Marian Tupy: Debunking The Overpopulation Alarmists

  • Date: 08/11/18
  • Marian L. Tupy , CapX

Desrochers and Szurmak’s book are a reminder of humanity’s “can do” instincts and problem-solving ability.

Is overpopulation a problem? Are we running out of resources? Where did the concern over population growth and resource depletion come from? How accurate were the past predictions of gloom by people who were concerned about the two issues? Will we manage to combine rising numbers of people and higher standards of living with decent stewardship of the planet in the future?

These are just some of the questions answered in Population Bombed: Exploding the link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change, an extensively researched, well-written and concise new book published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The book comes out exactly 50 years after Paul R. Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, in which the Stanford University biology professor famously claimed that population growth would result in resource depletion and the starvation of hundreds of millions of people. The authors of Population Bombed, Pierre Desrochers, who is an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto, and Joanna Szurmak, who is a doctoral candidate in the graduate program in Science and Technology Studies at York University, Toronto, take stock of past scholarship on “depletionism” and provide a cheerful rejoinder to the doomsayers.

Desrochers and Szurmak begin by outlining the case for the prosecution. The “pessimists” claim that, on a finite planet, population and consumption cannot continue to expand forever; that, to maintain a high standard of living, the number of people will have to come down; that resource exploration and extraction are subject to the law of diminishing returns and will, therefore, become more expensive over time; that discoveries, inventions and innovations do not obviate the need for more resources; and, finally, that human successes in overcoming resource constraints in the past are not relevant to coping with environmental challenges today.

Conversely, the “optimists” claim that population growth makes humanity richer through division of labour and economies of scale; that human ingenuity enhances efficient modes of production and “delivers increasing returns … [through] progressively less damaging ways of doing things”; that, unlike other animals, humans use trade and innovation to get around resource constraints; and, finally, that there is no reason why our past successes cannot be repeated in the future.

To quote the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

Depletionism has a long pedigree that goes back to the Atra-Hasis, an 18th-century BC epic in which the Babylonian gods deemed the world too crowded and unleashed a famine to fix the “problem”. Confucius, Plato, Tertullian, Saint Jerome and Giovanni Botero revisited the issue over the succeeding centuries.

The modern concern with overpopulation is usually traced to the British cleric Thomas Malthus who argued that the human population grows exponentially, while food production grows linearly. Thus, population will eventually outgrow the food supply, resulting in mass starvation.

Depletionism reached its apogee in the concluding decades of the 20th century, when Garrett Hardin pointed to the “tragedy of the commons” (i.e., overuse of resources that are not privately-owned), the Club of Rome predicted stratospheric prices of resources and Paul Ehrlich warned of mass starvation. It was Ehrlich who, unwisely, agreed to a wager with Julian Simon from the University of Maryland on the future availability of resources – and lost.

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