Really now, is the world “overpopulated”?

“Sustainable development” is a late 80’s buzzword which today is at the heart of the bickering between pro-life and anti-life advocates. It refers to development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (U.N. Brundtland Report)

From that definition, it becomes clear why “sustainable development” is such a bone of contention for pro-life and anti-life followers, and that is because, for anti-life advocates, “sustainable development” cannot be had without first “stabilizing population.” (Credit: Nicholas Eberstadt).

In the words of a former director of the U.N. Population Fund, it means “stabilization of world population at the lowest possible level, within the shortest possible time.”

Since then, as Nicholas Eberstadt in his “Population Sense and Nonsense,” AEI Online September 2002 says: “The quest to stabilize world population has been enthusiastically applauded by a wide array of international institutions and eminent persons: Kofi Annan and Warren Buffett, the World Bank and the U.S. State Department, the Ford Foundation and Al Gore.”

But it’s not “population stabilization” that the proponents are really after; otherwise, they’d do something about the alarming decline of populations in Europe, Japan, and the Russian Federation. What the proponents are really after is birth control. These people hate babies. Period.

According to Nicholas Eberstadt, the quest to “stabilize world population” is anchored upon four premises not one of which is built around empirical evidence which is at the heart of the scientific method.

The first is that the world is gripped by a world population crisis, one characterized by rapid population growth, which makes even worse an already runaway “overpopulation.” Indeed, ask anybody, yes, anybody at all, even priests and bishops, and they’ll confirm this to be true: the world, and, more so our country, is “overpopulated.”

But what, really, is the case, one supported by empirical evidence? In Nicholas Eberstadt’s words: “All of these premises are highly problematic. None of them is self-evidently true. Indeed, to the extent that any of these are testable, it would appear that they are demonstrably false.”

In other words, it’s not true—using empirical evidence– that the world, or our country for that matter, is “overpopulated.”

Consider population density, which, on the surface, looks like a good criterion for “overpopulation.” But, by that criterion, Haiti, India, and Rwanda, with population densities six times the world average would be a shoo-in for “overcrowded,” while Bangladesh, with a population density twenty times the world average would top them all.

But wait. That would make Belgium (333 persons/sq km in 1999) more “overcrowded” than Rwanda (275 persons/sq km in 1999). Similarly, The Netherlands would be more “overcrowded” than Haiti, Bermuda more “overcrowded than Bangladesh, and Bahrain three times more “overcrowded” than India. And what do we say about Monaco, with 33,268 persons/ sq km in 1999 or a population density 700 times more than the world average? Yet, has anyone heard anybody complaining about “overpopulation” in Monaco? Or in Belgium, the Netherlands, or Bahrain?

How about population growth? Well, sub-Saharan Africa tops them all with a population growth rate of 2.5 percent in 1995-2000. As Nicholas Eberstadt, however, points out, the U.S. had an even higher growth rate in 1790-1800. But could we say frontier America was “overpopulated”?
We could go on and on searching for demographic measures that will pinpoint the source of “overpopulation,” but it’d be an exercise in futility, “because demographic criteria cannot, by themselves, describe “overpopulation.” Impossible. Why? Because it is a problem which has been garnished with so much misinformation, disinformation, and emotionalism.

Everyone everywhere associates “overpopulation” with hungry children, “overcrowding” with squalid living conditions and slums, “too many people” with the poor making sidewalks their “homes.”

But the proper name for these is not “overpopulation,” it is POVERTY. By no stretch of logic could it be assumed that poverty is a “population problem” simply because it is manifest in large numbers of God’s people.

Pro-life opponents claim rapid population growth threaten future generations not only by depleting present resources to the detriment of future generations, but also by directly and adversely affecting present living conditions, resource availability, and political stability.

In other words, rapid population growth will not only dry up the oil wells, exhaust supplies of drinking water, squeeze dry the fertility of the soil, leave bald the world’s mountains, deplete the world’s fishing grounds, etc., but also screw up the political situation such that future generations will be left with nothing but a nuclear wasteland populated by people-eating and mankind-hating mutants, right?

Wrong. And for reasons that will absolutely floor you. (Credit: Nicholas Eberstadt)

In the first place, the almost quadrupling of the world’s population between 1900 and 2000, from 1.6 billion to 6 billion, has not been due to too many babies being born too soon, but because of too few people dying too late. In other words, what we’ve been having is not a “population explosion,” but a “heath explosion.”

It was NOT a case of “people suddenly breeding like rabbits, but a case of people stopping dying like flies,” in the words of Nicholas Eberstadt. In the last 50 years alone, according to estimates of the United Nations Population Division, life expectancy improved from 47 to 65 years. Indeed, as noted British economist Angus Maddison observes: “In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third would die in the first year of life, hunger and epidemic disease would ravage the survivors. There was an almost imperceptible rise up to 1820, mainly in Western Europe. Most of the improvement has occurred since then. Now the average infant can expect to survive 66 years.”

In the second place, this “health explosion” brings with it, not bad news, but good news. A healthier population tends to be a more productive population: healthier people learn better, work harder, and remain gainfully employed longer. Now whether this potential to be better is, in fact, realized will depend on other factors, e.g., social and legal institutions, economic policies, general business climate. It remains, however, that the improvement in mankind’s health that triggered the “population explosion” was a boon, not a bane, economically speaking.

All other things being equal, one would have expected the health explosion to only benefit mankind by boosting economic growth, increasing income, and spreading wealth. Indeed, this is precisely what happened, so that mankind was gifted not only with a population explosion and a health explosion, but with a prosperity explosion as well.

British economist Angus Maddison, who undertook a prodigious study of world economy, notes that between 1900 and 1998 global GDP per capita (in internationally adjusted 1990 dollars) more than quadrupled. To be sure, the improvements have not been uniformly the same all over. It remains, however, that every region of the planet became richer. Africa didn’t score as well as the others, yet its per capita GDP was roughly two and a half times higher in 1998 than it had been in 1900.

What this shows us is that, contrary to what anti-life advocates would have us believe, the last century’s population explosion had not dampened the most dramatic economic and social improvement mankind ever had. Poverty remains, no doubt about that, but it’s nowhere near what pro-life opponents would have the world believe given the near quadrupling of the population.

But that’s not all. Contrary to what our Malthusian anti-life friends predict, commodity prices actually fell rather than rose with the rapid rise in population. Yes, the world population nearly quadrupled in the period 1900-2000, the GDP per capita rose four-fold, but global economic output also rose eighteen-fold between 1900 and 1998! With everything going up, one would expect demand for , and consumption of, natural resources to also increase, and, indeed, this is what happened.

But why did the relative prices of virtually all primary commodities fell, many of them quite substantially?

Nicholas Eberstadt reports that: “Despite the tremendous expansion of the international grain trade over the past century, for example, the inflation-adjusted, dollar-denominated international price of each of the major cereals–corn, wheat, and rice–fell by over 70 percent between 1900 and 1998. By the same token: the Economist magazine’s “industrial commodity-price index”–which tracks twenty-four internationally traded metals and other commodities–registered a decline of almost 80 percent between 1900 and 1999.”

Conventional wisdom would predict that commodity prices should increase given the increase in demand brought about by the increase in population, causing the commodities to become scarce, but the prices fell. Why?

Nicholas Eberstadt says there are sound explanations for this paradox, but one thing’s sure: what anti-life advocates say about population growth resulting in increasing resource scarcity is, quite simply, wrong.

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Posted in The Myth of Overpopulation
One comment on “Really now, is the world “overpopulated”?
  1. […] failed to elaborate. What about the mysterious pie or cake? Well, Filipinos for Life contributor Abraham Llera already gobbled up that pie/cake arguments of theirs. Want to know how he gobbled that pie/cake […]

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