July 10, 2019

THE lEFT IS THE rIGHT:

POPULATION DENSITY AND RESOURCE ABUNDANCE: TURNING THE MALTHUSIAN LOGIC ON ITS HEAD (Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, 07/10/2019, New geography)

A few months ago prominent naturalist David Attenborough told attendees at the World Economic Forum about humanity's unsustainable population growth and his certainty that it has to "come to an end" quickly. In the meantime, he told participants, we should also eat a lot less meat. In delivering this message, Attenborough was once again echoing his long standing belief that "[a]ll of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder - and ultimately impossible - to solve with ever more people."

Britain's "national treasure" is hardly alone in terms of holding this view. Indeed, from Thomas Robert Malthus to Paul Ehrlich most proponents of population control measures have argued that a significant population reduction - short of being achieved by an infrastructure-destroying army - would benefit the remaining inhabitants by giving them access to more and better resources. In an online debate with economist Bryan Caplan, economic historian Gregory Clark even argued that plagues ultimately "raised material living standards." As he put it, in England "1.5 million people died prematurely in 1349. In return 6 generations got to live very well with little further excess deaths. And then 1.5 million people got to live longer as the plague weakened its grip in the 16th century, and the population returned to its earlier level. The unlucky generation of 1349 was counterbalanced by the lucky generations of 1540--1620. God smiled on the English when he delivered the plague!"

And yet, as critics of this perspective have long argued, the population growth pessimists have always had things exactly backward. After all, as urban theorist Jane Jacobs wondered two generations ago, many parts of the world, such as portions of Ireland and Sicily, had by then been almost entirely depopulated by emigration, yet far from thriving their remaining inhabitants remained poor. As she put it: "One wonders how much a population is supposed to be reduced before prosperity ensues."

Indeed, virtually all the historical evidence suggests to the contrary that a more numerous population that engages in trade and innovative behavior is always better off. This can be traced back to two essential factors. The first is that a larger population that engages in trade and the division of labor will deliver greater material abundance per capita. The second is that the greater the number of human brains, the greater the likelihood of new beneficial inventions. As the British political economist William Petty observed over a century before Malthus, it was "more likely that one ingenious curious man may rather be found out amongst 4,000,000 than 400 persons."

Furthermore, present and future advances build on past ones. The economist Fritz Machlup thus summed up past debates over half a century ago by distinguishing between the "retardation school" of technological change, whose proponents believed that "the more that has been invented the less there is left to be invented," and the "acceleration school," according to which "the more that is invented the easier it becomes to invent still more" because "every new invention furnishes a new idea for potential combination with vast numbers of existing ideas" and the "number of possible combination increases geometrically with the number of elements at hand," a perspective that has long been vindicated.

When people persist in an ideology in the face of all evidence to the contrary, it is proper to attribute to them a faith in the causes not the effects.  Those who oppose population growth oppose our population of humans, just as those who oppose immigration oppose immigrants.

Posted by at July 10, 2019 7:34 AM

  

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