Politics & Policy

Six Billion and Counting


Amidst all the hype about the 6 billionth Rugrat, I hoped to avoid writing about population. To be fair, I hope to avoid writing about a lot of things — say, what it’s like to wake up in a Raggedy Ann costume in the bowels of a Greek freighter — but population is different. At my first job in Washington, I spent a vast amount of time fetching hot tea and grilled-cheese sandwiches for the self-taught demographer Ben Wattenberg at the American Enterprise Institute. When I wasn’t doing this, I was often sifting through U.N. and Census Bureau reports (which often had the added charm of tea stains and cheese drippings on vital charts). I just got burnt out on the topic and to this day if you say TFR (the total fertility rate — the amount of babies born per woman) I shake like my Webmaster after three days without sniffing glue. I have been purging the field of demographics from my mental hard drive faster than the White House Counsel’s office with Ken Starr knocking at the door.

But CNN had to drag me back in. They’ve been running these endless “Voices of the Millennium” ads all year. Most of them are either harmless, pointless, or fluffy — filled with the sort of nicey-nice sentences that are usually found in the filler text of a Hillary Clinton speech: “Babies need to be loved in the 21st century,” “Wars are bad,” and other headline-making observations. But since the 6 billionth baby was born, the “Voices of the Millennium” have turned into whines of yesteryear. The other morning I saw an extended essay that elicited such ranting from me that the little lady first tried to have me bite my belt for fear I might swallow my tongue, and then she simply kicked me to the curb, as the kids say these days.

Unfortunately, I can’t get the transcript from their site, but that’s not really important. The essence of it was hysterical Chicken-Littleism. One talking head after another offered sage advice about how “the issue” is that there are “too many” people on the planet and that we don’t have “enough sustainable resources.” Among the luminaries were Alanis Morrisette, the pop singer who can’t define ironic; Tony Robbins, the mammoth-toothed self-help guru who releases your money within; Paul Ehrlich, a charter member of our Most Overrated People list and a man who has never made a prediction that came true.

There was not one person out of about a dozen who didn’t in some way endorse the idea that we should be totally freaking out over the number of passengers on spaceship Earth (and one suspects that for some of these experts calling humans “passengers” misses the mark. You suspect they feel some people are stowaways, not really deserving the ride at all).

Paul Ehrlich — more about him in a minute — offered some clever-sounding bit of analysis, saying something like “over-population is not measured by the relationship of humans to geographic space. It is measured by the relative amount of resources for a human population.”

Well, Ted Turner’s hand-picked Malthusians clearly thought this was brilliant. The problem is that if that is the measure of over-population then the planet Earth is fast on its way to being under-populated. In fact, if you take Africa out of the equation, the world is vastly more under-populated now than it has been for most of human history.

If you’ve taken economics or if you’ve bought Amazing Spider Man # 98 (the first Marvel Comic without the Comics Code Authority Stamp) you know that scarcity determines price. I don’t know how the green-eye-shade crowd defines scarcity specifically, but we all know what it means. If ten hemp-worshipping bong buddies want a bag of Hawaiian Thai Stick and there’s only one bag for sale, that gonja will be considered “scarce, man,” and the price will go up. In effect, the room will be over-populated or, to use more exact parlance, there will be “too many dudes.” If there are fifty bags available, the price will go down and it’ll be the more the merrier, bro.

Now if the world were running out of resources — gold, grain, righteous bud — prices would go higher, right? Especially when you consider the fact that the stockpiles of humans would be increasing even as the stockpiles of stuff would be running out. That’s exactly what the so-called “Club of Rome” predicted in 1972 in their report “The Limits to Growth.” They warned that by 1981 the world would run out of gold, by 1985 we’d be out of mercury, by 1987 tin would be gone, and by 1990 there’d be no zinc left (and Troy McClure would lose a gig as industry spokesman). And, of course, by 1992 the oil wells would run dry and supplies of copper, led, and natural gas would be gone the following year.

Now, my grasp of the commodities markets is almost entirely derived from the film Trading Places, but I looked it up. All of that stuff is cheaper today than it was back then. Gold is still worth more than Bill Clinton’s promises — but not a lot more. The price of all metals and minerals fell by about half from 1970 to the end of 1980s. And that estimate comes from the World Resources Institute, a leader in the “we’re-all-gonna-die!” school.

The same thing is happening with food. Pig farmers in Iowa often have to kill their pigs because they can’t fetch a price above cost — and even Republican presidential candidates can’t afford to buy them all at the Iowa straw poll. In 1970 our beloved Paul Ehrlich predicted in the special Earth Day issue of The Progressive that 65 million Americans would die of famine and that another 4 billion world wide would bite the dust during “The Great Die-Off” between 1980 and 1989. Food, by almost every measure imaginable, is getting cheaper, and increases in production have outstripped increases in population by wide margins.

Sure it’s entirely possible that one day we could run out of, say, copper or some other mineral or resource (I don’t think it is possible with food). But first, the estimates for our global supplies of these things keep getting revised upward. Second, it really wouldn’t be that big a problem. Who says we won’t know how to make more copper? But more pragmatically, we can substitute things. Aluminum manufacturers biggest competitors aren’t other aluminum manufacturers — they’re paper and plastics companies, because they’re the people who make soda bottles and those little juice boxes. If aluminum gets too expensive, buy paper.

Substitution is the great glitch which fouls up the math of worry warts. If one commodity becomes too expensive, another commodity will do the trick. In the 19th century that wasn’t true, but it is now, and that’s why things are getting so good. We no longer use wood for fuel and our forests have grown back spectacularly. We now have more trees on the East coast than we did in the 19th century. By the mid 1990s, the United States had 128 million more acres of forest than it did in 1920.

The only thing that is truly getting more expensive is our time — and that’s a good thing. Time is shorthand for the content of our lives in the here and now. The more expensive that time is, the better (no, this isn’t an endorsement of the minimum wage). The best example of this is war — the enterprise which for millennia has been synonymous with low regard for individual human lives. It may not reflect great military strategy, but in the wake of the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict, it has become clear that the United States is willing to spend millions, if not billions, to prevent the loss of a single American life.

The real tragedy is that I spend so much time watching TV. But that’s the subject of a different column.


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