Paul Ehrlich on Overpopulation

I came across this article the other day about a new book by Paul Ehrlich, author of one of the most controversial books of the 20th century, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of overpopulation. It’s an article well worth reading and there’s little I can add, except to comment on a few passages as follows:

Some economists suggest a declining population can lead to labor shortages, a weaker tax base, fewer customers for business, and a shaky pension system.

In a sense, I agree with economists who say that a falling population will lead to labor shortages. It just depends upon how you define a “shortage.” It’s the very premise of my book, Five Short Blasts, that reducing population closer to an optimum level will restore per capita consumption in overpopulated nations and will, therefore, improve the demand for labor relative to the supply. To me, “shortage” implies that some critical work will be left undone because there won’t be enough workers. If that actually happened, it may be an indication that the population has been reduced too far to a “below optimum” level. But the optimum level is low enough that most countries would have to reduce population a very long way to reach this point.

A weaker tax base? No. Of course, revenue would drop but so too would the need for revenue; in fact, it would drop faster. It’s simply a matter of an overpopulated nation requiring far more government intervention in order to maintain an orderly society than a less densely populated one.

Fewer customers? Obviously. But there would be fewer businesses too. The ones that would remain would be healthier because, overall, per capita consumption will be higher when consumers have the space required to own, use and store products.

A shaky pension system? Yup. For a while. And that includes Social Security and Medicare. It’s a problem that would have to be worked through but, ultimately, pension systems would emerge stronger because unemployment and poverty will have been reduced. It’s a problem that must be faced eventually because it’s inevitable that the population will stabilize and begin a decline at some point. Will the pension problem be easier to manage now or when we’ve doubled the number of retirees? The answer is obvious.

To Ehrlich, though, such problems are far less serious than those rising from the current population “bomb.” He would like to see the world’s population drop voluntarily over many decades to about 1.5 billion to 2 billion, a number that he reckons is sustainable. It would allow people both to live in big cities with their cultural advantages or with nature, as they prefer.

I think Ehrlich is right on with his estimation of a sustainable population. Could we sustain more people? Sure, but not at a high standard of living. So what would be the point of it? Overpopulating the planet isn’t a game, like college kids trying to set a record for packing people into a Volkswagen.

Ehrlich sees a “lack of leadership” in Washington on the population issue, including both from the White House and from those on the campaign trail.

“Lack of leadership” is putting it mildly. America’s leaders are doing a terrible disservice by not having the courage to even start a conversation on this, the most urgent matter of our time. Even backward nations like the Philipines, Egypt and Yemen recognize the need to stem their growing problems of overpopulation.

Family planning, as Ehrlich sees it, leads to both fewer abortions of unwanted children and fewer deaths of mothers lacking access to relatively safe abortions.

I couldn’t agree more that family planning reduces abortions. Abortion is not a product of family planning; it’s a failure of family planning. But I do wish that family planning organizations would drop abortion from their inventory of tools. It’s totally unnecessary for achieving population stability and dropping it would remove the biggest obstacle faced by our politicians in opening a dialogue about population management.


One Response to Paul Ehrlich on Overpopulation

  1. FJ says:

    Great post – glad overpopulation is catching steam. While I agree on most points, I tend to think not in terms of economic theory but simple logic – I think we could do with fewer than a billion people and stop putting money/material wealth first in our lives. You’re exactly right that with far fewer poeple on the planet, people could finally choose – choose to live in nature vs. the ultimatum of overcrowded suburb or overcrowded city; choose to live a more natural lifestyle instead of the ultimatum of “bad food cheap” or “good food that’s really expensive”…so many issues that this opens up, and I’m glad this is getting some press.

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