Overpopulation: Too Many Damned Malthusians
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This world of ours is not overpopulated. There is no overpopulation. A great many aspects and consequences of human society and human nature are wrong, unpleasant, and downright malign - but a lack of resources or space is not on that list. Where there is suffering, hunger, and inhumanity to others, you will inevitably find it taking place amidst the squandered potential for plenty: resources left untapped; poverty run rampant thanks to political kleptocracies; meaningless war and destruction instead of trade to benefit all sides.

But the iconic Malthusian looks at the mess made of some parts of the world and doesn't see mismanagement. Instead he sees nothing more than too many people - which means that his proposed "solutions" are varying degrees of useless, counterproductive, and outright evil. Unfortunately, iconic Malthusians are everywhere. Malthusian thinking suffuses modern environmentalism. An entire generation of Western civilization is taught overpopulation as an uncritical fact.

By far and away the most common reason I see given these days in opposition to engineered longevity is fear of overpopulation. Environmentalism has become almost a religion in its own right now, and many strands of that religion are essentially death cults: loose networks of like-thinking people who fervently believe, for whatever reasons, that the world is dying, that humans already live too long, and that people should be forced to relinquish technology and return to a simpler era. Extreme fringe variants of the environmentalist death cult really do stand for the complete destruction of humanity, but even supposedly reasonable, middle of the road people are influenced by deathist environmentalism to the point at which it is seen as reasonable to say that (a) too many people exist, and therefore (b) the unending horror, pain, and suffering of death by aging is necessary.

A sterling article at Spiked Online hits all the right points:

In the year 200 AD, there were approximately 180 million human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time a Christian philosopher called Tertullian argued: 'We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.' In other words, there were too many people for the planet to cope with and we were bleeding Mother Nature dry.

...

In the early 1800s, there were approximately 980 million human beings on the planet Earth. One of them was the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus, who argued that if too many more people were born then 'premature death would visit mankind' - there would be food shortages, 'epidemics, pestilence and plagues', which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’.

...

In 1971 there were approximately 3.6billion human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time Paul Ehrlich, a patron of the Optimum Population Trust and author of a book called The Population Bomb ... He said India couldn’t possibly feed all its people and would experience some kind of collapse around 1980.

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What this potted history of population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything.

Malthusianism is, in essence, yet another facet of some peoples' inability to see change in the world around them. Some folk see only what is, refusing to acknowledge what will be. Which is a strange state to be in given the rampant pace of technological advancement at present. New and better resources to meet any level of demand will be developed, and thanks to the operation of markets, entrepreneurs, and competition, will be developed well in advance of need. That is what we humans excel at accomplishing. More people in the world means more demand for resources, more rewards for those who find new and better ways to satisfy those demands, more opportunity for development, more minds working on science and technology, more new and improved resources developed to replace old ones.

This is the way the world has always worked, all through those centuries of Malthusian cries that the sky is falling. The Malthusians have always been absolutely, completely wrong. This is the way the world works now - and the living Malthusians are just as wrong as all their ideological ancestors.

Comments

Indeed.

Birthrates are plummeting all over the world. The decline in fertility in the so-called third world is occurring far more rapidly than it did for Southern Europe and East Asia. Global population peeks at around 9 billion, then slowly declines (without life extension). With life extension, in increases to around 11 billion by 2100 before it levels off. From a material resource standpoint alone, the Earth can easily sustain that many people at U.S. standard of living. See:

http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/

Over population is a red-herring argument, something I have said over on the New Atlantis blog.

Posted by: kurt9 at November 24, 2009 6:46 PM

I have a few things to say here: first in response to the argument that there is no such thing as over population and that Malthusians are always wrong - I would contend that the Malthusians were wrong really only on timing. At some population point in the future the resources of the Earth will be insufficient. We're running out of water in many places, including in India. Almost all arable land has been put to use. What the Malthusians were wrong about was that the supply of food and resources can be increased through technology - whether you are talking about oil (better extraction tech), food (more food production per acre), water (e.g. desalination). As it currently stands we are on an unsustainable trajectory of population and resource demands. What happens when the 2 billion Chinese and Indians are as rich as Americans and their meat consumption matches ours? The amount of grain those countries would consume would triple as it is much less efficient in terms of resource consumption to feed animals grain than to eat grain and vegetables directly. Can the world supply that much grain today? No.

Can technology get us out of the hole we're digging? Maybe, and I agree that we should stop waging costly unnecessary wars and spend the money on addressing these problems.

Some of us like the untouched places in the world - forests, mountains, etc.. and our quality of life would be reduced considerably if we "tap all unutilized resources". Endless development and "progress" will mean we will have to live without the wild places. This is to say nothing about the drastic reduction in biodiversity through extinction.

My second point is on the comment by Kurt9 above - I too, have read the counter argument to those who would say that the population would explode if people lived much longer. I do agree that birth rates are declining, no doubt about it. But I can't understand that if the death rate goes to zero or near zero - and that is what we're all talking about here - how can the net increase in population go to zero as well? That implies a zero birth rate (or a replacement level rate). Unless we have a draconian policy of no one being allowed to procreate unless someone else gets hit by a bus then that isn't possible. Right now the US birth rate is less than 2.1 replacement. Lets say it goes down to 1.0. People are still going to want children even if they live 1000 years. So a 1.0 birth rate plus a 0.1 death rate equals... 0.9. You can play around with the numbers but the result is the same - a non-zero positive population growth rate. A positive growth rate is unsustainable over the long term unless we can colonize other planets, but lets not go there.

We will need to have that draconian policy is what I'm saying. To elminate that from the discussion isn't being intellectually honest. I would in fact absolutely support stringent policies on births in the age where robust rejuvination therapies are available.

Posted by: Dan C at November 25, 2009 5:34 AM

A sizeable fraction of our resources is currently expended in healthcare and idle "retirement" for elderly people who have developed age-associated diseases and/or can no longer work productively. Factoring in removal of the milder losses of productivity due to aging, and potential increase in productivity due to human capital accumulation, these effects would easily swamp out increased demand for natural resources. A world without aging would be far wealthier than our current economy.

Posted by: guest at November 25, 2009 6:36 AM

We are already growing blood from artificial matrixes. If we can do this with blood now, why couldn't we have a milk producing unit in our fridge in the future. Why couldn't we be growing steaks in a culture in our fridge?

Just saying there is still a lot of room for improving how we meet growing needs.

Other nations don't have our retirement system. Why should I have kids when I can retire off of yours? In 3rd world countries, your kids ARE your retirement. That will change.

They had a real cool segment on HBO's Real Sex. They had a VERY lifelike sex dolls. Improvements in robotics and AI are happening all the time. Is it too difficult to imagine having a polymorphic lover. One day she looks like Angelina Jolie. The next day like Jennifer Connelly. She is programmed to worship your nether parts. Same for the women. Who knows how developments like that will affect population levels in the future.

Posted by: Anton D at November 25, 2009 9:26 AM

"As it currently stands we are on an unsustainable trajectory of population and resource demands. What happens when the 2 billion Chinese and Indians are as rich as Americans and their meat consumption matches ours?"

If Chinese and Indians are as rich as Americns, that means that their productivity has matched ours--this is a good thing. Yes, resource-intensive products (such as meat) will become scarcer and more expensive--but so what? We'll just eat less meat, and choose less intensive varieties of it, such as chicken rather than beef. At least until lab-grown meat is developed.

Posted by: guest at November 25, 2009 9:40 AM

Dan C, well, yes, we will eventually need either the draconian policy or some god damn common sense. You can't expect common sense from everyone, but it'd be intellectually dishonest to suggest that you'd have to literally *force most* people to stop procreating.

Posted by: Kismet at November 25, 2009 1:42 PM

Charles Darwin used Malthusian essay on overpopulation to support his own theory of Natural Selection. A lot more humans or other creatures are conceived and born than can survive to the age of adulthood and this is one of the methods the Nature uses to eliminate the unfit so the fittest can survive and use resources and improve themselves. Of course Malthus was a clergyman and he preached moral abstinence, Darwin also studied to be a clergyman, but after developing his evolutionary theory became an agnostic. So if you believe in evolution, relative overpopulation can be beneficial to improve the species. Climate change is necessary to help humans and other species evolve. If there was no climate change the apes would still live on trees and humans would never evolve out of apes.

Posted by: nikki at November 25, 2009 3:21 PM

@nikki, I think you are twisting the facts to support ideology. Overpopulation isn't needed to drive evolution; evolution can occur in stable populations. At any rate, we are in charge of our own evolution now, and don't need to leave it to chance. Anthropomorphic climate change is certainly not required to help us or anyone else evolve, unless you are talking about the poor slobs foolish enough to live near sea level. I guess they'd better evolve their asses on out of there, eh?

Posted by: niner at November 27, 2009 8:12 PM

Your overpopulation analysis is non-existent on a factual basis. You offer no real facts, only your uninformed opinions - which you provide no basis. Pointing out failures of previous attempts to state the overpopulation problem accurately is no indication that there is no problem. I doubt that you support the same approach to longevity - stating that Ponce de Leon failed to find the Fountain of Youth, therefore no solution to extended longevity exists. Humans are indenial regarding their unsustainable population growth - even as the world changes drastically around them as they displace the very definitions that world.

Some European populations are in decline, but overall world population continues to grow at an unsustainable rate. The points you fail to address are the finite limitations of human population growth such as food and energy relationships. No serious thinker denies that there is a finite amount of petroleum and not that there will indeed be a Peak and decline in petroleum. We may disagree on dates and the slopes of the decline. What is not debatable is that 95% of all human foods depend on cheap petroleum based fertilizers. You can't comparatively, substitute these nutrients through, nuclear power, wind, or solar - and algae like any other crop will require fertilizing at commercial scale. While there are more arable lands available and potential more water resources, our agricultural production revolutions peaked in the last century and we face a very uncertain future regarding foods even in the very near term. Wild harvests of fishery species are crashing all over the world and as aquaculture attempts to replace them as human foods - we are back to petroleum based fertilizers to grow the soy and other crops used in their feeds.

Additionally you fail to address the kind of world we will live in when we further strip the biodiversity of that world to make room for more humans. The world will adapt to excess humans as long as it can by displacing less competitive species. When the species displaced by humans are critical to the human ecosystem then we will be in dire straights.

If you are 40 plus years old, think about the world looked in your youth, compare it to now. Think about the rate change as the population grew. Surely, you don't think the world can sustain even more population without even more drastic changes? Again, we argue about final dates and end points, but conceptually there is no logical denying that this world has finite human carrying capacity. If your vision of the world is something other than a smog filed global city (think Mexico City, New York, Shanghi, Bombay, London - but nothing else) overrun with humans who have no jobs because the same technology that made them possible - also does away with their jobs - we can all be software engineers) with a few green parks, then we need to start now to reverse the overpopulation that is already destroying the worlds biodiversity - as we know it - and I am not talking about the species that die out incidentally regardless of humans.

In addition, to convincing bright people such as yourself that we face real problems with unmanageable population growth, no one is even thinking about the problems of achieving a stable or declining human population. Capitalism seems to only work as populations and markets expand. What happens when the market stops growing and or shrinks. Is there another economic system that will be as productive as capitalism - one with static markets? I have yet to meet an economist who can answer the question - or one that has even considered it. I enjoy your comments on longevity research, but you sadly misinformed regarding overpopulation.

Posted by: Durwood Dugger at November 30, 2009 8:45 AM

For those who want more people on the planet, is there an absolute limit that they might suggest? Eighty trillion--or fewer? Is it true that every child born will increase the CO2 pollution? Or will they reduce it? With the amount of arable land per person now at about a half an acre, where will the food be grown? What about the lack of fresh water? They keep on bringing up Malthus. He didn’t mention climate change, pollutions, the use of irreplaceable natural resources , the destruction of the rain forests, illegal immigration, or other problems caused by overpopulation. He mentioned food production—and with a billion malnourished people, it is probably worse than he thought in terms of raw numbers. Let's get some factual projections about how more or fewer people will impact the planet. An opinion based on wishful thinking is not enough. For some alarming facts and some possible solutions may I suggest reading “In Search of Utopia” (http://andgulliverreturns.info) and http://overpopulation.org

Posted by: ProfBob at December 3, 2009 12:26 AM

I'm no fan of the Malthusians. For one, as many here have stated, their predictions have always been proven wrong. (the US now get more oil out of Canada than Saudi Arabia with new techniques, and agricultural capacity continues to go up) Even if the world pop continued to grow quickly, I think we'd adapt, but it's a moot point because most demographers say we're only a few decades away from the world pop peaking at 7.5 - 9.5 billion people, then falling for a very long time. (see the UN's population report, or this link about it: http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0313-population.html) Regardless, humans always adapt.

Also, today a higher percentage of poor people in the world are better fed and more well off than they ever have been before, and it keeps getting better. (See: http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_reveals_new_insights_on_poverty.html) Too much food (including in many parts of the developing world) is now a bigger health problem than too little. Most problems we face are problems caused by us being human, and have little to do with population.

I also have a moral problem with the Malthusians. At their core, most of them despise humanity. They see humans as nothing more than units of environmental damage whose existence is wrong or a mistake. After all, if you say the world is "overpopulated" then by definition it would be better for many humans to not have existed, including yourself and the ones you love. YOU are part of the overpopulation. YOU are a mistake. With such a dehumanizing view of people, it's no wonder people like Malthus and Erlich advocated forced sterilization and killing off poor people. We should embrace and love our fellow man.

Posted by: Kim at January 2, 2011 10:45 PM
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