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Is it possible to reduce the world population by 50%? Isn’t world over population the cause of all the problems in the world?

…as answered on Quora….

Two questions, eh?

  1. Is it possible to reduce the world population by 50 percent?
  2. Isn’t world overpopulation the cause of all the problems in the world?

The answers are simple:

  1. Yes.
  2. No.

But there are complications:

  1. Many of the ways to decrease populations quickly, especially by half, are of the Thanos-or-worse variety. We do not want to decrease populations quickly. Gradually could be another story.
  2. As economist Theodore W. Schultz explained — and as Julian Simon demonstrated in a more daring and popular form — population is not the huge problem that neo-Malthusian alarmists say it is. Human beings, if they do not rely upon predation and parasitism, and have plenty of opportunities for market coöperation (trade), are what Simon calls “the ultimate resource.”

When we rely upon trade, we must be of service to one another. We engage in trade only when we expect to gain, that is, when both parties to an exchange expect to gain from it. I help you out if you help me. And the more trades occur, the more that competition for each others’ business hones our productivity. The more productive, the more advances in technique and technology we bring to the stock of civilization. This is progress.

Thomas Robert Malthus’s worry in his Principles of Population (1798) was that (a) the rate of agricultural advance would be outstripped by (b) the natural rate of human population growth. He was stumbling towards a modern conception of external economies, of the “market failure” focused on in neoclassical economics. That is where options seen by the individuals as in their best interest yields widespread effects not in the interest of people generally. (Malthus was arguing against the anarchist rationalist William Godwin and his belief that moral progress would lead to an ethical utopia of excellence everywhere.) Basically, the Malthusian fear is that people would be incentivized to reproduce at a socially dangerous rate. Reason would fail — in effect be upended by circumstance.

But Malthus had an interesting analytic mind, and he handled the problem with something more than a glib pessimism. He noted that these two diverging trendlines (agricultureexpanding at an “arithmetic rate” versus population expanding at a “geometric rate”) were offset by other forces, at least on the reproduction trend line.

There were, he wrote, natural checks on reproduction rates, including famine and pestilence and infant death by malnutrition; and there were artificial checks, including sexual abstinence in several forms, most of which he regarded as moral, and some gruesome means, such as infanticide and abortion and eugenics. His worry was that populations would grow to bring misery, and also a rise in immorality out of perceived prudence. He rightly saw that crude measures of packing people in close together, as happened in cities, often breed plague and sexually transmitted diseases. And it is in his spirit — and often inspired by reading his treatise — that many modern prophets of doom have developed the popular anti-population mania. And theirs is indeed a harrowing philosophy, turning otherwise nice and smart folks into anti-humanist immoralists, praising horrific measures of (aack) mass death or (ugh) government repression. This sort of thing inspired the modern environmental movement, where you will find some folks advocating reducing humanity to “a size twice the population of bears.”

But all this misses the “miracle” of modernity: progress.

Malthus failed to see what Herbert Spencer saw in the early 1850s: coöperative humanity can indeed fight against the Malthusian trap, flipping the trend lines so that agriculture can grow exponentially more productive than the rate of population reproduction . . . and in turn spurring increased populations to be increasingly productive. The only thing we would have to give up? The militant, regimented means of social organization, instead embracing “industry.” Which in this case was the predecessor to the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution. Spencer saw trends on Malthus’s agriculture forecast that would raise the line several orders of magnitude.

Interestingly, Spencer almost came up with the theory of natural selection in this work. But he only applied his notion of a ratcheting up of living standards by means of competitively coördinated coöperation to the social world, not to the long-term cycles of plant and animal descent. “Missed it by that much,” as Agent Smart said in Get Smart. It is for this reason that sociologist Jonathan Turner inverted the infamous “Social Darwinist” charge against Spencer: Darwin, really, was a “biological Spencerian.” Spencer spiffed up his approach a decade later, for the final section of his Principles of Biology. And in the process he gave us the turn of phrase “survival of the fittest.” Though it has been trendy (for a full century, actually) to look upon Spencer’s viewpoint as a ghastly exercise in cruel theoretics, Spencer was actually emphasizing peaceful coöperation and presenting humanity with a remarkably positive vision. J.D.Y. Peel, in his study of Spencer, said that the British philosopher-sociologist “out-Godwinned Godwin”! But Spencer did this not by hoping for a triumph of Reason, but by merely noticing the flourishing that is possible with distributed patterns of collaboration sans an over-arching plan.

The amazing thing? He was basically right.

Spencer was actually presaging what today’s more realistic economists and demographers understand perfectly well. And, what is more — less: today’s best researchers notice that as human societies get wealthier, the rate of reproduction goes down.

In Schultz’s terminology, parents swap “quantity of children” for “quality of children.” In mere agricultural societies, children can be productive in farm life and in resource extraction; in industrial societies, for people to be productive they have to decelop their skillsets more markedly, so parents opt to expend resources to “invest” in their children’s “human capital.” So, that old black magic of having scads of children ceases to increase the chances of family success, but, instead, tends to reduce it.

That is one big reason why people, today, tend naturally to produce fewer children than in the past.

One might think that this would be completely scuttled by the lowering of childhood death rates, but for a number of reasons, this does not appear to be the case.

And, yes, populations are indeed declining in the First World — and as the rest of the world catches up (and in my lifetime the poverty rate has declined markedly with the expansion of the extent of the market), the general reproduction rate will level off. In Europe, the white population is veering to the opposite-of-“Malthusian” trend: demographic collapse. In the United States, were it not for immigration and recent immigrants’ higher reproductive rates, America, too, would see population decline.*

Demographic collapse is actually probably going to be a bigger problem in the future than the “population explosion.” It is the implosion that would more likely destroy civilization.

But here we have another offsetting trend: technological progress.

The great heterodox genius Samuel Butler, not long after publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) argued that the next form of evolution will be machine evolution. This was played for science-fictional interest in his dystopian romance (or is that utopian comedy?) Erewhon (1872), but now we are really seeing this kick into high gear, as we approach something like a social Singularity (see Ray Kurzweil).

About the time of Malthus, there arose the legendary “Ned Ludd,” who saw only devastation in the destructive creation of technological advance. And since then there have been worriers who see mainly the death of labor in “labor-saving devices.” And like Malthusianism, Luddism, if true, would have meant the death of free labor and our whole civilization a century ago. The opposite is the case: technological advance increases worker productivity, leading to a general increase in wealth and welfare. The “trouble” is, people have to adapt to the machines.

Perhaps the challenge of population decline will not be so bad, as machine evolution makes our lives better and better. Maybe, in Richard Brautigan’s poetic lines, we shall be “watched over by machines of loving grace.”

The real challenge will be political.

* The downward trend line is exacerbated by welfare state interventions, and the high rate of abortions, too. But for this analysis I need not get into to it.