Don't blame the babies

Environmentalists brandish an endless list of problems that loom over the planet and promise, if not our demise, at least disaster for a significant number of us. The first dire prediction I remember hearing was during the inaugural “Earth Day” in 1970. The disaster du jour was the threat of overpopulation.

So, it was with interest that I read a column recently on the environmentalist website, Grist, which referred to overpopulation as a “green myth” and “dangerous nonsense”. The author, Fred Pearce, also remembers “being scared” by “the population bomb… 40 years ago as a schoolkid”, but notes that, since then, the total fertility rate for the planet’s average woman has dropped by more than half. This, he says, “is a stunning change” but not one we often hear about because “it doesn’t fit the doomsday agenda”.

What fascinates me about this admission is that I said the same thing fifteen years ago when I wrote Exploding Population Myths for publication by The Free Market Foundation.

Pearce says that there is a lag in birth rates and that “the huge numbers of young women born during the baby boom years… remain fertile.” But as they age birth rates are going to drop at an even faster pace.

Pearce is correct. In addition he says, as I argued in 1995, much of the world’s population increase isn’t the result of high birth rates but because there has been a huge decline in death rates. One environmentalist of the day, in a scathing report on my book, admitted that death rates may well be down, but condemned me because I didn’t have a solution to “the problem”. I admit I didn’t, and I still don’t. I have trouble seeing lower death rates as a problem.

Robert Walker, of the doomsday-oriented Population Institute, has attacked Pearce’s essay by, among other things, suggesting that hunger is the result of too many babies being born. In a television debate, after the launch of Exploding Population Myths, I said that many of the problems attributed to population growth were caused by “bureaucrats not babies, by politicians not people.” My term was not meant to imply that politicians are not people, but that political controls resulted in the problems attributed to population growth. Since 1995, there have been several compelling cases to illustrate this.

One, Zimbabwe, a country that was a food exporter until Mugabe began attacking farmers, and redistributing land mostly to his generals and favoured political allies. Food production plummeted so that by 2008 Zimbabwe had record low levels of grain production and now, even after good rains, is estimated to have 2.8 million people in need of food assistance, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.

Two, Vietnam. Twenty years ago, the father of the overpopulation hype, Paul Ehrlich, predicted that Vietnam, “once a rich food exporting nation”, was facing crisis. A crisis he attributed to babies and not to the socialist bureaucrats who controlled food production. Even while Ehrlich was writing about a looming disaster in Vietnam, the politicians were changing their policies. They were deregulating and allowing markets to function, so, by the time Ehrlich’s prediction was put into print, Vietnam was exporting 1.2 million metric tonnes of food. By 2008, the BBC was reporting that Vietnam, the world’s second largest rice producer, along with exporters India and Egypt, was cutting production because rice prices were too low.

Three, China. After being in the grip of a socialist-induced famine during the late 50s and early 60s, today, after economic liberalisation, there is record prosperity and a food surplus.

This doesn’t mean a food crisis may not be looming. Cheered on by the same people lamenting overpopulation, rich nations are subsidising the conversion of food into fuel. But, as professors C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer wrote in Foreign Affairs, the use of ethanol to fill one 25-gallon tank in a vehicle “requires over 450 pounds of corn [204kg]—which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year.” Runge and Senauer say that food prices are increasing “because of demand for biofuels” and the number of “food-insecure people” will increase by 16 million. Political intervention is creating the very disaster that the environmentalists claim they wish to avoid.

So, again it is the bureaucrats, not babies, who are to blame. I repeat, it is politicians, not the people, who are at fault.

Author: Jim Peron is President at Laissez Faire Books. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article / 20 July 2010

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