Overpopulation? Fiddlesticks!

Jan Narveson

There are no inherent limits to growth

In the late twentieth century, it once again became popular to claim that the world is “overpopulated” and that we were headed for demographic disaster. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb predicted massive starvation well before the end of the century. It didn’t happen. World population did indeed roughly double in the second half of the twentieth century—but the per capita output of food (and everything else) increased. Not just in the rich countries either: all the world not under communist control did better. People were—and are—eating better than ever despite phenomenal population growth. Malthus held that the earth is incapable of increasing agricultural output at more than an “arithmetical” rate, while population expands at a “geometrical” rate. He was wrong. Food output not only increased at a geometric rate, it actually increased faster than population.

The Malthusians didn’t know what hit them. Actually, some of them still don’t—we still hear them muttering that we have “too many people.” But there comes a time when the facts clobber you in the face with such force that it’s impossible not to notice. Despite all the claims, when starvation occurs, it is due not to agriculture and the limited “carrying capacity” of the planet but to politics. To be more precise, there are two sorts of starvations: little and big. In the little ones, natural disasters beset a few thousand unfortunate people, creating short-term emergencies. Then the rest of us rush them supplies. If the local governments are any good, the supplies actually get to those who need them and lives are saved. If the local governments are corrupt, incompetent, or inhuman, the supplies are pilfered, and those in need don’t receive them. In the big cases, governments actually cause the starvation. In the twentieth century, government-made starvations were the only kind there were. For example, Maoist China starved more than thirty million people. When communal agriculture was disassembled and Chinese farmers could work the way they wanted to, China increased its food output by 50 percent in a single decade and even began exporting food to the USSR in the 1980s. Bad politics is what you need for starvation. For adequate food production, you need free farmers and markets. The earth isn’t the problem. Its political leaders are.

How could the population pessimists have been so wrong? To begin with, there never was any real basis for Malthus’s conjecture about the relationship of food supply to population. That he should have thought that there was reflected what we might call the “materialist fallacy.” It consists in thinking that wealth is somehow a pile of stuff or “material” rather than what it really is, the effective human utilization of our resources. The materialist idea is that we are taking from this pile, diminishing it; as we “consume” more, there is less left. Eventually the pile must shrink to zero—yikes!

But the idea is totally wrong. Consider the most basic “stuff” of all—food. How much food can a given piece of land produce? Malthus thought the amount was fairly small and could only be improved a little bit. In fact, it is very large; moreover, there is no real way to say how much food you “can” grow on it using advanced technologies. Farmers all over the world are becoming more efficient. American Midwestern farmers grow several times as much corn from one acre as they did a hundred years ago. Improved varieties of grain, better fertilizers, and many other things go into the equation. The idea that eating is a matter of slowly “using up” something that we must eventually run out of is a sheer misconception.

Most people’s vision of burgeoning population in the twentieth century is distorted. Far from being a problem of people having more and more children, as most supposed, twentieth-century population growth was driven primarily by a steady increase in longevity. In the United States, life expectancy almost doubled. Birth rates are on the decline almost everywhere and have been for decades. Indeed, there is now talk about not only a leveling off in the rate of increase but an actual decline in population as the new century goes along—hey, if you want something to wring your hands about, try the eventual demise of the human race from nonreproduction! Reproduction rates rise and fall, and there is no point in trying to predict them for the long term.

Pessimists now tell us that all these new people won’t ever be able to enjoy Western standards of living. Said a United Nations committee in 1996: “Continued growth in per capita consumption to levels currently enjoyed by the developed countries for a future global population of 10–12 billion is clearly not sustainable.” But they’re dead wrong. There is simply no reason why all of us, including people in the poorest countries, shouldn’t be able to drive a Mercedes eventually. In the future, most Chinese will likely have cars, nicer houses, and all the familiar goodies to go with them. It isn’t just that the amount of iron ore in the earth’s crust is vastly greater than what would be needed to make the three billion or so motor cars for equipping the world: it’s that quantities of this or that have very little to do with it. We make cars out of whatever works best, and what that might be in the farther future is impossible to predict.

Those who doubt this have two problems. First, they simply don’t realize how much in the way of natural resources, strictly defined, the earth contains. Second, they don’t understand how little that has to do with anything. Regarding the first: the story of every material resource is that as time goes by, estimates of available quantities increase. In 1950, annual world oil consumption ran to four billion barrels, and “proven reserves” were approximately ninety billion barrels—enough for twenty-two years. In the subsequent forty-four years consumption rose to more than 640 billion barrels, yet proven reserves were ten times greater than in 1950! (The current figure is eight hundred years.) The same is true of every material resource. The earth’s supply of x is good for millennia or even millions of years. What’s a poor prophet of doom to do?

The other point is more basic. How many of the really nice things in your life are hugely consumptive of matter? Buildings, bridges, roads, ships, cars? They are all constructed of plentiful materials—no problem there, even if we covered the planet with them—which, of course, we will not. What about the rest? How much matter goes into a great oil painting by Van Gogh, now worth fifty million dollars? Or your computer? Or the down-filled parka that keeps us northerners comfy on the coldest winter days? Or the compact discs that store thousands of hours of beautiful listening on my shelves? Thinking about this will lead you to see that the whole idea that modern civilization is based on huge “consumption” of “natural resources” is way off base. What it “consumes” is ingenuity, talent, skill—and the neat thing about their “consumption” is that they don’t get consumed. Writing the complete works of Shakespeare left Shakespeare quite intact, though it enriched the rest of us immeasurably.

A favorite sport of pessimists is to worry about energy supplies. The pessimists haven’t noticed that the total amount of energy reaching Earth from the sun is about ten thousand times what humans use, even in our energy-hungry modern age. They haven’t noticed that humans are quite capable of using energy more efficiently, if need be. The story of ultimate collapse due to exhaustion is, again, utterly without foundation.

Then there is “global warming,” a propagandist’s paradise. The gap between confirmed relevant information on the one hand and proposed political responses to it on the other is mind-boggling—and you aren’t going to find the facts on page one. But you will find them in abundance with just a bit of looking. I’ll mention just one point. The Kyoto Accords call for measures that, depending how thoroughly they are implemented, will carry price tags running to trillions. Yet fifty years of Kyoto-mandated Spartanism will yield an expected reduction in global temperatures of only about 0.1 degree Celsius. What’s the point, especially when such global warming as has been confirmed so far has been good for humanity, for example by extending northern growing seasons?

All told, the “overpopulation” scare may be the biggest single mistake in the history of social science. Theory and common sense conspired to fail in the grandest possible way, and the only question is how it managed to take so many people in for so long. Meanwhile humanists, of all people, should recognize that people are inherently a good thing. Having lots of people enables human society to diversify ever more elaborately, creating more interesting goods and services for all tastes and types. There’s room (and air, and food, and so on) for a lot more of us than there is any reason to expect there ever to be. People claiming to be humanists should, so to speak, count their blessings and stop deploring the fact of demographic opulence.

Further Reading

Ronald Bailey, ed., The True State of the Planet (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

Ronald Bailey, Earth Report 2000 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999).Wilfrid Beckerman, Poverty of Reason (Oakland, Calif.: Independent Institute, 2002). Short, readable, and packed with helpful information, particularly on global warming.

Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling, The Satanic Gases (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2000).


Jan Narveson is professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and author of Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice and other books.

Jan Narveson

Jan Narveson is professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and author of Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice and other books.


There are no inherent limits to growth In the late twentieth century, it once again became popular to claim that the world is “overpopulated” and that we were headed for demographic disaster. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb predicted massive starvation well before the end of the century. It didn’t happen. World population did indeed roughly …

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