The Economist publishes a “Daily Chart.” It’s a nice change of pace: the entire day’s post consists of a chart, and a paragraph explaining what the chart means.
I. Overpopulation is an Unfounded Fear
Two of these charts speak volumes about the overpopulation debate. Here’s the first, from November 17, 2010:
Malthus, if you’re not aware, is the founding father of overpopulation hysteria. He was convinced that at the pace people were reproducing, the world would quickly run out of resources like timber, and it would ultimately lead to mass starvation. In the twentieth century, folks like Paul Ehrlich claimed the same thing, selling countless books like Population Bomb fear-mongering (Ehrlich and others typically came from natural science backgrounds, and expected humans to behave like animals; this is almost certainly one of the major reasons they were so consistently wrong, and yet so convinced of their own predicted).
Ehrlich in particular claimed that food prices would go through the roof from the 1970s to the year 2000, even predicting the demise of England (no, seriously). Well, the chart above shows how profoundly wrong the neo-Malthusians were. Food prices are significantly cheaper than in 1980, and have been for each of the past thirty years.
II. “Gray-Out” is All Too Real
The second chart comes from November 19, 2010, and it tells the other side of the overpopulation story. Governments around the world encouraged birth control, sterilization, and abortion (sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced) in order to prevent the overpopulation they’d been convinced would occur. In reality, the threat these nations faced wasn’t too many children, but too few. One in particular, Japan, is now in a particularly perilous situation. As the Economist explains:
FOR about 50 years after the second world war the combination of Japan’s fast-growing labour force and the rising productivity of its famously industrious workers created a growth miracle. Within two generations the number of people of working age increased by 37m and Japan went from ruins to the world’s second-largest economy. In the next 40 years that process will go into reverse. The working-age population will shrink so quickly that by 2050 it will be smaller than it was in 1950, and four out of ten Japanese will be over 65. Unless Japan’s productivity rises faster than its workforce declines, which seems unlikely, its economy will shrink.
Watch the very bottom of the chart, since it show the number of children. In 1950, we’re looking at about 11 million Japanese under five; today, it’s closer to half that. With that few children, it’s going to be a real challenge for the next generation to create economic activity to provide for their aging parents, so it’s likely many young Japanese will fill unable to settle down and start a family, perpetuating the trend (the 2055 forecast shows this quite well, with only about 2 million Japanese under five). About the only two ways out are for the Japanese to start having a lot of kids, or for the nation to rely increasingly on non-Japanese workers, from groups who are having a lot of kids (and perhaps needless to say, this solution can lead to profound social instability in its own right, as we saw with Germany’s flirtation with cheap Turkish workers in the 1970s).
So basically, overpopulation – not a serious problem. The sky-is-falling predictions that overpopulation fanatics were trumpeting half a century ago (and in Malthus’ case, a few centuries ago) turned out to be radically incorrect. The theorists failed to account for the fact that with more human beings, you get more folks like Norman Borlaug (the man who single-handedly is believed to have saved a billion lives during his lifetime through the so-called “Green Revolution“). Turns out, with more people, you get more innovation and an overall better quality of life (which is why populated countries and metropolises tend to be better places to live than, say, Middle of Nowhere, Greenland).
On the other hand, underpopulation – a much bigger risk than most people realize. The economics here are solid, and the logic’s pretty irrefutable. Fewer kids today mean fewer workers tomorrow. And fewer kids today mean fewer potential parents tomorrow, which is why we see places like Japan with a downward population spiral. The population there’s actually falling, and there’s virtually nothing the government can do about it. Perhaps instead of worrying about butterflies (Ehrlich is a biologist by trade, with a specialty in studying butterflies), we should be worrying about the demographic tailspins of other industrialized countries, like Japan and much of Western Europe. Those risks – which are all too real, rather than ‘sound right on paper’ – are ones that virtually no one seems ready to face.