Malthus, Ehrlich, Gore And Other Population Control Mystics

Opinion   |   Don Feder   |   Jul 19, 2011   |   11:22AM   |   Washington, DC

Something that happened to me a few years ago may throw light on the popular mindset regarding what’s called overpopulation.

I was standing in the middle of Ronald Reagan/National Airport in Washington, D.C. talking on my cell phone about demographic winter (the precipitous worldwide decline in birthrates). When the call was over, I was accosted by a middle-aged woman with a scowl on her face who told me emphatically: “Well, if families are having fewer children, that’s a good thing. There are too many people in the world.”

“If there are too many people,” I innocently inquired, “how many should there be? What’s the right number?”

The lady began sputtering: “I really don’t know. I just know there are too many?” To which I replied, “How can you know there are too many of anything if you’d don’t know what the right number is?” The concept “too many” presupposes a correct quantity or the right number. You see, that’s the thing: Almost no one who carries on about overpopulation has any idea of how many people there should be.

In 1798, when he published “An Essay On The Principle of Population” – that’s the short title — Thomas Malthus was convinced there were too many people in the world and further increases in population would lead to war and mass starvation.

Malthus believed that, left unchecked, population growth would far outstrip increases in food production. This was in an age when the soil was tilled by horse or oxen-drawn plows and the world’s population was then an estimated 970 million.

When he published “The Population Bomb” in 1968, entomologist (that’s someone who studies insects) Paul Ehrlich told his readers that there were far too many of us – a conclusion he reached on a trip to Calcutta. And if he’d visited Montana, he would have concluded there were too many trees. Unless population was drastically curtailed, Ehrlich predicted with total assurance, “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs.”

There were then around 3 billion people in the world, less than half today’s number. If you missed hundreds of millions of people starving to death in the 1970s and 1980s, that’s because it never happened. The only starvation that occurred was due to civil war, collectivized agriculture or government mishandling of food supplies.

Over the past four decades (just as over the past 200 years), food production has far surpassed population growth. It always does.

Speaking in New York recently, former Vice President and voodoo climatologist Al Gore warned of environmental Armageddon — a world drowning in pollution — unless we can stabilize population growth.

Gore says we can do this through what he calls “fertility management” and “educating and empowering women and girls” to make the right choices. When Al Gore says he wants women and girls to make the “right choices” he means those of which Al Gore approves – family limitation trough contraception and abortion.

The world now has seven times as many of us as when Malthus made his apocalyptic forecast. There are over twice as many as when Ehrlich looked into his crystal ball and saw mass worldwide starvation. Neither of those failed predictions has deterred the population mystics, who continue to concoct end-of-the-world scenarios based on “overpopulation.”

Instead of starvation, it’s now an environmental cataclysm – mountains of trash, seas of pollution and an ever-widening hole in the ozone layer. Each person is said to have a “carbon footprint,” which leaves an indelible mark on the planet.

And when the latest generation of population hysterics is proven wrong, once again, the next will cometh with their own forecasts of gloom and doom.  Thousands of years ago, when we were all living in caves or huts, the paleo-Malthusians probably thought the world was overcrowded then and confidently predicted decimation of the herds of woolly mammoths if population growth continued unabated.

The truth is: These are people who don’t like people.

They long for a pristine world where everyone has a few hundred acres of land, replete with all kinds of cute, cuddly animals, and they and their friends can have their solitude, while still enjoying the benefits of an advanced industrial civilization, including central air-conditioning, plasma TVs and cappuccino-makers.

Here’s another truth: You can’t have progress – progress of any kind – without population growth. In the past 200 years, the world’s population grew from around 970 million to 6.8 billion – almost a seven-fold increase. That population explosion fueled every human advance from the industrial revolution to the computer age. The same period saw a phenomenal growth of productivity, scientific achievement, health and material comfort.

More people equal a greater capacity for production, development of resources and innovation — which in turn leads to higher standards of living all around.

As the late economist Julian Simon noted, people are the ultimate resource. Growing wealth is always accompanied by robust population growth. By the way, it’s no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain, which had the highest population density in Europe in the early 19th century.

Overpopulation is a myth. Under-population could soon be a reality. When there aren’t enough of us to keep industries humming, to grow the food, develop the natural resources, manufacture the products and provide the services needed to keep society functioning – that’s under-population.

When there aren’t enough young workers to pay the pensions of the elderly, that’s under-population. When one child is asked to care for two retired parents and four elderly grandparents, that’s under-population.

When the housing market collapses because there aren’t enough buyers for existing (not to mention new) housing units, that’s under-population. When developing nations are drained of young men to meet the labor needs of developed nations which refuse to reproduce in adequate numbers, that’s under-population. When a nation’s one-child-per-family policy results in a situation in which millions of young men will never be able to find wives, that’s a consequence of under-population. When a nation with land-hungry neighbors doesn’t have the soldiers to protect its borders, that’s under-population.

One last truth: like Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore, most of us in this room won’t live long enough to experience the full impact of declining birthrates. Regrettably, our children and our grandchildren will. And that’s why what we’re doing here at the Moscow Demographic Summit is so vitally important. Note: Don Feder is a former Boston Herald writer who is now a political/communications consultant. This is the text of a speech he gave to the Moscow Demographic Summit on June 30, 2011.