Few issues today are as divisive as what is called the “world population problem.” With the approach this autumn of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, organized by the United Nations, these divisions among experts are receiving enormous attention and generating considerable heat. There is a danger that in the confrontation between apocalyptic pessimism, on the one hand, and a dismissive smugness, on the other, a genuine understanding of the nature of the population problem may be lost.1
Visions of impending doom have been increasingly aired in recent years, often presenting the population problem as a “bomb” that has been planted and is about to “go off.” These catastrophic images have encouraged a tendency to search for emergency solutions which treat the people involved not as reasonable beings, allies facing a common problem, but as impulsive and uncontrolled sources of great social harm, in need of strong discipline.
Such views have received serious attention in public discussions, not just in sensational headlines in the popular press, but also in seriously argued and widely read books. One of the most influential examples was Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, the first three sections of which were headed “Too Many People,” “Too Little Food,” and “A Dying Planet.”2 A more recent example of a chilling diagnosis of imminent calamity is Garrett Hardin’s Living within Limits.3 The arguments on which these pessimistic visions are based deserve serious scrutiny.
If the propensity to foresee impending disaster from overpopulation is strong in some circles, so is the tendency, in others, to dismiss all worries about population size. Just as alarmism builds on the recognition of a real problem and then magnifies it, complacency may also start off from a reasonable belief about the history of population problems and fail to see how they may have changed by now. It is often pointed out, for example, that the world has coped well enough with fast increases in population in the past, even though alarmists had expected otherwise. Malthus anticipated terrible disasters resulting from population growth and consequent imbalance in “the proportion between the natural increase of population and food.”4 At a time when there were fewer than a billion people, he was quite convinced that “the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence has long since arrived.” However, since Malthus first published his famous Essay on Population in 1798, the world population has grown nearly six times larger, while food output and consumption per person are considerably higher now, and there has been an unprecedented increase both in life expectancies and in general living standards.5
The fact that Malthus was mistaken in his diagnosis as well as his prognosis two hundred years ago does not, however, indicate that contemporary fears about population growth must be similarly erroneous. The increase in the world population has vastly accelerated over the last century. It took the world population millions of years to reach the first billion,…
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