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doom and gloom

The Big Coffee Table Book of Doom” is an entertaining review of an actual coffee table book entitled “Overdevelopment Overpopulation Overshoot“, which appeals to the progressive Left’s neo-Malthusian mindset. I am almost tempted to buy this book for my coffee table as fodder for my own amusement, sort of like the board game “Class Struggle” I bought for laughs when I was in grad school. The review, written by Ron Bailey in Reason, pokes fun at the selection of photos in the book, which are chosen to reinforce such fables as over-population, climate change and the supposed evils of capitalism. Of course, this sort of nonsense will never die, primarily because people love a good scare story and because it aligns with the privileged Left’s sense of righteousness and noblesse oblige. Bailey highlights several actual trends that contradict the doomsday narrative:

Agricultural productivity per acre is improving faster than the demand for food; as a result, fewer acres are needed to grow crops. These trends suggest that as much as 400 million hectares could be restored to nature by 2060, an area nearly double the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

… the total global fertility rate has fallen from over 5 children per woman in 1970 to 2.45 today, rapidly approaching the 2.1 rate that is the threshold of population stability.

And on the “perils” of urbanization:

Urban dwellers have greater access to education, market opportunities, and medicine, and they have fewer kids.

As Kevin Williamson has pointed out, an egregious distortion of the neo-Malthusian perspective is an attitude that human beings are liabilities rather than assets. This is underscored by the recent comments of a UN official calling for depopulation as a serious objective. One wonders how she might propose to attain that objective. Can the eliminationists be far behind? In rebuttal to such thinking, Bailey quotes Ramez Naam, author of “Infinite Resource“:

“‘Would your life be better off if only half as many people had lived before you?’ In this thought experiment, you don’t get to pick which people are never born. Perhaps there would have been no Newton, Edison, or Pasteur, no Socrates, Shakespeare, or Jefferson. ‘Each additional idea is a gift to the future,’ Naam writes. ‘Each additional idea producer is a source of wealth for future generations.’ Fewer people means fewer new ideas about how to improve humanity’s lot and to further decouple our endeavors from the natural world. ‘If we fix our economic system and invest in the human capital of the poor,’ Naam writes, ‘then we should welcome every new person born as a source of betterment for our world and all of us on it.'”

Population growth has traditionally been a source of economic growth and enhanced welfare, and that is likely to remain the case. I do not claim that population growth will always be an imperative. Rather, fertility decisions are properly the business of families and individuals, not central authorities or public policy, which should take a neutral stance with respect to these decisions.

Malthusian doom is related to the economic law of scarcity, but it is not a direct implication of that law: scarcity means that resource availability is limited relative to potentially limitless demand. The law of scarcity does not assert that there are absolute limits to raw materials or production in the long run, only that human wants, if unrestrained, will always exceed available supplies. There are many ways in which supplies of resources increase over time. Exploration reveals new supplies and technology makes new supplies accessible at lower cost. More fundamentally, growth in the productivity of utilized resources causes effective economic supplies to grow. This is illustrated in Don Beaudreaux’s recent essay on the productivity of land (and see a follow-ups on the topic here):

The economic supply of land, like that of any other resources you can name, is not a physical phenomenon. As long as people are free and inspired to innovate – and as long as input and output prices are free to adjust to changes in supply and demand – the economic supplies of even the most ‘fixed’ and ‘nonrenewable’ resources will expand.

Prognostications of doom for humanity appeal to the ignorance of those with no perspective on the mechanisms by which well-being has improved in the developed world over the past few centuries. This has occurred largely by virtue of human ingenuity and free markets. The growth has also enabled greatly improved environmental conditions. The developing world will share in the prosperity only when those governments embrace real market liberalization.