What You Should Think About Population Growth

“Nobody gets there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

–Yogi Berra

Relentless defense of unsubstantiated optimism is bad behavior that rarely seems to draw the sort of criticism it deserves. On the other hand, relentless defense of unsubstantiated pessimism is also bad behavior, if amply criticized. People who are at their best crusading to raise awareness of serious problems live in times when there is no shortage of serious problems being met with inadequate public response. That makes it all the stranger that some should choose instead to disengage from reality and spread doom and gloom for its own sake.

Fear of global overpopulation may be as old as the first suspicions that the world is round. Yet as a widespread preoccupation it seems to have emerged from the role bad math and worse pontification played in adding “Malthusian” to the vocabularies of educated people. The old argument was simple enough — population was expanding geometrically while food supply was not. Therefore, “humanity is doomed!!!!!”

The math was lousy because it presumed neither increased demand for food nor increased capacity for human intellect could bring about changes in the nature of agricultural growth. Yet that shoddy thinking amounts of a relatively minor blunder compared to the alarmist conclusions Thomas Malthus et al. reached. Even the best apologists for this sort of work still seem to begin with the assumption that a human being is some sort of despicable entity inclined far more toward destructive acts than creative acts.

Presumably these general misanthropes are not bereft of affection for friends and family. Yet somehow those good feelings fail to translate into a broader goodwill. Even if any other signs of affection should be lacking, clearly their own ideas generate great amounts of it. Somehow this fondness for the mental processes of one human fails to extend into a fondness for an entire species populated by people inclined to think as freely as social context will permit. This combination of intellectual vanity and contempt for “the masses” is evident even today.

Rather than the racism and classism of Victorian England, it seems to be fueled by a political divide. I have no objection to characterizing ignorant people as ignorant. To do so is more correct than to do otherwise. I even have little objection to characterizing ignorant people as stupid. Though crude and pejorative, that approach is not necessarily misleading. However, to suggest that people lacking a certain degree of ecological or political savvy are not fit to live is profoundly unethical as well as profoundly misleading.

Before elaborating on factual problems caused by this sort of discourse, it is only fair to dismantle the underlying fiction. Many different factors drive population growth. At this point in history, the data is fairly solid holding that birth rates actually tend to be low in societies where effective educational policy marginalizes religious interference in family planning while effective retirement security policy eliminates the perceived economic need to raise many children.

Insofar as it is a reality at all, it makes no sense to take a long view of overpopulation. In a span of one or two generations, political and economic reforms that have already occurred in many nations can create conditions where internal population growth is minimal or even negative. This would involve facilitating strong economic growth in presently underdeveloped regions of the world, but it is downright myopic to argue that such development must entail making ecological mistakes of the same type or magnitude other societies made in less-informed times.

Too often, discussion of our planet’s capacity to support human life rests on the assumption that the negative environmental impact of that life is a fixed value. Clearly this is not the case. Yet establishing this involves establishing to what extent environmental impact is acceptable. Clearly there is no reason to anticipate that the activities of a modern civilization could become ecologically neutral without substantial change. If we possess enough sanity to stand against voluntary human extinction, then by extension we ought also possess the means to support some sensible compromises.

Building an unbroken fence along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border would have a serious ecological impact. Animal migrations across that line would be impeded, opportunistic species (e.g. rats) could spread and displace wildlife as they benefit from the structure and support services required for its maintenance. Yet all in all, the damage would probably not exceed that caused by the construction and upkeep of the Interstate Highway System. For a tremendous amount of economic support, cultural exchange, security enhancement etc. it seems like the level of damage is acceptable. On the other hand. increasing profits for human traffickers and self-satisfaction among xenophobes hardly seems like justification to do so much damage.

To persuade others against supporting a border fence, the ecological argument is almost certain to be ineffective. People who might be concerned about wildlife destruction are less likely to act on that concern when they are still afflicted with false concerns about immigration (or false beliefs about the effectiveness of walls as international problem-solving tools.) By the same token, an apocalyptic approach to environmental advocacy will tend to fall on deaf ears. Rather than stirring up emotions with exaggerated tales of doom and gloom, much better compromises can be forged through focus on relevant realities.

I compare highways and border fences because ultimately leaving a better world to future generations requires a keen sense of selectivity in tolerance for environmental distress. Humanity without industry is simply not a reasonable option. “Zero footprint” industry, while an admirable ideal, remains an impractical pursuit. Yet having no regard for resource depletion, declining biodiversity, industrial emissions, et al. also manages to be unreasonable and impractical.

Those enamored with modern day Malthusian thinking would do well to recognize that the “soft approach” of moderating population through political and economic reforms is proven viable. Hardships such as plague or warfare historically do not so much resolve Malthusian “problems” as they turn back the clock briefly. In the absence of stable secure prosperity, fear of the future conspires with lack of education to make large families commonplace. In many nations where the social order reflects modern values, large families occur as the result of a rare personal choice. Reproductive restraint and the will to exercise it are not at all incompatible with widespread human happiness.

By engaging with that reality it then becomes easier to avoid a “ships passing in the night” phenomenon when dealing with resistance raised against sound environmental policies. Industrialists and their passionate cheerleaders cannot be expected to make compromises based on the kind of warped thinking that leads to a “humanity is doomed!!!!!” conclusion. While the worst of dollar-worshipers are themselves so far detached from reality that no compromises could be expected, most proponents of robust economic growth are not misguided in any absolute way. Avoiding hyperbole about what is at stake may inspire some to recognize real risks and show support for really sensible initiatives.

Promoting a particular sort of development in underdeveloped regions of the world is part of a sensible response, but so to is drawing lines between economic activity that is genuinely useful and economic activity that is useless or even counterproductive. Developing a polio vaccine put a serious dent in the sales of iron lungs, but is any society better off for greater levels of paralysis simply to support the iron lung industry? So many human needs could be fulfilled at present or even superior levels with alternate methods that consume fewer resources or generate less work. In the end we must ask ourselves, should we define our economy by what improves the quality of our lives, or should we define the quality of our lives by what improves our economy?

Resolving the tension between environmentalists and economic conservatives is not about building consensus for a better tomorrow — that consensus already exists. Building consensus about the definition of a better tomorrow is the real challenge here. A national effort to update metrics and modernize industrial practices could simultaneously serve the agenda of those consumed by desire for greater prosperity and accommodate the concerns of those fearful of ecological crises. Yet the first step in reaching this middle ground involves embracing reality. Those who dwell on neo-Malthusian scenarios retard themselves from the beginning just as surely as their counterparts locked into false narratives of ecological optimism.

5 Responses to What You Should Think About Population Growth

  1. growthbuster says:

    My compliments, first of all, for this very fine question: “Should we define our economy by what improves the quality of our lives, or should we define the quality of our lives by what improves our economy?”

    Next let me offer some perspective on pessimism and doom and gloom: As the lookout on the Titanic yells out, “Iceberg dead ahead! Full stop!” I suppose one could complain he has such a pessimistic message and implore him to be more reasonable and to offer a compromise that those wanting to speed ahead are more likely to listen to. Something like, “hey, why don’t we slow down a little!” In so doing, perhaps the folks onboard can get in an extra game of shuffleboard before plunging into the icy waters of death.

    Also, it appears to me that China is, indeed, making ecological mistakes of the same type or magnitude other societies made in less-informed times.

    Speaking for sustainability advocates everywhere, let me say that we don’t believe a human being is inherently a despicable entity. A human being who can’t control his greed, a human being who can’t say, “enough,” a human being who will thoughtlessly sacrifice the well-being of future generations in order to live in higher style today – THAT is either an ignorant human being or a despicable one.

    Lastly, one could say that those advocating living within our means on Earth are the real optimists. We’re optimistic mankind can control his greed and desire for more, and practice the intergenerational golden rule, if he is educated and understands the true meaning of the word sustainability.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  2. Demonweed says:

    In the end this may boil down to a matter of semantics, but semantics have been known to win debates or even elections. Economic growth is precious to a far larger number of people than those who understand how conventional measurements of it are compiled. At the heart of hostility toward environmentalist politics is a blanket hostility toward liberalism. Yet part of the resistance to everything from hard science on climate change to the San Francisco grocery bag law comes from this sense that moving toward sustainable practices is somehow “slower” progress than striving for even more of the status quo.

    If ecologically sound policies are presented as costly sacrifices then they will continue to meet with strong resistance amidst an already dysfunctional political process. If ecologically sound policies are presented as rewarding opportunities to accomplish more with less, political resistance is more easily circumvented. Complicating all of this is the fact that many ecologically sound policies involve sacrifice in the short term in order to achieve much greater rewards in the long term.

    Sure, new-fangled bulbs will conserve a multiple of their cost in energy over the course of a year, but to accumulate that savings the expense of the bulbs must be incurred now. That consumer decision is a microcosm of the big picture regarding ecology and public policy. I respect the aims of your project, but I believe the language of hostility to growth serves resistance advocates by placing the focus on today’s sacrifices at the expense of attention to tomorrow’s rewards.

    Clearly China’s rapid industrialization has been a sloppy process fraught with avoidable errors. Yet I hear both insiders and Western analysts increasingly enamored with the idea that the Chinese leadership are done playing “catch-up” and intend for further economic planning to be oriented around long term thinking. Some would say this new outlook is downright futuristic. Whether inspired by Chinese aerospace achievements or frightened by problems with the price of oil (not to mention the value of all that U.S. debt they hold) it seems as if “growth at any price” is yielding to a new ecological sensitivity among Communist Party autocrats. While most of our leadership continues to process the economy in 90 day intervals with yearly outlooks constituting “long term thinking,” the five year plan is back in China and a fifty year outlook is influencing policy.

    I suppose only time will tell if this is a moment of green vogue or if it will be backed by the immense financial and labor resources under the control of the Chinese government. Perhaps ironically, the lack of democratic processes over there make it easier for officials to act on long term plans without interference from an opinionated minority of ignorance. While our agenda remains dominated by responses to the most emotionally charged of newsworthy events, a self-appointed regime can (and apparently in this instance is beginning to) pursue a bold vision, which in this case seems to involve thoughtfully navigating a nexus of strategy and ecology to allow China to remain an economic superpower for the foreseeable future.

    Anyway, to get back to the heart of the matter, I continue to believe that anti-growth politics is a jagged pill while essentially the same remedy can be administered with a sugar coating. Malthusian speculation contributes to that jaggedness. Perhaps it does have some usefulness in motivating intensity from activists already committed to environmentalist reforms. Yet I find it all too easily leads to exaggerations and misinformation, while at the same time turning off moderates who are broadly supportive of environmental protection even if they fall short of activism or commitment to any specific agenda.

    A narrative that defines growth as antagonistic to sustainability ultimately plays into the hands of those who oppose change. A narrative that redefines growth to acknowledge real progress along avenues leading to sustainable economic practices keeps the discussion closer to reality, yet it has the added benefit of presenting environmentalist politics in a much more desirable context. I particularly like the last paragraph of your comment. If we are to turn the corner on major environmental issues before being driven by responses to specific disasters, I believe that change must come through the popularization of that kind of narrative, drawing strength from a core of positive aspirations.

  3. growthbuster says:

    I appreciate the long and thoughtful response. I’ve heard the gist of your comments before, many times, and I have to admit that I continue to wonder why you (and you have much company) insist that we set mediocre goals. It seems intellectually dishonest, and it also seems to give in to the depressing view that men are selfish, greedy, and dumb, so we must lead them out of the burning barn with a carrot on a stick. What a bummer! While you may very well be right, I can’t help but wonder how much success we’d have if all the pragmatists preaching compromise actually had the courage (or some might say stubbonness) to stand up for the truth. We’d have incredible strength of numbers if so many weren’t afraid that intellectual honesty is just too hard for the masses to swallow.

    Are people inspired to action by timid half-truths?

    Of course, movement toward sustainable practices is only costly if your metric is quite narrow – cash in your pocket this week, disregarding externalities and the long term entirely, not to mention happiness and quality of life.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth
    Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  4. Demonweed says:

    I believe in the original piece here I’ve spelled out my thoughts on just why I do not believe it is intellectually dishonest to avoid brooding about the doom of humanity. I do not see my position as advocating mediocre goals. Then again, I also do not see the present situation as comparable to a burning barn. That is just the sort of hyperbole that turns off moderates while giving critics credible ground on which to make a stand.

    The science is in on all manner of serious problems. Receding coastlines, unpredictable new weather patterns, vanishing glaciers, and mass extinction are all real ongoing phenomena. Some of these problems become more severe for failure to respond, and all of them will impair the quality of life for human beings. Yet it goes beyond what science exists and into the realm of gloom for gloom’s sake to characterize even these serious problems as precursors to some sort of megadeath event.

    As I see it, this approach fails to do even one little thing more than the approach I favor in terms of calling for positive action. It does spread more fear and fiction, but if fear and fiction was the essence of motivating effective political action then Osama bin Laden would have been dead and buried years ago. Breaking with reality by embracing wild doomsday scenarios as if they were likely, never mind inevitable, is as likely to promote counterproductive or unrealistic responses to the tales of doom as it would be likely to promote productive realistic responses to actual problems found at the intersection of economics and ecology.

    I believe we have a lot of common ground in these areas of thought, and I would not fault anyone for raising awareness and promoting action. Yet there is a world of difference between being extreme for the sake of being extreme and being extreme in response to an extreme situation. There are extreme problems in reality that sound environmental policy should address. I believe going beyond reality in the search for even greater extremity may do more to undermine or distract than it might intensify efforts to reform industry, agriculture, etc.

    I’ve tried to make the triumph of reason over emotion a central theme in my blog here. It is both reasonable and honest to raise alarms about a range of unresolved environmental problems. To bounce from one theoretical crystal ball to another while proclaiming, “the end is nigh!” seems unreasonable and misleading, if not deliberately dishonest.

    I’m all for global availability of family planning services, with particular emphasis on birth control and sex education. Yet I believe the case for action should rest on what we know about the good these services accomplish rather than what some may fear about hypothetical catastrophes. Taking the same approach to restraining the rise of atmospheric carbon, rethinking agricultural practices, developing sources of alternative energy, etc. does not involve calling for less effective change — it simply means making what I believe to be a generally more effective and entirely honest appeal for that sort of change.

  5. growthbuster says:

    My compliments for your reasonableness. It’s clear there’s a need for my film project. I guess you can’t tell, but I don’t intend to be doom and gloom in the documentary. I think the facts and logic will speak for themselves and hope they’ll move reasonable people like you to evaluate carefully. You’re halfway there already! Best to you. Keep thnking and writing!

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