5) Overpopulation

I once read an angry “letter to the editor” regarding Pope John Paul’s visit to a Third World country where the pope told the people there to “be fruitful and multiply”. Logic forced me to agree that this guy was right – the Church was being ridiculous.  The Catholic Church is viewed a backwards, even malicious, because we encourage big families and, as everyone knows, the world is overpopulated.  But I then I did my own research to see if the idea of human overpopulation was based on scientific facts.

The word “overpopulation” was popularized by two men: Thomas Malthus, a 19th century British vicar, and Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb.   Malthus theorized that, since the world’s food supply increases arithmetically and people reproduce exponentially, the world would run out of food by the year 1890. Ehrlich predicted mass famines due to overpopulation by the end of the 1970’s and even wrote off India as doomed no matter what action they take.

Obviously, these worldwide famines never materialized.  In fact, the calories produced per person in the world went up 21% between the 1960’s and 1990’s despite the fact that the population nearly doubled.  Malthus’ and Ehrlich’s seemingly reasonable and scientific predictions were wrong.  They didn’t forsee improved farming methods, high-yield grains, or pesticides.  They underestimated the power of human ingenuity.

The overpopulation doomsayers view the world as a pie that will eventually disappear if too many people take their slice. But resources are more like buried treasure – the more people digging, the more treasure to go around.  The more people in a workforce, the more specialized, productive, efficient, and innovative the workforce gets using fewer resources.   We’re not monkeys shoving our mouths full of a limited supply of bananas; humans, unlike animals, produce things.  Julian Simon, a libertarian and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, made a famous bet with Ehrlich to pick 5 resources that he believed would be scarce by 1980.  Simon won the bet.  Resources are piled higher today because of the technology that materialized when the world’s population exploded.

Another factor Ehrlich failed to take into account was that what people consider a resource can change.  In the 1800’s we got oil from whales; now we drill for it.  Oil rich land that was useless in the 1800’s will make you a millionaire today.  Even if resources were like slices of the pie, Ehrlich didn’t consider that we would develop tastes for different kinds of pie. The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone – human ingenuity moved us from stone to bronze to iron to the computer age.

The evidence of history is that you can count on every baby to produce more than he consumes.  Just for an example of real data, the most densely populated countries in the world in 1994 were:

People per sq. mile Per Capita GNP  in US$

Macao                   66,666                   $6,900

Monaco                 42,477                   $16,000.00

Malta                     3,279                     $7,600.00

Bahrain                 2,500                     $7,800.00

And the least populated areas were:

Botswana             6                              $2,450.00

Mauritania            6                              $555.00

Suriname              6                              $3,300.00

Mongolia               4                              $800.00

Aren’t these figures the exact opposite of what should be happening?  Why are the more densely populated areas more prosperous?  Shouldn’t they be starving?  Why are the less populated places poorer?  The fact of the matter is that there is no scientific definition of overpopulation.  Hong Kong, Singapore, Holland, Japan, and New York are some of the most populous places in the world, but no one calls the overpopulated.  Can you imagine the outrage if rich New Yorkers were subjected to a sterilization campaign to cure New York’s overpopulation?

What if the argument is that we are running out of space?  Just to give you some perspective, the population of the entire world could stand shoulder to shoulder in Jacksonville, Florida.  Everyone on the planet could live in the state of Texas (see Myth 1), four to a house, with a front and back yard.  If we are living on lifeboat earth, we each get more than the world largest aircraft carrier to ourselves.  It’s not my point that we would want to live in these arrangements, just that the impression you get when you look out an airplane window is correct:  there’s a lot a empty land out there.

To respect the data, it is really a Demographic Winter we have to fear.  Even the UN has acknowledged that the world’s population will peak around 2040 at 8 billion and then start to decline.  Many countries throughout Europe and Asia are offering incentives to families to have more children because they are already seeing the economic consequences of too few young people.  In countries that are not replacing themselves, the young will have to be taxed to death to take care of their parents and grandparents.

Population control has had horrible social consequences.  There are 28 million more men than women in China today because of the one-child policy.  Men are more valued, so female babies are killed.  Since there are not enough women to marry, women are being kidnapped into the sex trade.  And if the government still finds that the surplus of men is creating problems and they need to thin the herd?  A war fixes that problem nicely.  But even then, euthanasia will be required to get rid of the old people that now unnaturally outnumber the young.

“Overpopulation” is just a substitute word for “poverty” – a shift in semantics to elicit an emotion.  We blame Third World countries for their own poverty and instead giving them the food and medicine they ask for, we give them coercive population control measures.  Wouldn’t you be be outraged if the government tried to neuter you like an animal?  Just like Humane Vitae warned, contraception is being used to oppress people.   Westerners also don’t understand that in some Third World Countries, children are the poor man’s capital.  There are no welfare programs or social security checks, so to take away their children is to take away their support system and creates further economic hardship.

In the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge told the Ghost of Christmas Present that the poor should die and decrease the “surplus population”.  Dickens was repudiating Malthus, his contemporary, when he made the ghost reply that perhaps God considered Scrooge part of the surplus population.   Dickens would agree with the Catholic Church that it is the height of arrogance to view one man’s life as more valuable because he has more money.

Corrupt government and lack of economic freedom, rather than too many people, is what usually creates economic hardship. For example, when I was in grade school, Ethiopia and Cambodia were big in the news as being desperately poor, but their problems were caused by corrupt Communist  governments, not overpopulation. India has the same population density as New Jersey, but government mismanagement keeps them poor.  In order to be prosperous people need property rights, freedom to trade with foreign countries and in foreign currencies, and to be free of overzealous government intrusion.  

Environmentalists do a lot of scaremongering about overpopulation, insisting that people are some kind of cancer on the earth and that we need to contracept to be “responsible”.  The irony is that the hormones in birth control pills pass through the human body into waste water, get dumped into rivers, and create fish populations that are predominantly female, threatening to wipe them out – a well documented environmental threat.  These fish and the treated water give the hormones back to us when we consume them.  Do you want estrogen in your family’s food or water?  Natural Family Planning, promoted by the Church, doesn’t pollute like birth control pills do.

In his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXII said that to respect history is to acknowledge that an increase in birthrate does not lead, in and of itself, to scarcity of resources.  In the last 200 years the population of the world increased from about 1 billion to about 7 billion, but this increase coincided with the industrial revolution, the computer age, and a never before seen boon in health and material well-being.  But even if scarcity of resources was a consequence, the pope said that the solutions have to respect the dignity of man, unlike, for example, China’s imprisoning women for the crime of being pregnant and coercing them to have abortions.  He advocated for international cooperation and the free and orderly movement of information, capital, and men themselves to spur prosperity for all – a formula vindicated by history.

Overpopulation is one of those subjects, like Global Warming, where a certain amount of prophesy is involved and the prophets of overpopulation have been wrong 100% of the time so far.  They wish to alleviate poverty with eugenics, euthanasia, state-enforced abortion, contraception, sterilization, and government busy-bodies bossing us around.  The Catholic solution is for families to be free to have families and for governments to promote economic freedom.  I know which sounds better to me.  Just as in our battle against euthanasia, Catholics seek to eliminate problems, not people.  It seems that only Catholics are scientific enough to recognize the facts regarding overpopulation.


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