It’s become fashionable for doomsday prophets to predict that “overpopulation” will lead to mass starvation and environmental catastrophe. Now, however, with humanity facing a global crash in birthrates, many experts are rightly changing their tune.
Contrary to the Malthusian predictions, the population boom of the 20th century was far from a “population bomb.” It did not lead to dystopian deprivation, but instead produced abounding prosperity and drastic declines in global hunger. As it turns out, Julian Simon’s provocative thesis was correct: Humans are the “ultimate resource.”
Whereas declining birthrates were once seen as a sign of a nation’s “progress,” developed countries now view them through a lens of existential crisis, likely to halt economic transformation and pave the way for increased human suffering and civilizational sclerosis. In places like China, Russia, Italy, and Japan, political leaders have become less concerned about “hot and crowded” streets than simply filling their markets and funding their government programs. With some unfortunate exceptions, Paul Ehrlich’s dark fantasies of mass sterilization have largely been replaced with child tax credits and national procreation days.
When it comes to the environmental implications, however, many are still holding fast to the scarcity-mindedness of decades past.
In a recent piece at Bloomberg, author and professor Amanda Little counters the neo-natalism of centrist liberals like Noah Smith and Matthew Yglesias, claiming that fewer babies is still better if we hope to win the fight against climate change and global hunger.
“Before clamoring for more mouths to feed, we need to recognize the dire realities of world hunger today and the gravely concerning predictions for famine and malnutrition in the decades to come,” she writes. “Let’s get a plan in place to ensure climate stability and greater food security going forward. Until then, a slowdown in population growth not only eases pressures on a stressed planet, it will make it possible to feed more people more intelligently and sustainably, with higher-quality food.”
Little acknowledges the good that globalization has brought, but thinks it’s taking a turn for the worse, particularly when it comes to climate-related disruptions:
While we’re adding 2 billion people to the planet in the next 30 years, global crop yields are expected to plummet. Climatic models show a decline in global crop yields every decade going forward as the pressures of global warming intensify, punishing food producers with drought, heat, flooding, superstorms, invasive insects, shifting seasons and bacterial blights.
In the U.S. alone, powerful “derecho” storms damaged 10 million acres of Iowa’s corn fields last summer. The previous year, drenching rains wiped out billions of dollars of corn and soy production when the fields were too wet for machinery to run. Wildfires devastated wine and cattle producers in northern California, and blights and hurricanes wiped out citrus and nut production in the American southeast.
By mid-century, the world may reach a threshold of global warming “beyond which current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations,” the International Panel of Climate Change has warned. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Jerry Hatfield put it to me this way: “The single biggest threat of climate change is the collapse of food systems.”
Such predictions invite plenty of skepticism, particularly when sourced from the IPCC, which has a long track record of getting it wrong. When it comes to the real-world disruptions, they pose significant challenges. Yet, as folks like Steven Pinker have routinely acknowledged, the existence of situational challenges doesn’t necessarily diminish the brightness of the bigger picture of human progress. The year of COVID-19 brought unique waves of disorder, for example, but the world is still likely to move toward a more efficient, fruitful, and interconnected future.
But even if we accept Little’s grim outlook — setting aside our questions about root causes, reliability, and controllability — one still wonders how such a situation could possibly be improved by fewer babies.
If it is true that we face unprecedented and unforeseen challenges when it comes to environmental catastrophe and deprivation, don’t we need more creativity, more ingenuity, and more initiative to pioneer a proper path forward? These are features of civilization that come from having more humans.
To her credit, Little doesn’t sideline the human factor entirely. Unlike those who openly fantasize about “a world without us,” Little celebrates the ways in which human innovation has already aided our efforts to avoid environmental catastrophe:
I know that “current agricultural practices” will give way to smarter and more sustainable food production. I’ve traveled from apple orchards in Wisconsin and tiny cornfields in Kenya to massive Norwegian fish farms and computerized foodscapes in Shanghai to investigate new ideas, including robotics, CRISPR and vertical farms.
Old ideas can make a difference, too, such as edible insects, permaculture, and a revival of ancient plants. I know that farmers and entrepreneurs are radically rethinking national and global food systems to make them resilient and sustainable. In the long run, we will be able to feed more people using less land that produces more nutritious and higher quality food.
Even still, her conclusion remains the same: “Only when we — in the U.S. and as a global collective — come up with achievable goals for feeding humanity responsibly and sustainably should we commit to the goal of boosting birthrates.”
It’s a disconnect that helps illuminate a key distinction in how we view the human person in relation to the social order. It is not enough to simply have a faith in human creativity and ingenuity. When paired with a propensity to plan, predict, and control our way out of problems — micro-managing society according to “achievable goals” — such a gift is put to waste.
If the path to reducing global poverty and hunger has actually slowed or reversed, as Little argues, the solution is not more central planning based on environmental guesswork or sustainability summits at the United Nations, but unleashing human potential wherever it’s being stifled. The solution is more humans, yes, but also freer economies, freer trade, better property rights, and the rule of law.
When we look at the successes of globalization thus far, the most transformative innovations have not been spurred by the “experts,” but by the “searchers,” as economist William Easterly calls them — those who dream and decipher, test and experiment, seek and find.
“There’s a tendency to apply to human beings the same sort of models that may apply for the insect world,” says economist Gita Sen in a New York Times mini-documentary. “The difference, of course, is that human beings are conscious beings and we do all kinds of things to change our destiny.”
Humans are not just consumers, but producers, a lifeblood to the earth bound up with dignity and creativity. We are makers of love, wealth, culture, and otherwise, crafted in the image of a creator-God to be gift-givers— sharing, exchanging, collaborating, and innovating alongside the grand family of humankind.
As Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy conclude in a recent study, “a growing population produces more ideas,” and “more ideas lead to more innovations.” Population growth can lead to increases in innovation, economic abundance, social dynamism, and environmental stewardship, but only if individuals and communities are given the freedom and social stability to experiment with and express those gifts — 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,” Pooley and Tupy conclude. “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.”
When our calling to create and innovate is affirmed and unleashed, we can expect to see fruitfulness that extends beyond mere economic abundance, stretching from social cohesion to institutional innovation to environmental conservation and restoration.
Rather than diminishing the value and potential of human life — dwelling on doomsday prophecies and scarcity-minded predictions about the environment or otherwise — we’d do far better celebrate God’s gift of humanity and the blessings we bring to the world He created.