Welcome Baby 7B!

Thom Lambert —  31 October 2011

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.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

10 responses to Welcome Baby 7B!

  1. 

    … for 55 out of the last 57 centuries Malthus was right. What I mean is that for almost all of the history of civilization improvements in technology did not lead to sustained increases in living standards; instead, the gains were dissipated by rising population, with pressure on resources eventually driving the condition of the masses back to roughly its previous level. The subjects of Louis XIV were not noticeably better nourished than those of ancient Sumerian city-states; that is, while they had enough to survive and raise children in good times, they lived sufficiently close to the edge that the Four Horsemen could carry them off now and then, keeping the population more or less stable. It was Malthus’s great misfortune that the power of his theory to explain what happened in most of human history has been obscured by the fact that the only two centuries of that history for which it does not work happen to be the two centuries that followed its publication. But this was, of course, not an accident. Malthus was a man of his time, and his musings were only one symptom of the rise of a rationalist, scientific outlook; another symptom of that rise was the Industrial Revolution.
    Paul Krugman, “Seeking The Rule Of The Waves”

    Finally the idea that the worlds food supply may increase in arithmetic proportion while the population continues to grow at a geometric rate could occur for exogenous reasons. For example such things as a natural disaster, or an incurable disease that wipes out our corn crop would obviously present a problem. Instead of making gloomy predictions though, individuals should instead suggest ideas that would make our food crop more resistant to disease, or reasonable methods that would mitigate the challenges climate change present.

  2. 

    Actually, no one can know who that baby is, and the one who was nominated is a symbol of reaching that outrageous number, for indeed it is peculiar to see how we expand our population even though we lack the means by which we could improve the quality of our lives. However, it seems that people tend to forget the old saying that quality is better than quantity.

  3. 

    That poor baby, so much pressure riding on his/her birth.

  4. 

    Your post is well written and makes a good solid argument. I have been worried about the population problem since undergraduate some two decades ago. I went to a relatively liberal…actually very liberal college…but I was brought up under conservative principles (excluding religion). I think my primary argument with our current population size…which is estimated to hit 9 billion by 2045…is that it degrades our quality of life. Perhaps we can continue to innovate and overcome, but is it desireable to have 7 billion or more people on the planet?

    If you live in a decent sized city, and open your eyes and other senses, you must realize that we are indeed making an impact on the environment. If you make a daily commute to and from work, do you not run into traffice jams…which in a sense, defeat the very purpose of having a car. Do you not struggle to find a parking space at work or at the mall? Do you not find yourself constantly waiting in lines? Do you enjoy being stuffed into an airplane like sardines? Do you enjoy going to a National part in the Summer? Do you feel good about the fact that our needs mean extinction or considerably less wild life and thriving beautiful Apex predators like Orcas’s, dolphins, Leapords, Panthers, Tigers…blah blah blah…..

    You see, my little rant above is just a tip of the iceberg. If you dig deeper, I think you will find that we have lots and lots of problems as a species…poverty, ignorance, poor education, huge income gaps…blah blah blah…and…we don’t solve these problems before bringing more and more humans on-line…

    High-level…I look at the unsolved problems of our species combine with increasing population as analagous to a tropical depression evolving into different stages…to tropical storm, category 1, category 2….eventually…if we don’t innovate and solve many mounting problems passed on from one generation to the next and our population remains and grows beyond 7 billion…I fear will hit category 5.

    A good film you should check out produced by National Geographic is “The Prophets of Doom”…five experts in various fields that highlight all our problems and predict what will happen. The only down-side to the film…is that they don’t produce an opposition or credible counter-argument which I think would make the film much more valuable. For intelligent beings have different points of view and often the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

  5. 

    I wish you posted more often, Thom.

  6. 

    Just keep the little bugger from my overcrowded freeways and airports.

  7. 

    Great post! I would just point out that this debate — which is a perennial one — has taken all kinds of different directions that transcend the exclusive focus on scarcity. In other words, critics of your thesis no longer need to assume economic principles in order to question the propriety of market innovation and entrepreneurship, because, as you correctly point out, economic logic has won this debate. But the issue, one could argue, is never *really* just about allocating resources to given wants/ends. Consider these arguments:

    (1) The wonderfully subversive thesis by Frank H. Knight that competition serves only to create *new* wants and in no way aims to satisfy already existing wants (or consumer demand). This argument, given your thesis, is powerfully challenging. See here:

    http://austrianomnibus.blogspot.com/2011/03/beauty-of-heterodoxy-frank-h-knight.html

    (2) Or consider the work of economic anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, which holds that the superiority of a market economy vis-a-vis a primitive society is still an open question because, apparently, people in a primitive society were arguably wealthier and happier — The Original Affluent Society thesis. This argument can be made once it is observed that although resources were few in a primitive society, wants were also few. What contemporary market society does is create unnecessary wants and thereby impoverishes people by forcing them to “economize” in their economic decisionmaking (do I buy a car now or invest in my future education?)

    Combine that with Thorstein Veblen’s insight of pecuniary emulation, which stands for the proposition that people consume goods primarily to ourperform their neighbors in ostentatious display.

    (3) Or Consider the work of Keynes, which, according to some interpreters (e.g., The Post Keynesians), basically ended economics as a science of *scarcity* and instead made economics into a science of *uncertainty.*

    There are many other arguments. My point is that these “Malthusian” critics are unlikely to continue treading down this “economics 101” path. Economic logic has won that debate. Instead, critics of this sort make more subtle arguments, like the arguments made by people like Frank Knight, Marshal Sahlins, Thorstein Veblen, and Lord Keynes.

  8. 

    The real call out is that Malthusianism is a cover for their real concern: too many brown babies. Environmentalism is the last socially acceptable form of racism.