Wrongly presuming that people are a problem
by Jeff Jacoby
IN THE BEGINNING, God offered Adam and Eve some advice: "Be fruitful," He told them. "Multiply."
Excellent counsel, as it turned out. But if God were to repeat those instructions at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development, which begins Monday in Cairo, He'd be hooted off the stage.
Because what Al Gore would call the "central organizing principle" of the UN conference is that the world has too many people and that unless governments begin to impose strict population controls, mankind is headed inexorably toward environmental and economic catastrophe.
People-are-the-problem alarmism is not new, of course. Thomas Malthus published his grim "Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798. Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich hyperventilated "The Population Bomb," his misanthropic bestseller, in 1968. (Opening paragraph: "The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.")
But the idea that human beings are mankind's greatest enemy has now become conventional wisdom, repeated everywhere:
People are not the world's greatest problem; they are its greatest resource. The more human beings there are, the better off human life tends to be. It has ever been thus. That is why so many of us choose to live where population is the densest, often paying a premium for the privilege.
New York City, with its staggering population density of 25,000 per square mile, has some of the highest rents and steepest property values in North America. Hong Kong's population has tripled since the end of World War II; today it is among the most crowded places on earth -- and among the wealthiest. Both Hong Kong and New York exert a powerful magnetic pull on outsiders, most of whom come from homelands (or hometowns) that are far less congested.
The population controllers insist that a growing population leads to hunger and misery. The evidence is against them. Even as Zero Population Growth waxes hysterical, the supply of food in the Third World is increasing at twice the rate of the population. The number of people stricken with famine is but a fraction of what it was a century ago, even though the world's population has tripled. When famine does occur, it is nearly always in a sparsely populated country like Somalia or Ethiopia, not a land teeming with people like South Korea or Taiwan.
The link between rising population and shrinking wealth is nonexistent. Babies don't cause poverty. There is simply no statistical support for the notion that more people mean a weaker economy. None. The National Academy of Sciences used to claim such a link, but, overwhelmed by data refuting that view, abandoned it eight years ago.
If a shrinking population enriched a place, Ireland should have boomed after the Great Potato Famine, which killed a million Irish and prompted 1.6 million to leave. If life improves when there are fewer people, Rust Belt states should have rejoiced to see so many residents head South during the '70s and '80s.
The calls for limiting population contain undertones coercive and racist. It isn't prosperous white people in America and Europe whose numbers are to be held down, after all. If the black, brown, and yellow people of the less-developed world don't agree voluntarily to stop raising large families, "the only policy option remaining" -- I quote the Carrying Capacity Network, a prominent antipopulation outfit -- "would be a desperate last-ditch use of coercive mandatory sterilization or other such programs."
The Cairo delegates will be careful not to use such menacing rhetoric. But at the heart of their crusade to choke off population growth is an impulse deeply unnatural: that the human species will be better off if fewer families are formed and fewer babies born.
Normal men and women know from instinct that that is false. It is healthy to marry, and good to have children. Even better to have grandchildren. Every new baby is a blessing, and to grow old surrounded by family is a precious gift.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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