May 31, 2011

Population Growth as Propaganda: The Greens and the Reds

By Gary North
May 31, 2011

BEGINNING in the mid-1960s, a propaganda campaign has been waged against the West. Those favoring government control over the economy have used the fear of a population explosion to persuade voters to allow the governments of the world to interfere with their lives. The Greens have made predictions about famine. These predictions began in 1798 in An Essay on Population, written by T. Robert Malthus. The first edition was published anonymously. His bold prediction of inevitable poverty was dropped in later editions, but people remember the first edition.

We need to know how long this nonsense has been going on. We need to recognize it when we hear it or see it.


Concern over population growth escalated in the 1960s, especially after the counter-culture movement appeared around 1965. A major news magazine in the United States, U.S. News and World Report, announced in 1965: "The World's Biggest Problem." It asked: "How can the world feed all its people, at the rate the population is growing?" This article had been preceded by "World Choice: Limit Population or Face Famine." Even National Review, then the most influential conservative intellectual magazine in the United States, got on the bandwagon in 1965.

In 1968, Dr. Paul Ehrlich's best-selling book, The Population Bomb, was published. In it, Ehrlich, a Stanford University professor of biology, warned: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate. . . ." A far better estimate of the threat of worldwide famine was made in 1969 by Harvard University nutritionist Jean Meyer, who predicted that "food may at some time (20 or 30 years from now) be removed altogether as a limiting factor in population." Meyer's viewpoint received very little publicity, although it was to prove correct within a decade.

The predicted famines did not occur in the 1970s or the 1980s. What did occur was a surplus of food. The apocalyptic critics in 1965 should have paid more attention to the statistics of food production. After 1950, worldwide grain production increased steadily. From 1950 through 1975, this increase was in the range of 25% to 40% per capita. In the less developed countries (excluding Communist China), the increase was in the 13% range. Between 1950 and 1980, the world's supply of arable land grew by more than 20%, and it grew even faster in the less developed countries. From 1967 to 1977, the world's irrigated acreage grew by more than 25%. The price of seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and farm equipment also dropped in this period, in some cases by as much as half. In the 1980's, grain farmers all over the world suffered economic losses as a result of overproduction. While these trends may not be permanent, they did create a tremendous public relations problem for the heralded famine-predictors of the counter-culture era (1965-70).

What also occurred was a dramatic fall of birth rates in undeveloped nations: a contraceptive revolution. In 1979, Ehrlich referred back to his book and others like it that had prophesied rising birth rates in the 1970s: "But we were all dead wrong." He still held that a crisis was coming: perhaps famine, or a pandemic, or nuclear war. In 1980, he made a $1,000 bet with University of Maryland economist Julian Simon over the future price of five metals -- a bet on the limits to growth. Simon predicted that prices would be lower. He proved correct; Ehrlich paid off the bet in 1990. He could easily afford to pay off; in that same year, he was granted a $345,000 MacArthur Foundation Prize and half of the $240,000 Craford Prize, the ecologists' version of the Nobel Prize. Simon was unknown to the general public. The media were overwhelmingly supportive of the apocalyptics. Rival viewpoints on the population question, despite the overwhelming evidence, received little attention from the major opinion-makers. The opinion-makers were strongly opposed to population growth because they were strongly pro-abortion. The apocalyptics seemed to provide scientific evidence for a looming catastrophe. This reinforced the legalization of abortion in 1973 (Roe v. Wade).

In 1942, Warren Thompson warned of the decline in the birth rate in Western Europe and its colonies, 1890-1940. "It is the most important demographic change of our time." This decline in birth rates in the West has generally continued, although in the early 1990s, it was reversed in the United States. By the late 1980s, there was no Western European nation except Ireland with a birth rate anywhere near 2.1 children per family -- the family replacement rate. Had Islamic birth rates been excluded, the birth rate figures would have been much lower in several nations. West Germany's birth rate had fallen so low by the late 1970s that the German population will die out in the year 2500 if the same birth rate is maintained. (There will be plenty of Muslims, especially Turks, to replace them.) By the late 1980s, a new warning was being sounded: European life spans were lengthening, birth rates were dropping, and government retirement programs were facing a looming crisis: too many recipients, too few taxpaying workers. Yet the apocalyptics continue to warn of an impending explosion, a population bomb.


In 1980, a Presidential Commission reported to the President of the United States on the impending crises. Unlike most reports from Presidential commissions, this three-volume report received worldwide publicity. It was titled, Global 2000 Report to the President, but became known simply as Global 2000. It was a deeply political document. It was also a classic Malthusian document, meaning the 1798 Malthus, not the more mature Malthus. It warned on page 1:
If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.

For hundreds of millions of the desperately poor, the outlook for food and other necessities of life will be no better. For many it will be worse. Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now -- unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends.
Nothing like this happened. Two comments are relevant here. First, there has been no revolutionary technological development, for example, along the lines of nanotechnology, where molecule-sized mechanical assemblers put together atoms and molecules in order to produce organic as well as inorganic substances in almost limitless quantities. This development, if it comes, will at last force a drastic revision of the legacy of Malthus. It looks technologically feasible sometime before the year 2070, but it has not happened yet. Second, "the nations of the world" -- read: national governments -- poured tens of billions of dollars worth of aid into the third world in the 1980's, but in the handful of isolated socialist economies of Africa, things nevertheless grew worse. Outside of these tiny socialist economies, which were also suffering from civil war, the predicted food crises did not take place.

This absence of crises was predicted by a group of scholars in a book published in 1984: The Resourceful Earth. This book received very little attention from the press. Its editors offered another scenario: "If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now. Stresses involving population, resources, and environment will be less in the future than now . . . The world's people will be richer in most ways than they are today . . . The outlook for food and other necessities of life will be better . . . life for most people on earth will be less precarious economically than it is now." This prediction came true for all but North Korea and Cuba.

The Malthusian apocalyptics in 1980 dismissed as irrelevant two centuries of economic and technological progress: 1780-1980. They also ignored earlier periods of population growth in European history. Economic historian Karl Helleiner writes:
The opinion, still widely held, that before the eighteenth century, Europe's population, though subject to violent short-run fluctuations, remained stationary over long periods, or was growing only imperceptibly, is, I believe, no longer tenable. There is sufficient evidence to indicate that those oscillations were superimposed on clearly recognizable "long waves." At least two periods of secular increase can be tolerably well identified in the demographic history of medieval and early modern Europe, the first extending from about the middle of the eleventh to the end of the thirteenth, the second from the middle of the fifteenth to the end of the sixteenth, century. . . . In this sense the demographic development of the eighteenth century was not unique. What was unprecedented about it was the fact that the secular upward movement started from a higher level, and that it was able to maintain, and for some time even increase, its momentum. Population growth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, unlike that of previous epochs, was not terminated or reversed by catastrophe.
Something changed after 1750. The world experienced what Adam Smith taught in The Wealth of Nations (1776): economic freedom produces rapid, long-term growth.

Economic freedom is necessary but not sufficient to produce long-term population growth. A religious worldview favorable to large families must accompany economic liberty. Men must believe what David wrote so long ago: "As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate" (Ps. 127:4-5). The issue here is world dominion under God. This faith has faded rapidly in the humanist West. With falling birth rates among the populations of the industrialized world, rates of population growth are headed lower. When third-world nations industrialize, they almost certainly -- a very dangerous phrase in demographics -- will experience the same thing. (We must always add: unless people change their minds and then change their behavior.) It has already happened in Iran, whose birth rate is close to Germany's: 1.4 children per woman.

The Malthusians always talk about the burden of more mouths to feed. They never talk about the economic benefits of more hands to work and more minds to think creatively beginning two decades later. They ignore the long-term capital returns from a 15-year or 20-year capital investment in morality and education. That is, they are present-oriented and therefore lower-class social theorists. Sadly, vocal Christian intellectuals in the late twentieth century joined the camp of the Malthusians.

Are many people facing famine today? If so, what is the proper solution? If not, why are so many Western intellectuals convinced that famine is imminent? How could a supposedly serious pair of scholars have written a book in 1967 titled, Famine-1975!? The famine never appeared. Instead, food prices fell. Per capita consumption of food rose. Yet the myth of looming food shortages continues to be believed. From 1798 until the present, Malthus' predictions have been refuted by the facts, decade after decade. The West has experienced a growing population with increasing per capita consumption of food. Yet the myth still flourishes in the West. That starvation is possible in a major war is quite possible. The question is: If we avoid such a major war, is a famine inevitable? The apocalyptics' answer: yes. This answer has been proven incorrect for over two centuries, but generation after generation of apocalyptics learn nothing from the evidence. Theirs is a religious worldview, impervious to the historical record.

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Copyright © 2011 Gary North

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