A friend and I were talking today and the subject of population/birth control came up. My friend had been listening to an interview about the conservation of animal species by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the interviewee had come to the conclusion that the best way to protect animal species was to hand out condoms. The inference being that by limiting the growth of human populations, animal populations could be preserved. My friend developed this position further, and being an advocate of sustainability, went one step further. He postulated that humans and, in particular, the sheer numbers of humans in the modern world were unsustainable. To return to a sustainable footing, he suggested that we needed to reduce the human population by three quarters and maintain it at that level. His argument is worth refuting as it might be extreme, but it is by no means uncommon. A myriad of organisations and thought leaders from the United Nations to many civil society groups (Over Population Project, 2021) advocate population controls as a method of promoting the welfare of the planet, species or biome.
Codism, as a philosophical position grounded on the premise that the primary purpose of life involves reproduction, is as can be imagined diametrically opposed to population controls. As in general, at an individual level, the more offspring you have, the greater the likelihood of the survival of your genome. This post will seek to present ‘in nuce’ an argument for why population pressures born from a growing human population far from being detrimental are actually a driver of human welfare. Promoting technological, societal and economic development, which has been beneficial to our species historically and is likely to continue to be in the future. However, before we discuss this, let’s examine the arguments for population controls.
Discussions around population controls are not new, being practised by resource-constrained societies from ancient times from the Romans (Pappas, 2021) to the Australian aboriginals (Grey, 2011). In its modern form, population control is synonymous with a Malthusian outlook. I.e., one in which the carrying capacity of the world is presumed to be insufficient for the projected future human population. Thomas Malthus, in the late 18th century, believed that humans had a propensity to ‘utilise abundance for population growth rather than to maintain a high standard of living’. He hypothesized that population growth being exponential would inevitably outstrip the production of necessities, leading to starvation, poverty, and disorder. Fortunately, Malthus was proven wrong as the industrial and agricultural revolutions incipient in his time have delivered to the world huge productivity improvements, which have led to continually increasing crop yields. Nevertheless, Malthus’s dogma has remained persuasive up to our own day. With his modern successors pointing to climate change, desertification, overgrazing, unsustainable farming practices and the extinction of flora and fauna as signs that the carrying capacity of the planet is being exceeded. They, like him, suggest that population control is the only way to avoid falling into the Malthusian trap and suffering a global catastrophe.
These modern Cassandras are wrong for the same reason Malthus was wrong. They, like him, ignore the effects of the economic incentives in a free market, which push agricultural producers to seek to produce ever greater yields. This process is a bit opaque as it is multi-factored in nature being influenced by population growth, consumption habits, general wealth distribution and technological development. But in general, it can be described as follows. A growing population (or a wealthier population) leads to a greater demand for food. As the demand for any good, be it food, clothing, or anything else increases, the price the seller can demand for their product goes up. As the seller can achieve a higher price for their goods, they are incentivised to produce more of that product. In farming, this can be achieved by either increasing the amount of land that is utilised for agriculture or by improving the existing stock of land to make it more productive.
If these productive improvements or the addition of farming land exceed the demand for the agricultural products, the price will fall. This incentivises farmers to make their operations more efficient so as to make a profit in a lower price environment. These investments, in turn, lead to further increases in crop yields and reduce the prices of the agricultural products further. These twin productive pressures coupled with the increasing integration of global markets would be expected to lead to both increasing yields and lower food prices over the medium term.
This process is exactly what happened in the years from 1792 onwards. More land outside of Europe was opened up to agriculture, and technological advancements led to increasing crop yields (see the green/agricultural revolutions). This pushed down food prices even as the population increased exponentially over the same period. This dual economic incentive is the primary argument against Malthusian fearmongering in all its forms. This is not to say the food prices will not ever go up, only that such increases will tend to be eliminated in the mid to long run by technological developments incentivised by the higher prices.
This dual incentive is not only a feature of the agricultural market but is inherent in all productive free markets. The production of any product is initially limited, and hence the demanded price increases over time if production remains steady. As the price increases, all the producers (in a free and competitive market) are incentivised to increase production as much as possible. This is the case even though by increasing production, they will inevitably push the price down. This is because in a competitive market with many producers, they cannot coordinate their production to maintain the prices at high levels but must seek to maximise their individual profit. This results in a situation where to not produce at the maximum rate, they lose out even as, by producing at the maximum rate, they push prices down. Once prices for the products start declining, the producers are incentivised to lower the marginal cost of production so as to continue to make a profit. This results in a slow and steady decrease in prices as each producer competes to produce a product at a lower cost and to sell more than their competitors.
This dual incentive mechanism is hugely powerful in competitive markets as it is self-correcting. Where shortage exists the price, incentives encourage technological innovation. The greater the shortage, the greater the incentive to innovate. In the long run, therefore, population controls would serve only to slow innovation and productive improvements down. For it is precisely the pressures of an expanding market and population that drives innovation. In the long run, the human population on Earth, if it continues to grow, will indeed begin to reach a level where terrestrial resources and productivity improvements can no longer meet the ever-increasing demands for resources. However, this is not a bad thing as it will incentivise the acquisition of off-world resources and (hopefully) the settlement of new worlds.
(2021, 05 22). Retrieved from Over Population Project: https://overpopulation-project.com/organizations-dealing-with-overpopulation/
Grey, A. (2011). Aboriginal fertility at the time of European contact: the Daly River Mission Baptismal Register. Aboriginal History Journal.
Pappas, S. (2021, 05 20). Ancient Roman Infanticide Didn’t Spare Either Sex, DNA Suggests. Retrieved from Live Science: https://www.livescience.com/42834-ancient-roman-infanticide.html
Roser, H. R. (2017). crop-yields. Retrieved from Our World in Data: https://ourworldindata.org/crop-yields
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First Published on https://www.andrew-stadtmauer.com on the 29th of July 2021