Home > evolution, food, health > Population bomb theory is a myth in a vacuum

Population bomb theory is a myth in a vacuum

No sooner had I finished writing about how technology fears are stoked by supposedly learned people and the media than another example rears its ugly head. This time, with the world’s population exceeding seven billion people, it’s new worries of a population bomb.

For those unfamiliar with it, the concept is at least as old as Robert Thomas Malthus, an English reverend and scholar of the late 18th and early 19th century. Malthus believed that if the world’s population kept growing at its then-pace, humanity would run out of food and other resources and experience a catastrophe that would greatly thin out the herd to a more manageable and sustainable size.

Of course, it didn’t happen and it probably never will despite vocal kvetching by modern-day Malthusians, simply because population growth does not occur in a vacuum. Everything else - particularly technology and the economy - grows alongside it. So far, this has served us very well, despite the increasing population.

The reality is that technology, economy and population are interlinked. The more a country has of the first two, the less it has of the third. A quick glance at birth rates confirms it - the rich, technologically advanced countries in North America and Europe typically have the lowest while those in Africa have the highest. Going by those figures, it’s obvious that the more prosperous a country is, the fewer children its people have, for reasons that are equally clear.

Historically, people had many children so that there would be more hands to work the land, but in a non-agrarian society that doesn’t make much sense. Moreover, with both parents typically working, it’s not practical to have many kids, from both a time and expense perspective.

The good news - not that the media ever really reports on this - is the global economy is doing a fine job of alleviating poverty, despite what the lingering economic crisis and Occupy Wall Streeters would have everyone believe. Over the past five years, about half a billion people (most of them in China) were elevated out of abject poverty, something an op/ed in the Jakarta Globe recently called the “fastest period of poverty reduction the world has ever seen.” As the article put it, “advances in human progress on such a scale are unprecedented, yet they remain almost universally unacknowledged.”

Fortunately, some people are taking these developments into account. The demographers at the United Nations know this, which is why they’re projecting the world’s population to peak at about 9 billion about 40 years from now, then decrease. Their reasoning is simple: as people become wealthier, they have fewer children. On that end of things - the input, if you will - population growth is slowly but surely sorting itself out naturally.

All of this growth - whether its population, economic or technological - that we’ve experienced over the past few centuries is hardly a bad thing. People everywhere - in countries rich and poor - are living longer and considerably better than they did a century ago, largely thanks to technological improvements in food production and medicine. Those inputs will continue to improve, so the dire predictions of how food production will need to increase by 70% to accommodate an even larger population may not actually be all that hard to meet. People who worry that the world is running out of food and water are perhaps not taking this inevitable technological advancement into account, the same way Malthus didn’t consider the improvements brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Sometimes when you live in the forest, it’s hard to see the trees. For practical purposes, it might be hard to visualize some of the future gains the world is going to realize from all the technological advances currently being made, but we can expect with a high degree of certainty that they will happen.

The worriers are also perhaps being too cynical about human nature. While some are right to point out that rich, advanced countries simply waste too many resources, we do have a certain pragmatism too, which explains all the effort being put into developing alternative energy sources and more sustainable food production. If a shortage problem really does happen, it’s reasonable to expect that people in rich nations will lend a helping hand, the same way they did for the African famine in the 1980s and every other disaster since.

Should we waste less stuff? Sure, but until there are real and proven wide-scale shortages of oil, food, water or any other resource, people know on a subconscious level that the Malthusian population bomb theory is just a myth no matter how much the media tries to scare us.

Categories: evolution, food, health
  1. Marc Venot
    November 1, 2011 at 1:06 am | #1

    So for you the best is laissez-faire in that domain?
    Maybe in this race between population boom from the most miserable people and technical changes our civilization will win where all others have failed. Of course when you have zones of high pressure and those of low the regular way to ease it is a very strong wind as knowed here as migration. Even if it’s not politically correct I think we are taking a huge risk.

  2. November 1, 2011 at 6:58 am | #2

    Still i think that there is something to worry about. Nothing can pass without mentioning.

  3. November 1, 2011 at 7:32 am | #3

    I don’t worry about population as much as I worry about footprint. These allegedly more prosperous people also have a much larger footprint. Even if we are going to peak at 9 billion, we can’t sustain 9 billion at the energy inefficiency of a typical North American.

    We have the technological know-how to move forward on this, so that is not the problem. What we lack is the political will, and modern political structures to make better decisions.

    As one example, we have endless mindless debates about climate change, when most (but not all) of the policies suggested (putting a proper price on energy to let the market sort inefficiencies out) are a good idea even if climate change turns out to not be a big issue. Instead we have ideologically motivated mindless people opposing modernisations on energy policy simply because some people use the term “climate change” to market it.

    The few data points you included in the model you describe also don’t exist in a vacuum, and we need to somehow deal with the footprint problem and not fall asleep thinking that population alone is the only thing to look at.

    • November 1, 2011 at 10:05 am | #4

      Couldn’t agree more. There is no harm in conserving or being smarter about consumption/footprint. The key is to make it financially attractive to do so, which is happening to some extent.

  4. November 1, 2011 at 10:23 am | #5

    While interesting points are made, the assumption that we have enough natural resources to sustain 7+ billion people is unfounded. I’m unaware of a global water table map; does one exist? I know in Canada, we have no official clue as to how much water we have, and simply take it granted.

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