Ever since Malthus made his famous (infamous?) predictions we have been hearing this refrain. Overpopulation was going to kill us. It’s easy to point to trends in population and say “if this goes on…”
Well, when Philip of Macedon sent a message to the Spartans, he told them “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” The Spartans replied with a single word:
I have written before about the folly of mindlessly extrapolating trends into the future and how it leads to bad public policy because whatever the current trend might be, it rarely continues unchanged. However there is a more basic problem when it comes to this trend. And that is that I simply do not believe it. I do not believe published population figures and I do not believe the growth rates extrapolated from them.
First, one has to consider the source of many of these figures. There is no global census undertaken by people going door to door enumerating every individual and sending results to some clearing house to be tabulated. Nope, the numbers are simply reported by the governments of the various countries and they’re just added up later.
So, just how much do you trust those countries to report their numbers accurately? If you’re me, not very much. Look at the incentives. There are plenty of incentives for nations to over-represent their population numbers. For the poor countries foreign aid (which largely ends up in the hands of kleptocrats rather than helping people, sad to say) is to at least some extent driven by how many people are “in need”. Kleptocrats claiming more starving people can wring more foreign aid out of wealthier nations, more “foreign aid” to stock their own palaces and other luxuries. Simple prestige can be an incentive. Being able to claim to rule a larger population than ones neighbors is worth “points” on the international “my country’s better than yours” contest. Intimidation: “my country’s bigger than yours so I can field a larger army. Better not mess with me.”
Incentives to underreport population? Um. I’m trying. Can’t think of one. Okay, okay. If you want to claim that you’re doing a great job on controlling the overpopulation issue and… Is anybody actually doing that? China maybe, wanting to tout the success of their “one child” policy, but that’s about it.
Even in the US, there is a direct incentive for states to over-represent their populations in the decennial census: Higher population means more representation in Congress. A great deal of effort is made to keep the count accurate but even that is unlikely to be totally successful. So even here the numbers should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
So not only is it folly to mindlessly extrapolate trends into the future as many folk are wont to do, it’s also dubious to even accept current population figures at face value.
So, no, we are not in any imminent danger of an overpopulation crisis leading to disaster. The people telling you that we are are selling something.