I never cease to be amazed by the persistence of overpopulation discourse in the face of irrefutable counter-evidence. The coming explosion of the population bomb is predicted time and again, with the same accuracy as the Christian Apocalypse. The spectacular failure of Paul Ehrlich‘s predictions in 1968, for example, seems to have had the same dissuasive effect on overpopulation discourse as Obama’s birth certificate on a large part of the Republican Party. Look at some of these statements:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate … India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980 … One general prediction can be made with confidence: the cost of feeding yourself and your family will continue to increase. There may be minor fluctuations in food prices, but the overall trend will be up … The United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 years by 1980 because of pesticide usage, and the nation’s population would drop to 22.6 million by 1999. (source)
Most of these statements are regularly repeated in some form or other, even today. Now, confront this with the following basic facts:
When Paul Ehrlich wrote his famous book ["The Population Bomb"], women were having an average around the world of five or six children; now they’re having an average of 2.6. Fertility rates around the world have halved. That’s not just true in Europe and North America; they’re way below replacement levels in most of East Asia now. Not just China but Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Burma have replacement rates of fertility or below. Around the world, fertility rates have been coming down really sharply. So the population bomb as we’ve conceived it before really isn’t there. There’s still population growth going on, but that’s going to stabilize. … birthrates are coming down fast, with Indian women, for instance, having fewer than three children on average today; and even African women have falling fertility. Fred Pearce (source)
What’s causing this population bust?
[T]hanks to advances in sanitation and medicine, women no longer need to have five or six children to make sure that two of them will live to adulthood. … Urbanization is a factor. When you’re in the countryside, your kids are an economic resource very early. They can help in the fields, they can look after the animals; there are piles of stuff they can do from the age of 4 or 5. Kids are an economic resource, which is why rural families tend to be larger. Fred Pearce (source)
More on fertility rates and overpopulation is here. Now, you could argue that even with falling fertility rates overpopulation can still be a problem. Heck, even with falling population rates you could say that there’s still overpopulation. Overpopulation is then a problem of relative population numbers rather than absolute numbers: if there are more people than the number that can be fed, then you have overpopulation. But this is also wrong: planet earth could feed a number of people that’s a lot higher than the current number.
Africa faces a food crisis, but it’s not because the continent’s population is growing faster than its potential to produce food, as vintage Malthusians such as environmental advocate Lester Brown and advocacy organizations such as Population Action International would have it. Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region’s known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent’s cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. Africa is failing to keep up with population growth not because it has exhausted its potential, but instead because too little has been invested in reaching that potential. (source, source)
Famines in general have causes that are completely unrelated to overpopulation. Read more here.
Overpopulation discourse isn’t just the proverbial barking up the wrong tree; it’s keeping company with some seriously rotten fruit. Look who else worried about overpopulation:
What was Hitler’s argument for attacking other countries? You might think he didn’t have one, but he did. His argument is frankly Malthusian: Our population is growing, and we will run out of food unless we get more land. …
The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger. Hitler in Mein Kampf
Hitler then reviews various policies to deal with the threat of over-population:
1. Artificial birth control. Hitler rejects this because it short-circuits natural selection. Furthermore, there is an international prisoners’ dilemma: The one country that lets its numbers rise will outnumber and militarily dominate the rest…
2. Increasing productivity via “internal colonization.” Hitler rejects this on a priori Malthusian grounds – there is no way for productivity to permanently outpace population growth:
It is certainly true that the productivity of the soil can be increased within certain limits; but only within defined limits and not indefinitely. By increasing the productive powers of the soil it will be possible to balance the effect of a surplus birth-rate in Germany for a certain period of time, without running any danger of hunger. But we have to face the fact that the general standard of living is rising more quickly than even the birth rate. The requirements of food and clothing are becoming greater from year to year and are out of proportion to those of our ancestors of, let us say, a hundred years ago. It would, therefore, be a mistaken view that every increase in the productive powers of the soil will supply the requisite conditions for an increase in the population. Hitler in Mein Kampf
3. Acquire new territory outside of Europe. The problem with this plan, says Hitler, is that other European countries have already taken the good non-European land. So you would have to attack European countries to get the land:
In the nineteenth century it was no longer possible to acquire such colonies by peaceful means. Therefore any attempt at such a colonial expansion would have meant an enormous military struggle. Consequently it would have been more practical to undertake that military struggle for new territory in Europe rather than to wage war for the acquisition of possessions abroad. Hitler in Mein Kampf
4. Acquire new territory inside Europe. At last, a solution to the imbalance between people and land that Hitler likes! And of course, he doesn’t contemplate buying the land:
Of course people will not voluntarily make that accommodation. At this point the right of self-preservation comes into effect. And when attempts to settle the difficulty in an amicable way are rejected the clenched hand must take by force that which was refused to the open hand of friendship. If in the past our ancestors had based their political decisions on similar pacifist nonsense as our present generation does, we should not possess more than one-third of the national territory that we possess to-day and probably there would be no German nation to worry about its future in Europe. Hitler in Mein Kampf (source)
Of course, you can’t judge people by the company they keep, especially not if it’s involuntary company. One wouldn’t want to commit the error of reductio ad hitlerum or fall into the trap of Godwin’s Law. It’s not because a stupid or despicable person happens to believe something that it’s necessarily wrong and that other people should feel the need to reject their beliefs simply because they are shared by someone like Hitler (I am and will continue to be a vegetarian for instance).
However, I think it should at least worry those who talk about overpopulation that they share the same concerns with a genocidal fool who was genocidal precisely because of those concerns. Maybe there is some kind of link between those concerns and genocide. Also, it should worry them that genocidal war for Lebensraum is only the most unlikely perverse effect of concerns about overpopulation. Look for example at the effects of the one-child policy in China on gender balances (something which has been called a kind of genocide, not without reason).
As a throwaway, a satirical quote from Jonathan Swift’s 1729 work “A Modest Proposal“, suggesting feeding the children of poor Roman Catholic families to wealthy Protestant landowners to deal with Ireland’s unsustainable population growth:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.
More on overpopulation is here.