Thursday, January 03, 2008

Panic du jour: overpopulation.

The Dominion Post in New Zealand recently published a doomsday prognosis based on the antiquated bugaboo of overpopulation. They actually avoid defining what they mean by overpopulation, which is always convenient. But let us look at some of the claims they make.

1. They say the world’s population “growth rate has been slowing in recent years, but only slightly.”

This is as understated as their claims of eminent disaster are overstated. They say that the United Nations estimates the world’s population will top out around 9.4 billion. Only a few years ago the UN was saying it would be 12 billion. So in a few years time they have reduced their estimate by 3 billion people. The Dominion Post calls that slight.

To put that into context, that is equivalent of the total population of China, India and the United States combined. Hardly a trifling number, I would say. In Kiwi terms that is the same as eradicating the entire population of New Zealand 650 times over.

The total fertility rate, that is the number of children born to each woman on average, has been dropping like a stone in spite of the Post’s claim that there have been only slight decreases. In the early 70s the TFR was 5.2 children. By the early 90s it had dropped to 3.6. By the beginning of this century it was standing at 2.97. And today, it is estimated to be 2.59. So the world TFR has been cut in half over the span of about half a lifetime.

It is generally conceded that for a nation to have a stable population it must have a TFR of 2.1. According to the CIA World Factbook there are 103 countries in the world with a TFR that is at, or below, this level. This includes the United States and Canada, virtually all of Europe, much of South America, and much of Asia. Nations that are close to dropping below their replacement levels include Mexico, Indonesia, Colombia, Jordan, and India.

Of course, birth rates only tell you how many people are entering the building, so to speak. What about the exits? The main driving force of world population today is not birth rates but death rates, or to be more precise, the decline in death rates. People are living longer. More infants are surviving into adulthood. This decline in deaths is the main reason populations have grown. That, however, is a conundrum for overpopulation hysterics like the Post. It is one thing to recommend that people have fewer children, but how does one recommend that people die faster and in larger numbers? That is why they actually ignore the driving force of population growth today -- longer life spans.

2. The Post argues that there are “ominous signs that the world might be reaching capacity.” Doomsday day prophets never have a shortage of ominous signs since almost anything unpleasant is usually attributed to their panic du jour. Their evidence in this editorial is that the UN “called for immediate help for poor countries hit by spiraling food prices. Those countries were spending 25 per cent more on food imports in 2007 than they had in 2006...” No doubt this is true. But let us look at what has happened, and who is responsible.

World food production has been increasing dramatically for decades now. World food supplies have been increasing faster than the world’s population. In the 1960s only 42 percent of nations had an average daily caloric intake that was equal to 100% of daily requirements. By the 70s it was 52 percent, by the 80s it was 66 percent. Nations which previously couldn’t produce enough food, such as India, China and Vietnam, became net food exporters. Then the environmental hysterics got involved and starting pushing biofuels.

To push biofuels they confiscated large sums of money from poorer taxpayers and poured it into the coffers of wealthy special interest groups, like Agribusiness and Big Energy companies. The politicians decided to offer subsidies to produce biofuels. Those biofuels started gobbling up massive amounts of the agricultural sector bidding up world food prices. One fuel tank of ethanol requires the food sufficient to feed one person for an entire year. The Financial Times reported that Josette Sheeran of the World Food Programme “said policy makers were becoming more concerned about the impact of biofuel demand on food prices...” The paper said “biofuel production will sustain food inflation and hit the world’s poorest people.”

The politicians, in Europe and North America particularly, have adopted policies which are guaranteed to divert food from human consumption to energy and they are starving people to death because of it. The question is not so much a lack of food but food being wasted on “green” solutions that create more problems than they solve.

3. The Post gets all worried about the how much land each person has available to them. This has to be one of the biggest non-issues around. Individual prosperity and thriving is not directly effected by available land. The nations in the world with the lowest population densities also tend to be poverty stricken, death traps.

Some of the least densely populated regions are in Africa, whereas Europe is among the most densely populated regions in the world.

In any specific nation prosperity increases with population density. Auckland is more prosperous than South Island. London is more prosperous than the rural regions. New York is more prosperous than Wyoming. Population density for a nation is not the full story by any means. The rate of urbanization is also important. For instance, there are very wealth nations with low population densities: Canada, the United States and Australia are three. But in all three of these nations there are vast areas that are unpopulated with heavy concentrations of people in urban settings.

The Post seemed to chide one UN official who said population growth was a problem but “he shied from the next step, saying instead that forcing people to stop having children would be a simplistic answer.” The Post seems to think that using force to sterilize people, or some similar coercive measure, is the “next step.” I can think of people who have supported such policies, but I’m not sure the editors at the Dominion Post want to be in that hall of infamy.

The Post warns that “the pressure from an ever-expanding population on a world that is finite cannot be ignored forever.” This summation shows their lack of factual content. The world’s population is not “ever-expanding” even by the UN’s own projections. They fully anticipate the world’s population to go into steep decline within the lifetime of many of the people alive today.

I have just looked at the UN’s projections. Their projection, using their medium variants, maxes the world out with 9.19 billion people in 2050, not the 9.4 billion the Post mentions. The problem is that UN has a history of overestimating and then later reducing their figures to match what actually happened. Even their medium projections have a history of being too high. Their low projections, which I think are more realistic, show the world’s population maxing out at 7.87 billion in 2040 and then declining.

In the next few years Russia is expected to see population decline by up to 50 percent. Europe faces a decline of 25 percent, on a whole. Japan expects to loose 16 million people, Italy will lose 15 million, Spain 8 million, Germany 12.4 million, Netherlands 6 million. Nations like New Zealand, who have built a pension/welfare system based on the premise of more people paying in than collecting will face the dilemma of more and more people collecting benefits while fewer are paying in. Unfortunately as long as publications like the Post push the bogus crisis of overpopulation politicians find it easy to ignore the crisis of declining population that will impact the welfare states in the near future.

For our regular readers: This is our 1,000th post.