Mark Milke: What world population declines may do to environmental debates.
Those who know their history know that doomsayers have been a feature of human development since at least the rise of monotheism. That reaction exists in part because societies and empires do fade or even collapse. Natural disasters and wars rip up the fabric of the established order, with destruction left in the wake.
Add to that the belief, common among monotheistic religions, that history has a purpose and direction with God as moral enforcer, and it all adds up to occasional outbreaks of assertions— “prophecies” in religious lingo—that the world will soon end when human beings stray from an assumed divine plan.
As I’ve written before on these “pages”, one doesn’t have to share such views to understand their sources. What’s relevant in an increasingly irreligious West is how such ideas moved from the sacred to secular world.
Two observations: First, in Western countries, the doomsayers are thus less likely to come from traditional religion and more likely to originate in concern—partly understandable in my view— for the earth. Second, the problem is that all doomsayers too often ignore how much of humanity or the planet is better off today.
On the first point, a U.S. group just bought bus station ads urging Vancouverites to have fewer children—one maximum. The ad from shows a black baby with the message that “The most loving gift you can give to your first child is to not have another.”
While some couples may choose or can only have one child, others may choose to have multiple kids. I come from a family with four children and I deeply appreciate my three siblings. That’s not a condemnation of single-child households; it’s a recognition that siblings are to be cherished. OnePlanetOneChild.org, which placed the anti-sibling ad, ignores the love between siblings and how much poorer life would be without them. For all the hassle I give my brother and two sisters (and vice-versa), I cannot imagine life without them.
The organization promotes a one-child world because its backers believe more people are a threat to the earth. “The world is overpopulated” states their website. It justifies their anti-brother/anti-sister advocacy with fears about the presumed negative effect of more people. That includes an increased carbon footprint, the expense of raising a child, presumed negative environmental effects, and that parents will be better able to lavish love and attention on one child than “divide” their time on multiple kids.
Population predictions and Malthusian mistakes
Fears of overpopulation are not new. In 1798, Reverend Thomas Malthus argued that England could bear no more people lest its people starve.
Malthus was wrong. As the late British economist Angus Maddison chronicled, Great Britain and its offshoots began to prosper in every possible way—higher real incomes, more calories, fewer famines, longer and healthier lives—right about the time Reverend Malthus predicted doom, while population increased. The lives of families in such countries mostly and steadily became better well into the 20th century, until the Great Depression.
Here are the numbers: In the United Kingdom, real GDP per capita grew from $3,100 in 1798 (measured in 2011 dollars at purchasing power parity) to $8,462 by 1918 and $8,032 in 1932 before resuming upward growth (and hitting $37,334 in 2016).
After the Second World War, economic growth and its attendant benefits resumed, this time with the benefits of open trade (you’re less likely to starve if food can be sourced from anywhere) and freer economies. Many more people around the world saw their real incomes rise, living standards and health improve, with poverty dropping.
As one example, consider South Korea. Its real per capita GDP was $1,478 in 1953 at the end of the Korean War and $36,103 in 2016—a 24-fold increase in real terms. Its population was 20.3 million in 1953 and nearly 51 million in 2016.
South Korea has prospered for many reasons—free markets, property rights, the rule of law, lessening of corruption, technological advances, foreign investment, education and much more. What is clear is that its population growth did not hinder its success.
Cheer up: The world is getting better
One response is that the environment cannot bear more people. But this mistakes a locale-specific problem for an assertion that large populations are themselves the issue. New York City, London, and Tokyo are major metropolises that function well; other large cities in corrupt or economically deprived regions do not. For example, New Yorkers don’t have to cut down trees to heat their homes or cook food.
Doomsayers who mistake specific environmental or scarcity problems for a claim the world is inevitably getting worse should read up on everything from natural disasters to classic works from the late Julian Simon who exhaustively chronicled 20th century improvements in the environment. Such progress is too often forgotten or ignored by the end-of-the-world types.
Also, those who decry the existence of too many human beings should give it a rest: We cannot predict who will be born who will invent a way out of seemingly intractable problems. One example: the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel prize winner, known as “the man who fed the world.” Borlaug was given that tag because of his revolutionary approach to agriculture which increased crop yields so much that one estimate credits his “green revolution” for saving one billion lives.
Lastly, for those still worried about population, keep in mind that fertility rates are dropping anyway. One population forecast published in the Lancet in July (and which takes issue with UN forecasts) predicts the world’s population to peak in 2064, and decline thereafter.
Looking ahead 44 years seems like a long way off, but in the history of the planet and human evolution, it’s an eyeblink. Doomsayers are not always wrong, and there are always downturns such as the current pandemic. But never has so much of humanity been as prosperous and healthy relative to human history. This has occurred not in spite of population growth but in many cases—see Borlaug—because of the marvellous people born into our world.
As per past efforts, human ingenuity will be key to solving current dilemmas. Vancouverities and everyone else around the world can relax: The anti-sibling advocacy is entirely misplaced.
Mark Milke is an author, columnist, policy analyst and author of six books. His most recent is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.
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