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Reexamining Overpopulation
Kicking Malthus While He's Down

Overpopulation has long been a favorite concern of doomsayers, but analysis of a few key long-term trends puts this anachronistic fear to bed. The Breakthrough Institute took a look at the data, and found the Malthusian dread wanting.

In the 1960s, the notion of a “Population Bomb” terrified the world’s best and brightest, and kicked off what has become a pernicious and increasingly unfounded belief that humans would continue to grow exponentially until they outstripped the natural resources supporting them, leading to a massive die-off unrivaled in scope. Sounds scary, right? But since its peak in the late 1960s, population growth has steadily declined.

Moreover, humanity has since then repeatedly proven its remarkable ability to innovate, to think of new ways to do more with less. Energy efficiencies have steadily increased, and new technologies (like desalination, or the ability to make a farm out of a desert). As the Breakthrough Institute reports, technological progress means the world’s carrying capacity—its ability to support human life—is no fixed variable:

It is sometimes suggested that there are hard biological limits to how much food the Earth can produce, but ever since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago humans have been consistently increasing yields through the use of new technologies. Indeed, it has been increasing yields that have allowed the human population to grow to its current population of seven billion. In this sense, the Earth’s carrying capacity is not bound by a finite set of planetary boundaries, but rather is a function of human technology. [Emphasis added]

Read the whole thing. It’s more dirt on Malthus’s grave, and injects some much-needed optimism in to our future outlook. Yes, there are plenty of environmental concerns that still need to be addressed, and yes, we still haven’t perfected a balance between sustainability and growth. But we’re making progress, and it isn’t thanks to the ascetic greens who purport to have the planet’s best interest at heart. It’s the creative minds who will keep the Earth producing.

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  • Curious Mayhem

    If there is some “sustainable upper limit” to human population, it’s quite elastic. Much of the hysteria is an expression of a certain preference of upper middle class gentry liberals.

  • Jim__L

    There are areas where we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out solutions, though. Ocean fishery management is one of them.

  • Andrew Allison

    This facile analysis assumes that the climate doesn’t change. The fact, as AGW alarmists point out, albeit in support of a fallacious hypothesis, is that a quite minor change in climate would drastically reduce the production of food dramatically. The world’s carrying capacity—its ability to support human life—is no fixed variable regardless of food production technology.

    • El Gringo

      You are assuming that the same human ingenuity that has allowed humanity to survive and thrive during all the challenges of the past 200,000 years – climactic and otherwise – will not allow us to deal with climate change.

      • Andrew Allison

        Please re-read the last paragraph. In the past, climate change was dealt with by migration. No argument that we can, under the most benign climate for 10,000 years, feed a growing world population. As I noted, a six degree fall in temperature would eliminate most crops.

  • qet

    I have always thought that the real point of Malthus’ argument was that the human population would grow beyond the ability of the planet to sustain all of the individuals. If that is a correct understanding, then as technology continues to do what it appears to have done–namely, increase the total planetary resources consumed by one individual during his now-extended lifetime–then the absolute population need not continue to grow for the fate predicted by Malthus to come true. Yes, technology also increases the production of consumables, but all that means is that we have a multivariate function where the Malthusian outcome lay (lies?) in the value given by the function and not in the value of any one of its arguments.

    • Curious Mayhem

      No, the right answer is the Malthus was simply wrong. He didn’t understand the technological and scientific revolutions that were already transforming Britian and western Europe at the time. It wasn’t just the Industrial Revolution. Before and along side it was something even more important, the Agricultural Revolution, the rise of scientific and technologically advanced agronomy.

      Malthus’ view of economic value was that agricultural land and labor were the only “true” source of value, a view popular in certain quarters of the rural conservative classes in 18th century England and the Continent. He was hostile to and uncomprehending of trade, manufacturing, and cities. Just read The Principle of Population, or his correspondence with Ricardo. The latter runs rings around him. Malthus was an intelligent man and, in some ways, a bold thinker. But he was simply too bound by philosophical, religious, and class prejudice to understand what was already happening.

  • free_agent

    To be fair to Ehrlich, he panicked at the moment when the world population growth rate had been rising steadily for millennia, and had reached what would turn out to be the historical peak. And the dynamic that reduced population below the food-supply limit (where it had stayed since the beginning of the species) was actually urbanization, which had not really started to cut into the rural population at the time he wrote. So from the data he had at hand, he was fully justified. He just happened to be wrong.

    Similarly, the famous “Limits to Growth” was published just at the point where the world economy started to de-materialize, that is, the bulk of GDP started to be non-material objects. That change destroyed the assumptions on which the analysis was done … along with pretty much every business and technological thinker in the history of the world.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Yes, although I think the US economy was already dominated by services in the 1950s. The Information Revolution has completely undermined the traditional “materialist” arguments of this type.

  • Dan

    Just Enough of Me, Way Too Much of You – P.J O’Rourke

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