"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 24, 2011

Seven Billion World Population–Too many?

Joel Cohen has written a provocative article on increasing world population in todays New York Times, and I include the link here:


He makes the now well-known argument that rapidly increasing populations put enormous pressures on world resources with the equally well-known and predictable results – fewer water resources, arable land, adequate public services, etc. 

What is missing from his argument is the positive aspects of population growth and potentially negative results from population control.  China, which had an aggressive and repressive population control program (One Child), is now facing an increasingly competitive world with too few people entering the labor force to be competitive.  India, on the other hand, had a voluntary (and less successful) population control program, but now is poised to advance beyond China in GDP growth largely because the huge bulge of young people – increasingly well educated, motivated, and more free than ever to pursue wealth and success thanks to the dismantling of the regressive Socialist economic system.

Julian Simon has written extensively on the positive aspects of population growth, and before he died, he gave an interview about his ideas, suggesting that increasing populations have been the engines of civilization and economic development.


Following are some brief excerpts:

Population growth does not have a statistically negative effect upon economic growth. We know that from 30 years of careful quantitative scientific studies-just the opposite of what the public believes. Because human knowledge allows us to produce more finished products out of fewer raw materials, natural resources are becoming more available. The air and water in rich countries are becoming cleaner. Most importantly, human beings are living much longer than ever before...

The view that I have expressed to you thus far is precisely the view held by experts on these topics. Every agricultural economist knows that people have been eating better since World War II, the period for which we have data. Every resource economist knows that natural resources have become cheaper rather than more expensive. Every demographer knows that life expectancy in the wealthy countries has gone up from under 30 years at birth 200 years ago to over 75 years at birth today. And life expectancy has risen in the poor countries from perhaps 35 years at birth only 50 years ago to 60-65-70 years at birth today. Those are the facts which are known by the economists and demographers who study these subjects...

By 1994 we have solid statistical evidence about the determinants of economic development. What could only be said on economic faith 30 years ago, we can now document scientifically. We now know statistically that what David Hume wrote on the subject in the 1700s was exactly right. When identifying why Holland was the richest country in Europe, Hume said that “Liberty, necessity, and a multitude of people” were the causes...

A free society with social rules enables people to exercise their talents for their own sakes. This inevitably benefits others by bringing forth prodigious productive efforts which cause growth. And each generation creates a little bit more than it uses. Hence each new generation is richer than the previous generation.

This process is made more rapid by a free society. We frequently hear in the press how people in rich countries, such as the United States, constitute only five percent of the population and use up 40 percent of the resources. That may be true, but people in rich countries make available even more than 40 percent of the resources...

While this is true, Simon wrote before the realization that climate change would affect the population-resource balance; but economic growth arguments which have been derived from his theories and from those of liberal economics are still valid.  To a large degree, populations can be controlled by natural market forces.

For example, it is a documented fact that as family income increases, fertility decreases.  This has been the case in the developed world, and is the case in the developing world.  Families with more disposable income have greater access to health care and therefore realize they do not need to increase fertility to counter high mortality.  Families with higher incomes can use these resources to better educate their children who in turn realize that fewer children mean higher per capita family income.  Families with higher education have a better understanding of and access to contraception.

The Cohen article does not correlate economic growth with population decline, and the population projections cited are not referenced to show the variables used to compute them; but if economic growth is accelerated and investments are made to encourage it rather than the low-impact social programs favored by international foreign assistance programs, population growth rates should tail off, and while large population base countries like India, China, and Indonesia will still grow, they will grow less rapidly and eventually achieve stasis.

Cohen does not offer solutions, but options:

Is economic development the best contraception? Or is voluntary contraception the best form of development? Does the world need a bigger pie (more productive technologies) or fewer forks (slower population growth through voluntary contraception) or better manners (fewer inequities, less violence and corruption, freer trade and mobility, more rule of law, less material-intensive consumption)? Or is education of better quality and greater availability a key ingredient of all other strategies?

Obviously, a little bit of all the above would contribute significantly, but economic development is by far the best option.  Not only would it have the secondary benefit of reducing population growth, but it would affect all the social variables that have been largely resistant to improvement through traditional development.  As above, increased incomes means increased access to quality health care and education.  And, of course, economic growth brings mobility, increased attention to issues of civil society (law, justice, equality) and resultant positive social change.

In another provocative article in today’s (October 24) Washington Post,


Juliet Eilperin chronicles the effect of climate change on resources and the consequent effect on the world’s population.  She talks principally about water and ‘evaporating water supplies’.  Not surprisingly the countries that are the worst off are in Africa, especially, and the Middle East.  Many Sub-Saharan countries, especially in the Sahel have been losing arable land for decades – even before the climate crisis.  The desert was simply expanding partly due to macro-climatic change but also the deforestation of the little forest coverage available, poorly-managed intensive farming and over-extensive farming, etc.

The error of this article is that it does not discuss the various socio-political and economic resolutions to the problem.  International development has long favored keeping populations in place, largely due to philosophical considerations – the importance of people remaining in their native places within the context of their history; and have invested in failed agricultural projects.  The obvious counter-argument is to invest in urban productivity zones, increasing employment and wealth and thus attracting a rural migration which would provide the labor for growth.  Of course, politics have been the greatest hindrance to this idea, for investing in Doula, for example, would be seen as disfavoring other countries’ urban areas.  The idea of creating African Economic Zones has also held promise, where countries would be united in economic regions (such as Central America and Panama or The Southern Cone of South America), but divisive and basic tribal, ethnic, and economic differences were big impediments.

Nevertheless, there appears to be no point in promoting residence in water- and resource-poor areas; and a lot of point to concentrating population and production in urban areas.  Urban areas have historically been the engines of growth and civilization and the migration towards them has been inexorable.

If rural populations in areas which have been unproductive because of countries’ inability to farm them productively, were to move to urban areas, abandoning their lands, wealthy countries could purchase them at low cost and turn them into viable, productive lands.  Israel, as we all know, made their desert bloom.  Resource-hungry nations, like China, would have a big return in transforming arid, formerly unproductive areas into highly productive ones.  They would certainly use most of the food produced for their own consumption, but would also be able to sell it on the world market to be bought by those new, higher income urban migrants.

The article contains some worthwhile ideas and examples of better water management in  areas which are reasonably well-watered

A number of private sector groups  have started projects to address global water supply….including training specialists in India who can maintain community water supplies and have the financial incentive to keep them operating.

In countries like India which are on their way to world class economic status, such reform of the water sector make sense.

In conclusion, it is time to reject the inevitability of the negative impact of climate change and population growth; to stop the universal dependence on ‘environmental’ lobbies and non-profit organizations; and begin to look at these problems through an economic lens.

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