Saturday, February 25, 2006

Poor Thinking on Population

According to

On Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7:16 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the population here on this good Earth is projected to hit 6.5 billion people.
Many people see this as a landmark in mankind's pursuit to destroy itself. They argue, in standard Malthusian fashion, that an increasing population on Earth will lower standards of living and ultimately destroy the planet. See Paul Ehrlich's work for an example.

The increase in Earth's population is driven by, what many would consider to be, increases in the standard of living - namely, a dramatic increase in life expectancy. As one UN consultant put it, "It's not that people suddenly started breeding like rabbits; it's just that they stopped dying like flies." Should society be concerned that more people are living longer?

Is 6.5 billion people and the growth trend that it designates something to be concerned about? According to the U.S. Government's official data (as cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist), "the growth of the global population peaked in the early 1960's at just over 2% a year". In fact, UN scientists predict that the world's population will stabilize just short of 11 billion in the year 2200. It seems that concerns of eternal population growth are simply not worth worrying about.

But what is the sustainability of the predicted stabilized population size? Economist Julian Simon has researched the impact of populations on economic growth and finds that:

...more people and more wealth has correlated with more (rather than less) resources and a cleaner environment...The most important benefit of population size and growth is the increase it brings to the stock of useful knowledge. Minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths. Progress is limited largely by the availability of trained workers.
As such, Simon deems people as the "ultimate resource" and welcomes their presence. More people is likely to make the world better off.

Considering that the growth of world population is slowing and will reach a steady state and that people are a valuable resource, I can't help wondering why there has been so much needless commotion about population growth.


Anonymous said...

Ahem ... have you not noticed that there are billions of humans presently suffering in the world, and that these humans have no prospects whatsoever to enjoy any level of prosperity comparable to that of Obese America?

When you load a planet down with 6.5 billion humans and allow the population to continue to explode what is most likely to happen is that the exuberant species will drive itself to extinction.

The Homo sapiens are going to become extinct. The Earth won't miss us. The animals and plants will thank God that we are gone.

Don't allow the population numbers to deceive you: Humans are heading straight to self-inflicted extinction. In the history of life on the Earth, no animal has ever behaved in as self-destructively violently suicidal as humankind.

That's why it is beyond doubt: the Homo sapiens will become extinct.

David said...

Dear Anonymous,

I have noticed that there are plenty of people suffering in the world today. However, it is not, as you suggest, due to overpopulation. Places like Hong Kong, whose population is incredibly dense and whose natural resources are minimal, is a good example of the potential for free-markets to bring prosperity to poor peoples. Poor populations are kept poor by restrictive policies that inhibit wealth-enhancing exchanges.

Your second paragraph, which suggests that "the exuberant species will drive itself to extinction", stands in stark contrast to the arguments about specie life spans from my past biology professor. He argued that the empirical regularity is to have a successful specie grow slowly, then exponentially, and then level off in a "steady state". This is overwhelmingly the way things happen. As such I don't see why you believe that world's population will die, rather than reach a steady-state, for lack of resources.

If you don't mind, I'll disregard your conjecture that "The animals and plants will thank God that we are gone." Neither I nor biologists generally believe that plants and animals have the cognitive abilities to display such self-aware emotions.


(I would also refer you to the posts by my co-blogger, Mr. Matt Ryan, on the subject of economic development.)