Is Population Growth Really an Existential Threat?

 

Hannah Gais, an editor at the Foreign Policy Association, is one of those people very concerned about too many people. For her, it’s right up there with climate change as an existential threat to humanity, Gaia, the whole shebang. As she writes for U.S. News & World Report: ”If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that there are certainly a lot of us. But how much of a growing population can the earth really support – comfortably and without destroying it, that is?”

But Gais isn’t really asking a question here. She is searching for affirmation of her existing belief that, yuppers, there’s too darn many of us. And that affirmation arrives in the form of Alan Weisman, author of the The World Without Us, a thought-experiment that examines what would happen to the planet if all 7.1 billion of us disappeared. (Spoiler: a return to Eden.) Gais:

The United Nations estimates that the world population at the end of the century will be around 11 billion, and many fear that the planet’s natural resources are insufficient to accommodate such growth. Weisman is one of them. He rejects the thesis, advanced by “technological optimists,” that human ingenuity and technological development will fix the problems overpopulation presents. Ingenuity and development require resources, he says, and resources are finite.

Two problems:

1. It’s not all clear global population will end up anywhere near those levels. For instance, demographer Sanjeev Sanyal of Deutsche Bank thinks the UN is way off. His calculations find the world’s overall fertility rate falling to the replacement rate in 2025, although global population will continue to expand thanks in part to rising longevity, for another few decades. Then comes the Big Shrink. Sanyal:

We forecast that world population will peak around 2055 at  8.7 billion and will then decline to 8.0 billion by 2100. In other words, our forecasts  suggest that world population will peak at least half a century sooner than the UN expects and that by 2100, and that level will be 2.8 billion below the UN’s  prediction. This is obviously a radically different view of the world.

2. The Weisman Declaration of Scarcity –  ”Ingenuity and development require resources, he says, and resources are finite” — is wrong-headed. For starters, that’s just factually wrong given the vast potential of asteroid mining. But that aside, ideas and innovation turn scarcity into prosperity, the finite into the seemingly infinite. Economist Paul Romer:

Imagine you start with about 100 elements in the periodic table and you ask: How many valuable things can we make by mixing together different elements from that table … Well, starting at two a time. Two at a time would be 100 times 99, so that’s already a big, relatively big number. But then suppose we have three things we can pick, so then there’s 100 you could pick first, then 99, then 98, and then we consider mixtures of 4 and 5…when you start to consider all the possible mixtures, the number of things we could make out of the periodic table is bigger than the total number of seconds since the Big Bang created the universe. So we know there’s things out of the periodic table that no human has ever investigated, has ever even tried. And scientists keep finding new things out of those mixtures that turn out to be very surprising. … there are still things out there to discovered like that, out of just mixing things from the periodic table, we’ll never run out of- between now and the time 5 or 10 billion years from now when the sun explodes and incinerates the whole solar system, we’ll never run out of important new things to discover.

3. Rather than be terrified of all those babies yet to come, I’m excited by all those new minds coming on line. It should be our goal to make sure they’re born into a world where they can meet their human potential, a world of economic freedom and prosperity that encourages and rewards their new ideas. Ramez Naam:

Innovation is the ultimate source of our wealth. New ideas have multiplied the resources we have access to; have reduced the amount of land, energy, and raw materials we need to accomplish any task; have created substitutes for every resource we’ve been in danger of exhausting in the last 500 years; have grown our ability to recycle waste into things of value; and have, in recent years, begun to decouple our economic growth from our levels of consumption and environmental change.

4. One more thing: is Gais more worried about a) some Soylent Green future for humanity or b) humanity as some disease threatening the Mother Earth? Hmm …

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  1. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @MikeH

    Three cheers for Natalism!

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @

    It depends on the average IQ of the populations that are growing.

    Conservative happy-talk about how great it will be when we have 10 billion or so people on the planet does get very wearying after a while.

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    @Valiuth

    Any biologist will tell you that populations increase exponentially until they reach the energy limits of their environment. That is to say when we can no longer extract more energy from the environment we will stop growing. exponentially. It may very well be that the current slow down in population growth is indicative of having reached some energy threshold.  

    Remember the threshold is not set by the total energy present in the system, but rather by an organisms ability to capture and utilize it. Daily the Earth is bombarded with trillions of watts of energy by the Sun. Enough to meet our current energy needs for years…the problem is capturing that energy in a usable form.

    Having given the population limit people their due I will say this. An Earth without people is worthless. It might as well not exist because who would be there to enjoy it? Really humans are the only species on this planet that we should ever be worried about. A million other species could go extinct so long as we survive we are fulfilling our biological imperatives. 

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @MikeH
    wmartin: It depends on the average IQ of the populations that are growing.

    Conservative happy-talk about how great it will be when we have 10 billion or so people on the planet does get very wearying after a while. · 1 minute ago

    A dumb person doesn’t intrinsically make a smart person less innovative. Sure, democracy can threaten innovation, but the average IQ says nothing about the inherent opportunities in life. The absolute number of smart people is what matters, not how many dumb people there are in proportion.

    But you tangentially make the important point that we would all benefit if the people with the highest IQ had more kids.

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    @

    Mike H: Since IQ correlates with lots of other behaviors that make a society more or less functional, I would say it is very important that high average IQ populations be the ones expanding.

    In this country, the breeding patterns have become extremely dysgenic, with no solution that I can see.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Contributor
    @FrankSoto

    Great post.  James hit all of the salient counter points.  Now if we could just get school teachers to stop filling kid’s heads with this non-sense, then we won’t have to keep rebutting this wrong headed doomsday scenario.

    • #6
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    @PaulDougherty

    I am sick of Malthusian misanthropes. They spend their lives tying to prove that mankind is a blight on Mother Earth.

    wmartin: It depends on the average IQ of the populations that are growing.

    Conservative happy-talk about how great it will be when we have 10 billion or so people on the planet does get very wearying after a while. · 2 minutes ago

    Its not the size of the bell in the curve, rather the shape? Hmmm

    • #7
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    @KatRose

    Breeding patterns? Dysgenic? Who exactly is breeding that is making our population so dysgenic?

    wmartin:  In this country, the breeding patterns have become extremely dysgenic, with no solution that I can see. · 1 hour ago

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CrowsNest

    Why is it that these Malthuisan misanthropes never presume that they are among the “superfluous” human beings they warn us about?

    Shouldn’t they be setting the example by voluntarily sterilizing themselves?

    • #9
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    @vdorta

    Hi everybody, brand new Ricochet member, though long time visitor.

    Like a bolt out of the blue, demographics attracted my attention when I read a couple of books by Ben Wattenberg almost ten years ago. I believe the conventional (mostly liberal) wisdom on world population trends is wrong on almost every count, but it’s difficult to even get outside the box because it dominates the culture as part of the doomsday alarmism we take for granted.

    For a start, I strongly recommend the following books: Ben Wattenberg, Fewer (2004); Phillip Longman, The Empty Cradle (2004); Eric Kaufmann, Will The Religious Inherit the Earth? (2010); David P. Goldman,How Civilizations Die (2011); and Jonathan V. Last,What to Expect When Nobody is Expecting (2013), as well as several articles by Nicholas Eberstadt. I have written a couple of articles about the issue and the books for my close friends, but please send me a personal message and I would be happy to send them to any Ricocheti who is interested.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @vdorta

    As an appetizer, please take a look at this graph:

    World-Population-Growth.jpg

    Pundits have been looking only at the left side of the graph, a sudden but temporary bulge in world population mainly due to better nutrition, miracle drugs and the green revolution, but the right side of the graph is the important one at long term: a generalized, unprecedented and probably permanent demographic collapse due to the confluence of the good and bad traits of modernity, and the shock of their impact on traditional cultures: capitalism, freedom and education on the one hand, but also cultural decay, hedonism, relativism, nihilism, and atheism on the other hand. By the way, the shallow flare starting at about 2040 is due to the UN’s hope that the world TFR (total fertility rate) would drift back to replacement levels, something that Wattenberg says “was based on absolutely no evidence.” Think about it.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Valiuth
    wmartin: Mike H: Since IQ correlates with lots of other behaviors that make a society more or less functional, I would say it is very important that high average IQ populations be the ones expanding.

    In this country, the breeding patterns have become extremely dysgenic, with no solution that I can see. · 3 hours ago

    The solution is one proposed many many years ago. It is to employ active eugenic breeding schemes.

    From the dark past of history the “human breeders” strike again. Because let us face it the science was always on their side, they just obscured it with racism instead of the much more preferable IQism. I don’t know of any evidence that one can in fact breed for IQ. 

    IQ does display certain hereditery pattern, but then again so does being a Doctor, or cooking Italian food. So much of what IQ measures is learned behavior, the genetic roots of which are  most generously described as subtle. 

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Valiuth

    The solution is one proposed many many years ago. It is to employ active eugenic breeding schemes.

    From the dark past of history the “human breeders” strike again. Because let us face it the science was always on their side, they just obscured it with racism instead of the much more preferable IQism. I don’t know of any evidence that one can in fact breed for IQ. 

    IQ does display certain hereditery pattern, but then again so does being a Doctor, or cooking Italian food. So much of what IQ measures is learned behavior, the genetic roots of which are  most generously described as subtle.  · 6 minutes ago

    You know very little about IQ. IQ measures inherent aptitude, not learned behavior.

    Obviously,  you can “breed for” just about any trait, just as you can with dogs.

    James Flynn on dysgenic trends in new Zealand: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10450313

    • #13
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    @
    Spoon: Breeding patterns? Dysgenic? Who exactly is breeding that is making our population so dysgenic? · 1 hour ago

    wmartin:  In this country, the breeding patterns have become extremely dysgenic, with no solution that I can see. · 1 hour ago

    For about two generations now, people with below-average IQ’s have been doing a disproportionate share of the breeding. Since IQ is at least 50% genetic, this results in a lowering of our society’s average intelligence.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @MikeH
    Ramillies: 

    …but the right side of the graph is the important one at long term: a generalized, unprecedented and probably permanent demographic collapse due to the confluence of the good and bad traits of modernity, and the shock of their impact on traditional cultures: capitalism, freedom and education on the one hand, but also cultural decay, hedonism, relativism, nihilism, and atheism on the other hand. By the way, the shallow flare starting at about 2040 is due to the UN’s hope that the world TFR (total fertility rate) would drift back to replacement levels, something that Wattenberg says “was based on absolutely no evidence.” Think about it.

    I love how you lump atheism in with those negative traits. My working opinion as of late is if atheism causes you to fall into damaging philosophies, then maybe you aren’t cut out to be an atheist.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Mike H

    I love how you lump atheism in with those negative traits. My working opinion as of late is if atheism causes you to fall into damaging philosophies, then maybe you aren’t cut out to be an atheist. · 7 minutes ago

    Since I am on the IQ and heredity subject, I should add that I don’t think atheism has much of a future for many of the same reasons. Religious  ( fundamentalist) people are far outbreeding the non-religious, and religiosity, much like  IQ, is highly heritable.

    Atheism is a Darwinian bust, generally and everywhere.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Crow’s Nest: Why is it that these Malthuisan misanthropes never presume that they are among the “superfluous” human beings they warn us about?

    Shouldn’t they be setting the example by voluntarily sterilizing themselves? · 2 hours ago

    I do believe I am among the superfluous, and intend to have no children.

    • #17
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    @MarionEvans

    You could have at least pointed out that the graph shows the UN’s Low Variant, and therefore not the most expected one. On this Low Variant, the global population would grow to 8.3 billion by 2050, then fall to 6.7 billion by 2100. See page 99 of report. Not exactly a biblical collapse.

    Ramillies: please take a look at this graph:

    Pundits have been looking only at the left side of the graph, a sudden but temporary bulge in world population mainly due to better nutrition, miracle drugs and the green revolution, but the right side of the graph is the important one at long term: a generalized, unprecedented and probably permanent demographic collapse due to the confluence of the good and bad traits of modernity, and the shock of their impact on traditional cultures: capitalism, freedom and education on the one hand, but also cultural decay, hedonism, relativism, nihilism, and atheism on the other hand. By the way, the shallow flare starting at about 2040 is due to the UN’s hope that the world TFR (total fertility rate) would drift back to replacement levels, something that Wattenberg says “was based on absolutely no evidence.”

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @MikeH
    wmartin

    Mike H

    I love how you lump atheism in with those negative traits. My working opinion as of late is if atheism causes you to fall into damaging philosophies, then maybe you aren’t cut out to be an atheist. · 7 minutes ago

    Since I am on the IQ and heredity subject, I should add that I don’t think atheism has much of a future for many of the same reasons. Religious  ( fundamentalist) people are far outbreeding the non-religious, and religiosity, much like  IQ, is highly heritable.

    Atheism is a Darwinian bust, generally and everywhere.

    There will always be blonds, and there will always be atheists. There is also a budding movement of high-fertility libertarians (who are often atheists.)

    There is actually a theory that reproduction will make a rebound soon. Which isn’t totally a surprise considering that whenever one of these doomsday scenarios based on projection of trends becomes popular, the trends tend to change drastically right at the peak of concern.

    If I find it, I’ll post it.

    • #19
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    @KatRose

    “Unplanned pregnancies by less educated women could be reduced, perhaps by future scientific advances.

    “I do have faith in science, and science may give us something that renders conception impossible unless you take an antidote,” he said.

    “You could of course have a chemical in the water supply and have to take an antidote. If you had contraception made easier by progress, then every child is a wanted child.” Jim Flynn from wmartin’s link.

    And yet…

    “Years later, Professor James R. Flynn created the biggest challenge to the hereditary theory of intelligence when he showed that whole nations had risen to much higher results on IQ tests in just one or two generations. Genes don’t change that fast.” Article by Thomas Sowell.

    “Some believe the low IQs of developing nations show that they do not have the intelligence to industrialize.” This is a misconception that Flynn says people have about IQ. 

    I haven’t read his book but I cannot figure out where he would stand on human breeders and low IQ at this point.

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Spoon:

    And yet…

    “Years later, Professor James R. Flynn created the biggest challenge to the hereditary theory of intelligence when he showed that whole nations had risen to much higher results on IQ tests in just one or two generations. Genes don’t change that fast.” Article by Thomas Sowell.

    “Some believe the low IQs of developing nations show that they do not have the intelligence to industrialize.” This is a misconception that Flynn says people have about IQ. 

    I used Flynn as an example partly because he is  of the Ameliorist school on IQ, and thinks IQ has a smaller genetic component, and a larger environmental component,  than most psychometricians do.

    • #21
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    @CrowsNest
    wmartin

    Crow’s Nest: Why is it that these Malthuisan misanthropes never presume that they are among the “superfluous” human beings they warn us about?

    Shouldn’t they be setting the example by voluntarily sterilizing themselves? · 2 hours ago

    I do believe I am among the superfluous, and intend to have no children.

    Then I suppose you deserve the strange and somewhat sad praise, if it can be called that in this instance, of being intellectually consistent. 

    • #22
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    @vdorta

    Mike:

    Thanks. Atheism as an individual philosophical position has existed since man began thinking about the world, but I’m including it as one of modernity’s bad traits culturally for two reasons: First, because it is one of the end results of modern man’s thinking since the Enlightenment: progressively, man thinks he’s no longer a part of nature (there is no natural law), he controls and dominates nature via science and technology, he sees society as an artifice created by him; he creates himself and, finally, he is nature’s god. Second, because man needs transcendence to keep his desire to live and bear children. Eric Kaufmann (a secular liberal, by the way): “The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people’s powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones.” It is a fact that the more liberal religions and secular groups and countries have the lowest TFR.

    • #23
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    @MarionEvans

    And what would be the UN’s agenda or bias in demographic matters? I do think it odd that you use their data while claiming that this same data is a joke.

    Ramillies: Marion Evans:

    Thanks to you too for keeping this newbie busy.

    If you look at the graph again, it shows the source: “United Nations … Low Variant Projection.” The UN is, at best, very conservative in its demographic work and it is criticized for it by national demographers. For example, Singapore is expected to reach 0.79 TFR this year, according to The CIA World Factbook.

    As you say, the UN Low Variant is certainly “not the most expected one,” but because reality is worse than the UN wants it to be. As I wrote, the optimistic flare at the end of the curve is based on nothing. The UN is not exactly exemplary in many respects, so why wouldn’t it be a joke in demography too? · 11 hours ago

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @vdorta

    Marion Evans:

    Thanks to you too for keeping this newbie busy.

    If you look at the graph again, it shows the source: “United Nations … Low Variant Projection.” The UN is, at best, very conservative in its demographic work and it is criticized for it by national demographers. For example, Singapore is expected to reach 0.79 TFR this year, according to The CIA World Factbook.

    As you say, the UN Low Variant is certainly “not the most expected one,” but because reality is worse than the UN wants it to be. As I wrote, the optimistic flare at the end of the curve is based on nothing. The UN is not exactly exemplary in many respects, so why wouldn’t it be a joke in demography too?

    • #25
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    @JDP
    Crow’s Nest

    wmartin

    Crow’s Nest: Why is it that these Malthuisan misanthropes never presume that they are among the “superfluous” human beings they warn us about?

    Shouldn’t they be setting the example by voluntarily sterilizing themselves? · 2 hours ago

    I do believe I am among the superfluous, and intend to have no children.

    Then I suppose you deserve the strange and somewhat sad praise, if it can be called that in this instance, of being intellectually consistent.  · 40 minutes ago

    Yes, how strange — and sad! — that one might not be so self-absorbed as to stake his worth on the propagation of his genes.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Crow’s Nest

    wmartin

    Crow’s Nest: Why is it that these Malthuisan misanthropes never presume that they are among the “superfluous” human beings they warn us about?

    Shouldn’t they be setting the example by voluntarily sterilizing themselves? · 2 hours ago

    I do believe I am among the superfluous, and intend to have no children.

    Then I suppose you deserve the strange and somewhat sad praise, if it can be called that in this instance, of being intellectually consistent.  · 1 hour ago

    I was being a little overdramatic. I do not want children, but I doubt that my feelings about population and heredity have much to do with it. The instinct that makes people want children just seems to be absent in me.

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Contributor
    @FrankSoto
    wmartin

    Valiuth

    The solution is one proposed many many years ago. It is to employ active eugenic breeding schemes.

    From the dark past of history the “human breeders” strike again. Because let us face it the science was always on their side, they just obscured it with racism instead of the much more preferable IQism. I don’t know of any evidence that one can in fact breed for IQ. 

    IQ does display certain hereditery pattern, but then again so does being a Doctor, or cooking Italian food. So much of what IQ measures is learned behavior, the genetic_roots_of_which_are  most generously described as subtle. 

    You know very little about IQ. IQ measures inherent aptitude, not learned behavior.

    This is false.   All IQ tests ultimately test knowledge, not potential.   

    Thomas Sowell has smashed this myth before.  If you have terrible education for example, you may not learn the meaning of words that would be required to understand a question that you do know the answer to.

    IQ scores have been consistently rising over the past century.  Do you believe human potential is increasing (and if so, please explain how) or is it more likely that education is becoming more uniformly administered?

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Member
    @WBob

    Earth’s entire population could fit into an area a little larger than half the size of the big island of Hawaii, each person standing in a 3 x 3 foot area next to the next person. 

    That’s not ideal living conditions but it gives you an idea of how big the population is in comparison to the size of the earth.   The problem is not too many people; rather it’s overcrowding in certain areas and underdevelopment of resources.     

    • #29
  30. Profile Photo Contributor
    @FrankSoto
    wmartin

    Thomas Sowell is not a psychometrician and has no expertise in this area. 

    Causality runs both ways: IQ creates socieconomic status, just as being born into a high SES is not worth as much anymore as being born with a high IQ (someone with a high IQ willseek outenriching experiences, reading that will introduce him to more vocab, etc).  And you don’t need vocabulary for several culture-blind areas on IQ tests, such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices.

    James Flynn believes that we genuinely are smarter in some ways (and that this shows the validity of IQ tests), but notes that the Flynn Effect’s biggest gains do not show up much in heavily “g-loaded” segments of IQ tests. 

    James Flynn believes that the increases in IQ score do not reflect increases in intelligence, but increases in the skills of taking tests.  

    What is fun about this fact, is that it calls into question the very value of the metric when increases of 10 points do not reflect an increase in the attribute it supposes to measure.

    • #30

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