James C. Banks

The Unwelcome Return of the Overpopulation Nudnik

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm

One surprising characteristic of intellectual discourse is not that ideas should be so frequently discredited, but rather that their patrons should afterward insist on constantly bringing up such embarrassing notions.  That was precisely what Anne Ehrlich did, taking to the pages of the L.A. Times to argue that the world was overpopulated.

She and her more famous husband have argued that the world was running out of resources before; a point which Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution proved to be, more or less, utterly ridiculous.  Anne Ehrlich’s most recent claims deviate between the vacuous and the unsubstantiated.  Even the claims which seem reasonable on the surface are debatable when subjected to scrutiny:

“Sure, there’s much talk and concern that birthrates are down and will result in not enough workers to support the elderly. But this argument is overblown; after all, a 70-year-old can be more economically productive than a 7-year-old. And a large, pre-working population inflicts costs on a society. Furthermore, the birthrates in developing nations remain high, and the consequences affect us all.”

This claim is based largely on cultural pre-suppositions that children neither can, nor should, be economically productive, but there is no reason why this has to be true.  While few decent human beings would want the era of Victorian factory life to return, it is nonetheless the case that in that era, a nine-year-old in a factory worker’s household would most likely be pulling his or her own weight.  Many of the lower-level office jobs today could probably be performed by a twelve-year-old, part-time, though there is a prevalent ideology that insists on making school a full-time job.  In other words, “a large, pre-working population” is by-and-large a politically-created attribute of society.

Ehrlich then goes on to argue that, “Wildfires threaten ever more people because expanding populations are moving nearer and into forests. Floods inundate more homes as populations expand into floodplains.”  Taken to a more extreme level, why not just say, “introduce mandatory contraception in Florida to prevent the unborn from being threatened by hurricanes.”  A resolution that decides that non-existence for individuals is better for them than any threat, remote or otherwise, is the resolution of a demagogue, not a reasoned analyst.

Ehrlich goes on to claim that: “Overpopulation is also fueling desertification and further deforestation around the world.”  This claim might be true, but there is no reason why population growth must lead to deforestation.  Population has increased in Virginia since 1800, but it has more trees than it did at that time.  Through privatization, America has found a means by which it can sustain resources while at the same time meeting the needs of the average consumer.

This is true about any number of resources; fish farms will likely save the ocean’s aquatic population from extinction and, while the tiger populations of the Indian jungle are dwindling, maulings by privately-owned tigers in Minnesota are on the rise.  This does not mean that privatization is happening fast enough or that it is possible to privatize everything (who would want to own a blue whale, for instance?).  But it is to privatization, not demagoguery that we should look to resolve the problems posed by diminishing resources.


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