Happy World Population Day: Some Environmentalists Halfway Get It


The tree of life is bearing less fruit?

The environmentalist news website Grist (former tagline: "Gloom and Doom with a Sense of Humor,' now replaced with "A Beacon in the Smog") is running an article by Fred Pearce that forthrightly (and finally) admits that the population bomb is a dud:

A green myth is on the march. It wants to blame the world's overbreeding poor people for the planet's peril. It stinks. And on World Population Day, I encourage fellow environmentalists not to be seduced.

Some greens think all efforts to save the world are doomed unless we "do something" about continuing population growth. But this is nonsense. Worse, it is dangerous nonsense. 

For a start, the population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast. Back then, most women round the world had five or six children. Today's women have just half as many as their mothers—an average of 2.6. Not just in the rich world, but almost everywhere. 

This is getting close to the long-term replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don't make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. Women are cutting their family sizes not because governments tell them to, but for their own good and the good of their families—and if it helps the planet too, then so much the better. 

This is a stunning change in just one generation. Why don't we hear more about it? Because it doesn't fit the doomsday agenda (emphasis added).

Half the world now has fewer than the "replacement level" of children. That includes Europe, North America, and the Caribbean, most of the Far East from Japan to Thailand, and much of the Middle East from Algeria to Iran….

It is also true that population growth has not ceased yet. We have 6.8 billion people today, and may end up with another 2 billion before the population bomb is finally defused. But this is mainly because of a time lag while the huge numbers of young women born during the baby boom years of the 20th century remain fertile. 

With half the world already at below-replacement birthrates, and with those rates still falling fast, the world's population will probably be shrinking within a generation.

There are various causes behind falling fertility, but one that environmentalists and most other folks miss is that lower fertility rates correlate very nicely with rising economic freedom.

But always fear—there is another looming catastrophe, the consumption bomb. Of course, economic freedom and the technological progress that it makes possible will defuse the alleged consumption bomb too. Nevertheless, getting it halfway right is certainly an improvement over being totally wrong.

Kudos to Laura Huggins for the link.

NEXT: Der Spiegel on a Stalinist "Rock Star"

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  1. Some people can’t stop breeding fast enough though.

  2. Is the World Population Day banner supposed to look like a diagram of some birth control device?

    1. self-love is the only safe love.

      1. (and it’s not safe if you do it with knives)

  3. Half the world now has fewer than the “replacement level” of children. That includes Europe, North America, and the Caribbean, most of the Far East from Japan to Thailand, and much of the Middle East from Algeria to Iran….

    That’s good news, although I can’t imagine what could be driving the drop in fertility in countries where women are chattel and economic freedom is not, as far as I can tell, rising.

    1. I can’t imagine what could be driving the drop in fertility

      Have you seen what’s under those burqas?

    2. I say it’s wealth more than “economic freedom”. Saudi Arabia may not be free but it is fantastically wealthy, and wealthy people tend to have fewer kids.

      1. Actually, at least in the west, wealthy people have MORE kids. So do the poor. It is the middle-class that has the low birth rates.

        The basic reason is that children are a big cost to those who are trying to advance their careers, but the rich have enough resources to handle it.

    3. And Iran actually has its government actively promoting having fewer kids for quite some time now, in sharp contrast to the ’80s when they encouraged big families.

    4. RCD: It’s “one of the causes” – teaching women to read and allowing them into the cash economy (even if unfree) also reduces TFRs. I personally suspect that television and movies play a role by giving people different views on how others choose to live, including having smaller families.

      For what it’s worth, Algeria ranks 105 out of 183 countries on economic freedom (mostly unfree) and has dropped from a 2000 TFR of 2.8 to 1.79 in 2009.

      1. Last autumn, I read about a population control program in a part of India. The government was providing people with TV access on the assumption that watching more TV would leave less time for making babies.

        1. “Your cable television is experiencing difficulties. Please do not panic. Resist the temptation to read or talk to loved ones. Do not attempt sexual relations, as years of TV radiation have left your genitals withered and useless.”

    5. Much of the Middle East has seen economic freedom skyrocket in the last 20 years or so. Even Saudi and Iran, to a significant degree.

      It’s not surprising that you’d be blind to that, but it is disappointing that myths like that continue.

  4. OH wow, OK that makes a lot of sense!


  5. Problems are solveable. That’s why 30 years of focus on extending family planning to the developing world have brought the population problem under control. Declining fertility also strongly correlates to levels of education amongst women.

  6. Somebody tell this to the Palestinians.

    1. They’re not making babies. They’re stockpiling ammunition.

  7. I think that on World Population Day we should be able to tie Paul Ehrlich up like a Pinata and beat him with baby shoes until he he resembles a bruised banana.

    It’s only fair.

  8. I’ve read it noted that China is quietly, slowly abandoning its one child policy as a mistake.

    The Chinese Communist Party obviously never makes mistakes, at least not the kind they would admit in public, but it’s recognized there that the social safety net for the elderly there was predicated, historically, on having a lot of children, and Grandma and Grandpa are gonna have a tough go of it with that skinny little Gen X of a demographic that one child policy grew them into.

    I’m just throwing it out for consideration, but if the Chinese Communist Party can get their heads around the idea that population growth isn’t a problem, you’d think environmentalists could be as reasonable.

    Maybe not.

    1. China has a province that they used as a pilot project to abandoning the policy. IIRC that province had a very low birth rate as well because parents don’t want to divide their funds among two children. Apparently they believe they would be at a competitive disadvantage with the Wongs down the street.

      1. Like I said, the Chinese government isn’t about to admit or talk about what they’re really doing. …I mean, if Barack Obama ran all our news outlets, he’d never make a mistake or talk about anything he didn’t want to…

        But there are understandings, or so I’ve read, that if two people get married, and they’re both only children, for instance, then they’re allowed to have two children instead of one. …to help take care of four grandparents.

        And, the whole system is just generally breaking down.

        The force driving China’s thinking for, well, going back for a long time historically, has been the fear that they wouldn’t be able to feed all their people and would starve to death. The one child policy, I think, was originally conceived in that light, despite whatever justifications were given for it publicly at the time.

        Now that starvation is no longer a big concern…

        Centrally planned anything is a bad idea. Centrally planned population control too. And if China isn’t worried about overpopulation as a big problem–despite the environmental problems they have–then environmentalists who think people are the problem really need to rethink their whole spiel…

        I’m up to *here* with progressives treating people like obstacles and environmentalists who treat people like the problem.

        It’s so wrongheaded. And as an environmentally minded libertarian, their efforts are counter-productive at best. It gets even more fundamentally wrong with too many of them–some of ’em will outright advocate against economic growth.

        It’s sickening.

  9. Would it be a catastrophe if the world birth rate fell below replacement level?

    1. short answer- yes

    2. For how long, and by how much?

  10. the world’s population will probably be shrinking within a generation

    Assuming no catastrophe, I’ll bet against that.

  11. I followed the link and immediately was drawn to the response by a certain Robert Walker in the sidebar.


    I’m trying to think of anything more sickening than the term “reproductive health care” used as a euphemism for culling the future have-nots but am drawing a blank. Especially ironic considering that I am generally pro-choice.

  12. The population alarmists are the worst kind of hypocrites – with big families and lots of resources to keep them happy. On another note, the population alarmists are really an anti-God, anti-humanity, anti-happiness movement. Let them kill themselves if they hate the population.

  13. I thought the Rapture was going to fix the overpopulation problem.

    1. True. Raptures are dangerous pack hunters and they will help fix the overpopulation problem. If you personally are confronted with a Rapture, remember, the pack attacks from the sides.

  14. bogus stats..
    half the world is at replacement levels…
    leaving 3 billion to continue to fill it up..
    in 1900 ,the world pop of 1.5 managed to generate the current 6 billion
    what will 3 bbillin do in 100 year?

    1. How are they bogus stats? As economies around the world become freer (USA notwithstanding), more poor people join the middle class, and population growth slows.

  15. It’s interesting, but fertility rates may actually follow a ‘J’:


  16. The data suggests the overall population will stabilize somewhat as growth rates trend toward replacement.
    However, the composition of populations will change rapidly in the next 50 years. That’s the exciting part.
    Based on the best projections, much of Europe will become majority Muslim, and that group will be much younger on average compared to the indigenous Europeans.
    Highly religious groups generally will increase in proportion compared to non-religious ones.
    America will enjoy many more Mexican restaurants, legal or not.
    China will have millions of “extra” men due to gender selection as a result of the 1 child policy.
    Interesting times ahead!

  17. But always fear – there is another looming catastrophe, the consumption bomb.

    Trust us, THIS time the world really is doomed.

    1. Seriously. I mean, we used computers and everything.

      1. Also, we got a Nobel Prize this time. So, you can no more deny us than you can the Holocaust or Keynesian economic theory.

  18. Most people I’ve encountered who inveigh against “overbreeding” have not traveled much outside of crowded urban regions. They seemingly have no appreciation of the vast land areas on this planet that are devoid of humans, or very nearly so. Cities are crowded for two main reasons: 1) people perceive that they attain some advantage from living in a city, which is worth more to them than striking out on their own in less populated areas; 2) politics (including the enforcement of boundaries around private and “public” property). Things get really bad when cities become so crowded that people actually believe they could do better by leaving the cities, but then are not allowed to settle elsewhere because all the property is somehow “spoken for” and whoever is doing the “speaking” is against growth and development. At that point, the critics of “overbreeding” come out to say that the crowded conditions are humanity’s fault. Of course they are, but not in the way that the opinion leaders want the sheep to believe. Rather, the hoi polloi are counseled to have smaller families and use birth control, and the more strident critics of overbreeding start talking seriously about mandatory sterilization and other extreme measures.

  19. Another blind spot shared by those who believe we are overpopulating the planet, is the inability to appreciate that every new person is more than just a unit of additional consumption and pollution. With only a very few exceptions, he or she is also a new source of labor and production, invention and creation. As civilization advances, it becomes easier for each person to pull his own economic weight and the weight of many more besides. Also, the more people we have, the likelier we are that one of them will make a breakthrough that improves life in general and further extends the carrying capacity of any particular patch of ground, not to mention the entire planet. In discussions with some people, this last observation of mine has been compared to going to vegas and betting the house on roulette. But it’s not at all. There is a basic capacity of human intellect to solve problems under pressure. But the more people, the more the existing ideas and information get churned and developed, and the more new information and ideas are generated. A larger population maximizes the human species’ ability to tap its own potential for finding solutions to problems. We may someday encounter a problem that is simply beyond human ability to solve. If that problem is serious enough, and if more people only exacerbate it, THEN we might realistically talk about overpopulation and pro-active population control. But the usual modern problems of procuring adequate levels of food, shelter, energy and other resources, minimizing pollution, and so forth, seem well within our species’ innate capacity to solve.

  20. I’ve read in one blog that education makes a women infertile. As a solution to the ballooning population we should then try to educate all women. I think this is a win-win solution!

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