Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
"If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population!"
That line from Dickens’s beloved Christmas Carol, published in 1843, shows that the idea of overpopulation is hardly new. Yet the idea lives on, notwithstanding that within the space of just another 50 Christmases the world’s population may begin a precipitous decline.
Today’s equivalent of that old skinflint Scrooge is Paul Ehrlich, who published his landmark book The Population Bomb in 1968. Since then, dire threats of global starvation and energy shortages have become a normal part of public discourse.
Yet 35 years and a billion people later, none of the doomsaying of Ehrlich and his influential acolytes has come to pass. In fact, population growth is slowing dramatically, and by the reckoning of virtually all demographers, it will end during this century.
You can’t estimate population growth with a calculator because simple mathematical formulas don’t take into account underlying circumstances such as fertility rates. But we do know that in almost every nation women are having fewer children, with those in about 60 nations already giving birth at a rate far less than replacement.
While world population has more than doubled since 1950 to the current 6.3 billion, according to the United Nations, the population will top out between 2050 and 2075. American Enterprise Institute Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt says it’s likely to come on the earlier end of that estimate, with 8 billion people by 2050. "I think it’s perfectly plausible that world population could peak by 2050 or even sooner and perhaps at a level below 8 billion," says Eberstadt, noting the past 35 years of declining fertility rates.
Thus while the world handled a doubling of the population in the last half century, it will only have to deal with 27 percent more in the next.
In Ehrlich’s 1990 sequel, The Population Explosion, he claimed that world grain production peaked in 1986, while "global food production per person peaked earlier, in 1984" and "has slid downward since then." Fellow alarmist Lester Brown, founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute (and along with Ehrlich, another winner of the MacArthur Foundation "genius award") wrote in 1981, "The period of global food security is over."
Yet calories available per person reached an all-time high of 2,800 by 1999, up from 2,371 in 1968. We are finally growing enough calories per person to keep the world’s population well fed — if those calories were evenly distributed.
Unfortunately, too few are going to the underdeveloped world. But since you can’t just evenly divide up the world’s food any more than you can its wealth (notwithstanding the efforts of neo-Marxist groups like Greenpeace to do just that), we must continue to increase the amount of food available for all to help those with the greatest need.
Can we provide the extra calories for both current and additional stomachs? Absolutely, say Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner and "father of the Green Revolution" which brought dramatic increases in cereal-grain yields in many developing countries beginning in the late 1960s.
The U.S., along with other countries, has more amber waves of grain than it knows what to do with.
"The world has the technology either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline to feed a population of 10 billion people," says Borlaug, "Even without using advances in plant biotechnology" that promise virtual miracles in improved yields.
Of course, the ability to feed mankind is not our sole worry in terms of whether we can sustain a growing population. Yet time and again, we’ve stubbornly refused to run out of things that were supposed to have been depleted long ago.
Ehrlich in his 1974 book The End of Affluence declared that, "Before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity ... in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion." A group called the Club of Rome issued a much publicized report in 1972 that had us running out of virtually everything by now but sand and cockroaches.
Yet no minerals — "key" or otherwise — are today in danger of being depleted. Price over the long run (as opposed to temporary gyrations) is a direct indicator of scarcity. But the International Monetary Fund’s price index for metals is now the lowest it has ever been.
Similarly, while the Department of the Interior originally predicted that oil would run out in 1954 and later moved that back to 1964, technology breakthroughs improving the discovery and extraction of oil means reserves are more numerous than ever.
Still, there is one vital resource in which we may develop a shortage in the next few decades: us.
That’s because the world’s population won’t just conveniently level off after it peaks; more likely it will drop like a stone.
According to U.N. Population Division Director Joseph Chamie, current population projections assume the earth is moving toward an average fertility level of 1.85 children per woman. Considering that a 2.1 level is needed to sustain a population, the planet’s population would peak at 7.5 billion by 2050 and fall to 5.3 billion by 2150.
The populations of several Soviet-bloc nations already are falling because of declining birth rates and emigration. Japan is expecting its population to peak in 2006 and then drop by 14 percent (almost 20 million people) by 2050. Germany expects a similar decline, while Italy and Hungary may lose 25 percent of their populations and Russia a third. These nations already are becoming giant "leisure worlds," with Depends outselling Pampers.
Of all the population prophets, the one whose predictions got the least recognition was also the most accurate. That was the late University of Maryland economist Julian Simon. He saw humanity not as a plague of locusts but rather as what he called "the ultimate resource" in a 1981 book by the same name.
"The standard of living has risen along with the size of the world’s population since the beginning of recorded time," Simon observed in that book. "And with increases in income and population have come less severe shortages, lower costs, and an increased availability of resources." True, he wrote, "Adding more people will cause [temporary] problems, but at the same time there will be more people to solve these problems."
To Simon, the cry of a little baby represented not just one more mouth to feed, but perhaps the next Pascal, the next Kepler, the next Michelangelo, the next Bach. We don’t know how many of these won’t be born. But we’ll grieve their loss just the same.