Religion & Liberty Online

Study: Is population growth essential to economic flourishing?

The doom delusions of central planners and population “experts” are well documented and thoroughly exposed, from the faulty predictions of Paul Ehrlich to the more recent hysteria among environmental activists who continue to day-dream about the glories of “a world without us.”

Thankfully, due to a growing crop of calming counters from leading mainstream thinkers—from Steven Pinker to Hans Rosling—society has become a bit more resilient against the heightened hyperbole of population doom-and-gloomers.

But even if such fears have been somewhat mitigated, do we fully appreciate the benefits that population growth can bring amid a free and virtuous society? It’s one thing to believe that human creativity and innovation will outpace the speed of scarcity—that population growth is manageable; it’s quite another to believe that such growth is essential to the flourishing of all else.

In a new paper from the Cato Institute, Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy examine the strength of such a stance, establishing a new method for measuring the influence of population growth on the availability of resources. Centering their efforts around the work of Julian Simon—the late economist who famously argued against Ehrlich, claiming that humans were “the ultimate resource”—Pooley and Tupy set out to assess the validity of what they call “Simon’s Rule.”

“In Simon’s telling, commodities grow more plentiful not in spite of population growth, but because of it,” they write. “With every hungry mouth comes a brain capable of reason and innovation. Was he correct?”

To find the answer, Pooley and Tupy assess price data for “50 foundational commodities, covering energy, food, materials, and metals,” using four distinct concepts to measure it in relation to population trends.

Their methods of measurement and the subsequent findings for each are summarized as follows:

  1. Time-Price of Commodities: “The time-price of commodities allows us to measure the cost of resources in terms of human labor. We find that, in terms of global average hourly income, commodity prices fell by 64.7 percent between 1980 and 2017.”
  2. Price Elasticity of Population (PEP): “[This] allows us to measure sensitivity of resource availability to population growth. We find that the time-price of commodities declined by 0.934 percent for every 1 percent increase in the world’s population over the same time period.”
  3. Simon Abundance Framework: “[This] uses the PEP values to distinguish between different degrees of resource abundance, from decreasing abundance at one end to superabundance at the other end. Considering that the time-price of commodities decreased at a faster proportional rate than population increased, we find that humanity is experiencing superabundance.”
  4. Simon Abundance Index: “[This] uses the time-price of commodities and change in global population to estimate overall resource abundance. We find that the planet’s resources became 379.6 percent more abundant between 1980 and 2017.”

Such findings fly in the face of our culture’s predominant scarcity-mindedness, reminding us that human capacity will continue to confound the predictions of planners and population soothsayers. Yet we should also be mindful that while these trends are relatively new, population growth is not. There’s something more at work than simply “more people = more prosperity.” The civilizational context matters a great deal.

“In addition to more labor, a growing population produces more ideas,” Pooley and Tupy write. “More ideas lead to more innovations, and more innovations improve productivity. Finally, higher productivity translates to better standards of living.”

The ability of humans to overcome scarcity has to do with our creative and innovative spirit, something which can either be stifled or unleashed, depending on a range of cultural and institutional factors. Population growth can, indeed, lead to increases in innovation, economic abundance, and social dynamism, but only if individuals and communities are given the freedom and social stability to experiment with and express that underlying ingenuity—discovering, creating, contributing, and exchanging with each other freely and openly.

“The Earth’s atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite,” the report concludes. “What matters, then, is not the physical limits of our planet, but human freedom to experiment and reimagine the use of resources that we have.”

While the report doesn’t aim to address the theological or philosophical implications of all this, the underlying assumptions nestle neatly with a Christian understanding of our God-given capacity as social, creative, spiritual, and material beings. The mystery of our modern superabundance is tied to a deeper mystery about who we really are and what we were destined to accomplish here on Earth—explaining, from another perspective, why freedom, virtue, and population growth make for such a winning combination.

For a broad explanation, see the following episode from the Acton Institute’s The Good Society series:

We were created in the image of a creator-God to be producers and gift-givers—sharing, exchanging, collaborating, and innovating alongside the grand family of humankind. When this calling is unleashed and channeled accordingly, we can expect to see far more than economic abundance as a result. When we increase the population, we see new communities, new cultures, and new civilizations, each partnering with God and neighbor in a divine exchange of gifts and blessings.

In keeping with Julian Simon’s famous observation, humans are valuable resources, and not just in terms of economic efficiency and capacity. We have inherent dignity and value. We have ideas. Each individual is born a creator and a dreamer — a unique and precious person born for relationship and brimming with capacity for production, investment, and love.

Unlike the scarcity-mindedness of Ehrlich and his modern incarnations, this is not fancy theology fit for a convenient ideology. History has proven it rather sufficiently, and we continue to see growing evidence in studies like Pooley and Tupy’s. Rather than tweaking our doomsday prophecies and predictions, we’d do well to recognize God’s gift of humanity and work to create a world that appreciates the blessings it can bring.

Image: Pedestrians (Pixabay License)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.