It’s not easy trying to spread the word about population growth. Part of the trouble is that others, sometimes highly respected in their fields, spread contrary information. Nobel prize winners go around telling people population growth is a good thing; bring it on! George W. Bush regretted saying such a thing and said so. But the population growth cheerleaders haven’t yet expressed any remorse about their destructive pronouncements. One can only hope that in the end the truth will out.
Gary, we need to talk
While we’re waiting for the truth to win the day, let’s take a quick look at one attempt to convince us we should welcome continued population growth. On The Becker-Posner Blog, University of Chicago professors Gary Becker, a Nobel prize winning economist, and Richard Posner, a federal circuit judge, blog and debate issues of interest.
Last October, they considered the question, “Should we worry about overpopulation?,” with Posner suggesting we should and Becker arguing the opposing view.  Becker’s comments are tempered but in line with the views of many mainstream economists. Most of his post is spent asserting economic advantages of faster population growth rates and larger populations. Here’s a sampling:
With the present system of financing social security and medical care of the elderly, faster population growth helps since it increases the number of working individuals relative to the number of retired persons…. The greater the population, the larger the market for new products… The larger is the level of population, the greater the scope for the division of labor…
I find these economic justifications for population growth akin to a doctor telling an obese patient that food is life and health preserving, so eat up, the more the better. Past some point, either food or population growth causes far more harm than good.
Okay, so what about the important stuff?
Becker does go on to mention the population-environment issue, but instantly dismisses it by invoking the “environmental Kuznets curve,” (EKC) a concept suggesting that in a given country environmental degradation first rises then falls as a function of economic growth and rising per capita income. The idea is that, once a certain point of wealth is achieved, the richer a country gets the healthier its environment gets.
This is a weak foundation on which to rest one’s entire dismissal of the problem of population growth. First, to apply the EKC to the question of population, Becker had to assume population growth would mean greater per capita income. The idea is that if we grow the population and therefore per capita income around the world, our environmental worries will be minimal, thanks to the EKC. Unfortunately, the notion that population growth leads to greater per capita income is far from a given. Second, the EKC is of questionable validity to begin with (see here and here and here and here [pdf]), but definitely does not apply to some major sources of environmental damage such as CO2. Finally, even without those problems for the EKC, population growth and economic growth are two different things. Even if the latter did lead reliably to improved environmental conditions, it does not prevent the former from working in the opposite direction. In the end, it takes only common sense to see that no EKC phenomenon can be expected to save us from environmental degradation no matter the level of economic growth around the world. If it could, then we would see wonderful environmental conditions today in the most developed countries. We don’t.
Can technology work magic?
The only other element to Becker’s argument is his assertion that technology will always save us because “technologies progress rapidly in the modern world, and more rapidly as population is larger or per capita incomes are larger.” This notion is common among mainstream economists. But it doesn’t pass the common sense test. Has technology bailed us out so far? Clearly not. We face a long list of profound ecological problems (e.g., climate change, species extinctions rates believed to be as much as 1000 times normal, extreme overfishing, deforestation, massive “dead zones” in the oceans, the global spread of chemical toxins, and projections of serious water shortages to come) with tremendous damage already done. (Consider, for instance, the irreversibility of extinction.) Technology has helped in places, but has not saved us. Moreover, the mere fact that technology has helped in the past is no guarantee it will help enough to avoid catastrophe in a future of growing population, continued pressure for economic growth, and accelerating declines in many ecological subsystems.
I was at first surprised to see Becker offer so little to support for his argument in favor of population growth. On reflection, though, I don’t believe he had much choice. There are not many good points to be made in favor of such a position. It is far easier to argue the view that further population growth is harmful. The facts speak for themselves.
 Posner makes some good points but, in my view, misses opportunities to make his argument much stronger.
Image source: ereneta, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 license