NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 18, 2006

"Overpopulation" is history's oldest environmental crisis, and it's the most instructive for making sense of today's debates about energy and climate change.  It's a case study of intellectual arrogance and of the perils of putting too much faith in a "scientific consensus" of experts infatuated with their own forecasts, says John Tierney in the New York Times.

Malthusian predictions of overpopulation and the famines they bring have led to a number of scientific and political mistakes, for example:

  • Four decades ago, scientists were so determined to prevent famines that they analyzed the feasibility of putting "fertility control agents" in public drinking water; the physicist William Shockley suggested using sterilization to impose a national limit on the number of births.
  • Planned Parenthood's policy of relying on voluntary birth control was called a "tragic ideal" by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, arguing that "freedom to breed will bring ruin to all."
  • China's one-child-per-family rule, which, ostensibly was voluntary, but the penalties were so severe that there were reported cases of forced abortions and infanticide.

Of course, the graphs projecting future temperatures could turn out to be more accurate than the old graphs forecasting food production and population growth, says Tierney.  But we need to balance uncertain future benefits against certain costs today.  Most steps to combat global warming will be expensive and will slow economic growth, inevitably affecting poor people around the world. More of them will be sick, and more of their children will die.  They'll be less educated and live in less technologically advanced societies.

If the past is any guide, the chief plagues and disasters afflicting future generations will be different from the ones forecast by the popular prophets today.  The best insurance policy is to build free, prosperous societies of smart, adaptable people.

Source: John Tierney, "The Kid's Are All Right," New York Times, October 14, 2006.

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