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.

The Environment and Human Rights (4): A Right to Water

The United Nations General Assembly recently voted in favor of an international human right to water. It’s only appropriate that people have a right to the most basic resource. Only a few countries (e.g. South Africa) have already instituted this right. The recognition of this right of course doesn’t mean that the water crisis has magically disappeared. Like the right to free speech doesn’t mean that there’s no more censorship. The real work of bringing water to people who don’t have enough still needs to be done, and some serious thinking and debating is required. Opponents and proponents of privatization, of the introduction of a water market and of other possible policies (including the policy of setting water prices high enough to discourage waste and low enough to help the poor) will continue to disagree and it will have to be settled empirically which water policy provides the best access to all.

On the other hand, the water crisis seems to be abating:

some 5.9 billion people, or 87% of the world’s population, enjoyed access to drinking water from an “improved” source in 2008. In other words, those people had water piped to a dwelling, or got it from a public tap or a protected well. Back in 1990 only 77% of the world’s population enjoyed such a luxury. Yet in some parts of the world, notably in Africa, great improvements in water supply are still needed. Some 884m people are still not using an improved water source, more than a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern Asia has seen the greatest recent progress: 89% of the population in that region now have access to an improved water source, up from just 69% in 1990. (source)

The Environment and Human Rights (3): Water and Human Rights

We obviously need water to survive, and no human rights without survival. Inadequate water supplies also cause diseases, violating our right to health. We need water – and clean water – to drink, but also to eat. Or rather, to produce our food. And we need a lot. People drink on average just a few liters a day, but they consume thousands of liters a day if we count the water required to produce their food. And evidently we should count it. Many areas of the world face already now face water shortages. A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas short of water. A global water crisis waits around the corner, and one likely consequence is famine, another human rights violation.

If we want to do something about the water crisis, we should be aware of the effect of food production on water shortages. Especially the production of meat requires huge amounts of water, compared to the production of grains or even rice. People in the West eat a lot a meat, and therefore contribute substantially to water shortages. As incomes in the developing world increase, people there will consume more meat. Hence, global water consumption will also increase. Combine this future increase with the fact that there are already shortages and that these shortages will get worse with global warming, desertification etc., and you get a real crisis.

What are the solutions? Or how can we prevent things from getting worse?

  • Jokingly we could ask people to become vegetarians. That would also be better for greenhouse gas emissions, by the way.
  • More realistically: food production, and especially agriculture and farming, represent 70% of global water consumption. That number could be cut down significantly with better irrigation; “more crop per drop”. There’s incredible waste going on there. 70% of irrigation water is lost in the process. One reason: farmers rarely pay their water bills at market prices, hence no incentives to cut waste. Unfortunately, pricing water at market prices would drive up food prices, pushing many consumers into poverty. And many poor farmers already can’t pay for expensive irrigation systems. More expensive water surely wouldn’t help them. Moreover, market prices may mean the privatization of water, and that’s dangerous. You might as well privatize oxygen.
  • Other solutions: cut waste in households and industries. Here, everyone can help. Also more recycling efforts are needed. Desalination, although expensive, is an option. As are better water storage facilities, especially for poor families in developing countries. All these efforts will not only reduce the risk of a major global water crisis, but will also improve crop yields, thereby reducing the price of food and hence the risk of poverty and famine.

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.