Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Population Issues And Policies
Part 1 of 2
An understanding of the causes and consequences of demographic trends is fundamental to explaining economic results and formulating the appropriate socioeconomic policies. Nevertheless, many economists are so focused on the short-term business cycle, they all but ignore the demographic factors so crucial to understanding long‑term economic trends (called secular trends in the arcane jargon of economists). For example, the increased U.S. unemployment rate of the 1970s was completely foreseeable by observing the timing of the baby boom between 1945 and 1958 and noting when this age cohort would begin crowding employment offices. The unemployment problem was exacerbated by the influx of women and minorities into the labor force after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Yet, I attended dozens of economic symposiums and conferences in the 1970s where the discussion revolved around whether the higher unemployment rate was due to inappropriate fiscal or monetary policies; no mention was made of demographic factors. By failing to sufficiently consider the demographic factors, the unemployment situation of the 1970s and 1980s was tackled with a host of ineffective economic polices. This chapter will show why in the long term, population growth ―both worldwide and in the United States― is the single most important factor affecting the welfare of society. To understand the impact of population growth on the U.S. economy, we must first examine the global trends and then turn our attention to the national trends and the policy implications.
In 1970, the Club of Rome* predicted that, unless the world took immediate action, the planet faced a population explosion that would result in widespread famine, pollution, and exhaustion of natural resources. The growth in population has been less than the club predicted, in large part because of the efforts of China and several other nations to seriously curb their population growth. There has been famine, but it has been limited primarily to Africa, most notably Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan. Even in these areas, famine has been due, in part, to the civil wars that have racked these countries for over two decades. Some natural resources have suffered a decline ―especially forests and species diversity― but substitute materials and more efficient means of extraction have not resulted in higher prices for most raw materials such as oil or metals.
* The Club of Rome is a group of scientists, economists, businessmen, international civil servants, as well as current and former heads of state from five continents. Their self-defined role is "to address new global imbalances caused by differing speeds of population and economic growth as well as the disruptive effects of global competition, resulting in unemployment in some countries and miserably low pay in others and leading to poverty and exclusion." Founded in 1968, the club's first report, "Limits to Growth," was published in 1970. It stressed the importance of the environment, and the essential links with the population and energy. The report sold twelve million copies in thirty‑seven languages and was the wake‑up call to the nations of the world that the rate of growth in world population (about 1.8 percent annually in 1970) was unsustainable.
Since the dire consequences predicted by the Club of Rome, such as worldwide famine, have failed to materialize, some futurists and business economists such as Ben Wattenberg, the late Julian Simon and the late Herman Kahn, have been quick to point out that doomsday scenarios have been forecast since the time of Thomas Malthus but have never been realized. In fact, Simon and Wattenberg argue that growth in population has led to increased affluence worldwide. The explanation they offer is that more people result in more minds to solve the problems facing humankind. By this logic, China and India should be two of the most prosperous countries in the world. And, oh, those lucky people of Bangladesh―if only their population could continue increasing, what a wonderful future they will have! Conversely, countries such as Japan, Korea, and the nations of Western Europe, all of whom have dramatically slowed their growth in population, should have faired poorly since World War II. Clearly the theory of Simon and Wattenberg bears no relationship with the facts.
The fact is that anyone with a hand calculator can determine the impossibility of maintaining an increasing or even a constant rate of population growth. The theoretical reason is that a positive percentage change results in an ever increasing growth in the absolute amount of change. In other words, if we increase a series starting at 100 by 3 percent annually, the series increases to 103, 106.1, 109.3, 112.3, and so on. Note that not only is the series increasing, but it is increasing by larger amounts each year. Now this small difference in incremental change might not seem much, but when we are dealing with large numbers over long periods of time it becomes explosive. Let me demonstrate with actual population data.
Suppose we extrapolate the 3.7 percent rate of growth the world was experiencing at the time the Club of Rome made its projections. Extrapolating chat growth rate for the next two hundred years ―just six generations― would result in the world's population exploding from 3.7 billion people in 1970 to 3.6 trillion people by the year 2270. That's 1,400 times more people.
Even maintaining the 1990s' significantly lower rate of growth of 1.48 percent1 for 200 years would result in over 108 billion inhabitants on the planet, the equivalent of 100 new countries the size of China. The physical impossibility of maintaining such a rate of growth is seen by extrapolating the present growth rate out 800 years: it would result in 529 trillion people, enough to stand shoulder‑to‑shoulder over every foot of the earth's land mass!2 Even reducing population growth to only 1 percent per year would result in tripling the earth's population during the next century, approaching 38 billion people in two hundred years, and eventually reaching 4 trillion people ―1000 Chinas― before 2700 C.E. Those who ignore the effect of compounding growth rates suffer from mathematical ignorance or historic myopia.
As Charles Darwin pointed out, "There is no exception to the rule that every organism naturally increases at so high a rate, that, if not destroyed, :he earth would be covered by the progeny of a single pair."3 Control of the overpopulation of other species is accomplished by high infant mortality rates. A sea turtle lays thousands of eggs over her life span, but most of her rabies are gobbled up by predators almost immediately after birth; the result is that only about two live to reach reproductive age. Apes have only a few babies over their life span but are able to protect them much better than sea turtles can. Nevertheless, predators and illness kill off all but about two offspring before reproductive age. It all balances out nicely (or at least it did so until humankind reduced the survival rate of such species to less than two). An exception to the rule of reproductive balance are bacteria, such as E. coli, which keeps reproducing until it destroys the host and then, unless it finds a new host, the bacteria all die as well.
It is not surprising then, that medical researcher Dr. Alan Gregg and others have compared the human organism behavior to that of cancer.4 The problem stems from human success in reducing the infant mortality rate without also controlling the birth rate. This would ultimately result in a cancer‑like growth. If left unchecked, our growth in population would destroy our host‑our planet ―and, of course, the human species as well. The issue is not whether the population must be slowed, but rather how fast and by what means.
A further difficulty with the present growth rate is that the reaction time to deal with the problem of runaway population has become shorter and shorter; and with time running out, so do our options for controlling population by less than draconian means. The table below shows that it took the entire history of civilization until the year 1830 to generate two billion inhabitants of our planet, but only 11 years to produce the fifth billion.
The Exponential History of Human Population Growths5
would be much worse had China not undertaken its stringent population control
policies. In large measure, it was China's lower growth rate and the decline in
the birth rates of the industrialized nations that have prevented the dire
predictions of the Club of Rome from being realized. In other words, because
many nations have heeded the Club of Rome warnings the
Assuming yields that the best farmers of the world are able to achieve on the world's most productive land (Iowa), in the best growing season, 10 billion people might be fed on a Western nation‑style diet.8 We would reach that population level in about fifty years if the current birth rate remained unchanged. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that the rest of the world, much of which is farming very marginal land, can come anywhere close to the productivity of Iowa farms. Food per capita has been declining in Sub‑Saharan Africa and Latin America for the past decade.9 A far more somber assessment is offered by a Brown University study showing that if all the food in the world were distributed equitably, we could adequately feed six billion people on a vegetarian diet.10 Joel E. Cohen offers only a slightly more optimistic view that perhaps 10 billion people may exist on a vegetarian diet, assuming no competition for grain from meat producing animals such as cows, pigs, or chickens.11
While it is true that the Green Revolution (the increase in agricultural productivity due to increased use of fertilizers and new hybrid crops) has provided a margin of temporary relief, it is also true that much of the increased food production has been bought at the cost of environmental destruction, such as the rapid destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Regrettably, the increased productivity brought about by the Green Revolution has also resulted in millions of farmers being displaced and forced to seek employment in the cities, giving rise to urban slums such as the notorious Brazilian favelas. Although the worst case scenario has been temporarily forestalled, the existing circumstances are none too encouraging. In 1993, one‑third of the world's women were under fifteen years of age and so are just now entering their peak reproductive years." Even with the declining trend in fertility rates world wide, the most optimistic forecasts show the world population reaching about eight billion by the year 2050 before beginning a long term decline.
It is pointless to argue as journalist Stephen Budiansky does, that the reason 700 million people throughout the world are presently suffering from malnutrition is not because the world cannot produce enough food, but because the poor have no money to buy food. Although free markets might help the situation in many nations, free markets alone will not solve the problem of population growth and malnutrition. It is not just food production that is required to alleviate poverty, but an entire economic infrastructure including housing, water and sanitation, transportation, communication, schools, industry, and the like. It is estimated that if the world population doubles, it would require a five‑ to ten-fold increase in economic activity to meet basic needs and minimum aspirations.13
Developing an economy takes time. But time has run out for many of the less developed countries. Notwithstanding, the Pollyannas still turn a blind eye to the growth trends and argue that the only issue is one of economic distribution. They ignore the fact that population pressure has forced people to resettle in areas that will guarantee disaster on a monumental scale. For example, population pressure has forced people to settle in the Gangetic Delta in Pakistan, which is barely above sea level. Consequently, with absolute regularity tropical storms kill thousands of people. The same tragedy occurs in Bangladesh where an increase in population from 30 million to 118 million within just twenty years forced people to inhabit islands that inevitably are swamped during major cyclones. A 1970 cyclone left 300,000 dead; 10,000 died in 1985; and over 138,000 were killed in 1991. Such numbers are almost unimaginable; in this country it was considered a major tragedy when an earthquake or tornado kills a hundred people.
The Pollyannas ignore the 7 million homeless children who live and die in the streets of Brazil. Worldwide the number of street urchins may be 100 million.14 The Pollyannas obstinately maintain that the 15 million infants who will die this year of malnutrition and curable childhood diseases are the result only of inequitable food distribution. Never mind that providing more food would only increase the population in those areas that are already growing out of control. As Alan Gregg morosely explains, "cancerous growths demand food; but they never have been cured by getting it."15
The population bomb has exploded, but most Americans fail to recognize the fallout. We are horrified by the continual warfare and deplorable living conditions in the third world. We lament the loss of Amazon rain forests and African wildlife. We decry the increased water and air pollution, the buildup of toxic waste, the destruction of the ozone layer, and worldwide soil erosion. We deplore the crime and poverty throughout the world. Still many people refuse to recognize that all the foregoing problems are directly related to population growth (and increased consumption per capita, as we will discuss in the next chapter).
Another of the ignored aspects of the burgeoning world population is the need to provide jobs for all these people. At present there are approximately one billion people who are unemployed or seriously underemployed throughout the world. If this were not bad enough, within the next ten years the world economies will have to generate almost 800 million additional jobs. If they fail to do so, the growth in the world's unemployed poor will be a major destabilizing force, what population expert Werner Fornos calls the "Aspiration Bomb." Yet the odds of generating so many jobs in nations where unemployment is already a major problem is very slight indeed.
Finally, it has become fashionable lately for some writers to lament the declining birth rates in the developed nations and predict dire consequences due to a population "implosion" (reduction).16 Of course, a decline in population growth will present some new challenges, since a smaller population means fewer workers contributing to the support of a larger number of elderly from the previous generation. This is not news; it was recognized by demographers as long ago as 1970 when I studied demographics under the noted demographer Philip Hauser at the University of Chicago. At the time the general view was that the world's population would spike sometime in the twenty‑first century and then precipitously decline. This is the normal trend in species that over populate, destroy their environment, and then suffer a population collapse. However, the hope was that by using our human intelligence we could anticipate and thus avoid such a traumatic prospect. By slowing the growth rate in population, we could avoid a spike and all its ramifications.
Trend line A below is a far easier trend to cope with than trend line B:
also be noted that our ability to support future generations of elderly is not
dependent on increases in population. If that were true why do China and India
have more problems than Europe? The ideal population trend would be a flat or
slightly declining level in population. We can still improve the average
standard of living with a declining population as long as the rate of growth in
productivity exceeds the rate of decline in the population.
If, in the year 2050, the president reports to Congress that world population has risen to the staggering number of eight billion, our children (and maybe some of those reading this book) will angrily ask, "why the hell didn't someone do something when the problem was containable?"
The Christian Right did do something. It greatly exacerbated the problem by effectively persuading the Republican party to oppose funding for family planning services. As long ago as 1974, a study of population growth was ordered by President Richard Nixon. Called NSSM 200, it accurately predicted the growth in world population, the dire consequences for the economic development of the LDCs, and the worldwide environment destruction. Unfortunately for the world, out of fear of becoming immersed in the issue of population control and facing the ire of the Catholic Church and the Christian Right, Nixon decided to classify the study "Secret" rather than take appropriate action.17 Stephen D. Mumford provides a well documented and disturbing account of how the Catholic Church has fought family planning throughout the world in an effort to safeguard its totalitarian claim of papal infallibility and supremacy in moral matters for all people, not just Catholics."*
*As I noted in The Final Superstition, the Catholic Church has got itself in a box when, at the First Vatican Council of 1870, it tried to reverse its eroding authority by declaring the pope infallible on issues of faith and morals. This was a desperate, but temporarily successful effort to protect church authority from the spillover of the philosophically democratic notion that the authority of any institution must ultimately reside in those whom it governs. To compound its shameful claim of infallibility, the pronouncements of the popes during the last century clearly have condemned all forms of contraception and abortion. As a result, the pope cannot now renege on these issues without sacrificing the infallibility dogma. The horrendous consequence of papal intransigence is that the box the church got itself into has been turned into a coffin for millions of women whose lives would have been spared had they been permitted to avoid unwanted pregnancies through contraception. Tens of millions more have had their lives and those of their children condemned to a miserably marginal existence. It is a final and tragic irony that the major reason for the abortions the Church so unjustly condemns, is the insufficient availability of cheap contraception in the undeveloped nations due in large measure to papal intransigence.
Ironically, and tragically, the lack of U.S. funding for contraceptive and family planning programs had the result of greatly increasing the number of abortions in many countries. The World Health Organization estimates that there were approximately 45 million abortions in 1995, up 25 million from only five years earlier. Moreover, the lack of legal abortions has resulted in about 20 million of these abortions being performed in unsafe conditions. The consequence is the death of an estimated 70,000 women annually. Millions of others suffer from chronic morbidity afterwards. In Nigeria alone, 72 percent of all deaths of teenage girls are due to botched home remedy abortions. Reducing unplanned pregnancies could also save the lives of millions of women who bring unwanted pregnancies to term. According to the Population Reference Bureau, family planning could prevent 25 percent of all maternal deaths in developing nations.20 Family planning improves the survival rates of adolescent girls by allowing them to postpone childbearing until maturity. The risk of dying in pregnancy and childbirth is twice as high for teenagers as for women in their twenties.21
The failure of the United States and other developed countries to provide the relatively trivial funding required to provide adequate family planning services to every woman on the planet will be judged by history to be incredibly shortsighted and inhumane. The failure to make contraception universally available has already claimed the lives of tens of millions of women and resulted in an inestimable amount of unnecessary human suffering.
decade of population assistance was lost before Congress included $392 million
in the 1994 budget for population development assistance, a paltry $40 million
of which was earmarked for the UN population fund. Congress still would not
allow more than $10 million to go to China.22
In Clinton's 1995 budget, $635 billion was originally earmarked for family
planning, but Congressmen Jesse Helms (R‑NC) and the Christian Right opposed the
funding. A bill was introduced by Senator Mitch McConnell (R‑Kentucky) to again
cut all U.S. aid for family planning programs. The 1997 funding bill slashed
population spending to a mere $356 million.23 The result: millions of additional
unwanted children brought into a world where they will be forced to live a
painful, marginal existence. As explained in The Science of Morality, the
reducing funds for international family planning must be judged as highly
immoral, not to mention extremely short‑sighted even from a
The 1994 Cairo Conference: Recognition of Rights but not Responsibilities
The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, although hailed as a major success by most nations, was actually only a small step forward in the world's effort to control population growth. The most significant success was the unanimous recognition that population growth was indeed a problem. Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's prime minister at the time, set the tone of the meeting in her keynote address: "We are a planet out of control, a planet moving toward catastrophe."24 Coming from the leader of a Muslim country, the recognition for slowing population growth was especially encouraging. Another heartening action was the Clinton administration's support of the joint statement that called upon "all countries to make assessable through the primary healthcare system, reproductive health to all, including family planning counseling services," thus reversing the disastrous position of the Reagan/Bush era with regard to family planning.
As usual, the Vatican tried to obstruct progress in population control. This tiny city‑state should not even have been allowed into the conference since it is not actually a nation, but a protectorate. Comprised almost entirely of 1,500 old men, the Vatican has no business attempting to determine the reproductive rights and responsibilities of the world's women. Nevertheless, the Vatican was allowed into the conference, where it immediately allied itself with Iran, Libya, and other Islamic fundamentalist countries to oppose all forms of family planning involving contraception.25 However, the efforts of the pope and ayatollahs to oppose family planning were overwhelmingly rejected by the world's nations. Only a handful of Catholic and Moslem countries refused to endorse the final draft of the conference supporting family planning.26
Despite the Cairo Conference's success in gaining recognition for a woman's right to control her fertility, the Final Resolution of the conference suffered from two glaring deficiencies. First, it failed to recommend legalizing abortion. Instead it held that each country must determine its own policies with regard to abortion, noting only axiomatically that in those countries where abortion was legal, such abortions should be safe.27 This lack of commitment to a woman's right to abortion was unfortunate not only because it perpetuates an unwillingness to recognize a woman's right to control her fertility, but also because abortion is the only recourse a woman has in areas where contraception is not available. Even if abortion is not the most desirable form of birth control, it is a far better alternative than having unwanted and neglected children.
The other major deficiency in the Final Resolution was the comment that "governments are encouraged to focus most of their efforts toward meeting the population and development objectives through education and voluntary measures rather than schemes involving incentives and disincentives."28 Having more children than can adequately be raised by their parents or sustained by the environment violates the second and third harmonies required for improving human welfare. Given the strong biological urge to procreate, it may be necessary that societies provide offsetting incentives not to procreate. Such disincentives to procreation could include limiting tax deductions to two children, denying free education or other social services for a third child, or even forcing a couple to pay additional taxes to cover the social costs of having more than two children.
Is Economic Development the Key to Reduced Population or Vice Versa?
The demographic transition theory provides a plausible alternative for those who oppose government involvement in population control. According to this theory, population growth undergoes two phases. In Phase I, the availability of medical services to fight disease results in lower mortality rates and rapid growth in population. In Phase II, economic development provides better education for woman and improved job opportunities for all people, thus providing sufficient income for people to care for themselves in old age. Since people do not need to raise as many children to provide for their parents in old age, the birth rate drops and population stabilizes. Consequently, the proponents of demographic transition theory believe that the population problem can be solved by simply fostering economic development. It has been estimated that the demographic transition to lower fertility rates occurs when annual income per capita reaches $2,000 (1990 dollars).29 Unfortunately, a problem arises because few nations in Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East have broken through this theoretical income barrier. And they are not likely to do so precisely because of the rapid increase in their population ―a classic catch‑22.
Like so many half‑baked theories, this one has an element of truth. When women become better educated and have greater job opportunities they tend to get married later and have fewer children. In Western economies, the increase in economic development did occur prior to the decline in the birth rate. This sequence occurred, however, in societies that had firmly established agricultural bases that were more than adequate to support the growth in population. These societies were also well into their industrial development before population began to exert significant pressure on their resources. The situation is quite different in the LDCs today. William N. Ryerson of Population Communication International explains that since World War 11 no country has gone from a developing status to a developed status without first reducing the birth rate.30
Japan provides an alternative paradigm to the demographic transition as well as an example developing countries must emulate if they are to avoid disaster. From 1868 to 1940, the population of Japan grew from 32 to 73 million. Consequently, despite increased agricultural productivity and more land brought under cultivation, the average daily consumption of rice had dropped to bare subsistence levels. As early as the 1920s, Japanese politicians argued that there were only three avenues left to escape from the problem of surplus population: emigration, advance into the world markets, or expansion of territory.31 Since immigration was precluded by the policies of other countries, and high tariff barriers effectively kept Japan out of world markets, Japan decided to pursue the third alternative of becoming a colonial power. The results were disastrous for the entire world. Unfortunately for Japan and the world, Japan never seriously considered a fourth alternative, population control, until after losing the war.
After the war, the Japanese dramatically reduced their fertility rate, attaining replacement level (2.1 children per woman) as early as 1950 and have maintained this level in the succeeding decades. The beneficial results of the new policy can be placed in dramatic perspective by contrasting economic development in Japan and Brazil since 1970.
and 1994 Brazil's economy (Gross National Product) grew by 194 percent in
inflation adjusted terms, outpacing Japan's 165 percent growth. However, the
growth of Brazil's population absorbed much of the benefit of this growth. On a
per capita basis,
grew only 77 percent compared to
132 percent, In other words, because
controlled its population growth, it grew almost twice as fast as Brazil on a
per capita basis. Recall from the last chapter, that it is only real growth per
capita that reflects an increase in living standards.
If we examine just the period from 1980 to 1994, the results are even more striking. During this period, Brazil grew 32 percent in real terms, but after adjusting for population, Brazil had virtually no growth on a per capita basis. Japan, on the other hand, grew not only 61 percent overall but, because it had very little population growth, per capita growth soared 50 percent. (As a point of reference, during the 1980‑94 period real GDP of the U.S. grew 38 percent, about the same as Brazil, but our slower population growth yielded a per capita growth of 24 percent ―not as good as Japan, but much better than Brazil.)33
Hence, the difference in the growth of prosperity between Japan and Brazil can be explained primarily in terms of their differential birth rates.* In the early 1990s, the population of most underdeveloped countries was growing about 3.4 percent per year. This means that their economies must grow that fast just to break even, with no real growth in income per capita.
*There has been some concern expressed in recent years concerning the potential impact of Japan's aging population. However, the high savings rate in Japan assures that they will not have trouble caring for their aged. Moreover, the problem is only temporary; eventually the number of aged will decline, reflecting the lower birth rate of forty‑five veers ago.
A study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shows that the demographic transition theory has the causation exactly backwards. Slower population growth is a prerequisite to per capita income growth. In a study of 82 countries, it was discovered that the 41 countries with slower population growth increased per capita income by an average of 1.25 percent per year, while income per capita declined an average of 1.25 percent per year in the 41 countries with faster population growth.34 Furthermore, R. T. Roosevelt, Director of Office of Population, U.S. AID, points out that South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and Indonesia have demonstrated that a policy of making contraception and quality abortion services available results in plummeting fertility rates followed by rapid economic growth.35
The experience of Thailand is instructive. Thailand concentrated its efforts to reduce population growth and pushed fertility rates down from 6.1 children per woman in the 1965‑70 period to only 2.2 by 1987. Consequently, income per capita rose 4.4 percent over the same period.36 Ryerson explains why lower birth rates result in increased per capita growth in the modern era: "[R]educed family size enables couples and nations to save a higher percentage of their income and invest it in education, government and industry ―all of which lead to increased productivity."37
In light of all the evidence against the demographic transition theory, why is it still being touted? Basically, because it permits many liberals and conservatives from facing the fact that nations must provide incentives to reduce birth rates. Many neoliberals dislike any policy that seeks to influence a woman's choice with regard to her fertility and many conservatives of the religious right abhor the possibility that an incentive might result in more abortions. So both groups take solace in the myth of the demographic transition theory where everything works out just fine without government intervention.
Lester Thurow concludes that the maximum sustainable population growth for LDCs
is 2 percent per year.38 Thurow points out that if Japan, Germany,
and the United States continued to have population growth rates of 3 to 4
percent per annum, their standard of living would be no higher than 100 years
As we shall see, many nations can no longer afford even a 2 percent per year
growth rate. Although the benefits of a free market are many, there is no
substitute for the availability of family planning and a well thought-out system
of economic incentives to reduce population growth.
But Aren't There Highly Populated Nations with High Living Standards?
The Netherlands is often used as an example by those who believe that population growth is a good thing, or at least neutral. Although it has a population density eighteen times that of the United States, the Netherlands enjoys a high standard of living. Paul Ehrlich explains that this argument, which he calls the Netherlands Fallacy, ignores the huge amount of physical resources acquired outside of the Netherlands's borders that are required to sustain its living standard.41 "The Netherlands consumes the output equivalent of fourteen times the productive land contained within its borders."42 Similarly, Japan sustains its standard of living by importing 70 percent of its corn, wheat and barley, 95 percent of soybeans, and 50 percent of wood from the rapidly vanishing rain forests of Borneo.43 Biologist E. O. Wilson observes that so called economic miracles "occur most often when countries consume not only their own material resources, including oil, timber, water and agricultural produce, but those of other countries as well."44
Most of the
world's industrialized economies, including the United States, maintain their
standard of living by using a very disproportionate amount of the earth's
resources and generate much greater pollution per capita as well. This cannot
continue forever. The poorer nations of the world are beginning to understand
that if the rich nations are using a disproportionate amount of resources, they
do so at the expense of the less developed nations. One result is that the
disparity between rich and poor nations is growing larger rather than smaller.
As the poor nations seek to catch up, they will find it increasingly more
difficult to close the gap. Shrinking per capita resources and the need for more
stringent standards to prevent further degradation of the environment will
result in additional constraints on the LDCs, for example, limits on fish
catches or the amount of pollutant emissions.
The evidence is growing that the population of the world is nearing, or perhaps has already exceeded, the long‑term carrying capacity of our planet. University of California geologist Preston Cloud estimates that 6 or 7 billion people is the most the world can sustain at the standard of living of Western Europe.45 The number would be considerably less at U.S. living standards. Ecologist David Pimentel is not so sanguine. Pimentel argues that for the entire world to live at the same standard as Western Europe would require the resources of another planet the size of Earth.46 Based upon his analysis, the ideal population for our planet would be only about two billion people.
A study by William Rees, an urban planner at the University of British Columbia, estimated that it takes 10 to 15 acres of land to maintain the consumption of the average person living in a high income country. By 1990, however, the world's total ecologically productive land available was already down to 4.2 acres per capita.47 In other words, if Rees is correct, there is no chance that the less developed countries will reach the consumption levels of the developed nations without a significant reduction in world population. Computer simulations by Jørgen Randers of MIT and Donella Meadows of Dartmouth University show that only if physical growth halts will the earth be able to support life.48 The models also show that even with unlimited energy, growth in consumption must be stopped to control rising pollution. Finally, David C. Korten notes that if the world reaches a population of ten billion there will be no place for animal or plant life that are not immediately essential to human survival.49 So we can kiss off the majority of animal species, especially the large mammals that compete with humans for food and habitat, such as those that exist in rainforests or the savannas of Africa. The nature films of the late twenty‑first century will need to be shot in zoos.
In addition to the physical deprivation that a rapidly growing world must face, there are psychological problems as well. According to E. O. Wilson, studies of various species indicate that most kinds of aggressive behavior among members of the same species are exacerbated by overcrowding.50 John B. Calhoun, a psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, studied the effect of overpopulation on the behavior of mice. He discovered that after a certain density is reached, juvenile behavior is extended into adulthood, parental care stops, aggressive behavior increases and, eventually, mating ceases and the colony becomes extinct." Obviously, it is questionable whether we can extrapolate the behavior of mice to the human species. But there are enough similarities to the situation in our society today to give one pause. Calhoun believes that the human species is on a similar course. He predicts the world population will reach nine billion then drop precipitously over the next two hundred years to two billion people.
In my opinion, unless population growth is quickly brought under control the only way to avoid collapse will be through stringent population control and regimentation of all aspects of human behavior. Continued growth in population and the commensurate increase in the associated stresses on social stability will likely lead to more authoritarian governments. China is the logical paradigm here. The alternative, more voluntary, approach to reducing birth rates adopted by India has thus far proved far less successful.
The conclusion to be drawn from the above discussion is: freedom is inversely related to population.52 If societies wish to maintain whatever degree of freedom they presently enjoy, they will have to initiate both incentives and disincentives to persuade people to reduce their family size to no more than two children on average. In some overpopulated nations, they may need to reduce the number of children to less than the replacement rate until their population drops to a sustainable level.
1. United Nations estimate for the years 1990‑1995, Chicago
Tribune, November 17, 1996, sec. 1, p. 24.
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