overpopulation myth

Bill Gates

Bill Gates is largely a conventional thinker, but he’s still willing to challenge the conventional wisdom from time to time. In his annual letter, released in January, Bill challenges what he calls “three myths that block progress for the poor.” The third myth he takes on is this: “Helping the Poor Leads to Overpopulation.”

As most readers will know, the fixation on population began with the nineteenth century demographer Thomas Malthus. In his early writings, Malthus predicted that a swelling human population would quickly overtake food production and lead to widespread famine. He was wrong of course: it did not happen and still has not. But the prognosticating has continued.

Gates, in contrast, bemoans the fact that for decades Malthusian ideas led developed countries to seek to control the population of the poor countries, since the assumption was that people reproduce like rabbits, and the world does not need any more impoverished rabbits. Gates shows that as countries become more prosperous and child mortality rates drop, population growth slows. This is a well-documented trend, and Gates is right to cite it in response to the myth. “The planet does not thrive when the sickest are allowed to die off,” he argues, “but rather when they are able to improve their lives.”

What Gates doesn’t do is challenge the overpopulation myth itself—that the earth is overpopulated and getting more overpopulated. Instead, he not only concedes it, but subtly reinforces it with his discussion of contraception, by implying throughout that population is a source of poverty.

On the surface, this seems to confuse a necessary condition with the cause of the problem: poverty exists because there are too many poor people. One could just as well argue that headaches are caused by too many heads. There are plenty of heads without headaches, however, and plenty of densely populated regions that are quite prosperous.

The smidgen of truth in the overpopulation myth is what makes it plausible. The Earth is a planet. It has a finite volume, mass, and surface area. Its surface area is 510,065,600 square kilometers—148,939,100 square kilometers of land. We draw resources like water, oil, and coal from that tiny surface to feed ourselves and fuel our economy. There’s only so much of the stuff to go around. The more people there are, the more they consume and the less they leave for everyone else. This line of reasoning seems plausible. But it rests on a false assumption, namely, that humans are mere consumers rather than creators.

When God created Adam and Eve, he commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” He did not say: “Pillage, plunder, and squander the earth and destroy it.” To be fruitful is to be fecund, to produce something that was not there before. We do this when we reproduce after our kind, and also when we create economic value, and, yes, resources.  God put the man and woman in a garden, and told them to “till and keep it.” Adam and Eve did not create the garden, but they were commanded to maintain it. God would not have given such a command if it were impossible to comply. So human beings need not merely take something away from the garden. They must also be able to add something to it that was not there before.

Man, said the late economist Julian Simon, is the “ultimate resource.” Simon was not, so far as I know, a religious man, but his words echoed Centesimus Annus (1991), in which Pope John Paul II wrote, “Indeed, besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

Of course, we don’t create from nothing as God does. We transform the material world God has created, using our intellectual and spiritual capacities as creatures made in the image of the Creator. Since human beings are a unique hybrid of the dust of the ground and the breath of God, we should expect that value would emerge from the interaction of the material and the immaterial. And we know that this happens. In free markets characterized by the rule of law and limited government, output per capita goes up over time, which means that the productivity of our labor increases. Our labor is enhanced by “labor saving devices.” That’s why Spanish scholastic philosopher Luis Molina referred to human productivity as the “fruit of our ingenuity.”

Even more fascinating: if you follow the history of technological progress, you discover that over time, we substitute more and more of the matter in a resource not with labor per se, but with the unique resource of mind, called information. Information, unlike the water in Lake Superior and the air in your lungs, is not a finite quantity.

Some cultures are better at allowing and enabling human beings to create in this way—to produce more than they consume. In some situations, unfortunately, people are mainly consumers. In some of the poorest pockets of the world, people may either subsist—producing just as much as the consume—or actually consume more than they produce. The problem is not the fact that they exist. The problem is that they don’t enjoy the legal and economic conditions that would allow them to be more fruitful.

In contrast, people in free and virtuous societies can grow up to produce more resources than they consume. Some societies, in other words, better enable human beings to be fruitful and multiply, rather than merely to consume. If they did not, market economies would shrink. Instead, over the long run, they grow. In such contexts, the more people you have, the more potential producers you have as well.

To understand the problem with the overpopulation myth, then, we must understand the truth about man as the image-bearer of the Creator. Bill Gates nowhere appeals to this idea, which is unfortunate: it would make his debunking of the myth about overpopulation all the more powerful.

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