Overpopulation Discourse and the Alarmism of Fake Accuracy

So it appears that humanity will welcome its 7 billionth member. The United Nations claims that the baby in question will be born today, on October 31st.

Well, “welcome” isn’t exactly the right word. The number, like the 6 billionth 12 years ago, is the signal for hordes of population alarmists to repeat their message of doom. They aptly use people’s bias for numbers with a lot of zeros at the right side in order to garner some attention. 7 billion is believed to be special, highly significant, much more than 6.324.168.131 or 7.000.122.011 or something. Humanity is supposed to take another momentous step in its growth path. The common belief in the special significance of round numbers is the perfect excuse for those lamenting humanity’s growth to indulge in dire warnings, warnings that may fall between the cracks when there’s no round number on the horizon.

Never mind that none of this is actually true. No one really knows how many people there are. All that we have are rough estimates. There’s absolutely no basis to claim that a special person will be born today. In 1999, someone even had the stupid idea of actually naming the 6 billionth baby. No one knows exactly how many people there are because population censuses are inaccurate. And even if they were accurate, with more than 3 babies born around the world every second, it’s impossible to work out which baby is the world’s n billionth. It’s all just smoke and mirrors, pure symbolism that can only serve one purpose: to stress that there are many of us, too many. Still, people go about and pontificate about numbers as if they are actually true.

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.

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.

Measuring Human Rights (20): What is More Important, the Number or Percentage of People Suffering Human Rights Violations?

Take just one human right, the right not to suffer poverty: if we want to measure progress for this human right, we get something like the following fact:

[N]ever in the world have there been so many paupers as in the present times. But the reason of this is that there have never been so many people around. Indeed never in the history of the world has been the percentage of poor people been so low. (source)

So, is this good news or bad news? If it’s more important to reduce the share of the world population suffering a particular type of rights violation, then this is good news. On the other hand, there are now more people – in absolute, not in relative numbers – suffering from poverty. If we take individuals and the distinctions between persons seriously, we should conclude that this is bad news and we’re doing worse than before.

Thomas Pogge has argued for the latter view. Take another example: killing a given number of people doesn’t become less troubling if the world’s population increases. If we would discover that the real number of the world’s population at the time of the Holocaust was twice as large as previously assumed, that wouldn’t diminish the importance of the Holocaust. What matters is the absolute number of people suffering.

On the other hand, if we see that policies and interventions lead to a significant lowering of the proportion of people in poverty – or suffering from any other type of rights violation – between times t and t+n, then we would welcome that, and we would certainly want to know it. The fact that the denominator – total world population – has increased in the mean time, is probably something that has happened independently of those policies. In the specific case of poverty, a growing population can even make a decrease in relative numbers of people suffering from poverty all the more admirable. After all, many still believe (erroneously) in the Malthusian trap theory, which states that population growth necessarily leads to increases in poverty in absolute numbers.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (12): Immigration

Immigrants are usually somewhat poorer than natives, mainly

  • because they come from poorer countries,
  • because they are less well educated and less skilled (on average) and
  • because they are sometimes more at risk of being unemployed.

So it’s tempting to use data on increasing immigration flows – such as those that occurred in the U.S. during the last decades – in order to explain rising income inequality. Inequality is then viewed, not as the result of an unjust economic system, but as the mechanical result of demographic changes.

The timing is hard to ignore. During the Great Compression, the long and prosperous mid-20th-century idyll when income inequality shrank or held steady, immigration was held in check by quotas first imposed during the 1920s. The Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Samuelson saw a connection. “By keeping labor supply down,” … a restrictive immigration policy “tends to keep wages high.” After the 1965 immigration law reopened the spigot, the income trend reversed itself and income inequality grew. (source)

However, there’s little evidence that immigration keeps wages low at the bottom end of the native income distribution (except for high-school dropouts and to a limited extent), which is where immigration’s effect on inequality is supposed to occur. See here for a discussion of the evidence. One can even make the case that immigration benefits the poorest sections of the native population. See this post. So, immigration can’t explain rising income inequality. But perhaps the sheer number of poor immigrants can account for rising inequality? Maybe immigration doesn’t produce inequality by pushing down native wages but simply by changing the demographic: more poor people (in this case immigrants) means higher inequality.

Gary Burtless [notes] that immigrants “accounted for one-third of the U.S. population growth between 1980 and 2007”. [E]ven if they failed to exert heavy downward pressure on the incomes of most native-born Americans, the roughly 900,000 immigrants who arrive in the United States each year were sufficient in number to skew the national income distribution by their mere presence. [However,] [h]ad there been no immigration after 1979, he calculated, average annual wages for all workers “may have risen by an additional 2.3 percent”. (source)

And that number would have been hardly sufficient to stop the actual increase in income inequality. So even if there had been no immigration, inequality would have increased. There must therefore be other causes and explanations.

Maybe you’re wondering what the problem is, in which case you can go here. More on immigration is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (24): Population Growth and Income Growth: Incompatible?

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. Those who worry about overpopulation are often called (neo-)Malthusians, and either predict a sharp fall in population levels because of the problems caused by overpopulation (a “Malthusian catastrophe”), or/and propose population control as a measure to solve these problems.

For pretty much all of human history, population growth constrained growth in real standards of living. That’s the “Malthusian Trap”: as standards of living improved, population increased, which put a strain on resources and drove down standards of living, which in turn drove down population growth, rinse & repeat. The industrial revolution broke this trap, although it’s worth pointing out the fairly obvious fact that this is not true for the entire world. Conor Clarke (source)

… over a roughly 3000 year period, during which there was obviously quite a lot of technological progress — iron plows, horse collars, mastering the cultivation of rice, the importation of potatoes into Europe, etc. — living standards basically went nowhere. Why? Because population growth always ate up the gains, pushing living standards back to roughly subsistence.

… technological change was slow — so slow that by 1600 or so, when England had finally reclaimed its population losses from the Black Death, it found real wages back to more or less 1300 levels again.

And here’s the sense in which Malthus was right: he had a fundamentally valid model of the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, which was one in which technological progress translated into more people, not higher living standards. This homeostasis only broke down when very rapid technological change finally outstripped population pressure for an extended period. Paul Krugman (source)

It’s clear that population growth can go hand in hand with income growth, and that it’s not correct to state that population growth necessarily leads to more poverty, which in turn leads to a reversal of population growth. But these compatible evolutions of population and income seem to require technological advances.

Note: my criticism of Malthusianism and other types of overpopulation hysteria (see here for some examples) is targeted only at deterministic theories which believe in overpopulation as the main if not only cause for the world’s problems, and which see overpopulation as a global problem. I accept that in certain specific areas of the world, population pressures can make things worse. But I don’t agree that these pressures are the sole or even the main cause of problems such as poverty, famine, war etc. And neither do I agree that population control is the main remedy for these problems. For example, we all know that water shortages – even very local ones – aren’t caused by overpopulation and won’t be solved by population control. More intelligent irrigation methods are the answer. And when we leave the local level and take the global point of view, the population problem is even less salient. On a world scale, income has grown systematically faster than the world’s population during the last centuries. Population pressures do not lead us to an inevitable “trap” as Malthus and his followers claim.