This Halloween, the scariest thing for the World Bank and the United Nations isn’t the costumes. It’s the children. News that the world population passed 7 billion this October 31 has brought the usual doom-and-gloom predictions about famine, resource scarcity, and poverty. To many, it seems, people are a problem
The U.N. Population Fund argues, “Governments that are serious about eradicating poverty should also be serious about providing the services, supplies, information that women, men and young people need to exercise their reproductive rights.” The World Bank says, “Each new billion will pose more problems than the previous billion. We need to act now to mitigate future population growth in the 49 least developed countries.”
Put aside the doom and gloom for a minute. This view isn’t new. We can trace it back to as early as 1798, when the Rev. Thomas Malthus thought that the population was growing at an unsustainable rate. Modern Malthusians like President Obama’s chief science adviser, John Holdren, wanted government control over fertility in the 1970s. The Chinese government followed their advice to the letter, enforcing a strict one-child-per-family limit to this day.
To prophets of demographic doom, people are “problems,” parasites on the environment and on the economy. But human history shows the exact opposite trend. People solve environmental and economic problems. They don’t cause them. Poverty, pollution, and scarcity are mankind’s natural states. It is wealth, cleanliness, and abundance that are unnatural. In reality, it is humanity’s problems that remain static, while solutions continue to pile up. Each generation builds upon the accomplishments of the last until people forget that pollution and poverty were ever normal.
Poverty persists despite a growing population, not because of it. Economic and environmental development depend on many minds working together to solve problems. Farmers and bioengineers work on food problems. Miners and drillers work on energy and raw-materials problems. Contractors and engineers work on transportation and construction problems. Each individual uses his or her own ingenuity and labor to pay others to work on their problems for them. Fewer people means fewer solutions, not fewer problems.
We can stop this process by creating artificial barriers. The European Union and the United States heavily subsidize and protect their agricultural industries, which means that African farmers cannot trade their solutions for ours — their agricultural products for our manufactured goods. This means their problems are being solved far more slowly than they would be if they could trade freely. They work on the food problem, but if they cannot trade with others working on other problems, fewer problems get solved. Africans suffer because too few people contribute to their economy, not because too many do.
A higher population also increases the chance that brilliant problem solvers — innovators or geniuses — will be born. As Richard Dawkins says in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, “The potential people who could be in my place … include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people.” The 7 billionth person might well change the world, wherever he or she is born, and we should celebrate each life with that fact in mind. Recent reminiscences of Steve Jobs’s remarkable life should remind us of that.
Environmentalists fear more people will pollute the environment. Fortunately, the facts are on the side of the new children. The developed world has largely eliminated the worst pollutants — natural viruses and bacteria that contaminated food and water supplies. As the threats from those pollutants faded, people turned their attention to industrial pollutants — air and water toxins. Today, America’s air and water quality are at their best levels ever. Since 1988, the release of toxic chemicals as measured by the EPA has decreased by over 60 percent, despite the U.S. population increasing by 60 million. Meanwhile, the Green revolution in agriculture allowed much of U.S. farmland to return to wilderness over the last century, even as the population exploded and everyone was fed.
The same is true in the developing world. In China, for example, according to the World Bank, “There has been a great deal of progress on the environmental front in the last ten years. China is one of a few countries in the world that have been rapidly increasing their forest cover. It is also managing to reduce air and water pollution.” More people are better at solving environmental problems, just as they are better at solving economic ones.
While women in the developing world shouldn’t be denied reproductive rights, Western governments shouldn’t encourage population-limiting policies. Not only are they bad economics, they are bad morals. As the great economist Julian Simon says, “Enabling a potential human being to come into life and to enjoy life is a good thing, just as protecting a living person’s life from being ended is a good thing.” The 7 billionth person isn’t a Halloween horror show. If we should be scared of anything, it’s the population terrorists.
— Iain Murray is a vice president and David Bier a research associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.