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We’ve heard it for decades: The world is overpopulated, its natural resources can’t sustain so many people, and we’re headed toward mass starvation and other forms of human misery unless we slash the birth rate, dramatically. That scenario’s scary enough to come in handy for groups with their own policy agendas: Planned Parenthood, for example, has used it to impose abortion, sterilization and contraception on countries where large families are treasured and abortion is shunned. After all, if overpopulation is going to lead to global catastrophe, the niceties we like to value in other contexts (like respect for other cultures) are just going to have to go on the back burner for a while. We’re talking about the fate of the world, y’know.
Well, actually, we’re not. At least not the way most people think.
Ever since Paul Ehrlich published his landmark book The Population Bomb in 1968 and introduced the term "overpopulation," dire threats of global starvation and energy shortages have become a normal part of public discourse. Yet after all these years (and with a world population that’s since grown by more than a billion), Ehrlich and his acolytes have yet to prove we’re overpopulated; they merely assert that we are. 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 the replacement rate.
Want some numbers? 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. Demographer and American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt says it’s likely to come on the earlier end of that estimate, when the world hits 8 billion by
Thus the world in the next half century will have fewer additional people to take care of than it did in the last half century. In percentage terms, while it handled 100 percent more people in the last 50 years, it will only have to deal with 27 percent more in the next 50. Granted, that’s still a lot of people. But it’s a long way from apocalyptic.
It’s true that parts of the world tend to be pretty crowded. (Ehrlich has admitted the impetus for the book came when he found himself in the crush of humanity in a large city in India.) But while "overcrowding" may sound frightening, it’s a misleading term because it’s defined by individual and cultural lifestyles and circumstances – which have little to do with the scientific definition of "overpopulation." People in India were crammed together not because there were too many for the land to hold, but because like people the world over, they prefer urban centers to rural areas. That’s why some Manhattan high-rises practically house more people than South Dakota. Overcrowding may be a problem, but it’s not overpopulation.
Ehrlich’s other prophecies of doom haven’t proven any more reliable. The Population Bomb initially focused on the prospect of famine, with Ehrlich predicting, "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines ... [and] hundreds of millions of people [including Americans] are going to starve to death." As it happened, he was off by, oh, hundreds of millions.
In Ehrlich’s 1990 sequel, The Population Explosion, he claimed that world grain production peaked in 1986. Wrong. In 1986 about 1.8 million metric tons of cereals (the most important grain) were produced, an increase over previous years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. By 2001, that number had increased to 2.7 metric tons.
"Global food production per person peaked earlier, in 1984," Ehrlich further claimed, "and has slid downward since then." His fellow doomsayer, founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute Lester Brown (along with Ehrlich, another winner of the MacArthur Foundation "genius award") wrote in 1981, "The period of global food security is over."
Wrong and wrong again. From 1981 to 1989, grain production per person increased by more than 5 percent. Since then, it’s increased another 4 percent more per person. Yet we haven’t had to plow under the face of the earth to get this extra food. In 2001, 304 million acres were used to grow the world’s cereals, slightly less than in 1968 when Ehrlich’s bombastic bomb book appeared and far less than the 330 million acres used in the peak year of 1991.
"An endangered species?"
The figure that counts the most, however, is that 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, far too many are sustaining the American obesity epidemic and still too few are going to the underdeveloped world. (Though, as the World Health Organization recently reported, obesity is now a problem even in many of the poorest nations.)
Eating one fewer Big Mac a day will help us stay healthier, but it won’t do Africans or Indians any good. Talk about "equitable distribution of food" is just that, talk. What’s needed is a rising tide to raise all boats. Neo-Marxist groups like Greenpeace insist that all we have to do is to evenly divide up the world’s food; but that’s no more likely than dividing up the world’s wealth. (Which they would also love to do.) Just as increasing wealth among the poorest requires increasing wealth generally, so too must we continue to increase the amount of food available for all to help those with the greatest need. This is even more important because lesser-developed countries are acquiring a taste for more meat, which requires far more crops than eating the crops directly would. The question is, are we up to the task of providing all those calories?
Norman Borlaug should know. He’s a 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, due largely to use of genetically improved varieties. In his chapter in the just-released book Global Warming and Other Myths, he claims that "the world has the technology either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline-to feed a population of 10 billion people." More specifically, "Even without using advances in plant biotechnology, yields can be increased by 50 to 70 percent in much of the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and by 100 to 150 percent in sub-Saharan Africa."
There also are tremendous advances in biotechnology that make the scenario even brighter.
Consider a single crop: rice. Swiss researchers have added genes from daffodils to so-called "Golden Rice" to give it Vitamin A, the lack of which causes about 2 million deaths annually. (It’s also the leading cause of preventable blindness in anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 children.) Then they added a gene from a fungus that creates an enzyme allowing the human digestive system to break down the iron in rice that’s otherwise unavailable to us. Still other researchers are adding genes to rice crops that increase yields by 20 to 40 percent.
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." He was hardly alone; 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.
Every few years oil is supposed to run dry; every few years proven reserves actually expand.
Similarly, while the Department of the Interior originally predicted that oil would run out in 1954 and later moved that back to 1964, because of technology breakthroughs improving the discovery and extraction of oil 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.
And that has interesting political implications, since the decline will not be evenly distributed among nations. 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.
Still, there’s one thing that as the population shrinks we simply won’t be able to make up for.
Julian Simon, a truly irreplaceable resource.
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.