The Myth of Overpopulation

The Myth of Overpopulation
Profile photo of Logan Albright

CrowdThe world is overpopulated. The street are clogged, traffic is in a snarl, and people are living – both figuratively and literally – right on top of each other. There’s hardly enough room to swing a cat these days, right? Wrong.

The world is not overcrowded at all. There are vast swaths of unpopulated land all over the place. Siberia, Canada, Africa, Australia, even the rural USA all contain more than enough wide open spaces. So why do people labor so resolutely under this delusion? The reason is simple: most people, especially those with the time and inclination to carp about overpopulation, live in areas of high population density, a non-representative sample of the world as a whole. We call these places cities, and the reason why people live in cities, despite their complaining, is that there are benefits for large populations congregating close together.

It is convenient to live in a place with lots of other people, because each of those people can potentially do something for you, from repairing your shoes, to cooking your meals, to running entertainment venues, to, perhaps most importantly, providing you with gainful employment. Try living out in the middle of nowhere and see how easy it is to feed yourself, much less make a living and survive medical problems. The division of labor means that the more people there are nearby, the more able we are to fulfill our wants and needs. Hence, crowded cities.

This misconception of the world’s population problems has led some to celebrate the declining birth rates we now see in most of the developed world. But the anticipation of a little expanded breathing room causes them take the wrong view on the economic impacts of a declining population. This has to do with an incomplete understanding of human action.

Those who worry about overpopulation tend to view people as nothing more than consumers. Resources are finite; humans consume resources. Therefore, fewer humans will mean more resources to go around. This is the core idea behind the opposition to expanded immigration. Namely, the fear that more people will mean less work and less wealth for the rest of us. But while the two premises of this syllogism are true, they are also woefully incomplete, making the conclusion incorrect as well.

The reason is that humans are not merely consumers. Every consumer is also a producer as well, and production is how we have improved our standards of living from the dawn of man till today. Every luxury, every great invention, every work of art, every modern convenience that we enjoy was the product of a mind – in some cases, of more than one. It then stands to reason that the more minds there are, the more innovations we will have as well. A reductio ad absudum reveals the obvious truth that a cure for cancer is more likely to emerge from a society of a billion people than from one of only a handful of individuals.

More importantly, these innovations result in a multiplication of resources, so our syllogism changes to the following: Resources are finite; humans consume resources; humans produce resources; therefore, if humans produce more resources than they consume, a greater population will be beneficial to the species.

That we do, in fact, produce more than we consume is self-evident by looking at the standard of living we enjoy today versus that which we had 50, or 100, or 1000 years ago. As the population has expanded, so has our prosperity, and the reduction in human suffering has been remarkable.

With this in mind, the precipitous drop in global birth rates is alarming. In countries where there is a generous social safety net for the elderly, a shrinking population means that a greater and greater share of resources will go towards caring for the old, while younger generations have insufficient numbers to make up the difference.

As the labor force declines below the level of available capital, machines will start to fall into disrepair and disuse, factories will be abandoned, housing developments will lie unoccupied. All of this results in less economic growth, less wealth, and less prosperity for everyone. Even the aggregate demand-obsessed Keynesians should be able to understand this concept. Fewer people people means less economic activity.

The celebration of low populations largely comes from the environmentalist movement, where anti-human sentiment is frequently overt. Even in less caustic circles, however, the bias against mankind has seeped into the popular consciousness. It’s pervasive; an instinct among lefties that – for some reason they can’t quite put their finger on – people are just no darn good.

This position is only defensible if you pine for the days of smallpox, starvation, contaminated water, and a constant danger of being devoured by hungry predators. If, on the other hand, you do not view those things as part of an idyllic, all-natural existence, you might consider cutting us humans a little slack.

  • Harald Sandø

    Let me give you another perspective on ‘overpopulation’ in an article I wrote:

    In this article I agree that ‘overpopulation’ is a myth, and that there is lot’s of room and resources on the planet. You might be interested in my explanation of why some areas are overpopulated, though. You’ll get the answer in the article.

  • Harald Sandø

    Let me give you another perspective on ‘overpopulation’ in an article I wrote:

    In this article I agree that ‘overpopulation’ is a myth, and that there is lot’s of room and resources on the planet. You might be interested in my explanation of why some areas are overpopulated, though. You’ll get the answer in the article.

  • Frank Zeleniuk

    Good article. Replies are mostly their vision of the future. Some are optimistic some are pessimistic. Whatever the
    future holds we must deal in solutions. State population control is not a solution to population problems.

  • charmcitysking



  • @Wizof0z

    Human population is about to dive down!
    Can't believe a trained praxeologist cant count calories!
    And you thought all that debt had no real-world manifetation!?
    We took a loan in the earth, people!
    We will pay with our blood.

  • Demosthenes

    It is well known that birth rates naturally decline as countries develop. If you look at Japan, legendary for its population density, they are actually plagued by low birth rates which is causing an economically disastrous imbalance between the old/young population ratio. The reason that too few births is a problem (instead of a windfall) for them is that people are actually naturally productive when they are incentivized to produce (which is not necessarily the case when they are placed in a developmentally-sterilized environment and put on food stamps). Their productivity is needed.

    None of this means that a) the world's resources aren't under assault due to an almost complete lack of accountability or b) that people, as a rule, aren't completely insane and cause lots of problems but what it does mean is that more people = more problem solvers and so far the track record shows that they can actually be pretty darn clever at cracking various nuts.

    Humans do not create soil, but responsibly farmed soil self-replenishes through simple measures like cattle grazing and crop rotation. In that sense, humans actually can create soil. Places where irresponsible farming has caused depletion can be reversed, not by leaving it alone, but by letting people work to recultivate it through commonsense farming practices. Unfortunately, the current economic conditions do not incentivize companies to use these practices and instead incentivizes them to use destructive measures such as perpetual monoculture crops (thanks government-subsidies! Anyone want to write a book on 1000 recipes that involve corn and soybeans??), CAFOs, oil-based fertilizers and the wasteful practice of exclusively using people-food to feed animals (corn/grains) instead of turning a non-food into a food (grass>cow>food) which causes a sustainable cycle of productivity (grass feeds cows > cows improve grass by tilling, trimming and fertilizing > cows turn into food) that doesn't cause depletion.

    As for concerns about water, the good news is that we actually live on a planet which has over two-thirds of it's surface covered in this handy resource. Many will be quick to say, "Ah, but it isn't fresh water" but there is a human-developed technology known as boiling which can be used to convert the salt water into freshwater. So if humans are intelligent and productive enough to drill miles beneath the ocean's floor for oil, refine it and then distribute it across the face of the earth then here's to hoping that future generations will be able to organize themselves enough to effectively tap into this much easier to come by resource before they become parched.

    Finally, if you are still sickened with the idea of sustainably growing cucumbers in your moderately-sized yard with collected rainwater and compost alongside your many neighbors, take solace in this: The more people we can get onto this giant rock and using their noggins, the faster we can build something to get off of it! Once brilliant-minded people have produced ways of inhabiting other abodes we will finally be able to spread all over the galaxy like the disease that we have been taught to believe that we are (courtesy of Agent Smith and our educators) with no end in sight.

    • Redmond

      Go to the middle east, they already desalinate most of their water – it is not a problem.

    • Redmond

      WEll, please do us a favour and lead by example by reducing the population, starting by yourself.

    • Demosthenes

      You could create (redirect, technically) energy by holding up a lens or mirror and focusing light to generate enough heat to boil water so I don't think this energy is quite as scarce as you think. Then again, picking up a mirror might consume a calorie so I see your point.

      • Harquebus

        This is just more poopaganda. More people sharing a shrinking pie is not the solution, it is the problem.
        We stopped living of the Earth's ecological returns a long time ago and are now steadily devouring the principal.

  • Eric Meyer

    I think Logan Notsobright is a troll for the rest of the not so bright power brokers.

  • Justin

    Wait; you're kidding, right? The magical non zero-sum resource math makes no sense. It inexplicably conflates resources created by human production (cars, artwork, etc.) with resources required for humans to live (food, water…).

    Like it or not, we are an animal population. Animal populations have bounds on their size and breadth imposed by resource availability, terrain, sickness, and a host of other variables.

    I agree that more people means more innovation. There are definitely undiscovered technological means to improve our survivability by expanding inadequate water supplies, growing more food more efficiently, combating pathogens, etc.

    Humans are far better than any other terrestrial animal at mitigating survival constraints, but the laws of physics still apply. There is a point beyond which there would be more people than resources required for all of those people to live on earth.

    We may not be close to it, yet–or we might!–but to pretend the rules don't apply to us is naive and might lead to a complacency toxic to our very existence. We may very well be able to persist here for a very, very long time into the future, but we're not going to get there assuming it's going to be easy, or that we can't fail.

    There is no guarantee the pace of our technological advancement will forever match our population growth.

    Even if we acknowledge the reality of the survival pressures we face, we may fail. If we pretend they don't exist, we're almost guaranteed to.

    • Redmond

      And so nature will take it's course, stop pumping up greenpeace et al.

      the population density of the highest standard of living countires is very high – what are you missing?

    • Redmond

      Peak oil is a myth, Global Warming is a myth – 17 years of no temperature change, and the geological age of the earth? what does that have to do with this discussion?

      Quit the straw men – but you probably don't know what that term even means.

    • Frank Zeleniuk

      The Bergdahl "negotiation" serves Obama's purpose of inciting division and chaos on the home front in order to create the apparent need for more government. You would have to think he was pretty inept if he did not consider the consequences of this particular negotiation. It's a win-win for him. He creates more division and controversy at home and lets loose 5 terrorists to, hopefully, wreak further havoc that will demonstrate that necessity for more and bigger security. That point illustrates the difference between negotiating with a national government as did other Presidents you cited and negotiating with terrorists. Terrorists will continue to terrorize and are only encouraged by negotiation.

      The intellectual and politically connected embrace socialism. They have throughout the twentieth century to present. The US is the only nation that has to any degree bucked that trend. FDR has to be commended for restraint in his adoption of socialist policies when many from the intellectual class were calling for total government control of the economy after "capitalism" crashed and burned in 1929. Hitler was on the rise. Mussolini was getting the trains running on time. Stalin was purging the rank and file. Mao was making his mark and Tommy Douglas was writing his thesis to purify our genetic future. Mussolini was ostracized from the socialist and communist parties before 1920, and Hitler during the twenties was going around putting out communist rebellions in German cities. This is the reason for the second world war. Their brand of socialism was too singularly dictatorial and did not recognize how everything was supposed to be equal. How dare he contend the superiority of his brand of socialism, let alone the Aryan race. It was national socialism and ran against the plan of international socialism and a league of nations.

      The US Constitution is the biggest thorn in the socialist's side. They can't even disarm their populace. I believe Kennedy had some respect for it but Obama tends to run roughshod over it. Obama's internationalist views are an opportunity and he's got the Alinsky playbook. He was not kidding when he said he was going to fundamentally transform America – negotiating that is not an option.

      Love to pontificate.

      • 1st Family Virginia

        Yes, in fact some global warming is taking place. Let us look at this in solar terms. How come the poster child for the greenhouse effect, Venus, is cooling off while the planet which should suffer the least (of the nearby planets), Mars is getting hotter. You can check with NASA on this.

        Could it be that long term Solar Cycles are propelling the change? Since the energy provided to the earth by the sun dwarfs anything we can do, it would seem likely.

        Please keep on mind that none of the Climate change models have come even close to predicting the actual outcome, you can understand why we are somewhat skeptical.

  • Lorne

    The author confuses over/under population with 'carrying capacity.' If we were all packed in boxes like battery hens in a commercial chicken house, I suppose the Earth could sustain thirty billion people. Welcome to Hell. Personally, I think a world population of around a billion would be about right.

    • Redmond

      Population trends are already heading downwards, stop your yapping.

  • Rob

    One of the most ignorant juvenile pieces I've slogged through in some time. Humans do not create coal, fish, timber, soil, water or any other resource. They do leave huge amounts of waste in their trail however. They consume megatons of non renewable resources, create all manner of exotic non degradable chemicals, spew radiation, factory farm, clear cut, slash and burn and alter the entire planets climate. There is not a biosystem on earth that isn't under siege and in decline and if you hadn't noticed we are animals that depend on a functioning biosphere to survive. Enjoy your futuristic bubble city elbow to elbow with your smelly neighbors.

    • Redmond

      Actually they do, Oil until about 150 years ago, was not a resource, it was a pollutant.

      Sorry my friend, but all life on this earth is based on the ultimate non-renewable resource, the SUN.

  • olduvainovel

    Infinite growth on a finite planet. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Redmond

    As we come up against resource constraints, we innovate and do more with less – please study your history.

  • Redmond

    Ah yes, the aquifers – this meme has been pushed for the last ten years in the liberal media – I remember reading a piece on it in Harpers 10 years ago, so it is no surprise that it is finally making it here.

    Again, this has little to do with "overpopulation" and everything to do with central planning and intervention.

    I like the last little kudos to us, but I think that post must have been written by a paid troll.

  • Macon Richardson

    Bravo, Ishmael! Your observations are accurate; your conclusions inevitable. Nor does Albright contemplate dwindling natural resources.

    However, I did a bit of research some years ago. If everyone in the world remained standing and packed close together, the entire world population would fit into Texas.

  • Frank Zeleniuk

    It would be pertinent to note that most of that $100 dollar a barrel increase from $35 a barrel in 1977 is accounted for through inflation. It has hardly increased in price at all since 1977 really.

    Another point is that most fracking is about recovering natural gas and not oil. It is indeed probably not cost effective to frack for oil.

    Natural gas is a good transitional source of energy until we discover more efficient and less polluting means to produce energy.

    The bigger problem with your position is it engenders a negative view of our existence and a pessimistic view of the future. This develops into a constant search for reasons to stop or restrict all of our activity. This retards our development as we are channelled into what are perhaps not meaningful or cost efficient research but political control. That would be unhealthy.

    Global warming may be occurring. The only real fact of it is that the mean temperature of the earth has increased over the last century by .8 degrees Celsius. Is that not normal. I don't think there is enough data to say it is or isn't and there certainly isn't enough evidence to determine how much of that "warming" is anthropogenic in nature.

    The IPCC is political in nature. You can expect the scientific data to be politically contaminated.

    Having said that if you look through history there has been a concern about over-population for a long time.
    If you live in a city with traffic problems and other government created lineups you may wish that there were fewer people around or even if you enjoy the solitude and peace of the outback you may consider there are too many people around. But in general we are all doing ok. There are areas that need improvement but they are for the most part improving or else being heavily restricted and controlled by authorities which is a negative, of course. Especially distant authorities.

    Try liking people a little better in general, not just those that hold the narrow view of how the sky is falling.

  • olduvainovel

    That will help replace our depleting fish stocks and remove the increasing toxins/pollutants in the atmosphere how exactly?

  • Ishmael777

    Ahhh, so you doubt the aquifer issue. Hummm, I guess you have not seen all the old farm land through west Texas that is no longer being farmed due to guess what, played out aquifer and if you read what I have to say it is so far from being liberal your comment is unbelievable. Paid troll, give me a freaking laugh!

  • Ishmael777

    Redmond — peak oil is a myth! My cod you are an idiot! Oil production peaked in the US in 1977 practically when predicted. Now I have not gone back and looked with the fracking if oil production has beat the 77 peak but this is just a temporary blip. Look at the financial statements of the big fracking oil companies. They are hardly making any money right now. Why, they need oil in the $150 and gas over $6 range to make these horizontal drilled and fraced wells profitable. I set in a meeting with the CEO of Anadarko and he said he did not know if he was going to drill many more oil shale wells at today prices. Exxon indicated it was losing its shirt in oil shale plays and Shell sold out its oil shale properties saying they just were not economical. Besides since you are an ediot you really did not understand what the term "peak oil" means. Approximately 50% of the oil that can commerically be obtained has been produced. After that it becomes more and more expensive to produce the oil. In 1977, a good price for oil which encouraged drilling was $35 a barrel. Now the price has to be north of $100 a barrel.

Profile photo of Logan Albright

Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.

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