The Malthusians Strike Back

It’s hard to decide if this is silly or sinister, or both.  But if you want to see where radical environmentalism–the kind that honors the planet by wishing a lot of people would get off it–can lead us, check out the Optimum Population Trust (OPT).  The OPT is a British group concerned about “the effects of overpopulation on a plundered planet.”  They argue that the United Kingdom’s optimum population is less than 30 million (not even half its current size) and possibly lower than 17 million.  Likewise, good old planet earth could possibly sustain five billion people, but a safer number is around three billion, also less than half our current population.

The “leading think tank in the UK concerned with the impact of population growth on the evironment” is not a fringe group.  It boasts well-known “patrons” like Sir David Attenborough of the British Museum and the BBC (he narrated Planet Earth), Jane Goodall of chimpanzee fame, James Lovelock who pioneered the Gaia theory that earth functions as an organism, and Paul Ehrlich whose 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted that the earth would soon be ravaged by the worst mass starvation in history.  The OPT puts out regular news releases which range from the obvious (“Sex Drives Population Growth”), to the predictable (“Contraception is Greenest Climate Change Strategy”), to the Orwellian (“No ‘Unlimited’ Right to Have Children”).

The goal of the Trust is to see a smaller, more sustainable population on our planet.  If we don’t limit the size of our families (see their “Stop at Two Pledge”), then Nature, through famine, disease, and war, will wipe out our families for us.  If only the planet could shed a few billion people and reach its optimum population, we would see a better future for the environment, the  nations of the world, and our children (all 0-2 of them).

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

The OPT represents the reincarnation of Thomas Malthus’ failed theories from two hundred years ago.  Malthus was a British scholar who argued that as societies prospered they would, at first, be able to support more people.  Thus, families would expand.  But as the population grew, it would rather quickly overrun a country’s ability to sustain itself.  Population would grow exponentially, but food supply would only grow linearly.  As a result, population growth would have to be checked by massive pestilence and famine.

Enter doomsday scenarios, government-sponsored population inquiries (or worse), and pontificating from the OPT.

Besides the inherent dark side of population control (increased number of abortions, decreased personal liberties, huge imbalances in male-female populations), there are two fundamental problems with the OPT’s Malthusian predictions.

First, the rate of population growth is not constant.  It is true that world population is expected to swell to over 9 billion by 2050, but what the OPT doesn’t mention is that many experts think the world population may start to shrink shortly thereafter.  This is because the overall global fertility rate, though still well above the replacement rate, continues to decline.  Consequently, the 2050 population prediction was less in 2008 than it was in 2006 because the growth rate is slowing down.  Many countries in the industrialized world, like Russia and Japan, faced with aging, declining populations, are struggling to find ways bring their fertility rates up, closer to the replacement rate of 2.1.  In other words, when the OPT warns that at the current growth rate the world population will be 134 trillion by 2300, they are guilty of freezing a fertility rate which will not remain constant.  They also look silly.

The second problem with the dire predictions of the neo-Malthusians is that humans, creating in the image of God, have an incredible knack for, well, creating.  Despite the hysterics of the chattering humanophobes, human beings don’t just create problems on the planet, they also solve them.  The worst scenarios of Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich have not come to pass because humans develop new ways to farm and harness new technologies so that the planet’s resources can sustain more life.

For all the good that environmentalism can do–and who isn’t glad for cleaner rivers and fewer polluting smokestacks?–the Achilles heel of the environmental movement has always been a tendency to see humans as only consumers, not also creators, as more parasite than producers.  The average human doesn’t wake up hoping to despoil pristine wilderness or ravage scarce resources, but he may wake up with an idea to turn worthless sand into silicon chips and explore for vast new oil reserves.

That’s why Paul Ehrlich lost his famous bet with economist Julian Simon.  In 1980, after Simon allowed Ehrlich to pick any five “scarce” raw materials, they both wagered whether the prices for the materials would increase or decrease in the ensuing decade.  Simon won the bet easily as all five chosen metals decreased in value (some without even adjusting for inflation).  Even though the metals were valuable, technological advances in discovery and refinement, not to mention unrelated advances that led other to pursue alternate commodities, drove the prices downward.  In a market economy, demand spurs innovation, innovation spurs increased productivity, and increased productivity means more sustainability.

Who knows? The Duggars’ 18 children may just possibly do more on the planet than knock over trees and buy Hummers.  They may, to paraphrase from your graduation speech, actually make the planet a better place for having been on it.  As one author puts it, “man, not matter, is the ultimate resource.”

As another Author once said, “Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).