The Myth of Overpopulation

January 31, 2011


By Rusty Pritchard

Flourish magazine, Winter 2011
There’s a perilous notion lurking in the minds of many in the environmental movement. Confronted with a burgeoning human population, and frustrated at the human impact on the world’s forests, seas, and atmosphere, environmentalists are prone at times to ask, “Are there just too many people in the world?”

It’s an old idea, born of sloppy thinking and resulting in dangerous policies.

How many humans can earth sustain?
In 1968 ecologist Paul Erhlich became famous for his book The Population Bomb, which argued that in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people would starve to death because of ecological catastrophes caused by overpopulation. After all, world population was rising rapidly and showed few signs of slowing. Erhlich’s discipline of ecology—studying populations of plants and animals—had long been taken with the concept of “carrying capacity.” Carrying capacity is the size of a population of organisms that can be supported by a given environmental system.

For instance, a game manager maintaining a population of deer in a reserve will want to know how many deer could be supported on that patch of land. Having an idea of carrying capacity would tell him, as a rough guide, whether his land is underpopulated (in which case the population would be expected to grow) or overpopulated, which could happen if too many deer were competing for the same resources. Some wildlife populations fluctuate widely in size and exhibit a tendency to “overshoot” carrying capacity, in which case natural mechanisms—like starvation or increased predation—kick in to reduce the population size. Overpopulation, for a wildlife manager, would indicate a risk of disease or damage to the resource base from overgrazing. The game manager might decide to allow hunters to harvest some of the animals in order to bring the population back down to a sustainable level; the carrying capacity.

Ecologists like Erhlich began to extend the arguments about carrying capacity and population control to the world’s human population. Shouldn’t we take steps to manage the human herd, if we found it had overshot the carrying capacity of the planet? Would this happen through natural means, like the outbreak of disease or the depletion of resources? Could interventions be made to manage the human population intentionally? Should they?

Erhlich’s dire predictions never came to pass, but the idea of “overpopulation” lodged in the popular imagination as a fundamental part of environmentalism.

Like all dreams of technological utopias, population control had the potential to go horribly wrong.

These sorts of questions were entering public discourse at the same time that pharmaceutical contraceptives were developed. The contraceptive culture (as Malcolm Muggeridge called it) gave many a sense that through technology, enlightened managers could control the destiny of humanity in new and previously unimagined ways.

Like all dreams of technological utopias, this one had the potential to go horribly wrong.

The Chinese experiment
In 1979, American anthropologist Steven Mosher became the first American research student to visit mainland China to conduct social science research for his doctoral dissertation at Stanford University. What he discovered there was China’s infamous one-child policy.

The Chinese government had taken to heart foreboding forecasts of economic and ecological doom as a result of a rapidly growing population, and set in place policies to bring its own population growth to a halt. In China Mosher found a coercive population control program that included repressive fines for childbearing above a birth quota and even cases of state-sanctioned forced abortion.

Faced with the prospect of raising a single child, and with the new ultrasound technology for determining fetal gender, many Chinese parents opted to abort or abandon baby girls, leading to a radical imbalance in gender and a generation of “missing girls.”

The unfolding news about repressive Chinese population programs was one of the reasons international opinion began to shift away from the explicit promise of technologically bold population control in the 1980s. The idea of population control continued to raise its head on occasion, but the specter of repression kept those ideas from becoming mainstream in the environmental movement. They found another home.

Environmentalists split with population control advocates
While population control ideas have not come to the fore, neither have they disappeared. Only a few oddball individuals even attempt to defend the Chinese policies. Yet every undergraduate environmental studies textbook (and I’ve reviewed many) still includes a chapter on human population. Written mostly for the community college market, they are authored mainly by end-of-career scientists still fixated on the nonexistent population bomb. They usually include a superficial comparison between Indian and Chinese population policies, showing that enlightened approaches—such as India’s—would rely on voluntary family planning, with huge state subsidies, and using the Chinese example to delineate what must be avoided. The idea that “something should be done” about overpopulation is not seriously challenged.

Still, recently I’ve been working with mainstream environmental advocates, and I have very rarely heard reference to population control as an environmental strategy. Typically, only two kinds of environmentalists are talking about overpopulation: senior citizens asking tired and cranky questions after one of my public lectures, and undergraduate students on the first day of their Environmental Studies 101 class.

In fact, advocates of population control did not find a home in modern environmentalism. Instead they merged with pro-choice advocates and created a “family planning” subculture—a descriptor that sounds innocuous enough but that is laden with circumlocutions about abortion and choice. Racism and nativism are never far-removed; after all, the “threat” of overpopulation comes chiefly from the “teeming nations” (a phrase I heard from a wealthy European). Too often this misanthropic worldview blends with (and offers funding for) anti-immigrant sentiment, borrowing much from the “lifeboat ethics” of Garrett Hardin, another population control advocate who was nothing if not consistent: Besides making a strong case against helping the poor, he promoted population control and euthanasia, eventually committing suicide together with his wife when they were in their 80s.

To their credit, most mainstream environmental organizations are not outspoken proponents of population control. They have begun to drop much of their rhetoric of gloom and doom, and they are now more likely to promote solutions-oriented campaigns that inspire action, not fatalism. Environmental conservation, despite the complaints of a few extremist critics, has come to be seen as part of a uniquely American heritage that gave us the National Forests, the National Park System, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Population control advocates turned out to have much more in common with the contraceptive culture of Planned Parenthood than with the outdoorsy spirit of the American environmental movement.

The truth about population
The modern environmental movement largely suppressed the more misanthropic approaches of population control advocates, but it never overcame the fundamental mythology that overpopulation was a problem that was, in principle, solved by abundant and free contraceptive technologies. Demographers, however, began to paint a different picture. At the same time that doomsday messages were spreading about exponential population growth, social scientists noted that population growth rates were falling, all over the world, faster than anyone thought possible in the 1970s. Today, while it’s still growing, the world population has passed its inflection point and is expected to continue slowing in this century for reasons that are now well known to demographers.

Part of Erhlich’s intuition was correct: Rapidly growing populations, whether in poor or rich countries, can press hard on the natural resources that give them their livelihoods, and that creates social costs as economies struggle to provide jobs, education, and healthcare to their citizens. It is ridiculous to maintain, as some do, that population growth is without impact.

“With every mouth to feed comes a pair of hands to work.”

But there are benefits as well as costs to population growth. Looking at the issue from an economic viewpoint, children grow into productive wage earners. As the saying goes, “with every mouth to feed comes a pair of hands to work.” Throughout human history, increasing population pressure has led at key moments to agricultural intensification, increased productivity, and economic advancement.

Many thinkers about international development recognize the costs of rapid population growth because the impacts are obvious. But we are only now beginning to recognize the social costs of shrinking, as fewer workers are asked to support growing populations of the retired elderly and as young families abandon their elders in the countryside for the better services of the city. Populations whose fertility levels (the number of children an average woman bears in her lifetime) have dropped far below the replacement rate—as has happened in much of Western Europe, Japan, and Singapore, and as will soon happen in China—find themselves at risk of committing the demographic equivalent of suicide.

No easy population policies
Debating the impacts of population dynamics is one thing. Trying to control population is another thing entirely.

Pro- and anti-natalists (those advocating either larger or smaller populations) can invent arguments in favor of larger or smaller populations ad nauseam. But they have one thing in common—short of coercion, they are both nearly powerless to do anything about population size.

At various points in history, governments have desired larger populations. In the 1930s, pronatalist governments in Sweden and France recognized that birth rates were slowing, and they undertook bold measures to reward larger family sizes. Fascist governments in Nazi Germany and Italy followed suit. The results were barely detectable. Families may have timed the birth of their children to take advantage of financial incentives, but there is no evidence of a notable affect on ultimate family size.

Some governments now, especially in the developing world, have been convinced that they should strive for lower birth rates and smaller family sizes. And, as noted above, fertility rates are dropping in most places around the globe. Is this evidence that family planning policies work, perhaps too well? Not really. Population growth rates have declined as fast in places with low family planning investments as in places where massive subsidies and education campaigns are in place. Family planning efforts have proven to be singularly unsuccessful in slowing fertility rates.

The myth of overpopulation is that we can control it with simple policy levers. But there are no policy buttons to press that will control birth rates.

The only “family planning” measures that have proven successful in slowing birth rates are repression and violence directed toward mothers (as in the case of China) or information campaigns and subsidies of ridiculous proportions (as in countries like Thailand). A position of arguing for investments in family planning to reduce birth rates and improve the environment is simply not supported by the evidence, unless one is willing to tolerate repression.

Why are family planning campaigns so ineffective? It’s not because culture is so durable, or because parents want the same number of children as their own parents had. Family size changes drastically from generation to generation, not because of family planning efforts, but because economic conditions change.

Consider the argument family planning advocates make about the need to subsidize contraception to make it affordable. In reality, the minor costs of contraception are swamped by the costs of raising a child. Families making even rough judgments about the economics of family size will hardly notice contraception costs (which are less than most low-income families in poor countries spend on tobacco). Families actually choose and achieve their desired family size, with fair reliability, even in the absence of modern contraceptive technology. European peasants in the eighteenth century achieved birth rates lower than many families in developing countries today, so it’s not lack of access to contraception that makes for high fertility rates.

What are children for?
What single-minded family planning advocates fail to realize is that many people want large families. Offering free contraceptives to couples that want large families does not bring down the birth rate.

While many first-world elites may think of children as mere lifestyle accessories, third world families know that having children achieves many ends necessary for a family to flourish. Children in rural families perform essential household tasks, even from an early age: Gathering firewood and dung, collecting water, watching siblings, and herding animals are ways children contribute to family welfare. Adult children are a form of insurance for elderly parents (80% of the elderly in India live with their children), and where there is a large gender gap in earning potential, even more children are needed to insure a wage-earning male survives to adulthood. An Indian couple would need to have 6.3 children to be sure of a surviving son when the father reaches age 65. Similarly, high rates of child mortality create a need for larger families. In sub-Saharan Africa, a third of children may die by the end of a mother’s reproductive years.

Economic development makes large families less attractive. Urbanization, which accompanies development, obviously decreases the need for farm labor. When girls have the opportunity to go to school and to find jobs after their education is complete, they are less likely to stay home rearing large numbers of children, but more importantly, they are able to contribute to their aged parents’ well-being. Stable financial systems also make it possible to save for one’s own old age, decreasing dependence upon offspring. Although population control advocates point to the correlation between the prevalence of contraceptives and falling fertility, it’s a spurious correlation—the relationship is actually driven by a desire for a smaller family and the feasibility of having a smaller family within a more stable economic climate.

The good news is that there can be agreement on a whole range of actions that make families better off, and population growth rates don’t need to be targeted at all. Investments in developing world countries that move people out of poverty, reduce infant mortality, reduce dependence on gathered firewood and dung for cooking fuel, create secure access to water supplies, and expand educational opportunities for boys and girls all are ways of making families more secure. Creating stable banking systems, social security programs, and a social safety net are ways that states can increase the health of their people. If these sorts of policy measures also reduce birth rates, that’s an interesting side effect, one that could arguably reduce pressure on limited natural resources and indirectly lead to a higher standard of living. But these measures directly benefit families, regardless of their impact on fertility. The first and most important goal of development policy is to create the conditions for families of any size to flourish.

The cuckoo’s egg
Significantly accelerating the current worldwide decline in population growth is virtually impossible without oppressive policies, and spending vast sums to subsidize contraception has no effect on either family size or the environment. With limited foreign aid budgets, it’s at best a waste of resources. At worst it is immoral, since most family planning groups refuse to decouple birth control and the promotion of abortion. Linking population control to the environmental agenda rightly horrifies Christians, including green ones.

Strangely, instead of being laid to rest, the idea of population control as an environmental strategy is being raised again by population control advocates who can’t find support for their policies on their own. Like a cuckoo’s egg, secretly placed in another bird’s nest in hopes of it being adopted by trickery, population control is an idea that is out of place in an environmental conversation. It needs to be pushed out of the nest, but the defrauded nest owners can’t recognize the danger to their own offspring.

When Christians demonstrate their care for God’s creation in practical ways that dignify humans and respect life, they can expect to be salt and light in the environmental movement.

More than ever, the time is right for Christians to participate in the broad societal conversation about the environment. Many environmental advocates have never met a scientifically informed, biblically grounded, pro-life Christian, because they tend to inhabit mutually exclusive circles. When Christians demonstrate their care for God’s creation in practical ways that dignify humans and respect life, they can expect to be salt and light in the environmental movement.

Environmentalists get a lot right about the need to protect the life-support system that sustains human economies. It’s time for people of faith to help push the cuckoo’s egg of population control out of the nest of environmental action and to reclaim that space as a healthy home for thriving families.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the co-founder and president of Flourish (, a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.
Some useful resources for understanding the population issue:
Pritchett, Lant, 1994. “Desired Fertility and the Impact of Population Policies.” Population and Development Review 20(1): 1-55.

Dasgupta, Partha, 1993. An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Demeny, Paul, 2003. “Population Policy: A Concise Summary.” Population Council Policy Research Division, Working Paper No. 173.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad March 2, 2011 at 9:39 am

This article doesn’t seem to address the title much. Rather than arguing that it is a myth that the world is (or will soon be) suffering from overpopulation, Pritchard seems to rather be arguing about the effectiveness of population control strategies. I’d like more information on whether populations are becoming too large (given the context, we could define “too large” as a population that removes resources and destroys habitat unsustainably). It seems hard to argue that the current population sizes are not having a negative impact on the environment, and that the certain increases in population size (regardless of changes in the rate of population growth) will not be bad in environmental terms.

It also seems there is a catch 22 when it comes to economic stability suppressing population growth. Isn’t it true that the per capita environmental impacts (carbon footprints, etc.) increase with the various factors that promote lower fertility? Those individuals who choose to have fewer children also require much more land to support their way of life.

rusty March 2, 2011 at 10:58 am

Hi Brad, thanks for your comment and for your thoughtful reading. What I try to do is deconstruct the notion of overpopulation as a “problem”. Defining various environmental crises as population problems points automatically to certain solutions, most of which are either unethical from a Biblical framework, or ineffective from a demographic science perspective.

The problem is the absolute (not the per capita) pressure we put on the world’s resources, as you rightly point out. The policies and decisions that have a real influence on nature are (a) how much we decide to consume and (b) the technologies we use to convert nature’s bounty into economic goods and services. My point was that there is not much we can “do” to influence population levels, if we are constrained by a Biblical sense of human dignity.

Hannah March 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Rusty, when I first started reading your article, I immediately wanted to argue with you – I’m glad I bit my tongue and kept reading! :)

Bill Gates has been advocating for smaller population. In fact, many of the financial elite have been, lately. I can’t help but think that their decision and approach are based in greed. It is intriguing to me that advocates of population control today firmly have both feet in the financial sector. There is something frighteningly amiss in their perception of the world and life. I get the strong sensation that they tend to hold the rest of us in contempt.

About 30 or 40 years ago, it was estimated that the amount of arable land needed to feed the entire world’s population would fit into the state of Texas. It is not about technology (which Gates and his fellows are so enamoured of), it is about taking care of what we have. As long as politics and society are based on greed and fear, we will be saddled with ignorance. As long as the Donald Trumps of this world are allowed to build golf courses where a village used to be, people will starve and lose their homes.

I have such a strong feeling in me that we, as Christians, must not allow these types of things to continue. There IS enough space for all of us, if we recognize that all of us are actually allowed to be here, and share. One is not better than another because one has money or perceived clout.

I have the sense that many who tout their Christianity today believe themselves to be elite, and above the rest. That is not what I read in the words of Jesus. I have the sense that people are scared and angry, and seek to control other people because of it, instead of controlling themselves. We learn how we should be through Jesus’ example, we should not think that because we call ourselves this or that, that we are suddenly entitled to tell the rest how they should be or how they should live.

I’ve rambled… your article caused an avalanche of thought… :)
God Bless…

rusty March 15, 2011 at 9:50 am

Thanks, Hannah. You’re raising the issue of how the virtues and vices affect our public policy–humility, courage, generosity ought to trump our selfishness and greed.

But recognizing that there is a liberal elite consensus on overpopulation does not mean that there’s a vast left-wing conspiracy to sterilize the world’s poor through toxins in vaccines, or to replace their villages with golf courses! Bill Gates’s acceptance of politically-correct views on population is regrettable but its significance is swamped by the other good work he has funded. Sometimes wealth is put to really good uses!

Hannah March 16, 2011 at 8:58 am

Points well taken, Rusty. Thank you for the anchor! :)

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