According to the United Nations, sometime around Halloween a newborn baby will push the world’s population above seven billion people. Welcome to our spectacular planet, Little One!
I should warn you that not everyone will greet your arrival as enthusiastically as I. A great many smart folks on our planet—especially highly educated people in rich countries like my own—have fallen under the spell of this fellow named Malthus, who once warned that our planet was “overpopulated.” Although Mr. Malthus’s ideas have been proven wrong time and again, his smart and influential disciples keep insisting that your arrival spells disaster, that this lonely planet just can’t support you.
Now my own suspicion is that modern day Malthusians, who are smart enough to know that actual events have discredited their leader’s theories, continue to parrot Mr. Malthus’s ideas because they lend support to all manner of governmental intervention into private affairs. (These smarty-pants Malthusians, who are well-aware of their own intelligence, tend to think they can arrange things better than the “men and women on the spot” and are constantly looking for reasons to go meddling in others’ business!) Whatever their motivation, Mr. Malthus’s disciples just won’t shut up about how our planet is overpopulated.
You should know, though, that this simply isn’t true. The first time you hear one of Mr. Malthus’s followers decrying your very existence by insisting that our planet is overpopulated, you should ask him or her: “Overpopulated relative to what?” Modern Malthusians can never give a good answer to that question, though they always try.
Sometimes they say “living space.” But that’s plain silly. Our planet is really pretty huge. Indeed, if all seven billion people on the planet moved to the state ofAlaska, each person would have 2,300 square feet of living space! Now I realize lots of cities get crowded, but that’s because people choose to live in those areas—they’ve decided that the benefits of enhanced economic opportunity in a densely populated area outweigh the costs of close confines. If they really wanted extra living space, they could easily find it in our planet’s vast uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) regions.
Sometimes modern day Malthusians say the planet is overpopulated relative to available food. Wrong again. In the nations of the world where institutions have evolved to allow people to profit from coming up with new ideas that enhance welfare, individuals have developed all sorts of ways to get more food from less land. Accordingly, food production has always outpaced population growth. Now, modern day Malthusians will probably tell you that food prices have been rising in recent years – a sign that food is getting scarcer relative to people’s demand for it. But that’s because governments, beholden to powerful agricultural lobbyists, have been requiring that huge portions of agricultural output be diverted to fuel production even though the primary biofuel (ethanol) provides no environmental benefit. As usual, it’s actually bad government policy, not population growth, that’s creating scarcity.
In recent days, Mr. Malthus’s disciples have insisted that the world is overpopulated relative to available resources. Nothing new here. Back in the 1970s, lots of smart folks contended that the earth was quickly running out of resources and that drastic measures were required to constrain continued population growth. One of those smarty pants was Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, who, along with his wife Anne and President Obama’s science czar John Holdren, asked (in all seriousness): “Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children?” (See Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich & John P. Holdren, Ecoscience 838 (1977).) (Ehrlich also proclaimed, in his 1968 blockbuster The Population Bomb, that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”)
In 1980, Prof. Ehrlich bet economist Julian Simon (a jolly fellow who would have welcomed your birth!) that the booming population would raise demand for resources so much that prices would skyrocket. Mr. Simon thought otherwise and therefore allowed Prof. Ehrlich to pick five metals whose price he believed would rise over the next decade. As it turns out, the five metals Prof. Ehrlich selected — chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten – fell in price as clever, profit-seeking humans discovered both how to extract more from the earth and how to substitute other, cheaper substances. Mr. Simon was not at all surprised. He recognized that the long-term price trend of most resources points downward, indicating that resources are becoming more plentiful, relative to human needs, over time. (Modern Malthusians may point to some recent price trends showing rising prices for some resources, especially precious metals. It’s likely, though, that those price increases are due to the fact that central banks all over the world have been creating lots and lots of money, thereby threatening inflation and causing investors to hold their wealth in the form of commodities.)
The fundamental mistake Mr. Malthus’s disciples make, Little One, is to assume that our planet is the ultimate source of resources. That’s just not true. Our planet does contain lots of useful “stuff,” but it’s human ingenuity – something only you and those like you can provide – that turns that stuff into “resources.” Take oil, for instance. For most of human history, messy crude oil was a source of annoyance for landowners. It polluted their water and fouled their property. But when whale oil prices started to rise in response to scarcity (or, put differently, when the world started to look “overpopulated” relative to whale oil), some clever, profit-seeking folks discovered how to turn that annoyance into kerosene, and eventually petroleum. Voila! A “resource” was created!
Just as people once worried about overpopulation relative to whale oil supplies, lots of folks now worry about overpopulation relative to crude oil. Well I’m not that worried, and you shouldn’t be either. As oil prices rise, more and more clever profit-seekers will turn their energies toward finding new ways to obtain oil (e.g., hydraulic facturing), new techniques for reducing oil requirements (e.g., enhanced efficiency), and new substitutes for oil (e.g., alternative fuels). Mr. Malthus’s disciples will continue to fret about the limits to growth, but the historical record is clear on this one: Human ingenuity – the ultimate resource – always outpaces the diminution in useful “stuff.”
And so, Little Resource, your arrival on our planet should be celebrated, not scorned! As you and your fellow newborns flex your creative muscle, you’ll develop new sources of wealth for the world. As you do so, birth rates will plummet, as they typically do when societies become wealthier, and the demand for a cleaner environment, demand that rises with wealth, will grow. We therefore need not worry about “overpopulation.”
We do, though, need to ensure the survival of those institutions – property rights, free markets, the rule of law – that encourage resource-creating innovation. I, for one, promise to do my best to defend those institutions so that you and your fellow newborns can add to our planet’s resource base.