Features

Overpopulation: nothing to do with numbers
by Caroline Boin

 London -- Every generation has doomsayers who claim that the world is overpopulated -- usually with images of mass famine and starvation, generalised warfare and the decline and fall of civilisations. Long before the Reverend Malthus declared in the late 18th Century that the human population would inevitably increase faster than we could produce food to feed it -- resulting in wars, famine and pestilence -- the Greek philosopher Aristotle urged legislators to calculate and enforce a "convenient number of citizens."

 The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) yearly report for 2006, released this week, focuses on female migrants and human trafficking. Once again, the UNFPA has managed to produce a report on an important issue without shedding any new light on what makes people migrate to cities or abroad.

 The UNFPA was set up in 1979 to address concerns about the world’s "overpopulation" -- especially in poor countries. While predictions about overpopulation have proved wildly inaccurate, the UN continues to provide technical and financial support to governments in over 150 countries to control population growth. This is concealed under laudable aims of gender equality and reproductive health even though family size should be an individual choice, not the remit of international busybodies.

Policymakers at all levels of government continue to fret about population growth and its attendant effects, such as urbanisation and migration. They worry that the earth does not have enough raw materials, food, water or even space to create more cities. Numerous UN reports in recent years have portrayed the health risks associated with increasing urbanisation, especially the growth of slums -- typically claiming that these risks are greater than those which migrants sought to escape in the first place.

 People who migrate presumably do so because they believe the many risks are worth the potential gains. But the reasons rarely have to do with even local "overpopulation". All too often, migrants seek to escape bleak prospects created by kleptocratic political regimes whose policies collectively prevent hundreds of millions of people from attaining material prosperity.

 Sadly, the UN seems blind to these causes of migration. A rational analysis would examine what motivates people to leave their farms, villages or countries. Instead, the UN erroneously treats population growth and migration as the very causes of poverty, leading it to conclude erroneously that population control is a way to reduce poverty.

Many of the images commonly associated with overpopulation -- famine, disease, lack of sanitation and clean water, environmental degradation -- are actually symptoms of poverty and the absence of foundations such as property rights. Such images from Africa are frequently invoked by governments and NGOs as the cause of that continent’s problems, yet the reality is that most African countries actually have average or below-average population densities. In contrast, no one claims that Monaco or the Netherlands -- two of the world’s most densely populated and wealthiest countries -- are overpopulated.

 Indeed, famines rarely occur for ecological or demographic reasons. Whether in Zimbabwe (2002-2006), Niger (2005), Sudan (1998), Ethiopia (1984) or elsewhere, food crises and famines are a consequence of meddling government -- often in countries that have low population densities.

 The same applies to other alleged symptoms of overpopulation. Conventional wisdom suggests that the world is running out of water, food, living and farming space and raw materials. On the contrary, during the peak of the world’s population growth -- over the 20th century -- both living standards and food production far outstripped population growth. Most people in the world now live healthier, wealthier and longer lives than ever before.

 Put simply, there is no causal relationship between population density and poverty -- and measures intended to curb population growth will not end poverty or alleviate its symptoms. Government policies in many poor countries have penalised the poor, especially in countries which lack property rights and the rule of law. The absence of these institutions enables bureaucrats at all levels to exact bribes from the poor. When combined with heavy regulations and taxes, this undermines entrepreneurship and commerce.

 The only way to eliminate poverty and to enable sustainable use of resources, both natural and human, is to allow people to generate prosperity for themselves and their families. Instead of engaging in population control, governments must create an enabling environment of stable market institutions, allowing all to benefit from their hard work, to make their own decisions and to prosper.

 Human beings are ingenious and entrepreneurial. Each and every one deserves to be able to pursue a happier, healthier and longer life. Coercive population control is a cowardly measure that fails to address the real problems that create poverty. If governments want to help end poverty, they should get out of the way.

 Caroline Boin is a Research Fellow in the Environment Programme at International Policy Network, an educational charity based in London.

 

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