Ending the Myth of Overpopulation

Published July 8, 1999

July 11 is “World Population Day,” according to the United Nations, which means we’ll all have to endure news stories about how “the world population explosion is by no means over” and how more government spending on population control is “absolutely necessary.”


According to the United Nations’ own figures, the global population growth rate peaked around 1970 and has fallen steadily since then. Just seven years ago, experts predicted the world’s population would reach 12 billion before stabilizing around the year 2150. Today, their best guess is that population will peak at only 9 billion in the year 2050. Population growth is slowing faster than even most experts thought was possible.

Population growth is falling for several reasons. Rising standards of living bring with them pensions and other retirement benefits, so fewer parents need to have large numbers of children to provide for them in their old age. Lower infant mortality rates mean parents can have a small number of children and still be assured that some of them will survive to adulthood. The education of women and their admission into the labor market have made child-bearing and child-rearing “more expensive” relative to other opportunities.

Family planning programs also play a role in reducing population growth, but primarily when those programs are privately initiated and financed. Government-run family planning programs, such as those in China, rely on intimidation and abortion, rather than education and rising prosperity, to slow population growth.

A world with zero population growth would not be a better place to live than a world with a growing population. A 1997 report from Goldman Sachs, for example, pointed out that low reproduction rates combined with longer life spans are undermining pension and other retirement plans around the world.

“The developed world is facing a demographic disaster with respect to pension obligations and funding,” the report says. “The dramatic aging of the developed world’s population is expected to cause a financial crisis at both the governmental and personal levels.” Simply put, too few young people are entering the workforce to support the pensions and entitlements of those about to retire.

A world with zero population growth would be especially bad for the most prosperous countries, such as the U.S., which have already achieved zero population growth. Those countries rely on immigration to keep up with the rising need for workers, and their economies increasingly rely on exporting goods and services to faster-growing developing nations. Slower population growth means fewer jobs and lower pay in the U.S.

What about the often-cited negative effects of population growth? Agricultural economist D. Gale Johnson of the University of Chicago has shown that death by starvation has become more rare as the global population has grown, because food production consistently outpaces population growth. Developing countries more than doubled their food production between 1965 and 1988, for example, and China and India have moved from being net importers of food to net exporters. Today, starvation is typically the result of civil wars and failed government agricultural policies, not overpopulation.

Could the world’s farmers feed 9 billion people? Easily, according to agriculture expert Dennis T. Avery of the Hudson Institute. The widespread adoption of high-yield farming methods already being used in developed nations would enable farmers to double their output without increasing the number of acres under cultivation. The same, he says, is true of forestry. In other words, we can feed the world and meet all of its wood fiber needs without reducing the size of parks or wilderness areas.

Will we run out of natural resources such as oil, copper, or iron? Not likely. Thanks to new discoveries and improving extraction technologies, known reserves today are larger than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Even the usually panic-stricken Worldwatch Institute concluded in 1992 that “scarcity of mineral deposits does not appear likely to constrain the production of most important minerals in the foreseeable future.”

According to one estimate, the U.S. government gave developing countries $600 million in 1995 to help finance population control programs. Since population growth is not a global problem, and since zero population growth would be harmful to the lifestyles of most Americans, the prudent thing for government to do is to end all support of population control programs.

How should you celebrate World Population Day this year? Write to President Bill Clinton and your other elected officials. Tell them to stop using your hard-earned dollars to subsidize birth control in developing countries. Tell them population growth is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, located in Chicago, Illinois, and is coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Madison Books, 1996).