Overpopulation: Time to panic, or false alarm?

For decades now (centuries, really), Malthusian pessimists, environmental alarmists, and their doom-and-gloom ilk have warned that humanity will eventually reach a rate of both population and economic growth that cannot possibly last without unsustainably depleting the world’s resources. Ostensibly, the theory goes, our water, food, and energy supplies will not be able to keep pace with the planet’s inevitably exponential population growth, and that the planet won’t be able to take the strain of so much human output and waste. Ergo, we’re supposedly in for eventual dark ages of scarcity, famine, poverty, war, and disease that we’ll necessarily need to keep our population down.

I missed this story from Slate last week, but there’s plenty of mounting evidence that all of the naysayers are whipping up panic about nothing that’s all that threatening in the long run:

It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.

And then it will fall.

This is a counterintuitive notion in the United States, where we’ve heard often and loudly that world population growth is a perilous and perhaps unavoidable threat to our future as a species. But population decline is a very familiar concept in the rest of the developed world, where fertility has long since fallen far below the 2.1 live births per woman required to maintain population equilibrium. In Germany, the birthrate has sunk to just 1.36, worse even than its low-fertility neighbors Spain (1.48) and Italy (1.4). The way things are going, Western Europe as a whole will most likely shrink from 460 million to just 350 million by the end of the century. That’s not so bad compared with Russia and China, each of whose populations could fall by half. As you may not be surprised to learn, the Germans have coined a polysyllabic word for this quandary: Schrumpf-Gesellschaft, or “shrinking society.”

Widespread prosperity may very well mean the consumption of more resources, but it also means that as more people enter the middle class and become better educated, we use our resources increasingly wisely and efficiently and that global population growth has started to flatten out — in fact, as the Slate article goes on to explain, there’s even the possibility in the next few centuries that we’ll be looking at a crisis of underpopulation. The point is, all the doom-and-gloomers disparaging humanity’s prospects too often overlook our remarkable capability to adapt and adjust to changing conditions, and our penchant for alarmist-hysteria comes a little too easily.