got all those awards.

Well, fine. Let’s pretend he deserves them all. It seems churlish to castigate an octogenarian who has to come to terms with the fact that he wasted his life on the wrong side of the argument, scaring people half to death with his fire-and-brimstone critiques of “the siren song of the myopic optimists”.

In any case, the people who felt sufficiently guilty to stop having children as a consequence of this kind of eco-alarmism, have more important things to worry about than making the old fellow feel bad. For example, how will we pay for the upkeep of people his age, when the retirement savings of the elderly have already been squandered by the governments to whom they were entrusted?

The real crisis for society is developing in the exact opposite direction to where population explosion alarmist said we were headed, namely the economic crisis of rapidly aging populations and the precarious financial position of government entitlement programmes that were supposed to support them.

But while we search for solutions to this problem, foisted upon us by the environmentalists and socialists of yesteryear, can we in light of the data at least agree to stop whining about overpopulation?

It isn’t a crisis. It never was. DM


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