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"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Overpopulation is a Myth

Australian entrepreneur and happy aviator, Dick Smith, triggered a firestorm a couple of weeks ago from certain quarters for advocating small families. According to him, every family should limit themselves to 2 children to stem the tide of population explosion.
I have a smallish family because... well... I know my limitations in the parenting department and biology is against me. So that's that. But a population explosion? C'mon...
I've looked at various news sources and I haven't seen Mr Smith give any statistics regarding current birth rates to support his position so I expect there's a bit of bandwaggoning on his part.

It doesn't take much to be an overpopulation skeptic when you see stats like these. If you don't believe it, dig around at the UN website.  Whatever else you may think of the UN, it does at least keep decent statistical records. Wikipedia, your friendly one-stop shop, has quite an extensive list taken from both the CIA Handbook and the UN.

I'm no maths ace but it's clear as daylight that birthrates among wealthier nation states are in decline and in a great majority of cases, they are way under the replacement rate.
Population explosion? Not so much. But what we do have are aging populations.

Political commentator, Mark Steyn, in his demographically driven book, America Alone, argues this:
The single most important fact about the early twenty-first century is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States: Canada, Europe, and Japan are getting old fast, older than any functioning society has ever been and faster than any has ever aged. A society ages when its birth rate falls and it finds itself with fewer children and more grandparents. For a stable population -- ie., no growth, no decline, just a million folks in 1950, a million in 1980, a million in 2010 -- you need a total fertility rate of 2.1 live births per woman. That's what America has: 2.1, give or take. Canada has 1.48, an all time low...
Europe as a whole has 1.38; Japan, 1.32; Russia, 1.14. These countries --, or more precisely, these people -- are going out of business. (Steyn 2008, 2)

The problem with the thinking that drove Smith to make his comments is that they forget that people are (to put it crudely) the most important resource... not fossil fuels or land or crops. For instance, a welfare state in any form requires repopulation. People aka taxpayers are needed to sustain other people on welfare, pensions and subsidized health care. People are the future of a civilization. People think, innovate, build and solve.

The myth of overpopulation is predicated on the following assumptions:
  • That we know precisely what's going to happen in the future. 
  • That growth occurs uniformly over time throughout the world.
  • That the resources that we rely on now are the resources that we will depend on in the future. What's to say that there won't be advances in the future that allow us to use land and energy differently.

Overpopulation prophets forget, however, that
  • Populations tend concentrate in specific areas and given the right incentives can be encouraged to move away from large population centres.
  • Poor infrastructure planning can be more of a problem than unbridled growth
  • Unexpected innovations can and do emerge from necessity or creativity. Consider the internet. Forty or fifty years ago, I doubt that many were predicting that we would experience such a massive change in the way we do business, communicate and receive information.
Aside from that, I'm not a fan of social engineering. I grew up in Singapore during the "Two is Enough" campaign. Apparently that worked so well because when I was in secondary school there was a change in policy in that they were encouraging people (especially the ethnic Chinese) to have more than two. Years after we left, the Singapore government started to encourage the immigration of skilled workers from mainland China.

Dick Smith appears to think that China's "One Child" policy is a successful way to deal with population growth. I beg to differ, unless of course one thinks that reducing population is the be all and end all. There's always the law of unintended consequences which has a tendency to rear its ugly head uninvited. See here, here  , here and here for more good/dubious intentions that go to pot.

Credit: FreeFoto

Update: Website that breaks down the issues into very simple terms with cute little videos.

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