The Myth of Overpopulationby Logan Albright
May. 12, 2014
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The world is overpopulated. The street are clogged, traffic is in a snarl, and people are living – both figuratively and literally – right on top of each other. There's hardly enough room to swing a cat these days, right? Wrong.
The world is not overcrowded at all. There are vast swaths of unpopulated land all over the place. Siberia, Canada, Africa, Australia, even the rural USA all contain more than enough wide open spaces. So why do people labor so resolutely under this delusion? The reason is simple: most people, especially those with the time and inclination to carp about overpopulation, live in areas of high population density, a non-representative sample of the world as a whole. We call these places cities, and the reason why people live in cities, despite their complaining, is that there are benefits for large populations congregating close together.
It is convenient to live in a place with lots of other people, because each of those people can potentially do something for you, from repairing your shoes, to cooking your meals, to running entertainment venues, to, perhaps most importantly, providing you with gainful employment. Try living out in the middle of nowhere and see how easy it is to feed yourself, much less make a living and survive medical problems. The division of labor means that the more people there are nearby, the more able we are to fulfill our wants and needs. Hence, crowded cities.
This misconception of the world's population problems has led some to celebrate the declining birth rates we now see in most of the developed world. But the anticipation of a little expanded breathing room causes them take the wrong view on the economic impacts of a declining population. This has to do with an incomplete understanding of human action.
Those who worry about overpopulation tend to view people as nothing more than consumers. Resources are finite; humans consume resources. Therefore, fewer humans will mean more resources to go around. This is the core idea behind the opposition to expanded immigration. Namely, the fear that more people will mean less work and less wealth for the rest of us. But while the two premises of this syllogism are true, they are also woefully incomplete, making the conclusion incorrect as well.
The reason is that humans are not merely consumers. Every consumer is also a producer as well, and production is how we have improved our standards of living from the dawn of man till today. Every luxury, every great invention, every work of art, every modern convenience that we enjoy was the product of a mind – in some cases, of more than one. It then stands to reason that the more minds there are, the more innovations we will have as well. A reductio ad absudum reveals the obvious truth that a cure for cancer is more likely to emerge from a society of a billion people than from one of only a handful of individuals.
More importantly, these innovations result in a multiplication of resources, so our syllogism changes to the following: Resources are finite; humans consume resources; humans produce resources; therefore, if humans produce more resources than they consume, a greater population will be beneficial to the species.
That we do, in fact, produce more than we consume is self-evident by looking at the standard of living we enjoy today versus that which we had 50, or 100, or 1000 years ago. As the population has expanded, so has our prosperity, and the reduction in human suffering has been remarkable.
With this in mind, the precipitous drop in global birth rates is alarming. In countries where there is a generous social safety net for the elderly, a shrinking population means that a greater and greater share of resources will go towards caring for the old, while younger generations have insufficient numbers to make up the difference.
As the labor force declines below the level of available capital, machines will start to fall into disrepair and disuse, factories will be abandoned, housing developments will lie unoccupied. All of this results in less economic growth, less wealth, and less prosperity for everyone. Even the aggregate demand-obsessed Keynesians should be able to understand this concept. Fewer people people means less economic activity.
The celebration of low populations largely comes from the environmentalist movement, where anti-human sentiment is frequently overt. Even in less caustic circles, however, the bias against mankind has seeped into the popular consciousness. It's pervasive; an instinct among lefties that – for some reason they can't quite put their finger on – people are just no darn good.
This position is only defensible if you pine for the days of smallpox, starvation, contaminated water, and a constant danger of being devoured by hungry predators. If, on the other hand, you do not view those things as part of an idyllic, all-natural existence, you might consider cutting us humans a little slack.
Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.