By Tom Still
MADISON – America’s population is scheduled to hit the 300 million mark sometime Tuesday, and much of the environmental movement can’t wait to guilt-trip the poor baby before he or she is out of the womb.
Despite more than 200 years of data to the contrary, too many environmentalists still buy into the doomsday theories of Thomas Malthus, the 18th century English economist who predicted the human race would inevitably procreate itself out of existence. The enduring pessimism of Malthus remains a cornerstone of environmental thought – even though his Essay on the Principle of Population repeatedly has been proven wrong.
The coming of the 300 millionth American (the 200 millionth was born in 1967) has given some environmental groups license to predict, without much review of the facts, that more people automatically means we’re depleting our supplies of food, water, energy, land and natural resources.
That is exactly what Malthus forecast in 1789, when he wrote his Essay as a counter-balance to the unbridled optimism of the era. The core of his Essay can be found in this sentence (which, by the way, he never supported with hard science): “Population increases in a geometric ratio, while the means of subsistence increases in an arithmetic ratio.” In other words, population growth is destined to outstrip the earth’s ability to produce enough food, to supply enough clean air and water, to provide enough land, and to yield enough minerals, timber and other resources.
Time has failed to support Malthus, although you wouldn’t know that by listening to some of today’s persistent Malthusian rhetoric. Over the last 50 years, agricultural productivity has grown by such astounding proportions that poorer quality farmland in the developed world can be retired from use for crops. The world food yield per acre has nearly doubled, and food prices have declined as a percentage of the family income. Americans spent about half their incomes on staying fed in the early 1900s; it was about 10 percent by the late 1990s.
Other metrics are similar. The quality of drinking water has greatly improved, thanks to technology, improved purification methods and, importantly, a resolve not to pollute it in the first place. Our society uses energy today more efficiently than ever before – although there’s plenty of room for improvement. The loss of wetlands in the United States has fallen to about 10 percent of what it was in the 1960s. Life expectancy in the United States has grown by 30 years in the last century alone – and seven years since the 200 millionth American was born. Most mineral resources today are priced at levels that are lower in actual dollars or inflation-adjusted dollars than they were 20 years ago.
What Malthus overlooked, and what many have overlooked since him, is the power of free markets and innovation. Free-market economic growth is generally good for the environment, not the other way around. Affluence and improved technology can lead to a cleaner world when citizens use their wealth and know-how to carry out a conservation ethic that presents a better world for the next generation.
Economists and scholars such as the late Julian Simon, Seth Norton, Joseph Bast, Bjorn Lomborg have accepted, for the purpose of analysis, that population growth has adverse effects that can be severe. But they also weighed those effects against the positive influences of free markets, the rule of law and technological innovation and concluded population growth is manageable in countries where those institutions exist. Where those institutions do not exist, demographics can be a problem – and sometimes a crisis.
“Extrapolating from the past to predict a gloom-and-doom future has been an industry since Malthus onwards,” wrote Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology in December 2001, “but the ultimate resource is the creativity and skill of the human intellect; formulating the problem often generates solutions.”
So, celebrate the birth of that 300 millionth American on Tuesday. He or she will be born into a nation that values democracy, free markets and innovation – institutions that will help that baby create a better life for all.
Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the co-author of “Hands-On Environmentalism” (2005, Encounter Books), which includes a chapter on “Thomas Malthus, Guru of Gloom.”