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The Bomb Myth

The overpopulation song has been playing for too long.

(Paul R. Ehrlich /Wikimedia Commons)

The dogma of overpopulation is in search of a justification. The reasons offered to be concerned about overpopulation have repeatedly shifted, but have also been repeatedly disconfirmed.

In his 1789 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus argued that population growth outpaces food production, so an increasing population would lead to widespread starvation: a “gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.” But what actually happened? In the two hundred years since the release of his book, reality contradicted his prediction. As population increased, the percentage of the population in dire poverty decreased.   


In his 1968 book Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich doubled down on the failed predictions of Malthus. Ehrlich wrote, “the battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” He too was proved spectacularly wrong. As Marian L. Tupy notes, the “food supply in 34 out of 152 countries surveyed [in 1968] amounted to less than 2,000 calories per person per day. That was true of only 2 out of 173 countries surveyed in 2013. Today famines have all but disappeared outside of war zones.” As the population went up, the percentage of people starving went down. Now, in much of the world, human well-being is treated not by starvation but by obesity. Technological innovations in farming led to more food developed on less land with less human labor required. Contra Malthus and Ehrlich, food production has rapidly outpaced population growth.

In the 20th century, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, offered racist justifications of overpopulation, at least overpopulation among certain groups. In Sanger's view, it is necessary to reduce as much as possible the population of “undesirables” who are reproducing too much. Her racist eugenic list of those she considered “unfit” included blacks, southern Europeans, immigrants, and the poor, among others. These folks are, according to Sanger, the “hordes of people…who have done absolutely nothing to advance the race an iota…. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain the energies and the resources of this little earth.” Even Planned Parenthood has rejected its founder’s eugenic and racist justification of overpopulation. 

In the 21st century, radical environmentalists offered a new justification for overpopulation by their assumption as Gospel truth of the “IPAT” equation: environmental Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology. But, it turns out that increasing affluence is linked to greater care for the environment. When a mother and father cannot feed their children, care for the environment is not their primary concern. Helping more people out of dire poverty would in the long term lead to better care for the environment. 

Likewise, technology does not necessarily increase environmental impact. In 1980, Los Angeles had a population of 9,512,00. By 2022, the population of Los Angeles had grown to 12,488,000. So, what happened to air conditions when the population of the city grew by almost three million people? In 1980, Los Angeles had six good air quality days, and seventy-four moderate days, but 159 very unhealthy or hazardous air days. In 2021, Los Angeles had forty-one good air quality days and 228 moderate days, but only one single day marked as very unhealthy or hazardous. This radical increase in the well-being of the environment in terms of air quality was due to technological advances in cars. So, a simplistic assumption that more people always means more environmental damage is mistaken. Indeed, the more innovations that take place, the more technologies will be green. Thus, paradoxically, population decline bringing about stagnation in technological innovation in the long run hurts the environment.

In our current circumstances, our greatest problem is not overpopulation, but underpopulation. In 2013, Jonathan Last published What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster. In subsequent years, the birth dearth has only gotten worse. As Lyman Stone pointed out in 2021, “U.S. fertility rates in 2020 reached their lowest levels in history.” Reuters reported in April that “births in Italy dropped below 400,000 in 2022 for the first time.” More diapers are sold for elderly adults than for babies in Japan. We do not have a population bomb, but a population bust.