“Population bomb” theory debunked as global growth projected to decline by end of century – Ivo Vegter

The Club of Rome, a global think tank, has recently released a study on population growth that has suggested that the long-dreaded “population bomb” was a myth. In 1972, the Club of Rome published a report titled “The Limits to Growth,” which forecast a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity caused by resource depletion. However, the Club of Rome has now stated that it has discovered that population growth was overstated and that the world’s population will peak at 8.6 billion in 2050, before declining to 7 billion by 2100, even in a worst-case scenario. Read more below.


Population bomb fizzles out

By Ivo Vegter

Just over fifty years ago, the Club of Rome published its influential Limits to Growthbook. It has now released a study which found the long-feared ‘population bomb’ was a damp squib.

In 1968, the same year the Sierra Club-inspired book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, hit the best-seller lists, the Club of Rome was formed, convening 100 ‘current and former heads of state and government, UN administrators, high-level politicians and government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists, and business leaders from around the globe’.

The Club of Rome gained global recognition with The Limits to Growth, a pessimistic report published in 1972 which contended, in Malthusian fashion, that resource depletion would place a cap on economic growth and lead to ‘a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity’.

Nobody remembers the rather more optimistic follow-up report in 1974, called Mankind at the Turning Point. It was based on a vastly more detailed model of global resource use and production. Relying on 200 000 equations, instead of the original report’s 1 000, it argued that since all the levers are within our control, that environmental and economic collapse were surely preventable.

The decades that followed produced no sign of resource depletion, global famines, or a ‘sudden and uncontrollable decline’ of any sort.

Yet the Club of Rome, like the Ehrlichs with The Population Bomb, shifted the goalposts ever-further, to maintain that their core thesis in The Limits to Growth remained valid.

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Over-population myth

For 50 years, the intelligentsia have laboured under the presumption that global overpopulation was the ultimate cause of environmental pressure, which would eventually result in great calamities, up to and including the collapse of civilisations.

I have written and spoken about environmental issues for many years. I have highlighted how environmental fears are almost always overblown and exaggerated, either as a rhetorical tactic to spur action or merely to rustle up donations.

I cannot count the number of times people accepted the gist of my argument, only to retort, ‘the real problem is overpopulation’.

It isn’t. Over-population is a myth. We are not about to hit any planetary ‘carrying capacity’. We’re nowhere near it, in fact.

There is no risk of running out of resources, since free-market competition is very effective at minimising costs, either by using fewer raw materials in production, or by developing alternatives when a resource becomes relatively more scarce.

Free-market capitalism doesn’t presume, or require, infinite resources, as its critics say. On the contrary, its entire purpose is to allocate scarce resources – raw materials, labour, capital – to optimise the production of what individuals in a society need and want.

The price mechanism places pressure on producers to reduce their inputs, not increase them without limit.

Correlations

This is why, despite significant population growth from 3.5 billion in 1968 to 8 billion at the end of 2022, the share of people living in extreme poverty – calculated at a level to meet basic needs – declined from 46% to 9.3% today. (It could have been around 8% if the Covid-19 lockdowns hadn’t intervened.)

Population growth has not led to a decline in economic growth. On the contrary, global GDP per capita today is more than two and a half times what it was in 1970.

The relationship between population and environmental damage is more complex. There is a clear correlation between prosperity and improved environmental outcomes, but there is little doubt that human encroachment on wild nature has degraded habitats for many species.

The solution to this problem is not to reduce human populations, but to improve economic conditions. When people don’t have to worry about where tomorrow’s food is coming from, they care a lot more about the quality of their environment and nature conservation.

Exaggerated

It now turns out, however, that population projections for the 21st century have, like its environmental challenges, been substantially overstated.

Until recently, the best forecast for future population growth had the global population peaking in 2064 at 9.7 billion, before falling to 8.8 billion by the end of the century. This corresponded with the UN’s lowest estimates.

In late March 2023, the very same Club of Rome that fuelled much of the alarm about growing population and resource scarcity released a new study it commissioned from the environmental lobby group Earth4All.

That study produced two scenarios, which it called ‘Giant Leap’ and ‘Too Little Too Late’. It recognises that the rate at which women have children is strongly influenced by economic development, education and better healthcare.

Even in its worst-case scenario, which is essentially a ‘business as usual’ case, population peaks at 8.6 billion in 2050 before declining to 7 billion in 2100.

Under its ‘Giant Leap’ scenario, which involves ‘unprecedented investment in poverty alleviation – particularly investment in education and health – along with extraordinary policy turnarounds on food and energy security, inequality and gender equity’, the world’s population peaks at 8.5 billion by around 2040 before slumping to around 6 billion people by the end of the century.

‘World “population bomb” may never go off as feared,’ is how the reliably green-left-leaning Guardian put it.

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Anti-capitalist

Lest it is thought that Earth4All is some right-wing propaganda organisation, it isn’t. In big, bold letters, its website shouts: ‘The dominant economic model is destabilising societies and the planet. It is time for change.’

‘Dominant economic model’ is code for capitalism. They’re anti-capitalist. They’re eco-socialists. Their ideology is no different from that of the Club of Rome, or the Sierra Club, or the vast majority of environmental lobby groups who have always trumpeted the alarm about over-population.

Regular readers of mine will know that I have always believed the so-called population crisis to have been just as exaggerated as any of the other doomsday emergencies that we’ve been scared with these last 50 years.

Now we hear that the global population may peak considerably lower and sooner than we were long led to believe, and decline more precipitously thereafter.

Bad news

This is not good news, because the original thesis never held. A growing population brings with it more labour, more ingenuity, and more prosperity, which makes societies more resilient, more able to adapt to the vicissitudes of nature, and more likely to invest in conservation and environmental protection.

A declining population, all else being equal, implies an aging population. That means there will be fewer people of working age to support both themselves and a growing elderly population. That means prosperity will decline.

Eco-socialists will have you believe that is no biggie, provided that the smaller pie is distributed more equally, but they’d be wrong. It would leave us more vulnerable to nature and more likely to countenance environmental harm in the pursuit of improved living standards.

I’ve dealt with the coming population implosion in a previous article. There’s no need to rehash this topic here.

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Hidebound

Not only was over-population never a crisis, but the real crisis – already visible in many developed countries today – is under-population.

The environmentalists who in the 1970s wanted to limit child-bearing and introduce forced sterilisation said that reducing population growth would reduce the risk of environmental and economic collapse.

Their assumptions, however, were wrong.

Population decline increases the risk of economic contraction, and if the well-established correlation between prosperity and environmental performance holds, a poorer world will pose more of a threat to the environment, too.

It is a welcome change that the Club of Rome/Earth4All study recognises the importance of economic development in poor countries. However, they see such growth purely as a means to an end: reducing birth rates.

They still want to ‘rethink economic growth as a measure of progress’. They still seek ‘new economic paradigms’, including degrowth.

They’re ideologically hidebound. Their prescriptions haven’t changed in 50 years, despite the mounting evidence that both their premises and their reasoning were wrong all along.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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