We have all been educated to the idea of a “population bomb,” the idea that the natural order which supports the human race will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. Rising populations will cause shortages of food, water, land, and every other natural resource, leading to the collapse of the eco-systems which support human life itself. This idea has been regnant in the West since the publication of Thomas Malthus's An Essay on Population in 1798. In Malthus's model, man has an antagonistic relationship with the natural order, an order that is fragile and limited. In this model, man is a predator who consumes scarce resources until they disappear, which in turn causes the disappearance of man himself. Human population is therefore locked into a cycle of growth and collapse, with misery for the many, and happiness only for the very few. For Malthus, charity and wages above mere subsistence were a threat to the natural order. Instead of working to ameliorate poverty, the authorities should increase it and work to raise the mortality rates among the poor:
Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular diseases.
Malthus based his theory on a “predator-prey” relationship. Think of the relationship between chicken-hawks and chickens: the more of the one, the less of the other. A rise in the hawk population will lead to a decline of the chicken population, which in turn will mean less food for hawks, and a fall in their population, etc. The problem with this comparison of man and predators is that man is not a predator, but a cultivator; his relationship is entirely different. Because man eats chickens, there are more chickens than the natural order would ever produce by itself. And more cattle, corn, wheat, and everything else as well.
But one might object that chickens and corn are “renewable” resources, but that other things are not, things like oil and iron, and these things must deplete as the population advances. But this is not true either, or at least not necessarily true. Man can become a “predator” in regard to non-renewable resources, but he can also be a cultivator. Indeed, 98% of all metals ever mined are likely still recoverable and usable, while there is no need to have the least efficient transportation system imaginable. The problem is not the natural limits on these things, but false ideas of happiness and economics. As long as we place our hopes for happiness in things, rather than in people, there will never be enough resources to keep us happy. As Ghandi put it, “The earth produces enough for each man's needs, but not enough for even one man's avarice.” The real problem is not too many men, but too much injustice. When 20% of the people consume 80% of the resources, the problem lies with the 20, not the 80.
Does this mean that there is no “population problem”? There certainly is, but it is the opposite problem from what the latter-day Malthusians imagine it to be. It is not the population bomb, but the birth dearth. We are entering a period of aging populations across all cultures and nations. Birth rates have fallen far below replacement rates, and this fact will cause—indeed, is causing—more problems than even Malthus could have imagined. These problems are the subject of a new film, Demographic Winter, which documents the troubling numbers. As the film points, the growth in population is itself a statistical illusion. The population of children is actually shrinking; it is only the population of old geezers like myself that is advancing. “It is not,” as the film points out, “that people are breeding like rabbits, it is that they are no longer dying like flies.” While this causes a temporary rise in population, that situation is reversing itself with dramatic consequences.
The ecological movement has often embraced the Malthusian argument, and therefore has missed the real point. They have made “people” the enemy, rather than rampant consumerism. Although they point to a real problem, the miss the real cause, and hence have difficulty offering real solutions.
Demographics lay at the heart of every other analysis of the human economy, and if one wishes to understand our situation, one must understand demographics. It has never been the case that a declining population leads to greater prosperity. Indeed, the opposite is true: depopulation always leads to poverty and social chaos. “Children are the future,” we are fond of saying. But the obvious conclusion must be that without children, there is no future.