Commentary

Defusing the Population Bomb

By Stephen Moore
This article appeared in the Washington Times on October 13, 1999.
This week mankind reaches a new demographic milestone: 6 billion people living on the Earth. Too bad so many of them are Malthusian declinists, who regard all these human beings as net destroyers of the planet.

A recent New York Times story wails that if the world’s population isn’t curtailed soon, the globe will start to look as poor and crowded as Calcutta. Ted Turner says mankind is breeding like “a plague of locusts” and urges couples all over the world to limit themselves to one child. Zero Population Growth laments that the population of the U.S. is about twice the size it should be in order to protect the environment.

The mystery is why anyone takes these modern-day Chicken Littles seriously anymore. After all, every objective fact and environmental trend is running in precisely the opposite direction of what the widely acclaimed doomsayers of the 1960s - from Lester Brown to Paul Ehrlich to the Club of Rome - once predicted. Birth rates around the world are lower, not higher, today than at anytime in at least a century. Global per capita food production is 40 percent higher today than as recently as 1950. The “energy crisis” now is such a distant memory that these days oil is virtually the cheapest, not the most expensive, liquid on Earth. In sum, the population bomb propagandists have all the intellectual credibility of the Flat Earth Society.

Yes, it is true that in just this past century the number of human beings on the planet has just about quadrupled. But as the current issue of National Review points out, the simple and benign explanation is improved health and more wealth (see table). Consider the trends in life expectancy, arguably the single best measure of human well-being. From about the time of the Roman Empire through about 1800 average human life expectancy was less than 30 years. In the U.S. today, life expectancy is 75. Even in poor countries, like India and China, life expectancy has risen to above 60. We have doubled the number of years of life in just the past 200 years.

Meanwhile, infant mortality rates in the U.S., and across the globe, have fallen by about tenfold in just the last century. A century ago, if a woman had three children, the likelihood was that at least one of them would have died at birth or before the fifth birthday. Nowadays the probability of childhood death is less than 1 in 100. As the late, great doomslayer Julian Simon taught us, increased population is a consequence of mankind’s victory over death.

The doomsayers fret that man is copulating uncontrollably like John B. Calhoun’s famous Norwegian rats in a pen, who multiply until they die off from lack of sustenance. Thanks to unbridled human copulation, “we are adding another New York City every month, a Mexico every year, and almost another India every decade,” writes environmental author Bill McKibben. Yet, we are nowhere near running out of room on the planet. If every one of the 6 billion of us resided in Texas, there would be room enough for every family of four to have a house and an 1/8th of acre of land - and the rest of the globe would be vacant. True, if population growth continues, soon some of these people would have to spill over the border into Oklahoma.

The dreaded population bomb that emerged as a worldwide obsession in the 1960s and 1970s has been all but defused. The birthrate in developing countries has plummeted from just more than six children per couple in 1950 to just more than 3 per couple today. The major explanation for smaller family sizes, even in China, has been economic growth, not condom distributions or coercive birth control measures.

The fertility rate in the developed world has fallen from 3.3 in 1950 to 1.6 per couple today. These low fertility rates presage declining populations. If Japan’s catastrophically low birthrate is not raised at some point, in 500 years there will be only about 15 Japanese left on the planet. The average number of births to women in poor countries has dropped from 5 to 3 in just the past 50 years.

We used to worry about our capacity to feed the planet, but in the United States these days, we have to pay farmers to stop growing so much food. The dean of agricultural economists, D. Gale Johnson of the University of Chicago, has documented “a dramatic decline in famines” in the last 50 years. Fewer than half as many people die of famine each year now than did a century ago - despite almost a quadrupling of the population.

Virtually every natural resource has fallen steadily in price - following the same downward spiral that has characterized oil over the past 20 years. According to the most recent EPA statistics, pollution of the air and water is not increasing, it is decreasing - even though there are more people.

The population controllers at the United Nations and inside the U.S. environmental movement regard mother nature as pure and fragile and man’s footprint on the Earth as the despoiler of this natural state. They worship the created, not the Creator. And they are in many cases hostile to economic development and human progress. They celebrate the planting of a new tree as magnificent progress, but abhor the planting of another fetus in a woman’s womb as anti-progress.

But the good news for those of us with two, three, or God forbid, four children or more is this: The Malthusians are wrong. There is no ethical, environmental or economic case for small families. For those of us who believe there is intrinsic value and dignity in every human life, we should celebrate, not decry, that there are now 6 billion human beings on the Earth.

Stephen Moore is an economist at the Cato Institute.