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It Just Aint So!

by Sheldon Richman for the Foundation For Economic Education

Since ancient times people have been fretting about overcrowding the earth. In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus was already a latecomer to the alarmist message that mankind would breed itself into extinction. He was far from the first Malthusian. (It’s widely unappreciated that Malthus revised later editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population because he had forgotten something that changed his whole analysis: “moral restraint,” or the power to control reproductive activity. and that was before the invention of contraception.)

That people worried about overpopulation when the human race numbered under a billion should cast a certain light on the periodic warnings in our own time that we face a dire threat. The late Julian Simon single-handedly created a body of work that blasts the foundation of these warnings to smithereens, but for some people, feeling bad feels so good. They are reluctant to consult the evidence when there is a risk that they will have to abandon their visions of the apocalypse.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben furnishes the latest jeremiad about overpopulation. Several months ago McKibben, author of Maybe One, a case for one-child families, presented his argument for controlling population to readers of the New York Times op-ed page. The context was the immigration issue. Environmentalists have a tough time with that one. Some, like the members of the Sierra Club, don’t want to talk about it. While they believe immigration is bad ecologically, they don’t like the company they’d be in if they opposed it outright. They can’t bring themselves to tell the “tired . . . poor . . . masses yearning to breathe free” to stay where they are. Yet the environmental lobby is clearly uneasy at the prospect of their coming here. We have too many people already.

McKibben shares this ambivalence. In his misleadingly titled article, “Immigrants Aren’t the Problem. We Are” (in fairness, the title was probably written by a Times editor), McKibben says, “Immigration is about as difficult a moral subject as one can imagine. . . . In a world of desperate poverty, it is hard for citizens of the richest nation to argue that the door should be closed, especially since nearly all of us can recall our immigrant roots.” But how can we accommodate them? Even living “more simply” won’t help. Our “sheer numbers,” the result of longer life spans and the baby boom, are the problem. Americans may be reproducing below the replacement rate of 2.1 children, but that’s not good enough. (Europeans are having even fewer children than Americans are, alarm over which recently made page one of the Times. Are the opinion-molders signaling a new agenda, subsidies for having children?)

McKibben could support a halving of the annual immigration rate, to 400,000. But he’s suffering a case of conscience. How can we do that, he asks, if we are not willing to impose a little discipline on ourselves? “If, however, we are willing to take some painful steps ourselves, then we earn the right to tell some tough truths to others—chief among them that even this rich land can’t grow forever.”

“Painful steps.” The population-alarmist literature always seems to contain that phrase.

McKibben sees two problems. First, the country is too crowded: “The Northeast corridor of suburbs and cities is already more densely populated than Haiti or El Salvador; California’s 30 million may become 50 million by 2050.”

Meaning what? Are Haiti and El Salvador poor because they are crowded? Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Monaco are far more “crowded,” but they are not poor. Some of the most destitute areas, such as Chad and Somalia, are also the most sparsely populated places on earth. The underdeveloped world may have lots of reasons for its poverty, but population isn’t one of them.

“That endless growth places real stress on our supplies of everything from water to silence, from farmland to solitude,” McKibben writes. This is just wrong. As Julian Simon so often pointed out—and won a bet doing so—we aren’t running out of things, at least not the things subject to market pricing. Raw materials are cheaper and more plentiful than ever. A gallon of gasoline, that quintessential nonrenewable resource we were running out of a few years ago, is cheaper than a gallon of milk! As for a shortage of solitude, the communitarians lament that we are all ignoring our neighbors and bowling alone (or sitting at the PC). In the most “crowded” parts of the United States, individuals have more private living space than ever. You can find silence if you want it. (I’m writing this in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and all I hear are birds and insects.) Let’s not forget that people pay a premium to live in the most “crowded” parts of the United States.

McKibben’s second point is that “Americans, as the world’s most voracious consumers, contribute far more per capita to the world’s environmental problems than anyone else.” And the cars and homes are getting bigger still, he says. This sort of analysis usually winds up with an attack on consumption. But the economics is off base. Consumption need not damage the earth—quite the contrary. Our desire for more things, combined with natural market incentives, impels us to find ways to get more from less, which is exactly what we have done for generations. And as we get richer, we have more time for recreation; that often means increased demand for parks, wilderness, and beaches.

McKibben needs to resolve this paradox: how can we be consuming more while not running out of anything? There’s an answer, but to get at it, one must give up the environmentalist assumption of fixed resources. Ultimately, resources are the products of intelligence, the supply of which is not fixed.

Without their theory of the malignancy of consumption, however, the environmentalists would have no case to reduce immigration. Immigration does not increase total world population. In fact, it could reduce future growth because people in rich countries tend to have fewer kids than people in poor countries. But McKibben says that “If those who wanted to immigrate here stayed instead in Juarez or Shanghai or, for that matter, Dublin, they would do far less damage to the planet precisely because they would not be as rich.”

There it is. The poor must remain poor because to be rich is to destroy the planet. But if that is so, why is it that in the richest, and freest, countries, people live the longest, healthiest lives and have the cleanest living conditions? In the poorest places, people are at risk of dying from airborne and waterborne diseases and unsanitary conditions. If you want to see environmental damage, look at the places where governments control production and consumption in the name of the common good.

It’s the desire and the freedom to produce and consume that have made the West wealthy. And as the late Aaron Wildavsky so often said: wealthier is healthier.

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman on November 1998.

About The Author

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman and In brief. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

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