Thursday, 26 July 2007

From Malthus to Deng in one easy think tank

Call yourself a “Think Tank” and it’s amazing what people will fund.

The Optimum Population Trust (OPT) is concerned with the effects of population growth on the environment. It has therefore proposed compulsory limits to family size if urgent action is not taken to restrain population growth through voluntary family planning. This is a common sort of nonsense that crops up from time to time: there are too many of us, they bleat; we are out-consuming our little old planet. OPT suggest that we are consuming 25 per cent more than our planet can sustain, which is odd, because our planet’s population is six times the size that it was when Thomas Malthus was declaring that we were too many and were all doomed.

Despite OPT including some fairly impressive names (one of its chairs and four of its patrons hold professorships from leading universities) it is based on some schoolboy errors. The report says the planet faces the biggest generation of young people in history, leading to “the creation of a huge cohort of young urban males who, through frustration and unemployment…seek an outlet in violence.”

This seems a curious inversion of the truth. OPT do not explain why there should be more males than females in their over-populated world. In fact, the only reason I can think of for a disparity between males and females is the very course of action that OPT is proposing: namely, mandatory birth control.

The classic example of this is the one child policy in China. It has been a disaster – as the OPT report grudgingly admits. It has been widely ignored, where it has not been ignored it has resulted in massive female infanticide, reflecting the bias for male children in Chinese society. The lack of females for brides has been cited as a reason for the rising aggressiveness and militancy of China, as frustrated males look to take their passions out where they can. It has also lead to the 4-2-1 families, with one child supporting two parents and four grandparents.

As for the frustration and unemployment that the report identifies, it is far from inevitable. Widespread unemployment in “young countries” such as Iran and Nigeria is the result of disastrous economic policies rather than some Malthusian-cum-Mercantilist natural limit on the amount of employment. In fact, larger populations enable greater specialisation, leading to more varied jobs and more economic progress. The greatest variety and productiveness would be achieved by creating one global economic area in which six billion people could work together.

If anything, the danger in the developed world is too low a growth in population, leading to too few workers and taxpayers maintaining too many pensioners. It seems rather incongruous – indeed, positively bizarre – that OPT should propose a two-child limit in the UK when the current average birth rate is approximately 1.8 children per woman. We appear to have more than achieved their objective already without having to impose the state’s will on individual’s desire or freedom to breed.

The suggestion that we are out-consuming our planet is equally ludicrous. While humans are undoubtedly causing environmental change that may create difficulties in the future, it does not follow that we have reached or exceeded the productive capacity of planet Earth, as the authors suggest. Crop yields have increased rapidly over the past two centuries and are set to do so again as genetically modified crops yield more produce and are more disease and insect resistant. There are still vast areas of land in, for example, Africa that have not been turned to agricultural use. The UNDP estimates that by 2050 the global population will be 9.2 billion, but they do not believe that this will be unsustainable.

The solution to growing populations is not enforced birth control but economic reform. In fact, with no effort by government whatsoever (except in the removal of currently-prohibitive legislation), greater prosperity will lead to greater use of contraception and so a declining birth-rate. This has been the case in every developing country since effective contraception became available, and explains why the UNDP believes that the global population will level off in the second half of the C21st. Economic progress will enable us to feed, clothe and house 10 billion easily; indeed, it will open up to that 10 billion a level of prosperity and luxury of which 6.5 billion can now only dream.

At the same time, that rising prosperity will be accompanied by declining pollution. Another trend that is clear across the developed world is that the amount of pollution generated per person has fallen in line with economic, and thus technological, progress. This has in the past been undermined by population growth, but only because there was a cavalier attitude to pollution in the C20th. New, cleaner technologies, greater prosperity and more awareness of the impact of our activities on our environment will make the world a cleaner, easier place in which to live. Here, too, economics can lead the way, by providing liberal, market mechanisms for pricing pollutants.

Doom-mongers and population skeptics have a long pedigree, but like economic planners, reactionaries and Luddities they have been proven to be wrong time and again. I am sure that, when my allotted time expires (which on present trends should be around the time that baby 9.2 billion is born), we will be living in a cleaner, more abundant and more prosperous society, where nobody need want for the basics in life and most can look forward to a life as long as I will have enjoyed. Sadly, the patrons of OPT won’t be around to see it. But only because, like the dinosaurs, old age will have claimed them long before.

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