Population: A Reality Check

by Lindy Davies -- January 31, 2002

The two points of view stereotyped as "the optimistic economist" and "the pessimistic environmentalist" have been carrying on a vigorous debate. The former sees destruction of bio-diversity, global warming and increasing dire poverty (along with unprecedented prosperity for a few) as mere obstacles that will presently be overcome in the long march toward the Good Life. The latter, however, views all of the processes on which the Economist depends for progress (things like trade, technology, markets, specialization) as arrogant presumptions and reckless experiments leading us, along with our only home, to ruin. The Environmentalist places little faith in economic remedies to save us from the hellish blasted world we are rushing toward. The "deepest" environmentalists, indeed, believe that human beings are a cancerous growth, of which the organism called Earth must rid itself, to survive.

Various statements we have made on this web site would seem to place us solidly in the "optimistic economist" camp. We maintain that overpopulation does not, in itself, cause poverty (and in fact the reverse is most often true). We observe that trade is not a coercive process, but rather an exchange that benefits both parties that engage in it -- and therefore, free trade cannot itself be the cause of the evil consequences of globalization. We recognize the power of a truly free market to create a prosperous economy. We even hold that, in a just society, sustainable development is not incompatible with economic growth. We believe that we can have it all.

We recognize only too clearly, however, that we don't. It is not lost on us that "economic growth", as it is now practiced, is ruining the planet and human community. It's painfully evident to us that the Orwellian inversion currently being called "free trade" isn't about free trade at all, but rather a matter of protection for land barons and transnational corporations. We cannot, alas, refute the assertion that for all the world's people to achieve the consumption levels of the developed West, we would need between two and six more planet Earths.

One of our most consistent themes here at HenryGeorge dot org is the fundamental mistake of the Malthusian theory of population and subsistence. We've shown that there has never been any consistent correlation between population density and poverty, and in fact that the greatest wealth production goes on in the most densely populated areas. That statement is true as far as it goes -- but it cuts little ice with pessimistic observers of today's demographic developments, such as

  • A continuing exodus to the giant, ill-equipped cities of the developing world. If we look not at overall land area but rather at potentially arable land, we see a strong relationship between urbanization, grinding poverty, and very high fertility levels.
  • The troubling fact that the fastest-growing national populations tend also to be the youngest. There is a huge demographic bottleneck of young, untrained people who cannot find work (who are nevertheless having children themselves). This creates a vicious circle in which a nation's economy has very little chance of catching up to the needs of increasing numbers of young people.
  • A sense that regions whose people are not useful, for whatever reason, as low-wage workers in today's globalized industrial economy are, therefore, either expendable, or beyond help, or both.
  • Competition for scarce freshwater, in the nations with the greatest population growth, between agriculture and industry. As developing nations strive to industrialize, this makes feeding their increased numbers more and more problematic.

Does this mean, then, that we're going back on our assertion that overpopulation does not truly cause poverty? Are human beings really a planetary cancer? Not at all. Let's be clear on that, Malthus is still wrong. It does mean, however, that it would be an utterly foolish mistake to suggest that overpopulation does not exist. It most certainly does, and while it does not create poverty, it certainly exacerbates a whole host of economic, social and environmental problems. Hard reality, then, compels us to re-state the classic Georgist position on overpopulation in a more precise way: "Malthus will be right, UNLESS..."

Why is this distinction important? Because we are concerned with the fundamental causes of poverty. And you should be, too -- because symptomatic remedies either fail to make things better at all, or merely forestall the overall tendency to lower the wages of workers, and further degrade the commons to benefit a few. Indeed, it is not hard to sympathize with the Pessimistic Environmentalist, because the current version of global capitalism offers no believable solutions to these deep problems. Probably the bleakest and most improbable "remedy" is one which calls for lowering birth rates, while doing nothing else to address the social end economic realities of the world's poorest people.

Nevertheless, we believe it is possible to internalize the free rides that make it profitable to degrade the atmosphere, cut down the forests and kill of species we have not even identified yet. We believe it is possible to achieve a high-quality, modern living standard with all its richness of opportunity on a fraction of the non-renewable resource cost that it currently imposes, and we believe that this can be done while reversing the pattern of global climate change. And, most important, we believe that we can feed, house, clothe, heal and educate all of the world's people. In short, we believe that "Malthus is wrong, IF..." IF... what? IF we recognize that the natural world is not the creation of any person, and therefore belongs to no person, but to all of us, and all generations to come, and all of the world's creatures over whom we have the responsibility of stewardship. IF we realize that our rights to life and to our own selves guarantees us the equal right to use and share the gifts of nature, and to own the things that we produce with our own labor. IF we acknowledge that only an economy based on these fundamental principles is our only hope for sustainable prosperity, for escape from the Malthusian nightmare.

Strong words? Grandiose claims? Yes, they are. But if they seem worth exploring to you, then I am pleased to inform you that that's why this course is here.

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