This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Are You Telling Me That There is No Population Problem?

"Overpopulation is Not the Problem" is the title of an Op-Ed in today's New York Times by Erle Ellis, who is a professor of geography and really should know better than this. He claims that he used to believe that populations could outrun resources (based apparently on a strict reading of Malthus), but then he discovered Ester Boserup, who convinced him that population growth stimulates the kind of change that advances society. Only a few days after the publication of the book on "The Bet" between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, Ellis is channeling Simon's idea that there is no limit to human population growth because we will just keep substituting new resources for the ones that we have exhausted. Thus Ellis concludes that:
The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.
Well, yes, it will be what we make it, and at the moment we are making a mess of it. Will we be able to adjust in time for the next two or three billion people? The answer is that we really don't know. But we do know that without MAJOR changes in the way human society operates, virtually all new inhabitants of the planet in the future will have a standard of living well below that of people in the now rich parts of the world.

If you've read my book, you know that there is, to be sure, strong evidence to show that over the slow progress of human history, population growth probably did stimulate technological advances and improve the level of living. That is what Boserup (and many others) were seeing historically. At the same time, Malthus was wrong that population growth "naturally" exceeded the rate of growth of the food supply. The wrongness of that idea helped to inspire Darwin's thinking that all living things have the potential for geometric growth. But here's the rub: All of that transpired before the transfer of death control technology after WWII. Population growth is no longer tied to economic development--it is tied to international efforts to lower the death rate, and we have been increasing numerically at historically unprecedented rates. The solution is not to hope that we can somehow magically create new, currently unknown, resources. The solution is to lower the birth rate immediately. Ellis says that "It was only after years of research into the ecology of agriculture in China that I reached the point where my observations forced me to see beyond my biologists’s blinders." Wait a minute! The Chinese knew the answer to the puzzle--dramatically lower the birth rate. Ellis seemed to have had his blinders on to that development. The other thing we need to do, of course, which the Chinese have not done--nor have the rest of us--is to lower the rate at which we are extracting resources from the earth. This is how we can try to revive the environment.

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