The persistent myth of overpopulation

National Affairs Rory Leishman

National Affairs Rory Leishman

Given the dramatic drop in birth rates throughout most of the world over the past 50 years, it is amazing that so many doom-and-gloom academics still cling to the false and pernicious notion of global overpopulation.

Prominent among these persistent doomsayers is Stephen Emmott, professor of computational science at Oxford University. In his recently published and widely lauded book Ten Billion, he warns: “The worst thing we can continue to do – globally – is have children at the current rate. If the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us.”

In Emmott’s judgment, any such outcome would be catastrophic. He claims: “Only an idiot would deny that there is a limit to how many people our Earth can support. The question is, is it seven billion (our current population), 10 billion or 28 billion? I think we’ve already gone past it. Well past it.”

If true, that is, indeed, a scary prospect. The Financial Times has hailed Ten Billion as: “A stark, simple and short warning about the coming catastrophe.” No less alarmed, the Guardian newspaper concludes: “The shift in thinking that will be needed if we are to prepare ourselves for living in a different world begins with reading Emmott’s indispensable book.”

Nicholas Eberstadt, one of the world’s foremost demographers, would disagree. The American Enterprise Institute scholar has pointed out that neither Emmott nor anyone else can accurately predict long-term trends in world population growth, because there is no means of foreseeing generational changes in human fertility.

Consider that since the 1960s, the total fertility rate in East Asia has dropped to just 1.6 children per woman, down from 5.5. No one anticipated this unprecedented decline. And there is still no scientific means for anyone to determine how fertility rates will change over the next 50 years.

Regardless, Emmott maintains that even if he is wrong about the world’s total population in 2099, the Earth is already plagued with catastrophic overpopulation and disastrous global climate change. As evidence, he recalls: “Back in 1984, journalists reported from Ethiopia about a famine of biblical proportions caused by widespread drought.”

True enough. Emmott might also have pointed out that meanwhile the population of Ethiopia has risen to close to 100 million, up from less than 40 million in 1984. But are the people of Ethiopia worse off?

Definitely not. Thanks mainly to the end of civil war in Ethiopia and a remarkable spurt in economic growth over the past 15 years, life expectancy at birth in this often strife-torn country has risen to 64, up from just 44 in 1984. Moreover, the Ethiopian people are now better fed than ever.

Still, Emmott remains pessimistic. He contends: “We currently have no known means of being able to feed 10 billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system.”

Is that so? Consider the extraordinary food production in The Netherlands, a country with only 10,110 hectares of arable land. In comparison, the United States is blessed with more than 1.5 million hectares of arable land.

Nonetheless, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, The Netherlands ranks second only to the United States among the largest exporters of agricultural products by value in the entire world. Moreover, in a listing of specific export crops, FAO lists The Netherlands as number one in the world for potatoes, milk and eggs and number two for beer, blueberries, butter, cheese, and bacon and ham.

The total land area of The Netherlands is less than half the size of Lake Superior, so it might be supposed that such a tiny, densely populated, and awesomely productive country must be a pollution-ridden, environmental disaster. But that is clearly not the case: According to the Environmental Performance Index, a joint project of researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities, The Netherlands ranks 11th among the best countries in the world for environmental health and ecosystem vitality.

Clearly, overpopulation scare-mongers like Emmott are wrong. What the world urgently needs is not fewer people, but much more of the peaceful, democratic government and free market economic vitality that has enabled even small, densely populated, countries like The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark to rank among the cleanest and most prosperous on Earth.

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