Chapter 2 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

Will Population Growth Lead to Famine or Plenty?


IN 1949 The United Nations called a scientific conference on the conservation and utilisation of resources (called UNSCUR for short). I was asked to present a paper to the Plenary Session. In fact, my paper turned out to be unduly pessimistic --I overestimated the capital requirements of the developing countries, and consequently underestimated the rate of economic progress which they were to attain in the subsequent decades.

But that is not the main point of the story. If occurred to me recently to look at the table of the estimates of remaining world mineral resources which were presented to the 1949 conference[1], and which were then accepted without question. I took these figures and subtracted from them the amount which we have in fact mined since 1949. From this calculation I find that we ran out of lead and zinc some years ago, and are just now running out of copper.

Now we are presented with a fresh set of figures, again showing that we are likely to run out of these metals in twenty-five or thirty years. There is no real reason for believing them, any more than there was for believing the figures put before us in 1949. It may be that geologists know a little more about their science now than they did then, though not all that much. The truth of the matter is that: (i) most of the world has not yet been explored for minerals, (ii) methods of mineral extraction and refining are all the time improving, and many ores regarded as unworkable in the past have now become workable.

From the way Dr Ehrlich writes he seems to think that things will go on as before until we come up against a complete lack of minerals, or food, or both, and that then civilisation will suddenly collapse. If there were any truth in his ideas about resources (in fact they are completely mistaken) it would not happen this way at all. The supply of minerals and food would become progressively more limited, not disappear suddenly, and there would be a marked rise in their prices. In the case of minerals, this would lead to much more economical use, the development of substitutes of all kinds, and the careful re-cycling of used products.

I believe that those who are talking about the approaching exhaustion of world resources are insincere. If they really believed all they are saying, they would be hurrying out to buy mining shares, and agricultural land, both of which can now be obtained cheaply. I have not heard of any of them doing it. In fact, they probably realise at the back of their minds that the low prices of mining shares and of agricultural land indicate that the world will be faced, at any rate for some years into the future, not by any threat of shortage of resources, but by an embarrassing superabundance.

Dr Ehrlich has published two principal books in this field Population Resources Environment and The Population Bomb. The former is a long and carefully prepared book. It is a strange mixture of scientific statements, supported by tables and diagrams, and quoting sources of information (though generally failing to give precise references), mixed with a number of errors of fact, and a great many unsupported speculations. In The Population Bomb the content of genuine science is much less, and the errors of fact more numerous, mixed with a great deal of what is frankly science fiction. It is this book unfortunately which has had by far the wider circulation.

Storm on the screen

In August 1971 Dr Ehrlich visited Australia, and I was invited to take part in a television debate with him. The usual Monday Conference procedure is to have four or five people around a table who can debate an issue thoroughly through question and answer. At the last moment this arrangement was changed. It became a show with about one hundred participants, the object apparently being to give Dr Ehrlich and his supporters about ninety per cent of all the available time. However I was able to challenge him on his basic error of fact.

In The Population Bomb he had stated that in the developing countries 'food production every year falls further behind burgeoning population growth'. Many people believe this to be the case. But the facts are the opposite. In the developing countries, with very few exceptions (and these can all be explained by political disorders) food production is increasing substantially faster than population [2]. Dr Ehrlich could not deny this. He tried to divert the issue, however, by saying that the developing countries were suffering from a shortage of 'first-class protein'. This phrase is generally understood to mean protein from animal sources.

If this is what he meant, physiologists would disagree. It is true that it was at one time believed that we needed to obtain a substantial proportion of our protein requirements from animal sources. But estimates of our requirements of animal protein have been steadily diminishing. A little late in the day, physiologists have discovered that there are communities of vegetarians, some for religious and some for economic reasons, who lead healthy lives with intakes of animal protein, in some cases, exceptionally small [3].

Dr Ehrlich makes the extraordinary statement that Japan, despite her apparent wealth, is 'desperate for protein'. Somebody ought to tell him that for years Australia has been trying to sell Japan meat, and Japan has been refusing to take it.

It is true that animal protein has a higher coefficient of biological value than vegetable protein, generally about by the factor of three to two. But the widely held belief that Asian diets are inadequate in protein, and need supplementation by fishmeal, dried milk and other commodities which Australia might be able to provide, has recently been sharply questioned by the leading scientists in this field [4]. The conclusion is that what Asian countries need is rather more of their present diets, perhaps with slight protein supplementation. It is true that there has been medical diagnosis of widespread protein deficiency in Asia; but this has now been shown to be mainly a consequence of inability to assimilate protein when the diet lacks adequate calories.

In 1972 Dr Ehrlich re-published Population Resources Environment. The erroneous statement about food production in developing countries falling behind population growth was withdrawn, and the correct information substituted. Little was said on the question of protein, apparently indicating that Dr Ehrlich does not feel very strongly now on this subject either. Unfortunately however it is The Population Bomb, containing this (and many other) erroneous statements, which continues to circulate.

Having been proved wrong on his facts, Dr Ehrlich has resorted to speculations. Scientific writings may contain: (i) observed facts, (ii) theories which will receive general scientific support, though still not to be regarded as final, and (iii) speculations-which ought to be kept as few in number as possible. 'Hypotheses should not be multiplied beyond necessity'-- Occam's Principle, which is still a basic principle of science. Unfortunately, many people reading the writings of certain scientists seem unable to distinguish between facts, established theories and speculations. (I have some advantage in this respect because, although for many years my profession has been economics) my basic training was as a scientist, including a year's laboratory research work.) Dr Ehrlich's rejoinder to Mr Maddox is almost entirely theoretical, and pretty unsupported speculations at that. We are doing things which 'may increase' cancers, birth defects and deformities. The whole text is full of 'may-bes'.

However I agree with Dr Ehrlich on one point when he says that it is utterly wrong to allow human action to lead to the complete extirpation of any biological species. The reason why it is so wrong is because man is thereby wantonly destroying God's handiwork. However Dr Ehrlich would probably be very annoyed at receiving support from such a direction.

There is a curious and inconclusive debate between Dr Ehrlich and Mr John Maddox, each accusing the other (but Dr Ehrlich using particularly insulting language) of failing to understand the principles of demography. Are there signs that the rate of world population growth may slow down? (whether or not this is desirable we will discuss later). Dr Ehrlich thinks that even the industrial countries may continue for a long time in the future to show rates of increase of 0.5-1 per cent per year. This implies net reproduction rates between 1.2 and 1.3 approximately. Nearly all industrial countries (except Australia) now appear to be well below these levels [5].

Dr Ehrlich quotes a study by Keyfitz, though the same was done more thoroughly by Bourgeois-Pichat [6]. This study was provoked by a statement by General Draper, President Nixon's representative to the United Nations Population Commission. At a ceremonial dinner (!) the gallant General pointed out that not only did the United States intend to adopt a zero population growth policy itself, but also expected Latin America to do so by the end of the century. Bourgeois-Pichat points out that he did not make it clear (perhaps his own mind was not qualified to understand the difference) whether he meant an actual equality between births and deaths by the year 2000, or that the average size of the Latin American family would have been brought down to replacement level (2.2 average offspring approximately) by that date.

Bourgeois-Pichat illustrated, the problem by relation to Mexico, where the average family numbers five or six. If it was seriously intended that Mexico should reach equality between births and deaths by the year 2000, this could be attained only by the immediate reduction of the average family to 0.6 offspring, or a little over one-tenth of its former size.

If on the other hand General Draper's policy was that Mexico, and the rest of Latin America, should reduce the average size of a family to replacement level by the end of the century (and Dr Ehrlich is right in pointing out that this is in fact most unlikely to happen) this would mean that it would be about the middle of the twenty-first century before Latin American population would stabilise, and at a level of about three times what it is now.

Mr Maddox is right in pointing out that there have been falls in fertility in some Asian countries, besides Japan. Indeed, these falls have been sudden and violent, particularly in Taiwan and Singapore. But these relate only to the minority of Asians who have come most under Western influence. The main masses of population in Asia, Africa and Latin America are continuing to grow rapidly.

Imprecise statement

To say that a fall in fertility followed the industrialisation of Western Europe and North America is not a sufficiently precise statement, and does not yet give us grounds for saying that it will necessarily happen elsewhere. The theory that fertility will fall as a consequence of the reduction in infant mortality, when parents have greater expectation that their children may survive, is an idea which has fascinated many demographers; but they have been quite unable to prove it satisfactorily from the evidence.

We must first go back a bit farther. Population growth was not a consequence of industrialisation, as Malthusian theory supposes, but one of its principal causes. The historical evidence now seems clear, that an acceleration of population growth preceded industrialisation; and this was not due to any increase in the size of family, or earlier marriage, but simply to a decline in mortality. (The outstanding case where population growth did not promote industrialisation, namely Ireland, is explained by the deliberate blocking of Irish industrialisation by the British Parliament.)

The decline in fertility appeared in Britain quite suddenly in the 1870s, after more than a century of industrialisation. In Germany and Italy it did not appear until the end of the century. In the United States it appeared about 1830 in the North East, but not until very much later in the West. Japanese family limitation began in the 1920s. In France, on the other hand, the evidence is quite clear that the decline in family size began about 1780, long before the country was industrialised [7]. There is no simple sequence here for Asian and other countries to copy.

No French historian or sociologist has yet explained the very early appearance of family limitation in that country-though most of them regret the consequences. The best analysis of the historical causes of family limitation is probably that of Carr-Saunders, who found the causes not to be economic, but sociological. First there is the 'nuclear family', i.e. parents and dependent children only, not the usual rule, but the exception in former days, when families included grandparents, uncles, cousins, unmarried sisters and the like. The old-style rural family may not have been very productive economically; but it was (and is in present-day Asia and Africa) much easier to bring up children in this milieu than it is with us, where the parents have to carry the entire economic and social responsibility.

The next point to which Carr-Saunders drew attention was the prohibition by law (or strong discouragement by social custom) of child labour. With this usually also goes the obligation to send children to school. If you do not intend to educate your children, they soon become economic assets in a farm family. It used to be estimated, in medieval Europe, that by the time a child reached the age of seven the work he did on the farm outweighed the cost of his keep. This may be even more so in many regions in Asia, where the monsoon season is extremely short, and the enforced idleness of the long dry season gives place to a short spell of urgent labour shortage, when even children's hands are valuable.

And we need not go so far back as medieval Europe. Sir Edward Kerry, giving evidence in the 1830s to the Parliamentary Commission on the Government of New South Wales, reported that 'the lower class of settler' had a strong incentive not to send his children to school, because he needed their help on his farm [8].

But even more important is the absence of social services. We take it for granted that if we become infirm or ill there will be some sort of pension for us, not adequate by our standards, but enough to keep us from starving. In Asia, if you grow old without a family to provide for you, you starve --literally. I was once talking to an Indian woman doctor in Lucknow who was a great advocate of family limitation, and was very annoyed when her woman servant (probably miserably underpaid) conceived another child. 'Why should I not have another child? the servant asked humbly. 'The Government of India does not want you to have children' the doctor sternly replied. 'Will the Government of India look after me when I am old?' the servant asked.

We find it very hard to understand that the thousands of millions of people living in poor peasant communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America have their children because they want them, for these reasons, and will continue to do so for a long time in the future -- until they have replaced the security provided by the extended family, have instituted universal schooling and forbidden, child labour, and have established old-age pensions and other social security measures.

In Japan, universal schooling was enacted as early as 1890 (probably the principal factor in Japan's extraordinary economic progress), but old-age pensions did not come until about a generation later. For these provisions to become universal throughout the under-developed world may take fifty years -- I do not see that anyone could put it at less than twenty-five. And even after that, the decline in family size will be slow. The world is still due for an immense increase in population.

But, although most people think the opposite, all the facts indicate that this will be accompanied by a much more than proportionate increase in wealth. The present rate of rapid increase in the world's population began only about 1945; and during these recent decades the rate of the whole world's economic progress has been far higher than it ever was in the past. India in particular, in spite of all the economic mistakes she has made, is now raising production per head about three times as rapidly as in previous decades, or than the rate which even the most optimistic Indian economists were willing to estimate when the country first became independent in 1947. And if we classify the developing countries by their rates of population growth, those with the highest rate of population growth show on the average the highest rate of growth of production per head-the precise opposite of what Malthusian theory would indicate.

Having it both ways

Among the advanced countries, Japan is often quoted as an example of reduced population growth leading to increased prosperity. But for the last twenty years Japan has been having it both ways, by drawing on her demographic capital. The Japanese have raised many fewer children. They still have relatively few pensioners to support --the balance will be quite different in the next generation. But industrially, meanwhile, they have had all the advantages of a rapidly increasing population, with children born in the previous decades coming into the work force, married women going out to work, and farmers coming into the towns. The result of all this has been that the industrial labour force in Japan has doubled in twenty years --a rate of growth attained by no other industrial country [9].

In fact, the principal dangers of population growth may not be that it will lead to poverty, but to excessive wealth; not to famine, but to many people dying of over-eating.


1. Proceedings of the United Nations scientific conference on the conservation and utilization of resources, 1949, 2, p. 7. Details of the calculations are given on p. 16 of my book The myth of overpopulation, Melbourne: Advocate Press, 1973.

2. See FAO Monthly Bulletin of Agricultural and Economic Statistics, January, 1972.

3. For further information see The economics of subsistence agriculture by M. R. Haswell and the present author (Macmillan, 4th edition), p. 7.

4. See particularly Dr Gapalan, Director of the Indian Nutrition Laboratory, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 1970; Dr Sukhatme, until recently Director of Statistics for FAO, Indian Journal of Medical Research, November 1969; and my own article "Calories and Protein in Indonesia", Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, 1972, which quotes a number of further statements by biochemists.

5. My own calculations unpublished.

6. Population (Paris), September, 1970.

7. For further information see my Population growth and land use (Macmillan, 1967) pages 178-182.

8. Reference to Sir Edward Kerry: 'Even at six years of age the services of children become valuable, and with many of the lower classes of settlers this might operate against their wish to send them to school'. Evidence before the select committee on transportation to Australia, House of Commons, July, 1837.

9. Reference to industrial labour force in Japan, International Year Book of Labour Statistics.

This chapter is reprinted (with some added references given at the end of the chapter) from an article in "Current Affairs Bulletin" 1973, 49, pp. 314-317.

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