The Debate Over Population

A Rant was posted in this space last December that was called "Overpopulation: No Such Thing". It staunchly proclaimed that population pressures are the result of poverty and economic distortion, not their cause. This view was championed by Henry George. The Malthusian theory, George held, is incorrect -- because human beings are able to increase their production of subsistence much faster than their rate of reproduction -- and indeed, is blasphemous, asserting that the Creator has fashioned a world without food enough for all those created in His image.

A dialogue ensued with one reader, Robert Hames, who took articulate exception to my views, and has permitted us to post his opposing points here. I hope that this "point/counterpoint" will stimulate plenty of discussion! But remember: emotions can flare up in discussions of this sort. If any of our readers care to post their disagreements with Mr. Hames's statements, they must take his gracious civility as a model (or they won't remain). -- Lindy Davies

I think it has become quite fashionable to buy into the "elitist groups" of the world holding back all the hordes of valuable resources in the world and cheating the rest of us out of the benefits of them. I would be interested in seeing your source of information on these lands that are hoarded. Even assuming you have found such statistics printed somewhere, I would question them. Let us think for a moment. When the financial gain to be had by allowing access to the lands for some menial fee would be astronomical, what does one have to gain by simply sitting on them and hoarding them? Such a course of action doesn't sound like the logical plan of the greedy money hungry elite to me.

Mr. Davies claims that if these "hoarded lands" were opened to the people who wish to work on them, the effect would be "beneficial to the environment"! I know he can't possibly be implying that expanding the use of fossil fuels would be beneficial to the environment, so I have no idea what that statement means. What industrial or agricultural practices does mankind perform today that are "beneficial" to the environment? There aren't many, if any at all.

He goes on to claim that there are many alternatives to oil that are practical and are somewhat comparable in cost. What are they? Coal is awful for the environment, and has a poor energy yield for its mass. Nuclear power? How many reactors will you be comfortable with in California (or any other fault line area)? Cold fusion? Not in our lifetimes. All of our practical, easily usable sources of energy are fossil fuel related. Nuclear power has its place, but I do not consider it a practical energy source. I would love to hear a description of those "reusable" energy resources. I certainly hope we aren't talking about things like solar power.

I think I had the biggest problem with the assertion that poverty breeds overpopulation. Throughout history, all species (including man) have overbred and surpassed the environment's ability to maintain them. Thus hardship and poverty has set in. Until population falls, Malthus's demostat maintains that they will remain in poverty. To imply poverty creates overpopulation is ridiculous. What example is there in all of history of a species that has had environmental difficulty or "poverty" afflict it and has responded by rapidly breeding and growing in population? There isn't one.

Are we so different that not a single other species follows our unique pattern of "rapid growth in times of hardship"? I think not, which means maybe that's not the way it works after all. Possibly it is overpopulation which is the root of the problem. We have lived in relative poverty compared to our current standards since the beginning of time, yet it took thousands of years for this population explosion to occur. Clearly economic hardship is not the source of the problem; it is too many mouths to feed that is. Looking back in history, what examples do we have of civilizations languishing in starvation for decades on end. Not many. Either these societies migrated to more prosperous regions, or stayed in their environs, and their numbers dwindled until they were able to maintain their populace (or they died out entirely).

Mr. Davies refers to the relative sparseness of population in Africa. But these is widespread poverty, misery and starvation in Africa! Whoever has the wherewithal to leave, leaves; this is a fact. Unfortunately, the earth is so crowded, there is no place for those in Africa to "migrate" to. No "bogeyman" came to cheat those people out of house and home, so that they would respond by rapidly breeding to escape their woes. The whole thought process is just silly.

We can feed those people for now if we want to, but there is little question we are already playing with fire and pushing the environment to the limit. What sane person wants to press on even farther -- and see what kind of real damage we can do?

Robert Hames -- May 2, 1997

Here's what folks have been saying:

I think he's right.
Max Schmoo <[email protected]>
Brooklyn, NY - Tuesday, May 13, 1997 at 16:24:44 (EDT)

I feel that the theroy that was projected is a COMMON feeling of the "upper classes"! They are usually saying that the poor could be better off IF THEY WANTED. Truthfully...even a middle class family has a tough time supporting a family of 4.
Sarah Goldstein <[email protected]>
Earlville, NY America - Friday, May 16, 1997 at 17:50:19 (EDT)
In response to Sarah's comments, are these the remarks of the upper class, or the educated? I am certainly not part of the "upper class", at least at the moment. I am working through college, waiting tables. What I am, though, is informed on the realities of the world's ecology and environment. I propose that the poor, or any class, could do better for itself, if it does not breed beyond the means of it's environment to support it. If a middle class family has difficulty maintaining a family of four, perhaps a family of three is the answer. This applies to me as well. No matter what my family aspirations are, until I can provide for them properly, I have no business creating that family. It is a tragedy how simple it is to breed in our world. It is more difficult to get a driver's license or a library card than it is to have children. Where is the sense in that? Shouldn't people have to show their qualifications to be parents, just like you must do to say, enter college? The ease of becoming a parent has "breed" many problems. (No pun intended.)
Robert Hames <[email protected]>
Ft. Worth, Tx - Saturday, May 17, 1997 at 17:47:42 (EDT)
Sure -- I agree about "having no business" bringing children into the world that you can't provide for. But the fact is that most of the children born in the world today must, by sheer economic necessity, be called upon to provide for their parents to some degree. And that is not because those parents are irresponsible. It's because they do not have sufficient economic opportunities to make a decent living.
Lindy <[email protected]>
New York, - Sunday, May 18, 1997 at 15:19:25 (EDT)
psychological and spiritual needs may be more important than material ones
- Thursday, May 22, 1997 at 16:56:36 (EDT)

Of course they are, *

But people's spiritual and psychological needs don't get met (except in extraordinary circumstances) unless their material needs are taken care of.
Brooks, ME - Wednesday, June 04, 1997 at 15:35:33 (EDT)

Hames declares that overpopulation is closer to the "root" of the problem than is our lack of economic justice. Looking over his comments, however, I see little other than mere assertions. Let's add a few more facts, shall we? Impoverished Africa is poorer than prosperous Denmark; but Denmark is densely populated and Africa is sparsely populated. India is one of the world's largest NET EXPORTERS of food! Yet many Indians are starving. India can support its own population but it does not do so. Seems clear that the problem is lack of justice; the producers of the food are not the recipients of the food. Even Bangladesh is a large exporter of foodstuffs. Go through more of the Henry George Institute web site and I think you'll see that what we need is economic justice. Without that, no population will be sustainable.
Hanno Beck <[email protected]>
Baltimore, MD USA - Wednesday, June 11, 1997 at 08:49:02 (EDT)