June 13, 2005


Rethinking the Population Problem (Nicholas Eberstadt, Spring 2005, The Public Interest)

I first met Lord Péter Tamás Bauer (1917–2002) in October 1977, five years before the already eminent professor was made a life peer for his pioneering contributions to the field of development economics. For me, this was a fateful encounter, a milestone on an entirely unexpected intellectual journey.

At the time, I was 21--and, as anyone who knew me way back then can attest, I was very Left. One of my first courses at the London School of Economics that semester was “The Economic Analysis of Underdeveloped Areas,” co-taught by Bauer and Professor Hla Myint. To put the matter plainly: Bauer was an absolutely infuriating professor. At his lectures, he would deliver long and provocative presentations that I knew to be wrong: completely wrong, deeply wrong, obviously wrong.

The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to prove they were wrong. Bauer would typically end his lectures with an invitation of sorts: “Now I will entertain any question--no matter how hostile.” I used up my lifetime supply of those invitations in fairly short order. Then I was faced with a dilemma: Either I had to come up with new facts, or get new opinions. Unfortunately, I simply was not able to find the necessary new facts.

Bauer the professor, in short, set me up for my downfall. But my road to ruin was further paved by Bauer the man. Péter Bauer was blessed with an absolute and extraordinary generosity of spirit. In my particular case, he went far beyond the call of his official duties in his efforts to help a wrongheaded American student to think a little more clearly. [...]

In order to appreciate the significance of Bauer’s contribution to the population literature, it is first important to recall the climate of academic and public policy discourse on the population question at the time Bauer was writing. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, a worldwide network of activist anti-natal organizations--including private foundations, bilateral foreign aid agencies, multilateral institutions like the United Nations family and the World Bank, and a host of recipient groups the world over--were making the case that rapid population growth was having deleterious, or even disastrous, effects in low-income areas, and perhaps even on the world as a whole. Poverty, unemployment, hunger, and social strife were just some of the afflictions the “population explosion” was said to be visiting on a hapless planet.

Anti-natal policies had also been widely embraced--in principle or in practice--by rich and poor governments alike, and a great many eminent personages were warning of the risks of not pursuing even more aggressive policies for curbing planetary population growth. Paul Ehrlich--Stanford University biology professor, acknowledged authority on the population patterns of butterflies, and author of the best-seller The Population Bomb--flatly stated that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over,” meaning we had lost. Robert McNamara, then-president of the World Bank (and in an earlier incarnation the progenitor of the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”), insisted that “the threat of unmanageable population pressures is very much like the threat of nuclear war,” and identified what he termed “rampant population growth” as “the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of the peoples in the underdeveloped world.”

It was not only sometime lepidopterists and practitioners of what we might today term “systems engineering for profit and victory” who held such views. Similar positions were embraced by respected and even eminent voices within the economics profession. Indeed, no less an authority than James E. Meade (1907–1995), the Cambridge don who would go on to win the 1977 Nobel Prize in Economics, had inspected the situation in Mauritius—the island nation off the coast of Africa—in 1961, and discovered there a Malthusian tragedy in the making. Surveying that country’s population profile and development prospects, Meade wrote that

for demographic reasons, it is going to be a great achievement if Mauritius can find productive employment for her greatly increased population [in the years ahead] without a serious reduction in the existing average standard of living (emphasis added).

A more detailed but no less gloomy elaboration of the same argument was offered by that esteemed Princeton economist and mathematical demographer, the late Ansley J. Coale--who, with his “Coale-Hoover model,” purported to show that higher birth rates almost necessarily slow the pace of material advance in low-income countries striving to escape from poverty. The acclaimed and highly influential Coale-Hoover model--taught to me and every other student of population economics back in the 1970s--carefully calculated how much wealth and productivity would be sacrificed (literally eaten up!) by societies where resources were thrown away on extra babies rather than husbanded for investment and growth.

Bauer, of course, would have none of this. He was a deeply educated man; unlike many in the population field, he was intimately familiar with history, literature, and culture from many diverse climes. Thanks to that grounding, he knew the doctrine of modern-day anti-natalism (or “neo-Malthusianism”) to be patently ahistorical.

Bauer’s essay in his 1981 book begins by reviewing some obvious, but often neglected, facts about poverty and development in the modern era. Many areas of the world--Western Europe and North America--had risen to prosperity despite rapid, or even exceptionally rapid, rates of population increase. Some of these newly affluent locales, moreover, had achieved their wealth despite not only dramatic increases in population, but a manifest scarcity of arable land and a lack of other “natural” resources (think of Japan or Hong Kong). Conversely, he reminded his readers, dreadful poverty could be seen today in many parts of the modern world where land and other resources have been abundant, and where population density has been and is quite low (large parts of Central Africa, among other places).

Bauer then moved on to his central critique of the modern anti-natalist doctrine. In his words:

The predictions of doom through population growth rest on the idea that economic achievement, progress and welfare all depend primarily on natural resources, supplemented by physical capital…. This neo-Malthusian notion is then supplemented by the very non-Malthusian idea that people in LDCs [less developed countries] have no will of their own and are simply passive victims of external forces: in the absence of Western-dictated pressures, people in the less developed world would procreate heedless of consequences.

With this thesis, Bauer scored a direct and devastating hit. Then, as often, he took his time strolling through the rest of his essay, dismantling at leisure those remaining or subsidiary objections that might be lodged against his argument. [...]

In retrospect, what can one say about Péter Bauer’s assessment of the population question? To begin, one can acknowledge that from an intellectual standpoint--here as in so many other once hotly contested areas of economic analysis--Bauer has largely won the argument, and is widely recognized as having done so.

In this particular struggle, of course, Bauer was not alone--nor was he obviously the most important voice. The signal contribution to clearer economic thinking from other luminaries must also be noted--among them, Simon S. Kuznets, Theodore W. Schultz, and Julian L. Simon. Academic and policy thought about the population question was also subtly but significantly influenced by a 1986 study from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on population and development, which held that the negative effects of population growth on productivity and growth had been seriously exaggerated in much of the demographic and development literature.

The changing intellectual tide was also affected by political events, most notably the Reagan-Thatcher conjunction. With this alignment, the most important governments in the English-speaking world came to treat anti-natal Malthusianism, or neo-Malthusianism, for the doctrinaire nonsense it was. One should never underestimate the salutary impact that a government can have on public thinking simply by ceasing to spout nonsense on some given topic.

No less important, however, were the facts on the ground. Over the past two decades, brute empirics have forced a gradual recognition that considerable material progress was indeed occurring in most of the low-income expanse, often despite relatively high birth rates or rates of natural increase. Sub-Saharan Africa, to be sure, remains a tragic and terrible exception to that generalization, but it is just that: an exception.

Since Bauer wrote on the population question, a shift in anti-natal argumentation has been evident. Generally speaking, advocates have moved away from traditional Malthusianism or neo-Malthusianism, and have come instead to embrace what might be termed “environmental Malthusianism.” No longer is the argument that population growth will un-tether the Horsemen of the Apocalypse simplicatur, but instead that rising demands upon the planetary ecosystem will result in catastrophic overshoot and collapse of the natural global systems that sustain us all. By itself, this argument should be seen as at least inherently plausible, and thus should be taken seriously. But to be taken seriously, it must be investigated empirically—and this is self-evidently a more complex and demanding proposition than the erstwhile Malthusian task of calculating the per capita availability of, say, bread.

In retreating to the parapets of “eco-disaster,” anti-natal Malthusianism has adopted what Sir Karl Popper would have called defensive “immunizing tactics or stratagems” for protecting the cherished doctrine against testability--and thus against possible falsification.

That Malthusian castle is well stocked with cranks, eh?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 13, 2005 4:43 PM

When the herd was running in a Malthusian direction, they were wrong. Now that the herd is running in an anti-Malthusian direction, they will likely be wrong again.

Posted by: Bartelson at June 13, 2005 6:38 PM

Yet the herd endures.

Posted by: oj at June 13, 2005 6:50 PM

Malthusian? when have they ever been right?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 13, 2005 7:23 PM

Great post. It must have been a lonely hell to hold such views during that period, yet here was a confident, brilliant scholar dedicated to truth and strong enough in character to ignore the prevailing mindset. Worth remembering in future debates about tenure.

Posted by: Peter B at June 13, 2005 7:45 PM

"Soylent Green is made from nonsense!"

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 14, 2005 8:30 AM


Sloppy thinking. What we have seen is that we have thusfar innovated ourselves out of a serious problem. But as Thomas Homer-Dixon among others has pointed out, the water table in much of the world is being fouled or overused, and desertification has certainly not slowed appreciably.

Whether we are overpopulated now, as I believe, or whether we will be overpopulated in a generation or two, it is inevitable that we will be overpopulated.

Posted by: bart at June 14, 2005 5:07 PM

Ah, the Malthusian never tires of being wrong...

Posted by: oj at June 14, 2005 5:13 PM


If we have more people, especially the wrong kind of people(i.e. the ignorant, the poor, the unskilled), and less arable land due to desertification and fouling the water table, barring significant scientific innovation, isn't overpopulation inevitable? And if not, why not?

Keep in mind that Europe is barring GM crops, which are the main way we have averted the kind of crisis that Paul Ehrlich warned of.

Posted by: bart at June 14, 2005 5:49 PM

because we have more food than we know what to do with.

Posted by: oj at June 14, 2005 6:50 PM

Which of course explains all those famines across the Third World.

Posted by: bart at June 14, 2005 7:01 PM

yes, note that they're isolated and a function of governance, not food supply?

Posted by: oj at June 14, 2005 7:29 PM

What goes on in the Sahel or in Ethiopia looks a whole lot more like desertification through overgrazing to me and to most people who study such matters.

Currently, we could donate enough food to keep these people alive at some subsistence level and get the food to them at relatively low cost. However, the situation is not static. If they keep breeding and the amount of arable land keeps decreasing, the amount of arable land per person will decrease. That's just simple arithmetic. So, the problem becomes increasing the productivity of the remaining arable land. As they are discovering in India and elsewhere, current science has very definite limits, and the effect on the water supply has been quite dire in many areas. If these areas become incapable of sustaining agricultural products because of the depletion of the water supply, then what? Salinization of the soil is a big new problem.

Mass starvation is simply a mathematical certainty eventually.

Posted by: bart at June 14, 2005 7:45 PM


They were net food exporters untril they got bad government.

Posted by: oj at June 14, 2005 7:52 PM