Population bomb bogus

Why the world isn’t going bust–even with seven billion people


Liz | populational/Flickr

No sooner had I finished writing about how technology fears are stoked by supposedly learned people and the media that another example rears its ugly head. This time, with the world’s population exceeding seven billion people, it’s new worries of a population bomb.

For those unfamiliar with it, the concept is at least as old as Robert Thomas Malthus, an English reverend and scholar of the late 18th and early 19th century. Malthus believed that if the world’s population kept growing at its then-pace, humanity would run out of food and other resources, and experience a catastrophe that would thin out the herd to a more manageable and sustainable size.

Of course, it didn’t happen and it probably never will, despite vocal kvetching by modern-day Malthusians. Population growth simply does not occur in a vacuum. Everything else–like technology and the economy–grows alongside it. So far, this has served us well.

The reality is that technology, the economy and population growth are interlinked. The more a country has of the first two, the less it has of the third. A quick glance at birth rates confirms this–the rich, technologically advanced countries in North America and Europe typically have the lowest, while those in Africa have the highest. Going by those figures, it’s obvious that the more prosperous a country is, the fewer children its people have, for reasons that are equally clear.

Historically, people had many children so that there would be more hands to work the land, but in a non-agrarian society that doesn’t make much sense. Moreover, with both parents typically working, it’s too expensive and time-consuming to have many kids.

The good news–not that the media ever really reports on this–is that the global economy is doing a fine job of alleviating poverty, despite what the lingering economic crisis and Occupy Wall Streeters would have everyone believe. Over the past five years, about half a billion people (most of them in China) were elevated out of abject poverty, something an op-ed in the Jakarta Globe recently called the “fastest period of poverty reduction the world has ever seen.” As the article put it, “advances in human progress on such a scale are unprecedented, yet they remain almost universally unacknowledged.”

Fortunately, some people are taking these developments into account. The demographers at the United Nations know this, which is why they’re projecting the world’s population to peak at about 9 billion about 40 years from now. Their reasoning is simple: as people become wealthier, they have fewer children. On that end of things–the input, if you will–population growth is slowly but surely sorting itself out naturally.

All of this growth–whether its demographic, economic or technological–that we’ve experienced over the past few centuries is hardly a bad thing. People everywhere–in countries rich and poor–are living longer and considerably better than they did a century ago, largely thanks to technological improvements in food production and medicine. Those inputs will continue to improve, so the dire predictions of how food production will need to increase by 70 per cent to accommodate an even larger population may not actually be all that hard to meet. People who worry that the world is running out of food and water are perhaps not taking this inevitable technological advancement into account, the same way Malthus didn’t consider the improvements brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

The worrywarts are also perhaps being too cynical about human nature. While some are right to point out that rich, advanced countries simply waste too many resources, we do have a certain pragmatism too, which explains all the effort being put into developing alternative energy sources and more sustainable food production. If a shortage problem really does happen, it’s reasonable to expect that people in rich nations will lend a helping hand, the same way they did during the African famine of the 1980s.

Should we waste less stuff? Sure, butpeople know on a subconscious level that the Malthusian population bomb theory is just a myth–no matter how much the media tries to scare us.


Population bomb bogus

  1. What, THAT again?

    The entire population of the world could fit in the state of Texas, and they’d have the same population density as New York city.

    Since Ontario is twice the size of Texas…we’re good to go for a long time.

    • And you can fit an entire human being into a box that’s only 10″ square, with the right equipment.

      Doesn’t mean it’s survivable.

      • New York city is obviously survivable.

        • Hint: Who’s going to run your farms in Russia from your city in Texas?  That’s a helluva commute — even just energy wise.

          • I suppose you managed to take it literally, and are now packing to move to Texas!  LOL

          • And I suppose you have no understanding of what population density means wrt food production.

          • @Thwim:disqus 

            It’s an illustration of size, Thwim, between the vastness of the planet vs the small population of people, that’s all.

        • New York does not produce it’s own food, mine for it’s own minerals, and ore and drill for it’s own oil…They come from somewhere else.

          • It’s about population density…which in NY is certainly survivable

    • Southern Ontario has farm land, and that land is part of the very small proportion of agricultural land on earth. Since growing countries like Egypt, and others can only grow crops by buying North American seed and planting it in NA, there are grave consequences to the world’s ablilty to feed itself with world populations carreening upwards by an extra billion every 12 to 15 years..It was the price of food that ignited the Arab spring. Problems of this nature will not be solved by overthrowing dictatorships….Food price inflation is the future.  Those who claim science will sollve all this are not scientsts.
      At any rate it remains a toss up to see if the farm land will be reserved for agriculture, or is rapidly developed into McMansions……In my community one of the few places in Canada to grow garden vegetables, it is McMansions 1 and farmland 0.
      It is also now estimated that global warming will eat into world GDP by about 5%..Floods, Thailand, super tornadoes, super hurricanes are escalating and becomine the new norm…..Only when reality sets in will serious actions be taken to solve or even contemplate action on these issues all stemming from human overpopulation….
      I think the stock market will solve all these issues for us… Its present shizophrenia may be a portent of things to come…. As Bette davis once said,”Hold on,  It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
      Lastly it is the natural world that is suffering the most., you can never have enough people,, and natural places are just a pesky impediment to developers……
      It is a brave new world,,,,,

      • For the first time in history we have so much food we are even paying people not to grow it, as the warehouses are full.

        The Arab spring was ignited by repressive political conditions.

        We’ll go to 9 billion, and then level off and start dropping.

        • If we stop at 9 billion, it means that people have magically decided to stop ignoring the plight of poverty stricken folks and give up their own resources for it.

          Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath for that day. 

          • It means nothing of the sort.

            It will level off at 9 billion and then start to drop because people will have fewer children.

          • And why, exactly, will people have fewer children?

          • @Thwim:disqus 

            Birth control, education, increasing prosperity, tech,  the move away from subsistence farming to the cities….read the article.

  2. John Tierney ~ Betting On The Planet:

    In 1980 an ecologist and an economist chose a refreshingly unacademic way to resolve their differences. They bet $1,000. Specifically, the bet was over the future price of five metals, but at stake was much more—a view of the planet’s ultimate limits, a vision of humanity’s destiny. It was a bet between the Cassandra and the Dr. Pangloss of our era.

    They lead two intellectual schools—sometimes called the Malthusians and the Cornucopians, sometimes simply the doomsters and the boomsters—that use the latest in computer-generated graphs and foundation-generated funds to debate whether the world is getting better or going to the dogs. The argument has generally been as fruitless as it is old, since the two sides never seem to be looking at the same part of the world at the same time.


    • And the upshot of it was Ehrlich lost the bet.

  3. Good to know.

    Except, we really do only have so much water.

    • Um yeah…70% of the planet is water.

      • Yeah but then what?

        • LOL water is a renewable resource

          • If you are not joking, then you are woefully ignorant of the definition of “renewable”.

          • Why would I be joking?

            Oil is not renewable and yet we sell and burn it every day….water however, is renewable.

            And we have plenty of it.

            Not only are some countries literally drowning as sea levels rise….but we now know our oceans came from space.

      • The issue is that only 3% of it is drinkable and not evenly spread around.

        So there ARE limitations in its availability in many places around the world.

        Moreover, it is probably the single most important resource there is, given that life depends on it. As such, you can expect that the motivation to sell it at high prices to water starved nations could become a real source of future conflict.

        Joke all you like, but it this is an issue that needs careful consideration and policies that protect populations the world over.

  4. Yeah, the guys on Easter Island likely thought the same thing.

    Or the Sumerians, for that matter.

    Incidentally, Peter, you should probably actually, oh, you know.. read your sources.

    Specifically, your source about the world population peaking at 9 billion?  It has this to say:
    ‘“People are always quoting that nine-billion figure as if God had declared that the world is going to grow to that size.” Of course, it was a projection and, like all projections, it was based on a set of assumptions. “What worries me now is that some fertility rates aren’t declining as fast as they should. The decline has started, but a few very poor countries are standing in the way. It could be a big problem.”’

    One of the assumptions that 9 billion figure is banking on is that the poor countries will be made wealthier over time.  That the general prosperity of the world will trickle down to them.  Now’d be a good time to go read the comments on Coyne’s article about how incomes are changing. (Skip the article though, as everything but the CODA is just padding for his word-count.)

    • It also follows from China and India’s culture.

  5. When I first read this tripe from Nowak, it actually made me a little angry.  It is the sort of neat, self-contained analysis with an internally consistentish flavour.  Of course, Coyne pulled the same thing here a few days ago.

    Yes, the world is not going to end at 9, 10 or 12 billion people.  Humans are nearly as resilient as cockroaches and almost as prolific.  Temperature goes up a few degrees, no issue, sure violent weather will kill tens of thousands, famine perhaps millions, but we are BILLIONS.  New devastating disease sweeps the planet, give us a year and we will repopulate.  So sure, every doomsday scenario is overblown and undervalues our ability to adapt.

    That said, the human population on the planet while resourceful is remarkably irresponsible.  We used to make local screwups.  (Anyone buying urban land in Canada would be wise to research its use in the 60’s & 70’s)  Then we moved onto regional.  We literally killed a great lake!  We changed the pH enough to clarify a host of them across the northern hemisphere.  We moved onto to minor global tweeks.  Opening a hole in the atmosphere… pretty impressive.

    Even more impressive, we fixed all of the above!  Or learned to live with it, in any case we are ok.  Nowak’s thesis confirmed.  So the fact that rather than being better at managing our affairs, we have moved onto demonstrably changing the composition of the ocean and the atmosphere.  That the well demonstrated changes we have made at local and regional levels have become global.  That we make stock picks based in part on the world’s supply of several elements.  No worries, be happy.

    So we will survive as the population increases, but we won’t be well behaved.  How did the Chinese get their population growth under control?  Well by getting richer right. Well no, there was a massive removal of a fairly fundamental human right, which every western country approved of.   I wonder what atrocities will be required in Africa to get them to behave?

    Personally, I believe that the world is a better place than it was 20 years ago, and in many respects we are moving in the right direction.  That does not mean that our collective inclination for risky irresponsible behavior should be ignored or swept over by some vacuous trekky argument.[1]  Rapid population growth is just one of our screw-ups but it is the one that raises the stakes for every other screw up we make.  And Peter, singing “we are the world” a few times does not an African famine undo.

     1. see Macleans, Peter Nowak on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 5:09pm

    • Stewart Jsp?  Hmm, that looks an awful lot like a nom de plume or alias to me.  Hey, don’t get me wrong.  I am all for them.  But you?  You have been so principled on such matters.  

      • Stewart.jsp@gmail.com is my personal email address.
        (Disqsucks issue)

    • So who was advocating risky irresponsible behavior…in ‘trekky’ arguments.

      The whole environmental movement is just recent….when people realized what was happening they set about to change it.

  6. Gosh, technology has saved us every time! Except for all the people it didn’t save along the way, who died from lack of food, dirty water, etc., etc. But my family survived, and that’s what really matters! Everyone else is collateral damage and thus expendable.

  7. Something I think this article fails to take into consideration (please correct me if i’m wrong, I submit this in a most humble way) is that the population explosion brought on by the Industrial Revolution was largely the result of the switch from a mostly wood, human and animal based energy regime to one based on fossil fuels.  The use of millions of years of stored up energy propelled the world into a technological age where we now have 7 billion people.  What this article fails to account for is what will happen when the cheap energy party ends (something which will probably happen around the time we reach 9 billion people).  I just find it difficult to believe that this magical technology will be able to feed 9 billion without the massive amounts of cheap energy we now possess.  Just my 2 cents. 

  8. I don’t want to argue with Nowak on whether the population increase is a “bogus bomb” but on his misunderstanding or misrepresenting of Malthus’ theory. Malthus’ observations, in retrospect, are very simple, almost self-evident but no one had thought of them before. Even today most commentators total miss his point. His theory provided Wallace and Darwin the missing key to the theory of evolution. They were aware of breeding of livestock and suspected the same process was at work in nature but didn’t know what did the necessary selection.
    He observed that:
    Every successful (i.e. existing) organism has an irresistible instinct to reproduce The potential rate of reproduction is several times, up to many times, the rate necessary to replace it’s self.This results in any population being in equilibrium with the resources necessary for its survival. Given additional resources and in the absence of birth control, the population will increase exponentially until the population is again in equilibrium with its resources.This does not cause a wide spread starvation in the population. The wealthy, fit, privileged, always do very well. It is the disadvantaged, handicapped, and chronically poor lower class that is malnourished, and has poor health. They experience lower birthrate and higher mortality as a result. Crime, conflict and war also increase and reduce the population. The fittest survive, often very well.Humans are able to increase their resources with ingenuity and technology but that net resource increase is linear. (Technology increases exponentially but so do the problems that have to be solved.)Technology does not arise to solve the problems of an inevitable population increase but rather population increases as a response to increased resources created by technology. If you decrease the rate of population increase by birth control, you increase the average wealth created by technology.
    He was not forecasting an apocalyptic future with widespread death. That was attributed to him by his critics. He explained the history and the reality of his society and times and made a surprisingly accurate prediction of the future. Since the Black Death in the 1400’s, the population increased fairly linearly until the 1920’s. Then it briefly increased exponentially (in response to a great increase in the rate of technology introduction due to the war effort,) until the 1960’s when birth control was introduced. It has increased linearly since then and is now slightly decreasing.
    He advocated birth control in the form of delayed marriage since birth control in his day was usually abortion.
    The technologically advanced, highly educated countries experience a lower birth rate and a resulting higher average wealth not primarily as a result of not wanting more than two children although they probably don’t. Wealthy, well fed, secure people probably have more sex and are more fertile than staving people who work from morning until night for $2.00 per day. Their lower birthrate is a primarily the result of having access to birth control. China’s reduction in poverty is a direct result of their one child policy (unacceptably draconian as it was) which provided a breather for technology to catch up with population.
    The idea that birth control is essential for human wellbeing is in conflict to the teachings of the bible and several major religions. It has caused him and his ideas to be severely attacked by those who distorted, misrepresented and misquoted his ideas. Most of his critics repeat these distortions without having read his essays.