Too many people, too little food. That's what the population-control lobby says when it pushes for abortion. Just one problem: The food supply is growing.
Well, actually, were not. At least not the way most people think.
Ever since Paul Ehrlich published his landmark book The Population Bomb in 1968 and introduced the term "overpopulation," dire threats of global starvation and energy shortages have become a normal part of public discourse. Yet after all these years (and with a world population thats since grown by more than a billion), Ehrlich and his acolytes have yet to prove were overpopulated; they merely assert that we are. In fact, population growth is slowing dramatically, and by the reckoning of virtually all demographers, it will end during this century.
You cant estimate population growth with a calculator because simple mathematical formulas dont take into account underlying circumstances such as fertility rates. But we do know that in almost every nation women are having fewer children, with those in about 60 nations already giving birth at a rate far less than the replacement rate.
Want some numbers? While world population has more than doubled since 1950 to the current 6.3 billion, according to the United Nations, the population will top out between 2050 and 2075. Demographer and American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt says its likely to come on the earlier end of that estimate, when the world hits 8 billion by 2050. "I think its perfectly plausible that world population could peak by 2050 or even sooner and perhaps at a level below 8 billion," says Eberstadt, noting the past 35 years of declining fertility rates.
Thus the world in the next half century will have fewer additional people to take care of than it did in the last half century. In percentage terms, while it handled 100 percent more people in the last 50 years, it will only have to deal with 27 percent more in the next 50. Granted, thats still a lot of people. But its a long way from apocalyptic.
Its true that parts of the world tend to be pretty crowded. (Ehrlich has admitted the impetus for the book came when he found himself in the crush of humanity in a large city in India.) But while "overcrowding" may sound frightening, its a misleading term because its defined by individual and cultural lifestyles and circumstances which have little to do with the scientific definition of "overpopulation." People in India were crammed together not because there were too many for the land to hold, but because like people the world over, they prefer urban centers to rural areas. Thats why some Manhattan high-rises practically house more people than South Dakota. Overcrowding may be a problem, but its not overpopulation.
The Food Explosion
Ehrlichs other prophecies of doom havent proven any more reliable. The Population Bomb initially focused on the prospect of famine, with Ehrlich predicting, "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines ... [and] hundreds of millions of people [including Americans] are going to starve to death." As it happened, he was off by, oh, hundreds of millions.
In Ehrlichs 1990 sequel, The Population Explosion, he claimed that world grain production peaked in 1986. Wrong. In 1986 about 1.8 million metric tons of cereals (the most important grain) were produced, an increase over previous years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. By 2001, that number had increased to 2.7 metric tons.
"Global food production per person peaked earlier, in 1984," Ehrlich further claimed, "and has slid downward since then." His fellow doomsayer, founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute Lester Brown (along with Ehrlich, another winner of the MacArthur Foundation "genius award") wrote in 1981, "The period of global food security is over."
Wrong and wrong again. From 1981 to 1989, grain production per person increased by more than 5 percent. Since then, its increased another 4 percent more per person. Yet we havent had to plow under the face of the earth to get this extra food. In 2001, 304 million acres were used to grow the worlds cereals, slightly less than in 1968 when Ehrlichs bombastic bomb book appeared and far less than the 330 million acres used in the peak year of 1991.
"An endangered species?"
Eating one fewer Big Mac a day will help us stay healthier, but it wont do Africans or Indians any good. Talk about "equitable distribution of food" is just that, talk. Whats needed is a rising tide to raise all boats. Neo-Marxist groups like Greenpeace insist that all we have to do is to evenly divide up the worlds food; but thats no more likely than dividing up the worlds wealth. (Which they would also love to do.) Just as increasing wealth among the poorest requires increasing wealth generally, so too must we continue to increase the amount of food available for all to help those with the greatest need. This is even more important because lesser-developed countries are acquiring a taste for more meat, which requires far more crops than eating the crops directly would. The question is, are we up to the task of providing all those calories?
Norman Borlaug should know. Hes a Nobel Peace Prize winner and "father of the Green Revolution," which brought dramatic increases in cereal-grain yields in many developing countries beginning in the late 1960s, due largely to use of genetically improved varieties. In his chapter in the just-released book Global Warming and Other Myths, he claims that "the world has the technology either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline-to feed a population of 10 billion people." More specifically, "Even without using advances in plant biotechnology, yields can be increased by 50 to 70 percent in much of the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and by 100 to 150 percent in sub-Saharan Africa."
There also are tremendous advances in biotechnology that make the scenario even brighter.
Consider a single crop: rice. Swiss researchers have added genes from daffodils to so-called "Golden Rice" to give it Vitamin A, the lack of which causes about 2 million deaths annually. (Its also the leading cause of preventable blindness in anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 children.) Then they added a gene from a fungus that creates an enzyme allowing the human digestive system to break down the iron in rice thats otherwise unavailable to us. Still other researchers are adding genes to rice crops that increase yields by 20 to 40 percent.
Of course, the ability to feed mankind is not our sole worry in terms of whether we can sustain a growing population. Yet time and again, weve stubbornly refused to run out of things that were supposed to have been depleted long ago.
Needed: More People
Ehrlich in his 1974 book The End of Affluence declared that, "Before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity ... in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion." He was hardly alone; a group called the Club of Rome issued a much publicized report in 1972 that had us running out of virtually everything by now but sand and cockroaches.
Yet no minerals "key" or otherwise are today in danger of being depleted. Price over the long run (as opposed to temporary gyrations) is a direct indicator of scarcity. But the International Monetary Funds price index for metals is now the lowest it has ever been.
Every few years oil is supposed to run dry; every few years proven reserves actually expand.
Still, there is one vital resource in which we may develop a shortage in the next few decades: us.
Thats because the worlds population wont just conveniently level off after it peaks; more likely it will drop like a stone.
According to U.N. Population Division Director Joseph Chamie, current population projections assume the earth is moving toward an average fertility level of 1.85 children per woman. Considering that a 2.1 level is needed to sustain a population, the planets population would peak at 7.5 billion by 2050 and fall to 5.3 billion by 2150.
And that has interesting political implications, since the decline will not be evenly distributed among nations. The populations of several Soviet-bloc nations already are falling because of declining birth rates and emigration. Japan is expecting its population to peak in 2006 and then drop by 14 percent (almost 20 million people) by 2050. Germany expects a similar decline, while Italy and Hungary may lose 25 percent of their populations and Russia a third. These nations already are becoming giant "leisure worlds," with Depends outselling Pampers.
Still, theres one thing that as the population shrinks we simply wont be able to make up for.
Julian Simon, a truly irreplaceable resource.
True, he wrote, "Adding more people will cause [temporary] problems, but at the same time there will be more people to solve these problems."
To Simon, the cry of a little baby represented not just one more mouth to feed, but perhaps the next Pascal, the next Kepler, the next Michelangelo, the next Bach.
We dont know how many of these wont be born. But well grieve their loss just the same.