Product Plug

In talking in person or through e-mail with people about population issues
I am consistently struck by the lack of interest or awareness of serious academic
resources on the topic. Demographers and others do write and publish lots of
extremely helpful information on population-related issues.

Probably the best for laypeople and professionals alike is publications by
the Population Reference Bureau, Inc.
The PRB publishes quarterly “Population Bulletins” which look in depth
at specific issues along with a monthly newsletter and other resources. Individual
subscriptions to a year’s worth of PRB publications runs $49 and can be had
by writing the PRB at 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW Suite 520, Washington, DC, 20009.
For those without $49, PRB publications are available at many libraries and
on the web.

Letter to Skeptic Magazine

In their vol. 5, no. 1 issue, Skeptic magazine published several articles on environmental science in general and on the population controversy specifically. Writer Frank Miele contributed an excellent overview, “Souled out or … souled short?” which mentions Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich and provides graphs and information taken from Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support? Below is a letter-to-the editor I sent Skeptic about the controversy.

July 15, 1997

Editor, Skeptic,

As a regular reader and maintainer of a web site devoted to the overpopulation controversy (, I found Frank Miele’s “Souled out or … souled short?” an interesting introduction to the differing perspectives between environmentalists and economists and like Miele I find Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support? an excellent book on the topic.

As someone who sides with Julian Simon in his debates with Paul Ehrlich, let me sum up my position as briefly as possible: Ehrlich is no Joel Cohen.

Cohen’s book sticks to what can be known, and throughout he does an admirable job of explaining the limitations of population statistics and models. Few of Cohen’s conclusions occur without at least one, and usually numerous, caveats. Cohen realizes, as do most demographers and others involved in population issues, that the subject is incredibly complex.

By contrast, Ehrlich is largely a headline writer. Rather than acknowledge the complexity and uncertainty of the issues, Ehrlich has repeatedly insisted on going for the zingers that get him a lot of media coverage but usually turn out to be scientifically unsound. As Ehrlich told Stanford magazine in 1990, “Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen. So, the question is, Do you say, ‘I don’t know,’ in which case they all go back to bed — or do you say, ‘Hell, in ten years you’re likely to be going without food and water’ and [get] their attention?”

Ehrlich has paid the price for playing the entertainer rather than the scientist. Year after year he has made one outlandish prediction after another that has failed to come true. If a popular astrologer or psychic made claims that consistently proved not only wrong but wildly wrong, it is doubtful many of your readers would take him or her seriously.

Ehrlich, however, seems to be the Teflon environmentalist. Time after time his predictions are falsified and yet almost no one considers looking at the underlying model to wonder if maybe there isn’t something wrong with the theory. Instead, much as the Ptolemaic astronomers resorted to ever more complicated epicycles, so Ehrlich’s adherents find ever more convoluted explanations of why Ehrlich is right even though the predictions his theory entails consistently fail.

The tragedy is Ehrlich’s attempts at grabbing the media’s imagination have led to a trend of polarization which makes rational discussions of environmental issues such as overpopulation all but impossible. Your picture of Simon with devil’s horns is an accurate but sad commentary on how he is viewed by many. We have reached a point where those who disagree with Ehrlich are, as the title of his latest book puts it, responsible for The Betrayal of Science and Reason.

As a result there has been a similar backlash among some critics. We now have people like Rush Limbaugh who respond to Ehrlich’s bombast with similarly uninformed bombast of their own. Scientific investigation of a matter of extreme importance to our species is reduced to a shouting match between two camps each accusing the other of heresy.

The most important lesson I hope readers of your series of articles on environmentalists and their critics is the enormous danger of allowing scientific inquiry to become politicized. Ehrlich’s explicit politicization of population concerns in the early 1960s started a chain reaction which today makes honest debate and inquiry far more difficult than it need or should be.

Will We Have Enough Food?

Speaking of the Population Reference Bureau, the February 1997 Population Bulletin, “Population, Food, and Nutrition” addressed the central question of whether or not there will be enough food to feed the world’s population as it climbs to 10 billion people by the middle of the next century.

It is difficult to summarize a 47-page article, but by and large the authors, William Bender and Margaret Smith, provide evidence which backs up the claims the Overpopulation FAQ makes. First, Smith and Bender agree that today the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone — that people go malnourished is largely a political problem and not an agricultural one.

Second, although it is by no means assured, given the right incentives agriculture should be able to expand to feed the projected increase in population. As Bender and Smith note, “How much can yields increase? It seems logical that there is an upper limit to the amount of food crops that can be grown on a hectare of land. However, the experience of the past 30 years suggests that most countries are still far below that limit. In fact, countries with the highest starting yields have generally shown the fastest absolute increase in ultimate yields” (19). How far below their possible production are some areas? According to Bender and Smith, Africa and South America currently produce less than 1 percent of their potential agricultural harvest (25).

Furthermore Smith and Bender argue that claims by groups such as The Worldwatch Institute that crop yields are declining ignores what is really happening. Smith and Bender write, “This trend [a decrease in per capita grain production since 1984] at first appears an alarming sign that we will lack enough grain to feed our growing population, but it most likely reflects the growing statistical weight of the developing countries. Faster population growth in developing countries increased their share of world population from about 77 percent to 80 percent between 1984 and 1996. This shift pushed worldwide per capita grain production averages down toward the developing-country levels” (24).

Finally, Smith and Bender note the effect that perverse economic incentives set by governments in the Third World have on food production there. “In much of Africa, in contrast, urban populations command the attention of the government and benefit from food sold below its true value in urban markets. When food is sold below fair market value, the rural smallholders who produce the food are denied a fair return on their investments and are subsequently unwilling to invest in inputs that would increase their yields” (42).

“I Don’t Believe In A Global Doomsday Scenario”

In a small blurb in the July 1997 issue of Discover, demographer Wolfgang Lutz
confirmed the main thesis of the Overpopulation FAQ — the doomsday population
scenarios aren’t going to happen.

“I don’t believe in a global doomsday scenario,” said Lutz,
who is a demographer at the International
Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
and editor of the IIASA’s recent
book, “The
Future of World Population
.” The IIASA is a highly respected group
which has been involved in the creation of the often-cited United Nations models
predicting future world population.

Unlike population doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich, Lutz assembled a panel of
20 experts in areas such as fertility, mortality, population migration to examine
past scenarios of population growth and create a new model. The result? The
most likely scenario produced by the group forecasts world population growing
to 10.6 billion by 2050 and then declining in the latter half of the 21st and
beginning of the 22nd century.

Continuing declines in fertility levels around the world, increased urbanization,
and an increase in educational opportunities for women are just some of the
factors which Lutz and the panel believe will bring fertility rates to replacement
level by 2050.

The Oil Glut

Of course the world is running out of oil and the entire fossil fuel economy
is on borrowed time, which makes me wonder why there’s still so damn much
of the stuff around. A July 8 story by Reuters Information Service reported
that even with a rise in U.S. demand for oil, crude prices declined dramatically
this spring and are expected to fall even further when Iraq resumes exporting

The International Energy Agency
reported that its revised forecast of 1997 world oil demand was 73.8 million
barrels per day. At the same time world oil inventories rose an estimated 1.6
million barrels per day in the second quarter of 1997. The Washington-based
Petroleum Finance Company said, “… crude production will outstrip demand
by an average of one million bpd in 1997.

The result was predictable — crude oil futures have fallen 30 percent in 1997,
hitting a low of $17.32 in mid-June.

Famine In North Korea

North Korea is on the verge of famine. According to the United Nations up
to 4.7 million people are at risk of starvation this summer unless North Korea
gets massive food assistance.

Why are so
many North Koreans so close to starving? The pat answer is that floods of agricultural
regions in 1995 and 1996 hurt agricultural production. A better answer is that
North Korea’s repressive, backward system of government prevents people
from adapting to changing conditions.

Starvation in the 20th century has almost exclusively been caused by actions
taken by governments, and North Korea’s situation is no different. Since
the early 1960s North Koreas has followed an ideology of chuch’e
— a combination of self-reliance and autarky that has proved stifling to North
Korea’s economy.

Combined with a military and industrial policy designed to shift workers toward
industry and away from agriculture, the North Korean government has done everything
in its power to ensure that any floods or drought will be followed quickly by
widespread famine. North Korea is one of the few places in the world which still
attempts collectivized agriculture and now it is paying the price.

The emphasis on industry hasn’t gotten North Korea very far either. Although
some observers note that North Korea’s economy has grown quite a lot since
the early 1960s, they fail to note the growth is largely explained by increases
in inputs such as labor and raw materials rather than improvements in efficiencies
and productivity. As a result, North Korea’s exports are extremely low
and North Korea is unable to use trade to make up for any food shortages.

The lessons of 20th century famines are clear — excessive state intervention
in the economy in general and the agricultural sector in particular can have
deadly consequences.