More People, More Problems? Not quite.

Traditional global development narratives would have you believe that the world’s perennial problems of thirst, hunger, and disease are caused by an excess of humans—that more people mean more problems. One leading environmentalist writes, “Overpopulation remains the leading driver of hunger, desertification, species depletion and a range of social maladies across the planet.” And the United Nations claims, “Increasing population exacerbates existing problems.” But this simply isn’t true. The human mind is the ultimate resource, and our collective ingenuity will help overcome whatever challenges our species may face in the future. Simply put, overpopulation isn’t the problem.

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 hit jeremiad The Population Bomb boldly announced, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Ehrlich predicted that in the coming decades millions would starve to death, quality of life would plummet, and the world, awash in people (ugh), would drown itself in misery.

Sobering stuff. It’s also wrong: global population was only 3.5 billion when Ehrlich wrote those words. Today it’s over 7 billion and by almost every metric the world and its people are better off. Fewer people than ever are living in hunger, forests are growing, and more and more people are lifting themselves out of poverty.

Though hunger in the world remains unacceptably high, as the population has boomed, global hunger, in both real numbers and percentages, has crashed. About a quarter century ago, 18.6 percent of people faced chronic hunger. Today it’s under 11 percent. In Southeast Asia, hunger has plummeted from 30.6 percent to 9.6 percent. Conflict and political problems, which degrade the institutions and markets vital for sustainable prosperity, are the obstacles to a hunger-free planet, rather than an excess of human beings.

Serendipitously, one side effect of more efficient food production to meet humanity’s soaring demand for food has been that more food is now produced using less land. Less land for agriculture has meant that more land has been available for reconversion to forests and nature. And while global forest cover has decreased overall, it has fallen only slightly from 1990, despite exponential growth of the world’s population. Global net forest loss had plunged from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 5.2 million per year between 2000 and 2010. Nothing at all like the treeless desert population doomsayers portend for Planet Earth.

The greatest gains in forest cover have been in the United States and Europe. In the United States, soaring population has increased wood product consumption by 50 percent since 1965. And yet, the United States now has more forest than it did 100 years ago. And that’s just looking at forest area. Density is also a significant factor for carbon sequestration and forest health. Here the data is once again on the side of those who have faith in humanity’s ability to survive. In a world with more people than ever, forest density is growing.

And don’t think that more people has meant higher rates of poverty either. In both real and percentage numbers, global poverty has plummeted despite steady population growth. In 1981 44 percent of people lived on less than $1.90 a day but by 2012 it was down to 12.7 percent and it is likely to keep dropping.

This all may seem like an illusion, but it’s actually simple economics and a whole lot of technology. More people don’t mean only billions of new hungry mouths with wasteful dispositions—it means billions of brains, and double billions of new hands. Humans are more than consumers; we’re producers too. For every mouth to feed, there’s also a brain to develop solutions to hunger, and two hands to implement those ideas.

Why has U.S. forest cover increased despite an explosion of wood production? Because more demand for wood has meant more trees being planted and better technology created to turn trees into wood products while reducing waste. How has civilization avoided endless famine? Demand for food has increased but as prices fluctuate with this rising demand, it signals to producers the need for greater supply. The prophecies of overpopulation doomsayers only come true if supply flat lines, which, because of a phenomenon called innovation, isn’t the case. In response to more demand for food, producers have turned to creative ways to grow more.

In 1970, Norman Borlaug, a biologist and Iowan, received the Nobel Peace Prize for feeding the world. Through selective breeding, Borlaug was able to create dwarf wheat which reallocated “its energy into edible kernels rather than long, inedible stems. The result: more grain per acre.” Borlaug’s work catalyzed the Green Revolution, which combined breeding techniques and technology to enhance agricultural productivity and feed the planet’s new people. As population grows, similar advancements will come to the rescue. More people lead to a greater number of ideas like better breeding tactics, more environmentally sound high-yield planting and crop combination techniques, and more effective tractors and agricultural machinery.

Population begets ingenuity, not calamity. The predictions of doomsayers are wrong because they neglect to see the best in humankind. Where else do ideas come from if not for human minds? Anti-poverty tools like Embrace, and anti-famine solutions like selective breeding did not spontaneously or fortuitously appear as soon as the population reached a certain threshold. These solutions, and others, were the deliberate progeny of hard work and creative thinking.

Overpopulation sounds like a monster. It’s also a myth. Yet despite fearmongers’ repeated efforts to prophesize the end of civilization, humanity is doing better than ever. The human mind is not an encumbrance. Rather, it’s an endowment of endless creativity. Why not the more the merrier?


Sam Mulopulos is an Energy and Environment Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He works in the public sector and has a degree in political science and environmental studies from Grinnell College.

Image Credit: NASA/Flickr

Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.

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