Overpopulation or Underpopulation

This year will see the world’s population reach 7 billion, and there is considerable media interest (e.g. six articles on it in today’s Guardian). However, almost all of the press focuses on the downsides of population growth but neglects the upsides. These upsides may even outweigh the downsides, making a larger population a good thing overall.

One example is the rapidly growing information economy. If someone makes a hammer, only a few people get the benefit, but if someone records a new song, writes a computer program, or invents a new technology, everyone can benefit. These activities thus produce more value the more people we have. With twice as many people doing jobs like these, we could all get roughly twice the benefits (more art, culture, science, technology), or they could work roughly half as many hours. A larger population thus has the potential to make life much better, so long as we can find the resources to support it.

Moreover, there are also benefits for the extra people. Isn’t it good for you that you exist? You’re population too! People often talk cavalierly of reducing the population by a billion. This is more than the number of people who have ever lived in my adopted homeland of the United Kingdom. Setting aside all the positive and negative ways in which the UK has influenced the rest of the world, isn’t there a lot of value in all of their hopes and dreams, experiences and culture, over all its long history?

I’ve thought a lot about these upsides of a larger population and how to think about balancing them against all of the downsides. For those interested in seeing these thoughts developed, have a look at the lecture I gave last week on the topic for the Oxford Martin School’s series: Is the Planet Full?.

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7 Responses to Overpopulation or Underpopulation

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thank you, Toby, for this welcome riposte to the prevalent Malthusianism preached by catastrophised environmentalists.

  • Gus says:

    That has to be the most asinine thing I've ever read. Has increasing population meant <i>better</i> art or culture? Seems to me we have quantity over quality. Has increasing population meant fewer working hours? We may work less than we did a century ago, but I don't remember many from my father's generation working 60 hour weeks. "so long as we can find the resources to support it" is kind of a sizable qualifier.

  • Alex Hancock says:

    What was that wonderful stanza from Richard Kenney? Something along the lines of . . .

    The liberal's prayer about overpopulation:
    Lord, let there be far fewer people in the world
    And let me be one of them.

    "Isn't it good for you that you exist?" indeed! That said, we are simply destroying the earth, destroying it faster all the time, and a billion more people are not going to help, regardless of how many songs–brilliant or, much more likely, execrable–they write.

  • BenSix says:

    Mr Ord -

    <i>With twice as many people doing jobs like these, we could all get roughly twice the benefits (more art, culture, science, technology), or they could work roughly half as many hours…</i>

    But, to pick up on one problem, we're not thinking of people <i>per se</i> but people in specific locations. The highest birth rates are in Africa and the Middle East, where money and resources are scarce, and religious beliefs are fervent. It'll be hard enough to provide for and educate these new millions, let alone teach them the piano and give them computers!

  • Lance says:

    I agree with Mr. Ord. We will most likely find a way to have the resources we need. Humans have always done so.

  • Khalid Jan says:

    From 7 Billion People To 500 Million People – The Sick Population Control Agenda Of The Global Elite
    http://poorrichards-blog.blogspot.com/2011/10/from-7-billion-people-to-500-million.html

    "As we approach October 31st, dozens of articles are appearing in newspapers all over the globe that are declaring what a horrible thing it is that we are up to 7 billion people…
    In fact, it surely is no accident that the United Nations put 7 Billion Day on the exact same day as Halloween. Perhaps they want to highlight how "scary" it is that we have 7 billion people on the planet, or perhaps they are trying to send us a message by having 7 Billion Day occur on the same day as "the festival of death"."

  • Bruno Coelho says:

    The problem is not the number of people, but the number of people living well on the planet.

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