Population Projections — Really, I’m Not Lying

With the proliferation of the Internet, most of the data and other information regarding population are now conveniently found on the web. So now when someone emails me, as often happens, that my population numbers are a crock, I can point them to the US Census Bureau’s on-line estimate of world population through 2050.

There are two interesting things to note about these figures. The first, of course, is that the mid-year population projection for 2050 is 9.3 billion people — far lower than some of the irresponsibly high numbers which are often tossed around as if they are inevitable.

Second, the actual world population total could be far lower. Consider, for example, that from 1986 to 1996, the average annual growth rate declined by .28 percent — close to a .03 percent decline per year. In fact since 1970 the world has experienced an average .255 percent decline each year. But for its projections, the Census Bureau assumes only a .02 percent drop each year.

Of course, on the other hand even small decreases in this rate could drive the population in 2050 far higher, but so far all of the available evidence is consistent with a continuing fall in worldwide fertility rates and thus population growth rates.

Africa On The Edge Of Prosperity

Although Africa’s collective problems are still enormous (witness recent events in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire), but there are indications that at least parts of Africa may be turning the tide. MSNBC recently ran a multi-part series examining the state of Africa. Aside from South Africa, the continent’s bright spot is East Africa.

Specifically democracy appears to be blooming East African states. Uganda and Malawai have embraced democracy and 10 percent economic growth in 1996. Scott Moore, MSNBC reporter, notes that Tanzania and Eritrea appear to be remaining stable after years of civil war and other problems.

And Kenya appears to be on the road to democratization as well. Strongman president Daniel arap Moi facing serious economic problems is lifting long-standing policies of harsh repression of pro-democracy demonstrators and will be meeting with opposition leaders to discuss political reform.

According to Moore, both Tanzanian and Uganda have benefited by dumping socialist command economies and central planning and embracing the free market. In Uganda Yoweri Museveni abolished monopolies and launched a privatization program which has increased both industrial and agricultural production. Tanzania has gone so far as to create a stock exchange.

Bottom line — freedom works.

Ehrlich vs. Ehrlich

An excellent article by Glenn Hodges in the Jan./Feb. issue of The Washington
Monthly
illustrates the hypocrisy of doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich
who believe in one criteria to judge themselves and an entirely separate criteria
to judge anyone who dares disagree with them.

Discussing Ehrlich’s numerous failed predictions over the past quarter century,
Hodges cites a 1990 interview in Stanford magazine which quoted Ehrlich
as saying, “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?”

To Ehrlich, then, it’s okay if most of his predictions are extremely exaggerated
and rarely reflect reality since they serve as a wakeup call. Of course, when
it comes to his critics, the tables are turned. As Ehrlich and his wife Anne
write in their 1996 book, The Betrayal of Science and Reason, “[W]e
and our colleagues in environmental science make no claim to perfection, only
to doing science as it should be done and to having our work constantly reviewed
by peers so that it represents more than our own idiosyncratic opinions.”

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 (http://www.carnell.com/overpopulation.html), 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).