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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Overpopulation, or not

Well done Jeff Wise at Slate. You have managed to notice what has been obvious to absolutely everybody who has been looking at demographic trends and population projections for at least the last 20 years. Specifically, growth in the world’s population is in fact slowing down, and the population will start to contract in aggregate within a small number of decades, and is already doing so in some places.

As a less scientific but still useful, rough rule of thumb on demographic matters, I would recommend taking any prediction made by Paul Erlich in the first half of the 1970s and assuming the precise opposite has happened since.

30 comments to Overpopulation, or not

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I was under the impression that “overpopulation” was pushed as a meme in order to facilitate a darker and older agenda.

    Since at least the turn of the 20th Century Fabians have been keen to stop the working classes and brown peoples from reproducing. I think this is something to do with keeping their numbers sufficiently manageable that they and their fellow Übermenschen can still manage them without being overthrown in some future Socialist republic.

    Although at root I think the desire to see less people stems from a much simpler motivation: they don’t like people.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    admin: Yes, that guy. I’ve added a link to one of his more hilarious books to the original post. The other Paul Erlich was definitely one of the good guys.

    JV: Yes, it certainly has some rather nasty antecedents (and some continuity between its proponents in different eras), but we particularly had a Malthusian panic in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with cheerleaders such as the abovementioned Mr Erlich. This inspired visions of a third world full of huge, teaming cities consisting of people starving to death. (Erlich actually predicted starvation in the United States by now – not just in third world countries). It was also a factor in some of the more authoritarian regimes in the world (China, most famously) adopting population controls forcibly. A lot of the modern Green movement still believes it. A lot of the global warming alarmists are prone to say things like “Well, the problem is really overpopulation, and GW is a consequence of it”, despite the fact that there is 25 years of clear evidence that the global population is going to peak and then start slowly declining, and no evidence has supported their beliefs on the subject for a very long time now.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Scientists who study population dynamics point to a phenomenon called “demographic transition.”

    a.k.a. “wealth”. The article does a grand job of avoiding to state the bleedin’ obvious, the one underlying factor that precedes all the others.

    The leftists are still pushing the anti-population strategy, but using “green” issues to do it; the opposition to GM food and low-cost (and low-emission) power for Africa, et al.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Runcie: On that, this reversal is a beauty. As he says, he discovered science.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    There is that, but what I like more is the tone of the article – which is that this is some amazing thing that he has just discovered and that people will probably not believe, when in fact it has been obvious to anyone paying attention for at least two decades.

  • Stonyground

    I tend to think that Malthus is unfairly maligned. Didn’t he make his dire predictions at a time when access to contraception was almost totally absent? He could not possibly have predicted the free availibility of contraception, so from his position his predictions were well founded, and in the absence of contraception would probably have happened.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    @ Stonyground

    Well, no. Malthus’s key error was not overestimating the rate of human fertility, it was underestimating the capacity of advances in agriculture to keep pace (and indeed exceed) the increase in demand. Contraception has little to do with why a Malthusian catastrophe is highly unlikely.

    It’s actually got to the point that if we could get rid of all of the corrupt socialist governments and insane warlords long enough to establish stable agriculture en masse in Africa, with its 12 month growing season Africa alone could meet the food needs of the whole planet.

  • nemesis

    Perhaps more pertinent is the ratio of a dependent aging population v productive youngsters.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    At least some of the drop in fertility happens with increasing wealth, even without the chances in access to contraception, too. Women get more control over their own lives, and they have fewer children. Malthus was merely wrong, though, and he did the best with the data he had. He doesn’t deserve any personal condemnation for that, whereas some of the latter people have cherry-picked evidence to support their conclusion and/or wilfully ignored what has actually been going on to an extent that they certainly do.

    JV: Which is why, in terms of benefit for the world, just about the best piece of policy that could be imagined would be the abolition of all agricultural subsidies and the abolition of all trade barriers to agricultural products. The word would suddenly face an abundance of food (not that there are exactly shortages now) and Africa would get significantly richer and more politically stable. It would just be win, win, win, win.

  • Midwesterner

    A relevant article. The researcher being discussed finds natural balance in his very first iteration of the research, and determines something is “amiss”.

    Calhoun had built his career on this basic experiment and its consistent results ever since erecting his first “rat city” on a quarter-acre of land adjacent to his home in Towson, Maryland, in 1947. The population of that first pen had peaked at 200 and stabilized at 150, when Calhoun had estimated that it could rise to as many as 5,000—something was evidently amiss.

    Even after providing unlimited food and water for the mice to trigger greater population density as the sole problem, he recognizes that it is “loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival” that causes the societal collapse.

    Instead of reconstructing his utopia to give the mice control over their own well being, something they apparently had in the first iteration, he determines that population density is the cause, not the consequence of the social breakdown. Isn’t it obvious that it was the disconnect between effort/reward brought about by the free food that both caused the overpopulation and the societal breakdown? It was the free food that caused “loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival”.

    Reality is its own inspiration. What Calhoun did was remove the effort/reward connection to reality. The predictable neo-Malthusian response to this is of course, to grant them (who apparently regard themselves as the managers of a great experiment) the power to chose winners and losers, who breeds and who survives and who is quietly smothered for the good of social harmony.

    What Calhoun proved, apparently without ever recognizing it, is that socialism kills.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Humans have somewhat better facilities with respect to being able to improve the efficiency of their agricultural technology than do mice, also.

  • Regional

    The elite think they’re going to take other people’s food without guns, food will be the root cause of the next transnational conflict, notice the people moving from northern Africa and the Middle East into Europe.

  • DOuglas2

    @ stonyground
    There are plenty of examples e.g. France of countries achieving stable population long before the common availability of artificial contraception. I think it is something to do with children being ones old-age security, absent the benevolent state. Once you get enough wealth and therefore health that it becomes common for the majority of offspring to reach majority, people stop producing so many spares.

  • Jaded wrote:

    underestimating the capacity of advances in agriculture to keep pace (and indeed exceed) the increase in demand

    Yes. Never mind world population peaking and then declining. We haven’t even had to get into 3D farming yet.

  • [...] this isn’t news to those who have been paying attention. Plus: “As a less scientific but still useful, rough rule of thumb on demographic matters, I [...]

  • Laura C.

    The recent book “Merchants of Despair” (Zubrin) gives a great account of the history and impact of the Malthusian error (though remember: Malthus’s analysis of limited-resource stress was basically right as applied to ANIMAL populations who can’t “think” their way around resource constraints; the application of the principle to humans, not so much).

  • Walter Sobchak

    Malthus error was in not remembering that every mouth is born with 2 hands, 2 legs, and a brain. Readers of Samizdat should follow the work of Julian Simon (1932-1998). If you want to know more about Simon who refuted Malthus and embarrassed Erlich, link to his website where you can find his great work the “Ultimate Resource“.

  • Michael,
    You say this is obvious to everyone, but you’re in Europe. Believe me, in the United States this is not at all an issue that’s known to the general public. I just spent an hour writing a rebuttal to a rebuttal that Slate is going to post from a the president of an anti-overpopulation group who says that I’ve got my head up my ass.
    Jeff Wise

  • Every time someone brings up the population/resource issue, I send them this link and tell them to explain to me what is wrong with these calculations. If they do not have any protests to the numbers than they can shut the hell up.

    He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.


  • Tlaloc

    the first error is just a couple sentences in,where he claims that nuclear power means there are no barriers to billion years of growth in progress. The issues with this statement are significant. In the first there is the practical issue of if nuclear power plants aren’t being built, and by and large they aren’t, then nuclear power itself is obviously no panacea. There are multiple reasons why they aren’t being built, some good, some bad. But ultimately that’s a tractable problem.

    An intractable problem (barring certain speculative technologies) is the scarcity of nuclear fuel. If we were to start using the planet’s fissile stocks in modern light water single cycle reactors at a level that provided say a significant share of US electricity usage (not energy usage, just electricity) means we run out of fuel in about a century, far shorter than a billion years.

    There are some options- you can eke out some more years by using a two cycle reactor. You can get a LOT more by using a breeder reactor, but breeder reactors are huge proliferation risks. If Uranium from seawater ever pans out we’ll have tons of fuel. Similarly if thorium based reactors ever really work in an economic way also have tons of fuel. But neither of those technologies has panned out as of yet.

    Here’s a blog post I wrote on the matter some years ago: http://swordscrossed.org/diary/20081202/nuclear-fuels
    it has all the numbers and sources in it. So now you can sop showing that link around, right?

  • Tlaloc,

    I don’t understand your argument. You say we lack enough fissile material, but then admit that we have plenty if we use breeder reactors, except they are a “proliferation risk”.

    If you say they are a “proliferation risk”, that does not mean that we don’t have enough fissile material. I understand your point from your link about the proliferation risk, but that doesn’t change McCarthy’s point about the sustainability of nuclear power.

    You are describing a political/security issue, not a resource issue.

    The link stands.

  • Rich Rostrom

    The trend toward lower birth rates is very long and deep.

    In the U.S., the birth rate fell by 1/3 from 1800 to 1850. It declined continuously up to 1940, revived somewhat in 1945-1965 (the “Baby Boom”, and then declined further.

    In the last 25 years or so, birth rates have declined substantially all over the world. The exceptions are Europe (where rates were already low) and a few African and Middle Eastern countries. East Asia, South Asia, Latin America, and even most of the Middle East and Africa have seen declines of 30% to 70% (Iran, believe it or not).

    I don’t know where this is going. Eventually, some combination of cultural and technological change will create a society with a higher birth rate, and that society will inherit the earth.

    In the short term, societies with currently and recently higher birth rates will dominate the near future, and that means Moslem and African societies. Unfortunately.

    In the very long term, Malthus will have the last laugh, because his ultimate point cannot be refuted. Population grows exponentially, and will inevitably exhaust the resources available to support it.

    Suppose the human population grew at only 0.7% a year. In 2,000 years, there would be six quadrillion people – 11 for every square meter of the Earth’s surface, including oceans.

    Expansion into space? Fine. There are 100,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy, and 10% may have earthlike planets. In another 3,000 years they would all be covered with people. In another 21,000 years (a very short time, geologically and astronomically), the entire visible universe would be solid human flesh.

    As the Blogfather is fond of writing, what can’t go on, won’t go on.

    Most likely, there will be some sort of singularity first; but it will have the effect of ending exponential growth. The alternative is a calamity (or series of calamities) in which most of humanity dies.

  • Laird

    Rich, the problem with your argument is that population growth is not linear (or even exponential), as you yourself note in your first few paragraphs. Growth rates vary widely. Malthus will not “have the last laugh” because population does not grow exponentially at all times. You simply can’t extraoplate as Malthus did. No tree grows to the sky, and populations level off and even decline. Animal populations stabilize at the level which their environment can sustain. Humans are more capable of manipulating their environment and expanding the amount of resources available for consumption, but if the day ever arrives that we have exhausted our ablity to further expand the resource pool our population will level off at a sustainable level. That says nothing about which society will dominate, but I have no concerns about the survivability of the species (barring the odd asteroid strike, of course).

  • Mose Jefferson

    Perfect. I just watched the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon”, which aired in 1969, one year after the publication of “The Population Bomb”.

    I don’t know how Samizdata stays so relevant to my life. I must be very important.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Laird: population growth is always exponential. But yes, sometimes it stops or even reverses. In nature, this is nearly always the result of saturation of the organism’s ecological niche, and takes the form of a massive die-back.

    That’s probably what will happen to humanity. I’m not looking forward to it.

    However, as noted, humans, unlike other species, can manipulate their environment to enlarge its carrying capacity. This postpones the saturation. But it can’t avoid it.

    The alternative is a singularity, which transforms humanity into something that doesn’t grow.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    population growth is always exponential.

    Nope. You do talk about population having an “exponential growth rate”, but that is the growth rate of the exponential curve that has been chosen to match an infinitesimally small segment of the actual population curve. It does not imply that the curve is itself exponential, and in fact no population curve in all of history will ever have been exponential for anything other than an infinitesimally small segment. And this is true of any curve at all. Population curves can sometimes be approximated by exponential curves over reasonable lengths of time, but that is certainly not the same thing as saying they are exponential, and also, “sometimes”.

    (Plus you have the fact that using a smooth curve of any kind to model a discrete rather than continuous variable is also a statistical approximation, but at least this one is often a good approximation).

  • Bob O'Connor

    There are more women having fewer babies, but everyone is living longer so the population keeps increasing. Dr. Pimentel at Cornell University, and authority in the field, has suggested that if all of the world will will live at the standard in the West the most the planet can handle this •one and a half to 2 billion people. Anyone seriously interested in the problem should read Book1 of andgulliverreturns.info.
    Arable land is decreasing. Freshwater is decreasing. Warming aerosols are increasing. This is a complicated problem and it is primarily the result of too many people.