The Causes of Poverty (48): Overpopulation

It looks like we’re about to have another large famine, and so – right on cue – we’re hearing the familiar chorus of overpopulation. Equally predictable, I promised myself that this will be the last time that I drag my feet towards yet another rebuke of the Malthusians whose visions of the human flood always seem to cloud their perception of the facts.

The world’s population is estimated to continue its current growth path and to reach 9 billion in 2050, after which stabilization and even decline are likely. Those worrying about overpopulation claim that we can’t possible feed all those new people and that a decline in the numbers, if it will come, will come too late. A Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable without strong measures to reduce the number of human beings. However, that turns out to be a very simplistic assumption. There’s no good reason why humanity can’t feed one or two billion more members:

So long as plant breeding efforts are not hampered and modern agricultural technology continues to be available to farmers, it should be possible to produce yield increases that are large enough to meet some of the predictions of world food needs, even without having to devote more land to arable agriculture. (source)

The latter point also debunks the myth that population growth will inevitably mean increased deforestation and desertification.

Likewise, an excess number of people in a certain area isn’t the cause of current food shortages, and neither was it the cause of historic famines. A combination of climate factors, bad governance and infrastructure, the failure or inability to adopt modern farming technologies and panic hoarding produced those shortages. (Read also the work of Amartya Sen if you haven’t already done so).

If food production can keep up with expected population growth, maybe the problem is water. There’s indeed a water crisis in many parts of the world, but again it’s not population numbers that create the problem, but inefficient irrigation, excessive meat consumption and careless use. Rather than trying to limit the world’s population – which is very difficult anyway because it seems to require dictatorial government and has unexpected harmful consequences – one should tackle inefficiency and waste and focus on the development and improvement of fresh water production. Those objectives are eminently doable.

So, if water and food will be OK – notwithstanding the odd local famine that is likely to occur with any given number of human beings populating the earth – maybe a general increase of the world’s population will lead to pressures on poor countries’ healthcare systems? More children without extended healthcare systems means increased child and maternal mortality. However, current population increases go hand in hand with radical improvements in child and maternal mortality rates, so why would future increases be any different?

And don’t get me started on migration flows. The supposed harm done by migration is one of the biggest lies out there, on a par with overpopulation rhetoric.

More on overpopulation here.


3 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (48): Overpopulation”

  1. Filip,
    Do you know if these statistical models take into account medicinal advances that would extend human life? I have heard that some population estimate models factor AIDS and diseases as population reducers; however, advances in modern medicine will prolong the lives of these people. Could the picture be worse than what most people paint it to be? What I fear most is the capability (or lack thereof), of our governments to accommodate the interests of so many people.


    1. Good question. I suppose they must include those estimates, as well as estimates of population growth due to declining child mortality. I’ll try to check it and come back to you in this comment section.


  2. […] It’s not just the numbers that are misleading. The same is true for the conclusions that people draw from them. It’s highly dubious that there is an overpopulation problem. Even if we assume that there are indeed roughly 7 billion people on earth – which is a reasonable assumption after all – it’s incorrect to state that this number in itself is the cause of problems. True, certain resources are under pressure, but the reason isn’t always the number of people using those resources, and especially not the global numbers of people – small pockets of population concentrations can indeed cause resource problems, but then the problem is concentration, not overpopulation. The most important problem, however, resides in the ways in which resources are used, not in who uses them. I won’t repeat the detailed argument against the overpopulation discourse here: you can go back and read some of my older posts. […]


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