Overpopulation: Is There Such A Thing?

The very first question that arises, in our search for the cause of widespread poverty, is whether it is the result of our own inexorable fertility. That was the theory of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), the English Cleric, author of the Essay on the Principle of Population and originator of the perception of economics as "the dismal science". Malthus reasoned that human population tends to grow at a geometrical rate, while our ability to prooduce subsistence increases at a merely arithmetical rate -- and so we find ourselves in an ever-deepening spiral of suffering cause by overpopulation. In Malthus's view this process could only be slowed by the "preventive check" of decreased fertility, or the "positive check" of increased mortality.

The Malthusian theory was once thought to be quite sufficiently denounced, relegated to the status of a curious footnote in the history of economic thought. Henry George's chapters on poverty and subsistence in Progress and Poverty stand as the definitive marshalling of the abundant logical ammunition available to counter it. At the end of the 20th century A.D., however, an increasingly influential crew of neo-Malthusians is bringing the theory back, adding that subsistence can only keep ahead of population growth at the cost of an unsustainable level of envronmental harm.

Five billion eight hundred million people is a lot of people, no doubt about it. Is it too many? The neo-Malthusian view seems reasonable, especially when fortified by such statistics as these (published by the World Population News Service:

    • 600,000 square miles of forest cut in the last ten years
    • 26,000,000,000 tons of topsoil lost
    • 88 nations classified by the UN World Food Program as unable to provide enough food for their inhabitants
    • 960 million illiterate people; 130 million children lacking access to primary schooling
    • the world's population increasing by nearly 100 million people per year
  • Well, perhaps. But we must not become bamboozled by statistics. A hundred million people is an increase of roughly half a percentage point. The Earth has the capacity to absorb such numbers. Today, vast capacities of the earth's resources lie unused. Still more arable land is being destroyed by unsustainable farming or settlement practices. And even more of the earth"s "carrying capacity" is being used to make weapons, or toys -- all manner of things that, despite the wretched poverty of most of the world's people, no one needs for survival.

    The United States, for example, farms fewer acres every year, but it always exports food and continually debates policies for handling its surplus. And this is not simply due to the dubious efficiencies of monoculture, petrochemical fertilizers and genetic engineering. Such practices make it easier to run large-scale, remotely-managed corporate farms, but they are not needed to create high yields of nutritious foods. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that using modern farming methods and efficient, sensible distribution, the earth has the capacity to grow food for some 33 billion people. Current UN estimates project a plateau population of about 12 billion people about midway through the next century.

    The total area or arable land in the world today, according to FAO data, is 3.58 billion acres. The definition used is land that is under cultivation, or temporarily fallow (for less than five years) -- but it excludes abandoned land resulting from shifting cultivation. Enough arable land exists in India to give each person in the country approximately half an acre. In famine-ravaged Ethiopia, each person could have three- quarters of an acre of arable land. Africa, the poorest continent, has 20.2% of the world's land area, and only 12.7% of its population. North America has a whopping 2.1 acres of arable land per person!

    The statistics quoted above on deforestation and topsoil loss describe the consequences of land hoarding, not overpopulation. Around the world, deforestation and desertification result from peasants pushing into sub-marginal land while high-quality farmland is held out of use. The situation is so acute in Brazil, for example, that squatters have been massacred simply for occupying remote, unused areas of privately-held ranches. A large, organized movement has grown around the peasants' demand simply to be allowed to use land that others have no (current) use for.

    "Two factors consistently correlate with high birth rates: poverty and lack of education. It has long been known that when living standards rise in a community, birth rates tend to decline; this widely-documented phenomenon is called the "demographic shift". Recently, however, another kind of demographic shift has been observed. Where women have had access to education and media, birth rates have showed significant declines -- even though income levels had not increased.

    The most distasteful part of the recent spate of neo-Malthusian cant has been the notion that irresponsible poor people should be forcibly stopped from procreating, lest their hungry numbers start to wrest control of the resources held by more civilized sorts. In an economy where more energy and resources are spent in taking pictures of children than are used to feed children in the rest of the world, such advice is nothing short of preposterous. It is true that the developing world cannot raise its standard of living to "western" standards, using the same wasteful methods, without causing horrible damage to the natural environment. However, it is also a fact that the long-term trend has been for more human satisfaction to be provided with less pollution. Environmentally sustainable technology for industry, food and energy production is available today. The reasons why it is not used extensively have more to do with politics and economics than with technical feasibility.

    It remains an unfortunate fact that the world's poorest, most corrupt, most disorganized and environmentally endangered nations are the ones with the highest birth rates (of course, they have fairly high death rates as well; Africa's population actually decreased in 1996). So, the neo-Malthusians identify genuinely dire problems. But it is time we got it straight: poverty is not caused by overpopulation. There can never be such a thing as overpopulation in a world where ample resources exist to feed every new child -- but those resources are held idle, or devoted to frivolous uses. The miserable conditions that are misnamed "overpopulation" today are the result of poverty, not its cause.

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