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Our Population Problem

* Warning: This post will have a few mild spoilers about Inferno by Dan Brown. If you don’t want to know anything about the plot, stop here. 

So I just finished Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno. I’ll leave the review to someone else, but what intrigued me the most was the central plot of the book. The premise is that a genetic engineer has created some sort of virus aimed at controlling the world’s growing population and our hero, art historian and symbologist Robert Langdon, has to figure out all sorts of clues in an attempt to avert disaster. The MacGuffin in this story is a mysterious bag of goo floating in an undisclosed location, ready to wreak havoc on humanity.

In support of his plot Brown references some ideas that I found fascinating. The first is a prediction based on the work of 18th century scholar Thomas Malthus that says the world will eventually return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth has outpaced agricultural development.  This is referred to as the ‘Malthusian catastrophe’. Malthus himself believed that variables would self-limit population growth but thus far those variables have not made any noticeable impact. A popular chart in some academic circles (and one also referenced in the book) can be seen below. This is a visual representation of world population growth over the last 1000 years (with a projection to 2050).


As noted, the world population rose above 1 billion for the first time around 1825. Less than 200 years later the number is expected to be closing in on 10 billion. This is an astounding increase that is the result of many factors. Population explosions coincided closely with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the gradual urbanization of societies. What is most important to keep in mind though is that ‘family planning’ has never been very successful, although in theory it should be more effective today with more options and better education. It’s hard to ascertain any kind of statistics about the number of unplanned pregnancies prior to the mid-20th century, however the last 30 years of data reveal an actual upswing in unplanned pregnancies.According to the CDC, about 50% of all U.S. pregnancies were unintended. By comparison this number was about 30% in 1982.

What is unsurprising is that unplanned pregnancies are higher among the poor, minorities and the less educated, however unplanned pregnancies among educated whites are still around 22%. That means that nearly 1 in 4 kids you see on the average suburban playground were probably unplanned. Looking beyond our own shores the numbers grow rapidly. India’s population is staggering and there are similar rates in much of the Third World. All of this combines to make some believe that Malthus may have been on the right track.

My opinion is that population growth will be a problem in some places but agricultural production will continue to keep pace. Large western countries like the U.S. will keep producing far more food than they need and as population growth rates are more stable, they can continue to feed much of the world for some time. Variables to consider are the influx of Hispanics and the continued growth of the African American population in the United States. Those two groups represent increased potential for population growth based on historical data.

One possibility, explored in Brown’s book, is the power of biological engineering to come up with potential solutions to population growth. Those solutions make come with serious moral questions, especially in countries where democracy is more of an ideal than a practice. In the meantime the conversation about global population numbers has any number of ancillary components. Outbreaks of disease like we are seeing in Africa right now with the Ebola epidemic may be nature’s way of controlling population numbers, or it may be a symptom of the problem itself.




Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.

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105 thoughts on “Our Population Problem

  1. Regarding your references to the future racial composition of the United States, that seems justified if it remains the case that people of lower educational and economic strata continue to have less access to contraceptives and therefore have more children per capita than the wealthier, better educated levels of society. That also seems likely to continue to be the case in areas where local political leaders make access to contraceptives more difficult, for a combination of political and religious reasons.

    If, on the other hand, national healthcare eventually expands to include universal contraceptive coverage, what would you predict what happened then? Would we continue to see a rise in native population growth? And if we do not, will we see a rise in population growth through immigration?

    By the way, I am prone to think of population growth as a good thing for the future, rather than a bad one, principally because our society is clearly wealthy enough to provide for a larger population in terms at least of food. I fret that our infrastructure, both for transportation and housing, is not up to the task, but that is a problem that can be solved. While, it seems to me that in the future, labor is going to become an important thing to have available for different nations to compete with one another. More competitively-skilled people means coming out wealthier in that competition, and for all of its flaws, the US educational infrastructure remains among the best in the world.


    • …that seems justified if it remains the case that people of lower educational and economic strata continue to have less access to contraceptives and therefore have more children per capita than the wealthier…

      I have never quite bought the “less access to contraceptives” idea. Contraceptives are everywhere. I literally walked by a condom laying on the ground on my walk to the train this morning. Certainly, there are cultural and logistic factors that make it difficult for young women to exercise full control over their reproductive choices (males who don’t want to use condoms, parents who don’t want their daughters on the pill, etc), but that sort of stuff affects wealthy and poor alike.

      All the conversations that I’ve had with people who work with the population of young women most likely to become pregnant at a young age tell a story that is more about a different decision-making process and a different set of incentives. A lot of young mothers want to be mothers, or at least don’t see it as the same sort of negatively life-altering experience that relatively wealthy young women do.

      In other words, if you are on a track to finish high school and go to college and expect to go on to some sort of lucrative and fulfilling career, you are going to tend to take more precautions against getting or getting someone pregnant. If your post-secondary education and career prospects are nebulous and not particularly promising, having a child might be a bright spot in an otherwise drab life.


      What is unsurprising is that unplanned pregnancies are higher among the poor, minorities and the less educated, however unplanned pregnancies among educated whites are still around 22%. That means that nearly 1 in 4 kids you see on the average suburban playground were probably unplanned.

      There may be a fairly wide latitude in how different people are using the terms “planned” and “unplanned.” A single woman who gets pregnant in a casual dating relationship and a married couple who get pregnant a year or two ahead of when they were thinking that they might have kids may both be coded as unplanned in a survey, but they are somewhat different phenomena.

      Population discussions suffer from some of the same problems that labor market discussions do. People often have a tendency to talk as if there is one big labor market – called the lump of labor fallacy – when in fact there are lots of different discrete labor markets that are inter-related but subject to different forces. Likewise, the reproductive decisions that various groups of people make is similar, but subject to lots of different discrete factors.


      • Regarding wealthy unplanned pregnancies:

        I wonder how many of them fit definition, and how many are the result of IVF. Some friends of ours did their final round of IVF expecting one kid, & now have two on the way. Is that unplanned twin counted in this number?

        Finally, another friend of mine is pregnant with her 7th child (she’s 40). She’d been told she couldn’t get pregnant anymore. SURPRISE!


    • I have never quite bought the “less access to contraceptives” idea

      You live in a first world country. “More access to contraception” is generally aimed at, well, not quite so first world. First world countries, by and large, are at or below replacement levels — because we can, quite successfully in aggregate — control our reproduction.

      Poor countries? Not so much. Certain countries with religious issues? Not so much.

      Now, you can track “planned pregnancies” versus “unplanned” in America and see that the more poor you are, the more likely you are to have an unplanned pregnancy. Condoms might be everywhere, but they’re not foolproof and poverty tends to be a good indicator of lack of access to things like the Pill (which, in addition to condoms, is close enough to fool proof for jazz. It’ll happen, but VERY rarely) and the ability and knowledge to use contraceptives correctly.

      well, that and teenagers — but teenagers are a different case because teenagers aren’t capable of rational long-term thinking. Their brains are hard-wired at that point to be optimistic and value the short term of the long term, and they’re a seething pot of hormones. (In short, they’ll screw at the drop of a hat and think pregnancy can’t happen because ‘what are the odds’?)


      • You live in a first world country.

        Yes. And I was specifically responding to @burt-likko’s comment, which began, “Regarding your references to the future racial composition of the United States…”

        And again, the concepts of wanted and unwanted pregnancy do some work, but they simply do not fully capture the full dynamic of the set of choices and circumstances faced by different women in different socio-economic conditions. A middle-class, married woman can have an “unwanted” pregnancy and a poor, teenage girl can be actively trying to get pregnant, which makes it a “wanted” pregnancy, but we probably would not say that the latter is preferable to the latter.

        In sum, contraceptives matter on the margins, but the bulk of these decisions are made in response to economic and social incentives. If you want to cut down on unwanted pregnancies, help poorer women see and eventually realize a more promising future and fewer of them will get pregnant at a young age. As you point out, teenagers are stupid, so we can cut down on the rate of teenage pregnancy, but never eliminate it among any women of any income level.


      • Kim,

        They still don’t learn. They, in strange ways, can’t. It’s not something I understood raising my own kids — it’s something I grew to understood (and had patiently explained to me, by developmental experts) that teenagers are, by and large, excessively prone to one of the most common bias’ in human nature.

        If you ask them to think ahead, to say “Where can this action lead” — whether the action is getting busy in the back of a car or jumping off a roof into a pool — and they will give you the most optimistic case possible and seriously believe that’s the most ‘likely case’. That on average, the best of all worlds will happen.

        You can call it evolutionary biology — teenage boys spreading their plumage, daring predators to attack. Or developmental — sections of the brain dealing with risk and predictions aren’t fully wired. Or even hormonal — being a teenager is like being bipolar while on a coke-fueled high with no experience in controlling their own emotions….

        But in the end, the little buggers will intellectually acknowledge — once it’s pointed out to them — the other paths the future might take from their actions, but they’ll never believe it’ll happen to them. And even if reality slaps them in the face, they’ll just believe it can’t happen twice.

        I’ve known pregnant teens who pregnant for the second time in high school. First time for failure to use birth control at all, second time they swore they used a condom — flabbergasted that it could happen TWICE. I mean, what are the odds that two kids at peak fertility screwing every chance they got could get pregnant twice? (Surprisingly good, says the old fogeys with life experience and a basic understanding of sex. IMPOSSIBLE cries the teenager, and it ain’t all hormones — it’s turned off brain hardware too)


      • morat20,
        I don’t think I was ever like that.
        Risk taking behavior correlates to puberty, not adolescence — and I think it pretty much happens even when everyone would acknowledge “That was Crazy! You were totally going to die!” [Anecdote: People jumping ATVs across roads, and stuff like that. Riding bikes down mountains on powerline roads.]

        They very well probably did use a condom. Whether they put it on properly — or, more importantly, whether the guy intentionally sabotaged it…. that’s a different question.

        Kids tend to have very different pregnancy rates, depending on whether they’re trying for babies or not (for single sex acts, 70% pregnancy rates have been recorded — compare with 10% over an entire year of active unprotected sex).


      • Kim,

        It’s best not to extrapolate from yourself to society as a whole, and doubly so to avoid doing so in an historical sense. For one, you’re trying to think “What did I think when I was 17” using an adult brain — you’ll parse events as an adult, which isn’t how you parsed it then — even if the outcomes were the same. It’s like trying to replicate a bug in version 7.01alpha when running development version 8.2. Too much has changed, even if the inputs and outputs look the same, to draw adequate conclusions.

        (Not to mention the fallibility of memory. Among other things, it appears human memory is rewritten during the act of recollection. You’re not reading from a hard drive — you’re taking the whole file, interpreting it through your brain in real time, then writing the changed results back. Cameras don’t lie, but your brain does. Right to your face)

        But no, it’s not puberty. It’s a facet of brain development that teen risk-taking behavior extends well past puberty — it goes out into the early 20s — that’s when the prefrontal cortex finally finishes development.

        And your prefrontal cortex is where you actually measure risk-verus-reward. (It should not be surprising that insurance companies worked this out before neurologists, as brain development finishes right around the time when your car insurance rates drop. State Farm might not have known WHY, but they did notice that someone’s base risk of being in a car accident dropped massively around 25)


      • morat20,
        truth on that one. the onset of puberty correlates with the onset of higher risk-taking behaviors. I wasn’t trying to say that it was the end (although guys end puberty pretty late, as I recall–17? 19?).


      • morat20,
        and here’s some scholarship you might find illuminating:
        Seems to disagree with you about the nature of “risk assessment” — putting more of the blame on impulsivity (knowing something might be risky, but being “unable to stop”)

        I really recommend this article to everyone, It’s fascinating (and I’m going to read it again, this time without skimming).

        It’s always better to use researchers’ own words, rather than my faulty memories, ya?


    • Burt,

      “Fifty-one percent of women who have abortions had used a contraceptive method in the month they got pregnant, most commonly condoms (27%) or a hormonal method (17%).”

      I don’t think access to contraception is the problem.

      “[50%] have had at least one previous abortion.”

      And I don’t think education is the major factor either.


      • Problem more likely to be interpersonal in nature — other person interfering?
        (Seriously, I do sympathize with a lot of women, who were in a relationship when they got pregnant, and then have a Massive Change in Life Status, and want an abortion).


  2. Malthus’s model depends on two assumptions:
    1) That population will grow geometrically (i.e. at a constant percentage rate) so long as any surplus production above subsistence exists.
    2) That per-capita production can only grow arithmetically (i.e. at a contstant absolute amount).

    These assumptions matter because over sufficiently long time horizons any geometric series will end up outpacing any arithmetic series. This is how Malthus could assert super-subsistence living standards were unsustanable without data – with those assumptions the relative growth rates don’t matter.

    So, how do those assumptions stack up today?

    Assumption 2 has been falsified for much of the world since Malthus wrote down his dire predictions. Developed economies grow more-or-less at a constant rate on a per-capita basis. This means production growth is geometric, not arithmetic.

    Assumption 1 doesn’t hold either. Global population growth is slowing down. From what I recall of the UN’s central projection the world will never reach 10 billion people, instead capping out at 9 and a bit some time mid-century.

    It’s impossible to be certain (always in motion, the future is), but looking at the data we have, I see no overpopulation crisis on the horizon.


      • You mean the worry that the poor and stupid will outbreed the smart and successful?

        Yes, that’s been a concern since before the Victorian age, and look at how western society has declined into technological backwardness and illiteracy since then.


      • Technological advancement and lower overall literacy rates are hardly mutually exclusive. It doesn’t take many people, relative to a society, to develop new and shiny gadgets. OTOH, it takes a coordinated societal effort to thoroughly educate new generations, and an underlying cultural fabric which values that education, both of which are on the retreat in the 21st century United States.


      • James, perhaps you didn’t see my tongue in my cheek?

        But in all seriousness, if my experience driving in a wealthly mid atlantic state is any basis of measurement, the “estupidation” of society is alive and well, especially in the last two weeks (school is not yet in session). I’ve seen idiots doing 15 miles below the speed limit, weaving between lanes, etc. All in good weather.

        Western society may be technologically literate, but common sense and the ability to make decisions don’t seem to have kept pace, or have actually declined.


      • Operating solely on anecdotal evidence from serving as a TA in undergraduate economics and sociology courses, there are two possibilities:

        1) Literacy rates among high school graduates are decreasing over time.

        2) The standard for what qualifies as literacy is decreasing over time.

        Come to think of it, scenario 2 is the more likely, and would jive with your reports of increased literacy rates. Hooray! Everyone can read and write, but poorly. Now give me back my iPhone, I’ve got selfies to take.


      • The third possibility is that college attendance rates are increasing over time.

        I assume you’re already accounting for non-native speakers of English, but that’s a fourth.


      • So increased college attendance rates scoop up otherwise marginal students who are largely unprepared for post-secondary education? I don’t see how that’s any different from scenario 2. These kids have high school diplomas. That’s supposed to be shorthand for “I can form complete sentences and use them to express my thoughts in a clear, logical manner”.

        With respect to the English issue, the overwhelming majority of my kids were native English speakers from suburbs in western Massachusetts and upstate New York. Some from NYC area and a smattering from the rest of the country.


      • Well it seems more like IQ keeps going up each year. Which is actually really annoying ’cause it means kids will be smarter than me.

        Get off my tensor calculus you damn kids!


      • Jacob,
        Dude, I didn’t have that (and arguably still don’t). Teaching clear and coherent thought is HARD. Rhetoric is even harder (that’s doing it extemp, half the time).

        A quote you might find amusing:
        “My god, I’m so tired I’m actually remembering rules of English Grammar! Perfectly!”
        (my friend the editor… while hallucinating.)


      • Damon,
        Nope, sorry.

        In the past fewer people got higher education. Expanding the number of people going to college and finding that we have more marginal students in college tells us precisely nothing about changes in literacy rates. It’s not even a weak proxy.

        The vast majority of those poorly prepared and not terribly bright students are literate, even if not great readers.


      • I’ve always thought that Idiocracy is a very funny and very good movie, but very bad social science.

        My biggest problem with the whole “only stupid people are breeding” conceit is that it tries to blame all of societies problems on the poor. For one thing, it’s not particularly accurate. Reality TV, dumbed down movies and bad food aren’t commercially viable products because of poor people. And as annoying as Kim Kardashian and Michael Bay are, they’ve never taken action that got hundreds of thousands of people killed or bankrupted entire economic sectors, the way our supposed intellectual elites have.


      • Yes, that’s been a concern since before the Victorian age, and look at how western society has declined into technological backwardness and illiteracy since then.

        Are you sure about that? My understanding is that the rich were actually outbreeding the poor back in those days, because they could afford to, and because rich women generally didn’t work outside the home. Moreover, there was wasn’t a welfare state that made it possible for poor people to support as many children as they wanted.

        The modern welfare state is a game-changer that has eliminated Malthusian constraints at the low end of the SES spectrum. You can’t extrapolate from the past when the fundamentals have changed.


      • Moreover, there was wasn’t a welfare state that made it possible for poor people to support as many children as they wanted.

        Wasn’t it kind of the case back then that having kids had economic benefits that they don’t now, though? Especially on the farms, but maybe not limited there.

        That being said, I was under the same impression that you were, that having a lot of children was often a sign of wealth that it is not today.


      • Brandon,
        Generally, that’s not the case. You’d be surprised at how much work you can get out of a 3 year old.
        I venture from a brief perusal of the literature that 3 surviving children was considered “a good brood” for the rich – with 4 being not out of the question, but 5 being into the realm of the unusual.

        The poor were more likely to have broods of 12-15, if we can judge by my family… (do note, there were two women and one man in the family, due to deaths).

        In the victorian age (The Age of cornflakes!), there was plenty enough food to keep kids … alive (rickets, otoh, continued to be a problem).


      • jr,
        nah… too easy and too ineffably truthful. [I know and work with grognards. It’s their business to know economics of various time and places. after all, you can’t properly value an adult man’s work, until you can value a child’s (if children are allowed to work). And once you know the value of work, you can start looking at housing, and food, and all the other necessities. I am not an economist… but I do own “… and a Ten Foot Pole.” ]

        I think I’d go with something about yoyos, or smuggling birth control pills.


      • Brandon,

        Yes, I’m sure. It goes back to at least the late 18th century, at least in England. And while they didn’t have a welfare state to fret about, they did have a crime problem. Today we’d say the lack of jobs and general poverty caused the crime, but back then the general belief was that it was an inherent trait, and obviously characterized the lower classes, whose numbers kept increasing, OMG (the first recorded utterance of OMG was by the Princess of Tilton-Shropshire-on-Thames, in 1790, trust me). The use of Australia as a penal colony, which began in the 1780s, was in part a product of this view; it was a way to remove some of the “excess” lower class population.


    • These assumptions matter because over sufficiently long time horizons any geometric series will end up outpacing any arithmetic series

      1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …

      1, .9, .81, .729, .6561, …


  3. Earth’s carrying capacity of human population would, I think, vary tremendously depending on the value you put on other life on earth. If you don’t think leaving habitat for other creatures of value, you’ll come up with a much higher number. If you think those creatures only matter so far as humans depend on them, a slightly lower number.

    But we’re already beginning to see collapse of fish populations, and I did not see a Monarch this summer. So I’d probably be part of the crowd suggesting we’ve already exceeded or are on the brink of exceeding carrying capacity.


    • we’re already beginning to see collapse of fish populations,

      Already? That’s been happening for over a century up in your area. It’s only partly a population problem, though. Granted, all else being equal, more people can eat more fish. But the fundamental problem is that fisheries tend to be common pool resources, which tend to get exploited to destruction or at least degradation. We’re getting better at managing our territorial fisheries, but international deep ocean fisheries are generally still open access free for alls. But international treaties could resolve it. So the population aspect of the problem is foundational but not a roadblock, and the technical regulatory aspect is solvable. It’s just a political problem, but a difficult one.


    • Re: monarchs.

      They’re not endangered as a whole, just the migratory ones. And the primary problem is, again, not population per se, but a decline in milkweed, mostly as a result of pesticide use.


      • That actually seems like a pretty textbook example for what sic said:

        “depending on the value you put on other life on earth. If you don’t think leaving habitat for other creatures of value, you’ll come up with a much higher number.”


      • Sure, I’m not discounting the issue of values. But migratory monarch decline is not specifically about population. Our population has doubled since 1950, but our cropped acreage remains about the same. And farmers back then would have loved to have had better herbicides to wipe out milkweed.

        In fact I’d say this issue is much more about values than about population. But even more than being about values, since nearly everyone loved monarchs, it’s about monarch protection not being priced in the market.


  4. How reliable are the numbers about unplanned pregnancies? I’m curious if we’ve actually seen as dramatic an uptick as the numbers suggest or if people are just more willing to report a pregnancy as unplanned. I’m also curious how we define “unplanned”. Two of my friends had “unplanned” pregnancies. However, they planned to eventually have kids. It’s likely that their “unplanned” pregnancies will not result in a net gain of total kids but simply accelerated their particular timeline.


  5. “What is unsurprising is that unplanned pregnancies are higher among the poor, minorities and the less educated…”

    Maybe I’m nitpicking, but this feels a little awkwardly phrased. It is unsurprising that unplanned pregnancies are higher among the poor and less educated. But for people of color, I assume the only reason we’d find this unsurprising is because of the greater rates of poverty and substandard education for many of those groups. The way it reads implies there is something inherent to racial minority groups that leads to higher rates of unplanned pregnancies, which really isn’t the case at all.


  6. My own view: Malthus has been debunked. No special genetic engineering is required, no dire government interventions are called for; we just have to be better to women. I humbly present the wooden stake for Malthus: educate, empower and protect women.
    Educate a woman and her birth rate will plummet. Anywhere on the planet that we’ve seem education and literacy levels for women occur we’ve seen birth rates fall.

    Empower women with legal equality and access to the law and birth rates fall again.
    Protect women with civil rights, shove the religious mouth breathers and the chauvinists out of women business and let them administer over their own body and reproductive health and birth rates seem to stabilize at a little bit below replacement level.

    Malthus is dead, his theory is too. Bring civil rights and prosperity to women and you end the Malthusian fear as if it never were. Hell, bring civil rights and prosperity to women and you end up talking about how maybe we should subsidize them to encourage them to have a few more kids.


    • Except that we’ve only been able to “kill” Malthus by burning dead dinosaurs to power our farm equipment and sprinkling their ashes on our fields. That hockey stick graph is a temporary aberration, the orgiastic explosion of humanity gorging itself on billions of years of stored hydrocarbons.

      How easy would it be to “feed the world” when we’re back to plowing with draft animals and fertilizing with manure? Who would be the first to go hungry?


      • There is an utter crap ton of dead dinosaurs in the ground and since powering agriculture machinery is one area that we’d be disinclined to pull back on we’ll have fuel available for said use until we either A) don’t need to use fossil fuel anymore or B) we run out.
        It also bears noting that if we ran out of fossil fuel we would not regress back to horse and plow; we’d probably be plowing the fields with a hydrogen fuel cell tractor or a tractor using synthesized combustion fuel.

        That said I see little prospect of us running out of fossil fuel before our global population declines a lot. Birth rates are going in the right direction and there’s still an utterly enormous amount of fossil fuel in the ground.


      • I’d argue with your conclusion, but since we’re operating from vastly different premises it would be a waste of both our time.

        Suffice it to say that I’m unaware of any hydrogen fuel cell tractors and whatnot on the market, and the technology has thus far proved a pipe dream on the order of fusion power – sure, it works in theory, but it’s not commercially viable and so doesn’t happen.

        As to the quantity of dead dinosaurs in the ground, there exists a significant amount. We can’t be sure how much, and the people who are the /most/ sure have a vested interest in overstating the quantity available. How much of it is commercially viable to extract, and whether consumers will be able to pay the price required to extract it, is an entirely different inquiry.

        I wasn’t arguing that we’ll all starve. I’m arguing that the world, on an energy budget constrained by that which comes from the sun every day, can support far fewer humans than it currently does, and that when we start to bump up against that ceiling in a bad way, the brunt of the problem will fall on the third world.


      • The problem with your assumption is that you think:

        1. We are not going to progress scientifically or technologically in any significant way for the long-term future especially in energy use. You seem to be suggesting we have hit or will soon hit peak science.

        2. We are going to run out of fossil fuels any day now. Peak Oil basically.

        As far as I know, peak oil has been bunked. Now fracting has its problems but we seem to be advancing well enough on alternative energy sources from solar, to wind, to hydro, etc.

        The biggest problem with Malthus and the guy who wrote the Population Bomb is not that they have been defunct but that they wrote predictions and when you write a prediction you can develop followers who think the prediction is always around the corner. Thousands of years can pass and Star Trek can come true and we will still have people preaching that Malthus was right and saying “Just you wait and see. Any day now.”


      • Jacob, there’s a bit of an economic error in what you’re saying. Yes, alternative fuel tractors have proved uneconomical… when competing against fossil fuel tractors. When competing against draft animals, however, there’s no contest. Assuming your unlikely scenario: that we completely run out of recoverable fossil fuels before our population levels stabilize at a much lower level; then we’d simply use alternative fuel source machinery. Likewise for fossil fuel based fertilizers.. there are alternatives but they can’t compete against the cheapness of fossil fuel based fertilizers. In the absence of fertilizers we do not return to the stone ages; we use the slightly more expensive alternatives. This is without even talking about things like vertical hydroponic farming, pod farming or the like.
        The point is that if we run out of fossil fuels we’re not looking at cracking nits in a yurt, we’re looking at paying marginally more for our food. No doom, no end o’ the modern world as we know it. Kind of boring compared to your scenario, I concede, but also probably beside the point since global population levels can be expected to stabilize and decline as long as liberalism and women’s rights continue to spread across the globe.


      • Saul,
        At least bother to know what you’re talking about… Peak Oil has probably already happened (that’s based on amount extracted per year). If it hasn’t, the global recession is the only reason why. (You do realize Saudi Arabia lies about their oil reserves??).
        Fracking is mostly unrelated, as that produces natural gas.


      • Actually, its dead trees (coal), not dead dinosaurs (oil&gas) of which there is a crapton (metric?).

        But if you’re going to make this argument, you really need to recognize that burning fossil fuels even at a constant rate is going to have some pretty severe adverse consequences in the 50-100 year range. Mother Nature, after all, bats last.


      • Not that we’ve hit peak science so much as we’ve a) hit peak EROEI and b) most of our science is highly energy dependent. Nor am I saying “any day now”; rather, things just tend to get bumpier and more expensive, bit by bit by bit, and more and more people get shut out at the margins. First of luxuries like air travel and conspicuous debt-financed consumption, then first-world basics like driving, then Maslow-ian necessities like food and shelter.

        As to Peak Oil having been bunked, that depends on your definition of bunked. If you consider press releases from the major oil companies and OPEC nations as credible sources as to recoverable reserves, more power to you. I don’t. Oil used to self-extract out of the Ghawar field at the drop of a pin. Nowadays, the Saudis need to pump millions of gallons of seawater under the ground every day just to maintain production, to say nothing of increasing it. Dropoff rates for domestic fracking wells are even worse, with production peaking within the first two years after a well is drilled and plummeting to 10% after five years.

        I’d be thrilled if we were actually advancing alternative energy sources, but we’re not, really. Hydro remains largely static due to environmental regulations, since dams are harmful to wildlife. Solar is basically a net-zero in terms of EROEI, when you factor in the rare earth extraction for the cells and the manufacturing and transport costs; moreover, absent massive government subsidies, the cost per kilowatt hour is still not economically viable for most consumers. Wind makes sense as long as it’s windy, but the intermittency creates transmission and storage problems of their own. And nuclear power apparently makes Americans sh*t their pants, so we’re decommissioning and ignoring the one chance we might actually have to maintain a halfway decent standard of living through the next century.

        I grew up on Star Trek. Rene Auberjonois and Brent Spiner’s autographs used to hang in my room as a kid. Nothing would make me happier than if ITER goes online and proves viable and we have cheap and clean fusion power for everybody, running small scale vertical hydroponic gardens and clean, quiet maglev transit systems. I’ve also got a nasty pessimistic streak.

        See above, except that any real alternative to fossil fuels for food production has fossil fuels somewhere in its upstream production channels. We don’t need to run out of petroleum, it just needs to get too expensive to pull out of the ground. Figure that’s somewhere around $150 a barrel – we’ve been there before, it just about destroyed discretionary spending and demand in the United States, even before the financial shenanigans of the mortgage industry came to light.


      • Jacob,
        We’ve hit peak Science (in that we understand most of everything — you should hear what we know about human sexuality!). What we haven’t hit is Peak Engineering. Give it 20 years, and 50% of people globally will be out of work.

        At that point we’ll be able to afford “first world” for everyone (thinking more Israel/South Africa, less USA or Japan). Whether we will have the political will is a different story.


      • Jacob, more expensive energy could make society look considerably different, granted, but there’s not a scenario where we’re back to oxes pulling the plows. You can synthesize a combustible fuel for the tractor and still be coming out ahead of pulling the plow with an animal. This is, mind you, moot. Fossil fuels will become too expensive for mass car ownership long long long before it becomes uneconomical for shipping, farming and the like. We also mustn’t forget that the more expensive fossil fuel becomes the more reserves of what was uneconomical to extract become economical. There’s a lot more fuel available than you seem to be giving credit for. Now there’s an ecological question regarding AGW, but again if pressures around fuel and AGW lead to mass car ownership switching off of fossil fuel then your remaining petroleum uses will be flush with oil for ages to come.

        Also, as you pertinently noted, one major energy source (Nuclear) is being blocked by social, not technical, constraints. You can be certain that if it came to a choice between first world living and living with no nukes the population would uncrap their pants and tell the nuclear bed wetter faction to suck it up long before they agreed to starve and live in the iron age.


      • Diesel for ag doesn’t scare me. A greatly reduced US military, rail freight instead of long-haul trucking, and (ultimately) rationing means enough diesel for ag for a long time even as production declines. Zinc-air has demonstrated suitable energy- and power-density, and centralized chemical-plus-intermittent electricity recharging, with distribution by truck, works for ag.

        Now, industrial electricity supplies necessary to keep on manufacturing big tractors and the rest of the equipment? There’s something worth worrying about.


      • how’s biodiesel coming along? (palm oil, not corn!)

        TTBOMK, no one’s figured out how to neatly snip off the ester group on the end of the carbon chains in vegetable fats, so bio-diesel still isn’t a drop-in replacement for petro-diesel in terms of stability, cold temperatures, etc. If someone in the government put me in charge and said I was supposed to reliably produce a million gallons a day of diesel for ag or the military, I’d put gasifier and methane-steam reforming units to produce syngas in front of F-T catalyst reactors and just manufacture real diesel at $6/gal, with residues suitable for petrochemical feedstock. Feed it whatever was available locally: wood chips, crushed coal, dried kudzu, switch grass, you name it.


    • I humbly present the wooden stake for Malthus: educate, empower and protect women.
      Educate a woman and her birth rate will plummet. Anywhere on the planet that we’ve seem education and literacy levels for women occur we’ve seen birth rates fall.
      Empower women with legal equality and access to the law and birth rates fall again.
      Protect women with civil rights, shove the religious mouth breathers and the chauvinists out of women business and let them administer over their own body and reproductive health and birth rates seem to stabilize at a little bit below replacement level.

      Thanks for this, North. I wrote a very long & data-filled post saying just this last week, which was inconveniently derailed by the ‘free stuff’ arguments. You did it succinctly. Beautiful job.


      • North / Zic,

        One thing mentioned in Brown’s novel (not that he is an authority) is that humanity tends to really want to reproduce. It’s kind of like that line from Jurassic Park, “Nature will find a way.” Our rising population may be a concern far beyond access to contraception.


      • I’d point you to this comment by KatherineMW, essentially, when given the ability to control reproduction, women have the number of children they want to have, that they perceive necessary. So yes, humans want to reproduce.

        But very few women want repeated, closely-spaced pregnancies when they have means to avoid this; it’s a health issue for both the women and the children they already have.


      • Mike, entire nations (and not small ones) have been experiencing population decline. Those experiencing native population declines even more common. Often, despite government encouragement to reproduce. In fact, what we’ve found is that governments seem to be able to suppress fertility but can do little to encourage it beyond the margins (and even that is uncertain).

        As you say elsewhere, culture matters and it does appear that a culture can override the drive to reproduce.


      • Mike, the entire first world is experiencing population crunching due to this phenomena; you can read people like Ross Douthat fretting about it in the NYT. Japan is quite literally aging away because of this with no government intervention to prevent reproduction. Even the less developed world like Mexico and similar countries are experiencing enormous falloffs for child birth.

        It turns out that women, on average, who are educated and in control of their bodies tend to want just a couple of kids that they can lavish their attention on and shepherd to a healthy successful life. The women who want to have a whole bunch are balanced out by the women who want to have one or none. Remember that a woman with 2 kids means a population that is running in place. You need 3 or more to maintain population growth. Every indication is that if we educated women (just general education, not specific birth control education) and enacted global women’s rights then our debate would not be about Malthus but about how much we should be offering to subsidize women to persuade them to have more than one kid.


      • I wrote a very long & data-filled post saying just this last week, which was inconveniently derailed by the ‘free stuff’ arguments.

        Because that was literally the sole point of disagreement. You want employers to be forced to provide insurance that covers contraceptives to their employers. Other people disagree. That’s really all there is to it. But that makes lousy copy, so you threw in a bunch of baloney about controlling women’s bodies and denying them access to contraceptives in order to make people who disagree with you sound like horrible, horrible people. And now you’re complaining because people insisted on focusing on the actual point of disagreement instead of all the strawmen.


      • First, for someone who suggested it I was childish and always looking for an excuse to call misogyny, I’m pretty sure you have no interest in actually considering what I have to say. None at all.


        You want employers to be forced to provide insurance that covers contraceptives to their employers.


        I want the moral decisions of what a woman should/should in making her reproductive choices to be the woman’s, to be her right; not subject to anyone else’s determination. The objection wasn’t to not providing, it was absconding her moral right to determine.


      • My disagreements with on certain specific details of the HL decision aside, she’s been very clear that this isn’t about “free stuff.” It’s about treating women’s issues with the same consideration as we treat other issues. It’s about recognizing that contraception is a women’s health issue little different from other forms of health care that we take for granted, and should not be treated differently from those other forms or otherwise singled out.

        It’s about the notion that employers have no problem paying for insurance that covers whatever procedures the insurance company is willing to (or required to) cover, but suddenly when it comes to contraception, some employers want to interject themselves into the process. It’s about the notion (and here is where I think zic’s interpretation of HL is wrong, but I get where she’s coming from) that the Supreme Court of the United States is ok with employers interjecting their purported conscience on that issue, but is not ok with them interjecting themselves on other health care coverage issues.

        If health insurance is to be treated as a legal right – which the ACA arguably does – then contraceptives must inherently be part of that legal right unless we want to claim that women’s health choices and issues reside on a lower plane. That doesn’t mean that anyone has to accept that health insurance should be a legal right; it does, however, mean that singling out contraception from that legal right has the effect of interjecting oneself into women’s health choices and issues. While I disagree that the Supreme Court was meaningfully singling contraception out in the HL decision, it’s almost impossible to dispute that the employer and the movement that brought its challenge to the forefront were doing anything other than singling contraception out.


    • Another factor in reduced birth rates is that while there’s good labor value in lots of kids in a society based on labor intensive agriculture, in a developed economy more kids are a big financial drain on parents. That’s why we see the most developed countries having the lowest birthrates, some subreplacement level. Even in the U.S., we see this phenomenon developing, but hidden by high immigration rates.

      In your analysis, I’m not sure you’re taking account of how increasing fuel costs botu make alternatives more cost competitive and spur R&D on alternatives. Between wind, water, solar and nuclear, we’ve got far more than enough available energy, we just will have to access more of it. And in truth a lot more of that would be cost-competitive already without the defacto subsidies for fossil fuels. Our problems on the energy front are far more political than technological or economic.


  7. I don’t really see a problem in the short- or even mid-term. Population has been rising, but the growth rate has been falling since the late 1960s.
    The fertility rate of women has been falling dramatically. It took a hundred years in Europe to drop from >4 to 6 to nearly 2 and it’s still falling. I have little doubt it will fall just as far as in Europe.
    Some countries are still growing very fast, particularly in Africa, but the growth rate is very likely to fall just as quickly as in other parts of the world once development and education take hold there.

    Over the really long term it’s different. If we assume that we don’t start colonizing space, upload into computers or create some other kind of utopia, evolution will rule over the long term. Orthodox religious groups are already experiencing high growth, although they also tend to have quite a bit of “attrition” in the next generation. The Amish population is exploding. Maybe some people have a fetish for making lots of babies. Over the long term the people who for cultural or genetic reasons have lots of children, will make up the majority of the population. They will run up against Malthusian limits again.
    But again, this scenario is assuming that the situation doesn’t drastically change through technology in the next couple hundred of years.


    • It should read:

      The fertility rate of women has been falling dramatically. It took a hundred years in Europe to drop from over 4 to less than 2 children per woman. It took North Africa a single generation to drop from over 6 to nearly 2 and it’s still falling. I have little doubt it will fall just as far as in Europe.

      Using the symbols for greater and lesser doesn’t work well. :D


    • Over the long term the people who for cultural or genetic reasons have lots of children, will make up the majority of the population. They will run up against Malthusian limits again.

      This is always the Malthusians’ fall back position, because the future is unfalsifiable in the present. The fact every prediction of occurrence has been falsified never chills the chant of “eventually, sometime, down the road.” The goalposts keep endlessly receding.

      In 1970 Ehrlich assured us that the fight to feed humanity was already over, and millions would die of starvation in the coming decade. Instead, malnutrition decreased and continues to do do. But his errors get excused away, rather than taking a hard look at his assumptions.

      The statement above relies on there always being certain religions that promote large family sizes, and that those religions and their adherents will be immune to larger cultural changed. But religiosity is generally in decline in the developed world, and even where it is strong it seems to lose its force with regard to childbearing. Catholics don’t all have large families anymore. The Mormon Church in the late ’90s declared family planning a personal issue, but even before that their family sizes were deckining. The Amish can’t get enough farmland so they’re shifting into manufacturing, where rules on child labor are stricter. It remains to be seen if this may have an effect on family sizes.

      The theory also assumes biology absolutely trumps culture (itself a product of biology, but indicating species with behavioral flexibility), which is demonstrably false. The person who has more kids today doesn’t necessarily pass on a determinative genetic disposition to have lots of kids. If that was an evolutionary inevitability no species would have a k, reproductive strategy.

      There are few ideas with such an abysmal track record as Malthusianism, but it continues to have adherents because of course we cannot definitively disprove the future. But there literally is no empirical suppory for it in human history. Even in Malthus’ time he had to grapple with the counterfactual that the British masses had a demonstrably improving standard of living (as abysmal as it was by today’s standards). The same has happened in Africa, where rising growth rates are a function primarily of improvements in infant mortality, and although GDP growth has been minimal or even negative, health and education levels have improved (not enough, of course, but the trends are in an anti-Malthusian direction).

      Malthus even had to cheat to get evidence for his geometric growth rate, looking not at England but at the US population growth, where immigration inflated the numbers.

      There is nothing to be said in support of the Malthusian theory. It is fit only to be a historical curiousity.


      • It is quite possible to look at preferences for childbearing, as related to sex.
        “The person who has more kids today doesn’t necessarily pass on a determinative genetic disposition to have lots of kids.”

        The results are not determinative, of course! But they are far more interesting than you think.

        Of course, the real story is the decline and fall of the “alpha male.” People suppose that external influences (Beer! Ritalin!) haven’t changed probability of reproduction.


      • , what bothers me about this attitude is that you’re essentially making the same error — at least potentially — as Malthus but in the opposite direction. This business of him being discredited and therefore any calls for concern about overpopulation or resource limits is therefore to be mocked.

        It smacks of premature triumphalism to me.


      • Road Scholar,

        I understand that. But I also understand the errors Malthusians make. They always assume straight line trends, or trends with positive feedbacks, and no responsiveness to the trends until it’s too late. Like the peak oil folks who combine it with increasing energy demand to assume we’re going to suddenly run out with no alternatives in place. They fail to recognize how declining oil resources and the subsequently (ceteris paribus) increasing prices create incentives to begin shifting before supplies get impossibly tight, and how those supplies extend the length of time oil’s actually available.

        I’m not exactly a “cornucopian,” because I do think we have the ability to fish up certain things royally. But when the catastrophists have repeatedly been wrong, one really needs to question whether they have any real idea wtf they’re talking about.


  8. Malthus can be forgiven I believe for failing to forsee the technological advances enabling the growth in agricultural productivity in the twentieth century. As to the moderation in population growth, that’s literally taken hold in just a generation. My parents had five children, which was pretty typical among their cohort. My best friend in high school was the youngest of a family of ten, and that wasn’t considered noteworthy, unlike couples with only one or two or, tragically, none.

    On the other hand, my siblings all stopped at two with the exception of my sister at three. The global population curve has only recently shown an inflection hinting at a leveling off. Let’s not forget that a sizeable fraction of the world actually does exist at or near the subsistence level he predicted and it’s still an open question whether the resources exist to raise them up to first world levels.

    My point isn’t that Malthus was correct so much as it seems to me he gets an undeserved bad rap given what he couldn’t possibly know or reasonably predict.


  9. O’Rourke wrote about this in “All The Trouble In The World” back in the Nineties. He did some math, based on the UN’s published figures and predictions for population growth, and calculated that the world was on track to have about 12 billion people this year. And as it turns out we haven’t even broken double digits yet.

    And that was a prediction by someone pooh-poohing the notion that overpopulation was a huge problem which we needed to solve right away.


  10. The birthrate is decreasing world wide rapidly. Several very populous and developed countries like Italy, Spain, Japan, and South Korea are shrinking and aging rapidly. Very few countries in the developed world reproduce at or above the replacement level without immigration. The only ones that I’m aware of are France, Sweden, and Israel. I believe that even in the United States, the birth rate is bellow the replacement rate. Many lower and medium income countries that traditionally had very high birthrates are also bellow replacement level right now. The world population is increading because several countries do have high birthrates and the death rate is at a historic low but overpopulation doesn’t seem to be the problem it was made out to be.

    Even if over-population is a problem, how do we negatively effect the birthrate without a massive civil liberties and human rights violation. There are several policies that can slightly influence the birthrate but massively decreasing or increasing the birthrate in short amounts of time require ethically problematic solutions.


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