Seems to me that lots of people confuse poverty with overpopulation. They are related, but just because you see lots of people in poverty doesn’t necessarily mean that there are too many people in the world. Poverty has been successfully tackled in lots of countries by education, the market and infrastructure (neither of which is really possible without good governance and the rule of law). Just look at the transformation of South Korea over a 40 year period, and even the transformation of China even despite not being democratic. Actually China now faces an obesity problem and only 8% of children are underweight and I bet this figure is dropping.

To assume though, that poverty is caused by too many people that the earth can’t cope and that we’re headed for a malthusian disaster (although the actual works of Thomas Malthus may not be so extreme), you have to have a model that predicts this. I’m writing this specifically with respect to agriculture. Here’s at least one theory which predicts something different by Ester Boserup. There are indeed some clever people that do believe in this catastrophe and are worth reading but as with any complex problem determining policy before a consensus of a science (which requires a model back by strong evidence, both passed data and it’s ability to predict) is a bad idea. Actually I don’t really have to say much more on this, as it’s said by following the criticism section on the Malthusian Catastrophe page. Happy reading.

Additionally in response to the comments on the page. What I haven’t addressed so far is

  1. the fear that more people mean exponentially higher costs.
  2. the fear that more people means less opportunity (aside from agriculture), jobs, housing. Also sited parking.
  3. A fear that the absolute numbers are just too big.
  4. Not recognizing that with wealth comes population decline.
  5. An irritation at having to share the planet with other people.

Well (1) is definitely false. The whole point about production is that it works because of the phenomenon known as economies of scale. Can you think of a single product we consume that as they produce more of it the generic product has become more expensive (where branding and patents aren’t involved)? I can’t. As my dad would point out this process applies to the plant and not to the firm, as when then plant gets too big, you either invent new tech or just create another one. So the firm has no theoretical maximum size. This applies to activities like governments collecting of taxes. I’m willing to bet that with a little more digging I’d find data to show that as population increases income tax lowers (although comparing income tax formulas are difficult) in countries without socialist agendas.

No (2) is also not rational with everything except space. Again my dad would say that if there were a finite number of jobs in the cities then as cities grew, everyone would move out to the countyside. This empirically isn’t the case. People move to cities to find work, and the more they move to the cities, the more work there is. This isn’t just true in Cape Town, but in the biggest cities in the world (London, New York etc). It is true that as more space is taken up the value goes up. However the amount of the earths surface where this has reached some kind of equilibrium saturation point is tiny. In each of the major cities we’re talking Manhattan in New York, Inner tokyo, Zone 1 in London etc. Yes this would affect things like parking space too, the challenge in big cities is to create public transport systems to cater.

Regarding (3): I’m sure that some of the models describing how many people will actually be in the world in the future are correct. But I don’t care. Human beings naturally have a fear of big numbers even when they are legitimately sustainable.

The good news (4) is that as people get wealthier, even the potential threat of of overpopulation becomes a mute point. So really the only issue is actually tackling poverty.

The issues raised in (5) I don’t have any time for. The issues to do with sharing the world are the same with 2 trillion as they are with 2. This is a human nature issue.

The bottom line for me is that if one really feels that overpopulation is a legitimate threat, then I think one should be supporting policies like China’s One Child policy as when we’re faced with threats to humanity, civil liberties need to be suspended for the good of the group, just as in war time. Although I’m in favour of family planning because of quality of life arguments (don’t have more children than you can support) I think that China’s solution is a disgusting infringement on the liberties of the individual and because I don’t believe that overpopulation is actually a threat.


5 Responses to “Overpopulation?”

  1. Kim Mobey Says:

    Hi Daniel,

    I enjoyed what you wrote and I’ve read the articles you linked to.

    Regarding the findings of Ester Boserup, you might be interested to read about the research of John B. Calhoun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Calhoun#1963-1983), who studied what happens to a population when the only limiting factor on growth is space (unlimited food, water etc).

    Also, this article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population) says quite a lot in just the first paragraph; with the world’s population predicted to have grown by almost one third just 20 years from now.

    Population growth is the basis for all classical economics and even some modern models have no cut off point for “maximum population reached”.

    The essential problem with this is that, from a purely mathematical point of view, this planet is finite. Technology continues to allow more humans to survive on less surface area but you’ll notice if you’ve ever been stuck in traffic, that some areas are getting a little cramped.

    Cities can continue to expand for many years to come but there will be steadily less and less space available for people, parks, farmland and wilderness. As we become more cramped, more in each other’s way, we enjoy less and less of the good things that life has to offer.

    Poor people, who would have been relatively content to live in their peaceful, poor little villages for their whole lives, are enveloped in ever expanding cities. They have the indulgences of their wealthy neighbours shoved in their faces daily. The natural, human reaction is envy, resentment and, eventually, theft of those things they can’t afford to buy.

    Governments have to grow to keep up with the administrative demand of millions of people. Individuals feel their personal identity swallowed up in the horde of humanity and we feel increasingly powerless and unimportant.

    Population size also affects our individual freedom. As government grows in size we find our lives are increasingly subject to regulation, tax and policing. Even when government is kept relatively small, we all still have to compete more fiercely for resources. Even parking spaces become potential triggers for violence.

    We are forced to share much of our space with people who have conflicting religious views, political ideology and even different ideas of personal hygiene. While this can be healthy in small doses, in large doses, we see increasing antagonism, open conflict and even ideological wars.

    We are each becoming increasingly small fish in an ever filling ocean. Whereas a person in a small town has the power to effect real, measurable, positive change, a person in a large city must struggle with exponentially more dissenting voices, physical obstructions and bureaucracy. We all ultimately have less say in our own lives.

    Education definitely helps, especially since it directly reduces the birth rate. Educated teens are less likely to end up parenting children before leaving school. Educated adults tend to have fewer kids and they have those kids later.

    Unfortunately, education takes decades to penetrate the layers between rich and poor. Very few people born into poor families get much education with the result that they themselves have numerous children who then have equally scant education.

    While technology can ease the pressure of the education gap, food production and energy, short of finding another planet to overpopulate, we’re still stuck with a definable number of resources on a definable surface area. Eventually we’re going to get really, really cramped.

    We are all going to experience bigger traffic jams, more invasive laws, higher crime and less personal space not to mention tougher employment conditions, greater competition for jobs as more kids graduate every year and greater risk of poverty in our old age.

    We’re already living on top of each other, feeling crowded, harassed and stressed. In all of our rapidly expanding cities there are fewer parks, fewer jobs, more junkies and street kids, less space, more litter smaller houses, worse basic hygiene, more suicides and gang violence.

    I’d rather not watch almost everything beautiful in this world get overrun by billions of other people’s grown up kids.

  2. dmg46664 Says:

    Article updated with a response.
    In terms of other points, such a stress: this is really also a frame of mind, and a trade off.

    Litter depends more on garbage services, and litter laws. You get rural areas that are messy and urban areas that are clean as examples in the world. Look at Stockholm.

    Street kids is a 3rd world phenomenon.

    Basic hygiene is better in cities than in rural areas actually. Besides better health care facilities, there’s less toleration of health problems going unnoticed.

    Suicides requires it’s own discussion.

    Gang violence is a complex issue. Although I’d suggest reading Freakonomics first. It sounds like you haven’t read it, and it lays the groundwork for thinking about these problems. Should be a mandatory read high school level if it was up to me, although I wouldn’t test kids on it. People hate anything they’re tested on.

  3. Kim Mobey Says:

    I agree that Rural areas can’t be compared to cities. They are totally different. What I am referring to is the difference between medium sized towns and average cities ie: comparing high population density vs medium population densty in cities rather than trying to compare rural VS urban areas.

    I really enjoyed Freakonomics but I got more out of Chaper 4 than chapter 3.

    • dmg46664 Says:

      The point about Freakonomics, is twofold. First that if you think that an increase in crime had to do with an increase in population, they show that the increase in crime actually had to do with an increase in poverty because abortion managed to quell poverty although the population of the USA had been increasing consistently. The other point about the book is to show how an increase in gangs and drugs had to do with the economics of crack as a growth industry rather than any other factor. Once a mature industry ,despite being illegal,the violence dissipated.

  4. Kim Mobey Says:

    I hear you.

    Freakonomics was a good book but it only touches lightly on some very deep societal truths. Firstly that there is a psychology and a pathology to high birth rates among certain income and education levels; secondly that growth in a finite system cannot continue indefinitely.

    Economic hardship is linked directly to high birth rates and poor education. Low birth rates correspond with high standards of living and education.

    You mentioned Malthus and I recently came across an interesting paper in the American Scientist. Here is an extract and commentary: http://scienceblogs.com/corpuscallosum/2009/04/malthus_was_right.php

    You also mentioned China’s “one child” policy. Many people disapprove of any mention of overpopulation because of the stupidity evident in eugenics programs and the human rights abuses that result from China’s “one child” policy. I agree that these methods are inhumane, ill conceived and vile in the extreme.

    I generally disapprove of most forms of government so I don’t believe that legislation or regulation of population can bring much besides human rights abuses.

    My personal philosophy on controlling birth rates is that by providing access to education and access to health care people will naturally have fewer births over time. It becomes a matter of individual empowerment that benefits society as a whole.

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