The sky seems to be falling—again. A few months ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article titled “The world’s biggest problem? Too many people.” Its authors, Mary Ellen Harte and Anne Ehrlich, wrote that “unsustainable population levels are depleting resources and denying a decent future to our descendants. We must stop the denial.”
We are “in denial” for a reason. For more than forty years, climaxing around the first Earth Day, the public has been bombarded with apocalyptic tales of disaster regarding population growth. Paul Ehrlich, for example, prominent prophet of population doom and contributor to the op-ed article in the Times, predicted in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb that millions of people would die of starvation during the 1970s because the Earth’s inhabitants would multiply at a faster rate than the world’s ability to supply food. Six years later, in The End of Affluence, a book he co-authored with Anne Ehrlich, his wife, the death-toll estimates increased to a billion dying from starvation by the mid-1980s. By 1985, Ehrlich predicted, the world would enter a genuine era of scarcity.
Paul Ehrlich’s predicted famines never materialized. While too many people remain hungry, agricultural advances have fought off massive famines. Even as the world’s population doubled, per-capita food consumption in poor countries increased from 1,932 calories a day in 1961 to 2,650 in 1998, and malnutrition in those countries fell from 45 percent of the population in 1949 to about 18 percent. Furthermore, fertility rates dropped from about five children per woman in the 1960s to about 2.5 today.
The authors of the Times op-ed also wrote that “the effects of overpopulation play a part in practically every daily report of mass human calamity.” Floods, for example, “inundate more homes as populations expand into floodplains. Such extreme events are stoked by climate change, fueled by increasing carbon emissions from an expanding global population.”
These modern-day predictions are in stark contrast to claims in the same vein from the 1970s. In a popular 1970 speech at Swarthmore College, for example, well-known ecologist Kenneth Watt said, “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but 11 degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”
Time has not been gentle with such prophecies. Four decades later, the world hasn’t come to an end. Most measures of human welfare show the Earth’s population is better off today than at any other time in human history. Life expectancy is increasing, per-capita income is rising, and the air we breathe and the water we drink are cleaner. And concerns about climate change have shifted from cooling to warming since the 1970s.
Given past trends, we are right to deny doom-and-gloom claims such as this one in Harte and Ehrlich’s article: “Perpetual growth is the creed of a cancer cell, not a sustainable human society.”
New ideas and technologies proliferate at a much faster rate than population. They depend on individuals who are free to pursue their own interests and innovate with few constraints. As Stanford economist Paul Romer put it, “Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. Possibilities do not add up; they multiply.”
The trouble with the sky-is-falling claims is that they can lead to costly and restrictive government regulations and media biases. Harte and Ehrlich, for example, think the government should have a greater role in family planning and that we should “demand that the media start educating the public every day on the role played by the unsustainable human numbers behind environmental degradation and human calamities.” The public, they claim, “needs a constant message: it’s time to stop growing and become sustainable.”
In truth, it’s the opposite. Such regulations and media propaganda could aid in suffocating the kind of advances that have helped improve environmental conditions and human well-being.