8th November 2011
Is population a problem? #3
This one is an extract from my draft manuscript, DOF. Given that this topic has been raised and most "educated" Indians don't have the capacity to read books, I'm extracting this section for their benefit. Hopefully they can read short extracts.
Please note that the language in the draft below will be significantly improved in the coming months/ years.
I’m not your ‘population problem’!
Some people suggest that there is a population ‘problem’. They say, for instance, that there ‘too many’ people in India. The mean there are too many poor people in India. No one is saying that there are too many rich or ‘beautiful’ people. Perhaps the lowest point of this diatribe against the poor was Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb. But even recently, in 2011, The Age entitled an article: ‘Yearning for a baby: why developing countries say they need IVF too’. This impies that mothers from developing countries are different to those from ‘developed countries, and that developing countries are ‘over’-populated. A racist, anti-life sentiment. Why don’t we first ban ‘developed country’ women from using IVF – so they can lead the way? Indeed, why not all developed country people commit suicide first?
Evidently, it doesn’t occur to such paternalistic fools that they are referring to their fellow human beings. It is intolerable for anyone to suggest that the mere presence of others on this vast Earth is a ‘problem’. As I have said above, let such people commit suicide. One less racist, anti-life fool. And why is India’s population a ‘problem’ and not America’s or Europe’s?
Let’s ensure first that all the rich Americans like Bill Gates and Barack Obama – and all film stars and famous people – are sterilised and then we can discuss this issue further.
Such racist views ignore the huge increase of European populations in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the historical context, India is now barely beginning to recover its original ‘share’ of world population after the disproportionate expansion of Europeans during their colonial period (Table yy). I’m not suggesting that ‘historical proportions’ of population have intrinsic meaning, but we must rap the knuckles of those who cry wolf about the so-called ‘large’ number of poor people on earth.
And why did the number of Europeans increase so rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries? Because of the great boost to commerce, industry and science that arose from advances in liberty and led to startling improvements in health and general prosperity (improvements that Karl Marx the blind ‘economist’ missed). The most significant advance came from simple improvements in sanitation and public health which cut down infant mortality by more than half. Given that it takes time for people to realise that more children will survive than they initially expected, European birth rates rapidly begin to exceed death rates, leading to a massive growth in population. Like in developing countries later, it took decades for European fertility to re-adjust and return to replacement levels. The ‘surplus’ population so generated migrated across the world and – supported by European technical advances – fuelled colonialism and imperialism.
As a result of this massive European ‘population bomb’ the share of undivided India in the world’s population plummeted from 21.5 per cent in 1750, to 17.3 per cent in 1900. This share has barely recovered since then, and will return to around 22 per cent of world population by about 2020, tapering off in due course as birth rates fall with greater freedom.
In that sense India and other developing nations are seeing a delayed return to their ‘orignal’ share of world population, consistent with global advances of freedom and science. It is clearly a good thing that the world now has a higher (and more innovative) population. The Earth can sustain a very large, prosperous human population. Gandhi was entirely wrong (being ignorant both of science and economics) when he is reported to have said: ‘The earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed’
. I don’t know about greed, but there is enough on Earth for all of mankind, for a very very long time. There is no shortage of resources, since natural resources harldly matter; it is human ingenuity that is relevant.
Table yy: Population of undivided India as a ratio of world population
Indian proportion of world population
Note: Figures are in millions. *Includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.
Sources: Various, based on research I conducted in 1998 (the 2025 projections were of from reports published in the late 1990s, and may now be over-estimates) [Update using Angus Madison’s last book].
No relationship between population size and prosperity
Most concerns about so-called ‘excessive’ population are based on ignorance about the way humans choose to reproduce, and about the meaning of ‘natural’ resources. Even some educated Indians have bought into the hysteria created by some people in the West about India’s allegedly ‘large’ population. India’s National Population Policy (2000) thus states: ‘Stabilising population is an essential requirement for promoting sustainable development with more equitable distribution.’
But the historical context and moral underpinnings make this an obnoxious policy. But it must also be challenged for erroneously making a link between income (or quality of life, more generally) and population size.
Two mechanisms are supposedly responsible for this alleged ‘relationship. First, a Malthusian route is suggested whereby land and natural resources experience a diminishing marginal capacity to sustain increased population. In relation to this, the point to note is that natural resources only constrain us so long as we haven’t yet thought of new ways to change the situation. But more generally, human abilities far exceed the constraints that nature may impose.
Resource ‘scarcity’ usually vanishes within a fairly short time once markets are allowed to operate freely. This is because of the incentives created by price signals. When it become temporarily scarce, the relevant resource’s price will rise. Alternatives then become economically viable, and, as increasing economies of scale set in, the market demand increases for the alternative ‘resource’, with the new ‘resource’ ending up cheaper than the resource it displaced. More venture capital is invested by businesses in areas where resource constraints are being felt, for that’s where the quick profits will first emerge. Recycling, and inventing more efficient ways to use existing resources, is also more likely with free markets. Where extremely large
research costs are involved, and the outcome extremely
uncertain, it might be appropriate for a government to subsidise research (the case of fusion energy is perhaps the only one that comes to mind).
Box 99 discusses the example of energy.
India’s ‘problem’ is not the size of its population, or its ‘limited’ resources, but that its socialist (centrally controlled) policies and governance make it nearly impossible for businesses to invest profitably in new research, or to introduce substitutes.
Energy: There is no resource shortage
Modern life as we know it will grind to a halt if we can’t generate sufficient electricity. Literally infinite quantities of energy are embodied within matter (e = mc2
). ‘The complete conversion of [just] one gram of mass into energy …releases … the equivalent of the explosion of roughly a thousand tons of TNT.’
Should we succeed in extracting all its energy, just one gram of hydrogen could light a typical house for 1000 years. But we don’t know how to do this – yet.
Two processes: fission and fusion, are able to extract modest quantities of energy. During the period since 1942 (when the world’s first nuclear reactor went critical), the safety of nuclear reactors has approximately risen ten-fold.
It would be reasonable to suggest that nuclear energy is the safest mode of energy generation today (with safety beig measured by the number of lives lost per megawatt generated from the point of discovery of uranium to plant decommissioning), although the high cost paid by society after each major incident (e.g. Fukushima) does detract from its net benefits.
However, mankind must not fear nature but conquer it. We should not become cowards and run from science. We have taken a lot of losses in our quest for liberty over the centuries. We can take a few more losses in our quest for our domination of nature. It is crucial to learn from our experience and improve nuclear energy, not to give up.
But there is a supply constraint. Heavy atoms like uranium are rare and so mankind needs to shift to fusion energy for which, however, no solutions yet exist. That is why government funding is admissible in this area, and is taking place.
Other forms of energy can be readily developed by private businesses if clear market signals are allowed. These include the use of the kinetic energy that swirls about in the atmosphere (wind) and in the sea, and the heat emitted by the sun. The reason we don’t extract such energy today is because cheaper alternatives (coal, oil, gas, hydro-power) exist. But once these become scarcer their prices will rise and alternatives will become viable, and ultimately cheaper. However, there is no cause to subsidise these forms of energy, for it is not optimal to outsmart the market.
One thing I can safely predict – that in the coming decades, the relative share of energy costs in our household budgets will continue to shrink despite our consuming far more energy than we do today. That is, unless we interfere with the market, and try to subsidise uneconomic energy sources.
There are ultimately no theoretical limitations to energy production, only practical limitations, most of which will be definitely overcome. In this regard, I commend Julian Simon’s book, The Ultimate Resource
, whichprovidesa detailed description of how the resource and energy market works.
The second ‘proof’ that population is allegedly a problem is that social investment apparently dissipates when spread over a larger than smaller population. Thus, if a society wants to educate a large number of people, they will apparently end up being educated badly since a fixed sum of money needs to be spread across all of them. This is incorrect, for the more the people, the more the taxpayers (except at the beginning of the demographic transition). Assuming constant marginal tax rates, proportionately more revenue is generated. This yields the same per capita availability of funds for education, as with a lower population. In any event, education is an investment with perhaps the highest rate of return. Funds can be readily borrowed during the demographic transition to educate children who will easily be able to repay this loan in the future because of the wealth generated from education.
Economic growth is ultimately related to the level of freedom in a society. It is totally unrelated to its absolute population size. Instead, there are many benefits of a large population, particularly on the increased level of innovation through network effects (assuming a high quality education system).
In brief, population size is a non-issue. There might be some environmental impacts, but these are minimial in the free society which has developed sufficient resources, scientific knowledge, and technologies to preserve the environment. The setback to the eneviroment in the early stages of industrial development is easily alleviated as greater prosperity emerges. So ultimately we only need one thing: equal freedom. Governments don’t have to get involved in preventing people from being born nor in subsidising new births. Planning for their family should be left to the citizens. After all, determining the size of their family (so long as they remain responsible for its care) is their basic freedom.
http://bit.ly/rgkPFv. The Age, 14 August 2011.
Cited in Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi, Volume X: The Last Phase
, Part II (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1958), page 552.
One has to be very cautious about such things, e.g. see Terence Kealey, Sex, Science and Profits
, London: William Heinemann, 2008.
Carl Sagan in Broca’s Brain
, New York: Ballantine Books, 1979, p.27.
James A. Lake, former president of the American Nuclear Society in 2000-2001, at
Book 2 is freely available at [http://www.juliansimon.com/writings/Ultimate_Resource/] though I find the genuine pleasure of reading only comes through the paper edition.