Articles From the July 1995 Unification News
Overpopulation: The Perennial Myth
by David Osterfeld
From the centuries before Christ, men have been worried about overpopulation. Those concerns have become ever more frenzied. On an almost daily basis, we are fed a barrage of stories in the newspapers and on television-complete with such appropriately lurid headlines as "Earth Near the Breaking Point" and "Population Explosion Continues Unabated"-predicting the imminent starvation of millions because population is outstripping the food supply. We regularly hear that because of population growth, we are rapidly depleting our resource base with catastrophic consequences looming in our immediate future. We are constantly told that we are running out of living space and that unless something is done, and done immediately, to curb population growth, the world will be covered by a mass of humanity, with people jammed elbow to elbow and condemned to fight for each inch of space.
The catastrophists have been predicting doom and gloom for centuries. Perhaps the single most amazing thing about this perennial exercise is that the catastrophists seem never to have stopped quite long enough to notice that their predictions have never materialized. This probably says more about the catastrophists themselves than anything else. Catastrophism is characterized by intellectual arrogance. It's been said of Thomas Malthus, for example, that he underestimated everyone's intelligence but his own. Whenever they confront a problem for which they cannot imagine a solution, the catastrophists conclude that no one else in the world will be able to think of one either. For example, in Beyond the Limits the Meadows tells us that crops yields, at least in the Western world, have reached their peak. Since the history of agriculture is largely a history of increasing yields per acre, one would be interested in knowing how they arrived at such a significant and counter-historical conclusion. Unfortunately, such information is not forthcoming.
But isn't the world overpopulated? Aren't we headed toward catastrophe? Don't more people mean less food, fewer resources, a lower standard of living, and less living space for everyone? Let's look at the data.
As any population graph clearly shows, the world has and is experiencing a population explosion that began in the eighteenth century. Population rose sixfold in the next 200 years. But this explosion was accompanied, and in large part made possible, by a productivity explosion, a resource explosion, a food explosion, an information explosion, a communications explosion, a science explosion, and a medical explosion.
The result was that the sixfold increase in world population was dwarfed by the eightyfold increase in world output. As real incomes rose, people were able to live healthier lives. Infant mortality rates plummeted and life expectancies soared. According to anthropologists, average life expectancy could never have been less than 20 years or the human race would not have survived. In 1900 the average world life expectancy was about 30 years. In 1993 it is just over 65 years. Nearly 80 percent of the increase in world life expectancy has taken place in just the last 90 years! That is arguably the single most astonishing accomplishment in the history of humanity. It is also one of the least noted.
But doesn't this amazing accomplishment create precisely the overpopulation problem about which the catastrophists have been warning us? The data clearly show that this is not the case. "Overpopulation" cannot stand on its own. It is a relative term. Overpopulation must be overpopulation relative to something, usually food, resources and living space. The data show that all three variables are, and have been, increasing more rapidly than population.
Food production has outpaced population growth by, on average, one percent per year ever since global food data began being collected in the late 1940s.
Like food, resources have become more abundant over time. Practically all resources, including energy, are cheaper now than every before. Relative to wages, natural resource prices in the United States in 1990 were only one-half what they were in 1950, and just one-fifth their price in 1900. Prices outside the United States show similar trends.
But even if food and resources are becoming more abundant, certainly this can't be true for living space. After all, the world is a finite place and the more people in it, the less space there is for everyone. In a statistical sense this is true, of course. But it is also meaningless. For example, if the entire population of the world were placed in the state of Alaska, every individual would receive nearly 3,500 square feet of space, or about one-half the size of the average American family homestead with front and back yards. Alaska is a big state, but it is a mere one percent of the earth's land mass. Less than one-half of one percent of the world's ice-free land area is used for human settlements.
But perhaps "living space" can be measured more meaningfully by looking at such things as the number of houses, the amount of floor space, or the number of rooms per person. There are more houses, more floor space and more rooms per person than ever before. In short, like both food and resources, living space is, by any meaningful measure, becoming more abundant.
In short, although there are now more people in the world than ever before, by any meaningful measure the world is actually becoming relatively less populated.
Dr. Osterfeld is professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana. This essay is excerpted from The Freeman, the monthly journal of The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Copyright 1993.
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