Is It Elitist To Mention Overpopulation?

Yesterday’s article on overpopulation as the root cause behind the rising price of everything, global warming, the disappearance of wildlife, and rising casualty counts from natural disasters led a few readers to express their desire that the world have one less human on it by removing me.

One reader called me “elitist” and another wrote, “You smug Wall Street types make me sick. You sit there on your pile of money and look down on all the struggling, DYING poor around the world and say everything is their fault when any idiot can see that it’s the fault of global corporations, which you support with your investment capital.”

Martin wrote:

I just want to write my objection to what you wrote about overpopulation being the main source of a number of problems we see currently in the headlines.

This is a very dangerous line of thought and contradicts what you wrote about last week about how you survived cancer and about your mother’s challenge to recover from her accident.

Life is precious, is a gift, and cannot ever be judged as a “problem.” I’m sure all your readers were overjoyed and inspired by your cancer survival story and were moved to hear about your mother’s terrible accident. Yet, if overpopulation is the problem, then in that line of thinking, the argument can be made that it would be better for people to die off and not hang around, as they only add to the problems we see in the headlines.

You must include yourself as part of the “overpopulation problems,” not just some people struggling in some far off, Third World country. This is, of course, an absolutely wrong and an intolerable way to think. Sadly, we have had many examples of recent 20th Century History to show what happens when we think and act this way.

Martin pointed me to a Bloomberg article about how corn ethanol production is taking food from the mouths of the poor, and the book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier.

I’ll start with the charges that it’s elitist to note that overpopulation is the crux of our problems. I did not write yesterday that I’m sitting separate from my fellow man. In fact, I wrote just the opposite: “All of us are part of the problem even though nobody did anything wrong on an individual level.”

I cited U.N. data showing that the population of developed countries is on the decline while developing nations are producing all of the 80 million net population gain each year that will see 10.4 billion people on Earth by 2050.

It must be the fact that world population growth is coming from developing nations that makes anybody pointing it out from a developed nation appear to be elitist.

But, what’s elitist about it?

I didn’t say I’m better because I don’t have a house full of kids, or because I eat three meals a day, or because I’m American. I haven’t produced a house full of kids, but I grew up in one. My family went beyond its replacement level, though to my mother’s great credit, two of my brothers were adopted as infants from undesirable situations, an act that greatly improves society. Still, my mother gave birth to five children of her own, thereby contributing to the problem of overpopulation.

I know that, and I love my mother, and I don’t think she did anything wrong. That’s why I wrote yesterday that “nobody did anything wrong on an individual level.”

So let’s not paint a cliche picture of where I’m coming from. I’m not an indifferent, arrogant, rich white guy wishing for famine to wipe out the poor, or plotting a nuclear war to clear some space.

However, just as it’s not the fault of those born into awful conditions that they’re in them, it’s not my fault that I was born into a good family with plenty of food and went on to study investing. That’s who I am, and from that vantage point I’m looking at the raft of problems facing the world and I keep coming back to the fact that there are too many people. That I’m one of them does not change the data, and my sharing the data with you does not make me an elitist.

Martin wrote that life is precious and can’t ever be judged as a “problem.” I agree with the spirit of that statement, and would save the life of somebody in trouble the same as anybody else. I don’t think there’s one person, regardless of how familiar they are with overpopulation, who would see a mother and child in a burning car crying for help and think, “Oh, good, soon there will be two fewer mouths to feed.” Of course not.

One life is a gift. A family of ten people is a gift. Even 7 billion people on our planet can be a gift if we figure out how to feed everybody. But can we agree that at some point, we’ll have too many people? We don’t need to name and point, but collectively there must be a limit.

Some might say that limit is 10 billion people, others 20 billion, maybe somebody out there thinks the Earth can support 50 billion people. Optimists have even suggested 1,000 billion.

Tim Radford wrote in The Guardian:

It’s an old question. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus said population would race ahead of food supply, but he wasn’t the first. The early Christian writer Tertullian said (around AD 200, in De Anima): “We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… Truly, pestilence and hunger and war and flood must be considered as a remedy for nations, like a pruning of the human race becoming excessive in numbers.”

That was when the population of the whole planet was maybe 100 million or so. We reached the first billion mark by about 1850. By 1950, it was about 2.5 billion. In less than one short lifetime, this figure doubled. It passed six billion in the late 1990s. Note that: humans took 150,000 years to get to the first billion. The most recent billion arrived in just 12 years.

Nobody knows how many people the planet could hold.

What we do know right now is that there are enough already here so that if everybody lived at American standards, we’d need another four Earths. Does writing that make me elitist, too? Selfish, at least?

It’s a real issue at the very center of the environmental debate. China and India argue, rightfully, that the U.S. and Europe and others at the top got where they are by burning fossil fuels for the last 150 years, thereby packing the atmosphere with carbon close to the limit of what the Earth can support. Now that those nations are rich and happy, they want to limit the amount of carbon that other nations on their way up can emit.

China, for one, already flipped the bird westward on that topic. It said it has the right to grow its economy, and that doing so remains its priority.

Which would not be a problem if China wasn’t home to 1.3 billion people. There it is again: overpopulation. We may never get to find out how many people the Earth can feed because the existing base of people will burn enough fossil fuels to end this whole experiment long before that.

So, China has a point, but are you willing to stop driving your car and tell your children to not have children so that Chinese families can live like Americans used to? Of course not. Which means that Americans will keep driving, Chinese will start driving, and the world will get a whole lot worse because there will be too many people driving. That’s one reason I’m such a proponent of electric ca
rs.

I wrote yesterday that there is no easy way to stop overpopulation. Martin is right that some awful things have come from the desire to control population growth. To state the obvious, I’m not advocating sterilization or genocide. I don’t hope for a disease to somehow contain itself within the borders of developing countries until people there are gone while the developed world goes on undaunted.

However, I do think we need to look carefully at the role birth control should play in shaping the planet we want in our future. I also doubt that it will work. We can’t even prevent unplanned pregnancies in the developed world despite years of education and the availability of cheap birth control. Do we really expect developing populations to (A) agree with the idea and, even if they do, (B) implement it effectively? No.

Which is why I concluded yesterday that we should expect more fences. The developed population is not growing; the undeveloped population is growing wildly. Some will conclude that letting the poor overrun the rich will just make everybody poor, but they keep coming, so a sturdy fence will be the answer. Why that’s hard to grasp is beyond me. We see it already within developed countries. Ever been to a gated community?

Optimists say technology is the answer. Maybe by 2050, Earth’s 10.4 billion people will all be well-fed and peaceful thanks to abundant clean energy and efficient agricultural methods. We all hope so.

But, what are the chances?

We’ve had electric motor technology for 100 years, but you’re still burning gas on the way to the grocery store. We’ve had nuclear power capabilities for 60 years, but you’re still likely burning coal every time you flip the light switch. Biofuels are a great way to, oops, wait a second, they’re the reason for the food shortage, never mind.

You get the point. Expect more fences — and don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.

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