Last week, a group of sustainable population organizations issued a global statement and call to action for World Population Day. According to the statement,
“World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice warned that runaway consumption of limited resources by a rapidly growing population is crippling the Earth’s life-support systems, jeopardizing our future. Identifying population as a “main driver” of the crisis, its recommended actions include reducing fertility rates through education, family planning and rallying leaders behind the goal of establishing a sustainable human population.”
Modern concerns about overpopulation can be traced back to Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Overpopulation (1798) where he theorized that humanity would not be able to produce enough food to keep up with the exponentially expanding population. Malthus’ view was the result of mistakenly believing that the supply of resources is finite and, therefore, would be depleted as population grew over time. William Stanley Jevons transferred this view to the study of mineral resources in The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (1865).
It’s clear that both Malthus and Jevons have influenced groups warning about overpopulation, leading them to believe that economic growth is bad in a world they perceive to be made up of finite resources. In 2016, Pierre Desrochers and Vincent Geloso published an article in New Perspectives on Political Economy in which they contrast this depletionist view with the modern view of resourceship.
Desrochers and Geloso identify three recurring themes in the depletionist worldview.
- Depletionists believe that, everything else being equal, a reduced population will enjoy a higher standard of living. Their finite view of resources leads them to believe that a lower population would make more resources available for each person, creating a higher standard of living.
- They tend to assume that humans experience decreasing returns on investment. The argument here is that it is increasingly difficult and expensive to extract the same value out of less concentrated resources as the fixed stock of resources is depleted over time.
- Depletionists also argue that past successes in overcoming our natural limitations are irrelevant to present and future circumstances. Depletionists often rely on newly discovered information or recently changed circumstances to argue that we lack the ability to overcome similar problems in the future.
Desrochers and Geloso contrast the depletionist worldview with the resourceship view, which they define by the following themes:
- The resourceship view understands that a larger population that engages in trade and the division of labor will deliver more material abundance per person than a smaller population.
- Human creativity can deliver increasing returns. As Desrochers and Geloso explain, “a long-standing tenet of resourceship is that the more human brains, the greater the likelihood of new beneficial innovations.”
- Human beings are different from other animals because of our ability to trade and innovate. Desrochers and Geloso draw upon economist Henry George’s observation in his book Progress and Poverty to make this point. George writes, of “all living things, man is the only one who can give play to the reproductive forces more powerful than his own, which supply him with food.” In other words, our ability to trade and innovate means that we should not compare humans to other species, and we shouldn’t apply ecological constraints such as carrying capacity to the human condition.
- Past success should be grounds for optimism. Over a long-term perspective, when people are engaged in specialization and trade, resources tend to become less scarce and less expensive. Because of this, Desrochers and Geloso explain, “as such, future projections based on very recent trends should not be taken seriously.”
- People who hold resourceship views tend to oppose coercive measures to curtail population or resource use out of fear that the depletionists’ doomsday outlook will prevent their remedies from being limited to incentive-based measures. Desrochers and Geloso quote the French mutualist theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who explained that Malthusianism was, “the theory of political murder; of murder from motives of philanthropy and for love of God.”
Overpopulation Is Not a Problem
Between 1960 and 2016 the world’s population increased by 145 percent. During that same time, the real average per capita income in the world rose by 183 percent. This massive growth in population led to the largest reduction in poverty in human history. As Marian L. Tupy of the Cato Institute explains,
Rising incomes helped lower the infant mortality rate from 64.8 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 30.5 in 2016. That’s a 53 percent reduction. Over the same time period, the mortality rate for children under five years of age declined from 93.4 per 1,000 to 40.8. That’s a reduction of 56 percent. The number of maternal deaths declined from 532,000 in 1990 to 303,000 in 2015 — a 43 percent decrease. Famine has all but disappeared outside of war zones. In 1961, food supply in 54 out of 183 countries was less than 2,000 calories per person per day. That was true of only two countries in 2013. In 1960, average life expectancy in the world was 52.6 years. In 2015, it was 71.9 years — a 37 percent increase.
It’s clear that the data lend credence to the resourceship view of population. A higher population does not lead to more problems; it simply means that there are more minds working to improve the human condition. When you combine more people with institutions that support human progress (property rights, markets, and the rule of law), humans are able to overcome the natural limitations that other species face. There are no limits to human ingenuity and economic growth.
Doomsday scenarios about population can make for a compelling narrative—which might be the reason why they are often championed in popular media and the press—but they are not based on a realistic understanding of the human condition. When you overlook the acting nature of humans and the institutions that make up a free society, it’s easy to believe that resources are finite and that the current path of humanity is inevitably doomed. But the reality is that the human condition is defined by our ability to act, and the trajectory of human progress is dependent upon the institutional framework within which that action takes place.