Oh, Look! Our Population Problems Are Solved

Nigeria, mothers
Mothers have their babies vaccinated at the Primary Health Care Maraba, in Karu, Nigeria on June 19, 2018. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is expected to grow rapidly through the end of the century, according to the United Nations. Photo credit: Dominic Chavez / Global Financing Facility / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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One of the many avenues taken by business-as-usual, Cornucopian analysts who attempt to downplay alarm bells currently ringing all over the planet is to remind readers of the failures of 18th-Century English economist Thomas Malthus.

Population growth isn’t a problem, they argue in hindsight, for the same reasons that made Malthus’s predictions look increasingly silly over 200 years of near-relentless population explosion.

Bloomberg columnist David Fickling has taken his turn at bat, pointing out that world population growth rates are already stabilizing due to technological advances and higher standards of living. The column clearly resonates with other media giants, as the Washington Post picked up the piece Monday.

Malthus’s predictions that a society’s capacity to feed its growing populations would always hit a ceiling and lead to catastrophe were indeed wrong … for his time. He failed to envision an era where advances in medicine, infrastructure, and agriculture — to name a few — would not only sustain, but accelerate population growth rates. The man’s legacy has been used as a punching bag by many ever since.

Over a longer timeline, however, was Malthus so wrong? Two hundred years later, with global population on the doorstep of maximum carrying capacity, are we already reaching critical mass? Do we have enough affordable energy sources to continue powering our system of mechanized agriculture? Perhaps writers like Fickling are missing a greater point when they offer a sort of “calm down; keep shopping” approach to this long emergency.

A seemingly endless array of challenges created by population growth have placed irreversible strains on our living biosphere. Water scarcity, declining agricultural yields, and wildly accelerating species extinction rates are just a few of the consequences.

Fickling comes at the prevailing nothing-to-see-here narrative from a slightly different perspective, citing fewer births per woman as people of advancing nations become better educated and acquire greater access to birth control:

Malthus’s key error was his failure to foresee how fertility rates would fall with increasing incomes – and the pace of change on that front has been staggering in recent years.

Ah, so we’re all “richer” than, say, the 1950s, and we’re all having fewer kids because we’re smarter? Got it.

Fickling mentions nothing about an increasing cost of living today keeping hundreds of millions of Westerners on the outside looking in, but that’s perhaps for another blog.

The exception to this worldwide “fertility decline,” Fickling concedes, is in sub-Saharan Africa, where population is expected to explode and more than make up for the mild drop elsewhere, according to the United Nations Population Division. But wait: He says it’s “plausible” that data is misleading!:

Is that forecast right? There’s reason to think that after overestimating the pace of African fertility decline in previous decades, demographers are now underestimating it. If most countries in the region haven’t started a steep drop yet, it’s plausible that in most cases it’s because most countries have only just hit the sub-five levels at which the process starts to gather pace.

“Plausible” enough to write a column about it and submit it to your editors?

To be clear, “sub-five levels” above refers to less than five children born per woman. We Westerners graduated from 5+ kids long ago, so we’re good. Right?

Same-as-it-ever-was sentiment toward our species’ problems — such as feeding 10 billion people by mid-century — assumes everything will always play out the way it always has. Worse, it dismisses the very real possibility that, while Malthus was wrong for his time, the more dire consequences simply have not kicked in yet.

That is dangerous. Because such dismissal stunts sensible municipal, state, federal, or international policy before it ever starts. Suggesting that market forces are “naturally” working their magic blocks progress. It does this by building policy upon a foundation of misguided assumptions.

Analysis pieces like these in mass media sources of enormous influence reach millions of readers and are cited by politicians at the podium or in press releases when it suits their agenda.

Where does the WaPo link to a counterargument? I’m not seeing it.

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

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2 responses to “Oh, Look! Our Population Problems Are Solved”

  1. Richard says:

    “I have a belief that we can sustain higher average population sizes, though we’ll need to discard with competition and start cooperating. I don’t believe however that this part will happen.”

    I agree that ecological sustainability is collective action problem – that is, a political problem.

    The problem with Maulthusianism isn’t a matter of whether or not there can ever be any consequential limits to population growth – obviously no one denies that. It’s that Malthus – and by extension so much of the concern over population growth (including from “greens”) – completely fails to take into account the political and class nature of resource consumption or ecological destruction! Maulthusians today and in the past are basically committing a logical sleight of hand when they talk about “human resource consumption” as if the first-world/West don’t drastically pollute and consume drastically more than the rest of the world, or as if poor people within those countries have equal influence and responsibility for their nation’s political economies as the propertied/financial/political elites and institutions (as in the USA case in particular, the military-industrial complex, one of the very worst polluters and resource consumers on Earth!).

    A genuinely “objective” evaluation of the actual material limits of Earth’s capacity for human life is extremely difficult, but it is not clear from the evidence AT ALL that the current human population is unsustainable. For example, food is often overproduced, every year far more nutrients are created than the entire planet could theoretically consume.

    Even the linked article cited in the piece doesn’t argue that the human population will ever exceed the theoretical limits! That same article explicitly states:

    “…but there is a great amount of uncertainty in the impact of all of these factors. ‘In truth, no one knows when or at what level peak population will be reached,’ [Joel] Cohen [of Columbia University]”

    Ecological upkeep is a political problem, analogous to the use of slave labor or the existence of poverty. Just as slavery and poverty can be eliminated with enough political will, ecological problems can be solved. Perhaps solutions aren’t LIKELY under current circumstances, but to suggest it’s impossible or completely rule out the idea is really wrong.

    In any event, ecological upkeep would be a problem even if Earth’s population was half the size it is now. After all, there was plenty of pollution and excess resource consumption in Malthus’ day too! The focus should not be “what population level would enable us to live the way we do now sustainably?” NO! The problem is “what political economy would be sustainable for the particular population levels we have?” It’s not the Africans who need to change, it’s the polluters and consumers in Europe and North America – especially the USA. Regardless, neither population needs to die off for political change to happen.

  2. dave says:

    I came to this article with skepticism, but am content with the content.
    Yes, the “population bomb” has never had the predicted consequences, and that’s only because circumstances changed. Expecting to continue avoiding the consequences without much further change is indeed, as the author put it, dangerous.

    What is missing from this article is to note these arguments are based on prima facie socio-economic systems of ownership and othering.
    I have a belief that we can sustain higher average population sizes, though we’ll need to discard with competition and start cooperating. I don’t believe however that this part will happen.