The Optimist

More People, Please

Don't worry about the booming global population -- celebrate it.


Acolytes of Thomas Malthus — the prudish 18th-century parson whose influence has considerably outlasted the accuracy of his predictions — are generally predisposed toward gloom-and-doom, but their hand-wringing has been especially intense the past several weeks. With its latest population forecasts predicting the world population may surpass 10 billion people by the end of the century, the United Nations has stoked age-old fears that the planet may not be able to sustain all of the human beings trying to live on it. As the number of souls on the planet ticks ever higher, the Malthusians lament, misery will flourish.

But for selfish and altruistic reasons alike, we should be delighted that there are more people on the planet than ever before — and billions more to come. Yes, there are problems to remedy as the world population continues to rise: Not least, many women still lack freedom to decide how many children to have and the lifestyles of rich people living in places like the United States, Europe, and Japan threaten global sustainability. Yet as we get ready to welcome the birth of the seven billionth person later this year, the mood should be celebratory, not dour.

Why is a growing population a good thing? For a start, most people seem to be pretty happy to be alive. The tragedy of suicide remains a comparatively rare cause of death worldwide, thankfully. And only in a very few countries across the globe do most respondents suggest in polls that they are unhappy: in Bangladesh, despite low incomes and poor health, 85 percent of the population suggests they are happy, and in Nigeria and China that number is nearly three quarters. Simply put, having the opportunity to be alive is a good thing, and the more such opportunity exists, the better. (Another bit of good news from the U.N. projections — average global life expectancy will rise from around 68 years today to 81 in 2100, so we’ll all have a little bit longer to enjoy it.)

So why all the anxiety about a growing population? We all enjoy friends and family, and generally the more, the merrier — but our friendliness toward humanity can be selfishly local: when it comes to people we don’t know, some argue less is more. Fewer teeming masses in Africa (the population of which the U.N. projects will triple by 2100) would be a good for our fragile planet, according to people in the United States. More people today means a worse life for tomorrow, and more people tomorrow means a catastrophe the day after.

Such thinking has persisted despite being fundamentally misguided. Malthus sparked these concerns 200 years ago when the global population was around a billion, and frankly it’s easy to see why he was depressed: back then, rising populations really were often associated with declining health and incomes. But the centuries in the interim have seen the global abolition of slavery, advances in communication that render the vast majority of the planet instantaneously interconnected, stunning improvements in global health, the unprecedented spread of education and political and civil rights — and the most dramatic expansion of global population, to boot. Even at the family level, the evidence for a "quantity-quality tradeoff" — more kids meaning a worse life for each one of them — appears weak.

Yes, threats to global sustainability are clear and present dangers. But the 10,760-fold increase in aluminum production reported by environmentalist Clive Ponting, or the 380-fold increase in oil production, or even the 24-fold increase in global GDP over the course of the last century isn’t driven by population growth. It is growing consumption per person that is the problem. And that, of course, is not the fault of Africans. The blame lies with wealthy countries that do nearly all of the consuming. The poorest 650 million people on the planet live on about 1 percent of the income of the richest 650 million. Each year, we add 1 percent or more to the incomes of those richest people – GDP per capita growth rates in wealthy countries are at least that high.  And that 1 percent growth has the same impact on global consumption as would doubling the number of people living on the income of that bottom 650 million of the world’s population. So, those people sitting in rich countries pontificating on unsustainable global populations might want to start off with the bit of that population they see in the mirror every morning.

Of course, while people are generally a positive addition to the world, women should undoubtedly have a choice about how many children they want. Every year, about 80 million women face an unwanted pregnancy, 20 million risk an unsafe abortion rather than carry their pregnancy to term and 68,000 die as a result, part of a half-million annual toll of maternal mortalities. Safe and confidential access to modern methods of contraception can and should be a right — it is a cheap enough intervention to be affordable worldwide.

And for those who remain committed misanthropes, if you really want fewer people around, there are ways to reduce population growth while improving the quality of life for everyone. For a start, high mortality and fertility rates are related. Parents have more kids when there’s a higher risk of them dying, so one of the most direct routes to reduced fertility is progress in child health. And girls’ schooling is related to improvements in both. So support aid programs or increased immigration or pro-poor trade policies that will provide disadvantaged people the resources they need to keep kids alive and educated.

Still, for those who claim to be acting in the interests of future generations, "making them smaller" isn’t the answer.  Go out and campaign against urban sprawl, Hummers, coal power plants, and whaling — but leave people alone.

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