The Corner

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Last Exchange Re: Teeming China


From a reader:

Please. Mongolia, Tibet? The moon and the ocean floor are uncrowded too. Why do those who want to argue against the category of overpopulation always invoke the glorious emptiness of barely habitable places.

Obviously most of china is now, and always has been packed into the fertile, nicely habitable parts near rivers etc, and Mongolia and Tibet and the desert west have always been very empty, because there’s little to support life there.

So, looking at the nice bits, the habitable bits, is China overcrowded?

And please, no references to Monaco or whatever- referring to cities or dense metros which happen by accident of history to qualify as political entities called States. Acting as if the density of Holland or Belgium is sustainable without the lower density of adjoining Rhineland or France is just dumb. Its like arguing that because Manhattan can be Manhattan, we could fill all the Adirondacks with skyscrapers and everything would be just jiffy (except where would those aqueducts get supplied from?).

Name some place sizable, not Monaco or Bermuda or whatever, and your argument will seem much more plausible. There really are factors of scale, you know.

To which I reply:

My question–which the reader fails to answer–was really very simple: If China is overpopulated, according to what criterion? Odd though it may sound, Monaco is of direct relevance here, because the tiny little state so neatly refutes the suggestion that density, in and of itself, can serve as that criterion. You can pack people together even more tightly than they’re packed together in China, and do so with perfectly acceptable results–if those people possess a certain level of wealth. As the sole criterion, again, density, per se, simply doesn’t work. If the reader had wished to put forward some combination of density and poverty as the criterion, I think, he’d have been making a sensible point (although in his posting of late last night Derb explicitly rejected poverty as a criterion).

As for the argument that the Chinese have always lived in “the fertile, nicely habitable parts” of their country, the reader appears to have missed what’s been taking place over the last couple of decades. The Chinese have been leaving the fertile countryside to live instead in cities, which are not, obviously, fertile at all. Why? Because natural resources are becoming less and less important to the Chinese economy relative to a different kind of resource, human capital–that is, relative to technology, to more and more sophisticated manufacturing techniques, and so on. I repeat the phrase: human capital. In conditions of economic freedom, human beings themselves can become resources.

Maybe the Chinese miracle will sputter out. Maybe sooner or later the less dense regions of the country will indeed prove unable to provide enough food and water to the cities. But there are plenty of very bright people—including, to name one, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence—who think not. Too many people in China? I repeat (for the last time, I promise): Too many for what?