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HomeEconomyOverpopulation: An Ancient Myth Refuted 

Overpopulation: An Ancient Myth Refuted 

The famous “scramble crosswalk” in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, Japan is used by over 2.5 million people daily. 2010.

Prince Philip once said, “In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation.” The late Duke of Edinburgh passed away in 2017, but the hysterical sentiment he expressed about overpopulation lives on.  

A YouGov poll found that overpopulation concerns are widespread among adults across the planet, with nearly half of sampled Americans believing that the world’s population is too high. This view is shared by 76 percent of Hungarians and 69 percent of Indians, according to the poll.  

Overpopulation and ecological disasters have been the themes of numerous blockbuster movies, including ZPD (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Idiocracy (2006), and Elysium (2013). Mainstream news outlets have repeatedly promoted the apocalyptic idea to the public, with headlines such as “Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them” (NBC News). The progressive magazine Fast Company released a video titled “Why having kids is the worst thing you can do for the planet.”  

The theory of overpopulation, and the collectivist idea that human reproduction must be limited, even by force, is nothing new. It first appeared in the ancient Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic, where the gods control the human population by infertility, infanticide, and appointing a priest class to limit childbirth.  

Plato and Aristotle both endorsed a form of proto-eugenics and population control. In The Republic, Socrates and Glaucon conclude that an owner controlling the breeding of his dogs and birds to prevent their degeneration should also apply to the human species. The guardians would be tasked with deciding who is allowed to reproduce and who should be prohibited from having offspring. In Politics, Aristotle advocated for state-mandated abortions of children with deformities or in cases where couples are having too many children and contributing to overpopulation.  

The decline of Greek civilization in the second century BCE was not a consequence of an excess number of births, but precisely the opposite. Polybius attributed the downfall of Greece in his time to a decay of population which emptied out the cities and resulted in a failure of productiveness. It was not warfare and pestilence which reduced the birth rate, but decadence. The idle men of Greece, according to Polybius, were more interested in money and pleasure than marriage and child-rearing.  

Two millennia later, English economist Thomas Malthus resurrected the old Mesopotamian myth with his 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus claimed that population growth increases geometrically while food production increases only arithmetically, which he believed would lead to widespread famine if the rapid propagation of humanity were not obstructed.  

He identified two checks, one natural and one human-induced, which could keep population growth limited: preventive checks, such as delayed marriage or sexual abstinence, that stabilize the birth rate and evade the natural calamities of positive checks — famines, pestilences, earthquakes, floods, etc. — which represent nature’s striking back against the pressures of unhindered population growth. 

Malthus preferred the former, but if unsuccessful, supported appalling and brutal depopulation measures. He suggested policies to “make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague.” He also recommended banning “specific remedies for ravaging diseases.” 

In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species argued that species evolved gradually from a common ancestor. His follow-up The Descent of Man posited that humans descended from their ape-like past through a process of sexual selection that favored the stronger, more intelligent genes. Darwin said that his evolutionary theory “is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” 

Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, used Darwin’s theory of evolution to develop eugenics — a pseudo-scientific theory that the human race could be improved through controlled breeding.  

Subsidized by some of the largest philanthropic organizations in the United States, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution, eugenics was embraced by many leaders of the American progressive movement, who favored involuntary sterilization and immigration restriction.  

Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League — later to be renamed Planned Parenthood — denigrated charity and referred to the poor as “human waste.” She and her companions considered several names for their movement, such as “neo-Malthusianism,” “population control,” and “race control,” before finally settling on “birth control.” 

The eugenicists’ fervent collectivism and disregard for America’s founding principles affirming the inherent dignity and rights of every individual were best expressed through Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, in which he wrote:  

Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race. 

Eugenics laws were implemented across the United States beginning with Indiana in 1907. By the Second World War, around 60,000 Americans had undergone sterilization.  

In Britain, eugenics was enthusiastically championed by socialists such as John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and HG Wells. Keynes wrote an outline for a book called Prolegomena to a New Socialism, in which he listed “eugenics, population” as “chief preoccupations of the state.” 

Eugenics — at least under that official title — began to fade after the harsh realities of the Holocaust were unveiled, but the Malthusian presuppositions which undergirded their movement never vanished.  

Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb re-invigorated the Malthusian craze for a new generation, predicting imminent worldwide famines and other catastrophes due to overpopulation. In the prologue, he wrote: “We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptom of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out. Population control is the only answer.”  

That same year, a group of European scientists concerned about the future of the planet founded an NGO called the Club of Rome. Their first major publication, Limits to Growth (1972), attacked the pursuit of material gain and continuous economic expansion. Two of the Club of Rome’s most prominent members openly declared in their 1991 book The First Global Revolution that humanity is the real enemy:  

In searching for a common enemy against whom we can unite, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like, would fit the bill…All these dangers are caused by human intervention in natural processes, and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy then is humanity itself. 

At the time of the publication of Ehrlich’s doomsday book and the Club of Rome’s founding, the world’s population stood at 3.6 billion, and nearly half of people worldwide were living in poverty. Over the next five decades, the global population more than doubled to 7.7 billion, yet fewer than 9 percent of people remain in poverty today, and famines have virtually disappeared.  

Ehrlich’s hypothesis was rejected by economist Julian Simon in his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, in which he argued that a rising number of “skilled, spirited, and hopeful people” results in more ingenuity, less scarcity, and lower costs in the long run. In other words, the larger the human population, the greater the collective brain power our species may wield to innovate, overcome problems, and benefit everyone through increased abundance. The ultimate resource, according to Simon, is people. 

Recent research from Gale L. Pooley and Marian L. Tupy has vindicated Simon’s optimistic view. For every one-percent increase in population, commodity prices tend to fall by around one percent. In the years 1980-2017, the planet’s resources became 380 percent more abundant. 

These findings decimate the Malthusian outlook and render advocacy of population control not only ill-informed and inexcusable, but frankly anti-human. The ecological cataclysms predicted by Ehrlich and the Club of Rome haven’t come true. Nature hasn’t struck back against a rapidly increasing population in any manner anticipated by Malthus.  

As former US Department of Energy Undersecretary for Science Steven E. Koonin pointed out in his 2021 book Unsettled, UN and US government climate data show the following: 1) humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the past century, 2) Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was eighty years ago, and 3) the net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century. 

Pooley and Tupy, however, caution that population growth alone is not enough to generate what they term “superabundance,” as they titled their recent book. The innovation required to sustain an ever-increasing world population demands economic and personal freedom. Collectivism and central planning will only restrict the human ingenuity, ideas, and enterprises that will pave the way toward a brighter, more prosperous future. 

It is certainly time to lay to rest Malthusian theory and the overpopulation hysteria it has aroused. We must avoid the cynical outlook on humanity which regards us as net destroyers, a viral pathogen ravaging the earth, and instead opt for the more positive — and true — vision of human beings and human destiny. We are net creators.