Population Apocalypse and Apocalyptic Populations

As part of my summer entertainment, I read Dan Brown’s most recent novel – Inferno – which features a bio-terrorism plot involving the release of a virus designed to cause sterility in one-third of the human race in order to control overpopulation. The novel highlights a neo-Malthusian “Population Apocalypse Equation” which argues that the “sustainable population” of the world is only 1.5 billion human beings and the world now faces imminent collapse of civilization due to the rapid increase in population especially over the last 250 years.  According to this apocalyptic scenario, population is rapidly outstripping the resources required to produce basic needs leading to international breakdown of law and order, war, revolution, and collapse.

Graphics such as Figure 1 usually accompany these types of arguments to illustrate runaway population growth and the inevitability of the collapse of civilization.  A solution to a future sustainable world according to these arguments is a massive cull of the world’s population.  Apparently, this argument comes from Audrey Tomason – a Director for Counterterrorism for the U.S. National Security Council– in her M.A. Thesis.  Yet, a quick search of Google Scholar produced no cites to such a work in the literature.

However, to my mind this is all just another in a long line of “end of the world population scenarios” that started with Thomas Malthus and his Essay on Population and has been cycling through assorted incarnations ever since. Humans seem extraordinarily preoccupied with apocalyptic end of the world scenarios.  Indeed, if you want to start having visions of an apocalypse, I suppose you can work your way back to the New Testament.  Every age seems to feel it is on the brink of an apocalypse – check out Richard Erdoes A.D. 1000 for a description of how Europe approached the millennium with its nightmare visions.  Then there is John Leslie’s End of the World which chronicles the assorted ways the world could end ranging from nuclear wars, ozone layer depletion, new plagues and pestilences, climate change, annihilation by alien invaders, asteroids, etc… Indeed, Leslie concludes that the human race likely is in danger of extinction.  Indeed, one only has to look back at the dinosaurs to see that extinction can and does occur. Moreover, there is a “Doomsday Argument” based on probabilities that argues that there is a 95% chance of human extinction within 10,000 years.

Let me come back to the population apocalypse scenario.  I watched Soylent Green as a teenager (remember the movie trailer?  It is the year 2025, nothing runs, nothing works…) and countless TV shows and documentaries in the 1970s that suggested I would be lucky to see my 40th year and yet today the sun also rises.  Does that mean I think there are no problems facing the human species? Not at all – there are lots of problems and they are complex and dire.  As H.G. Wells wrote: “History is a race between education and catastrophe” and it is a race that will only end if catastrophe eventually trumps education.  The race is still on and I am glad of it.  Yet the way in which we often approach issues such as the end of oil, greenhouse gases, and population growth – debates that often seems rife with apoplectic emotions and ideology – does little to inspire a vision for a human future.

Let me offer the following example.  When I have taught first year economics, I discuss Malthus and population growth and technological change.  The essence of the Malthusian analysis – that population increases geometrically while resources increases arithmetically means that population will outstrip resources – is correct, all other things given.   I discuss an example of two fruit flies in a glass aquarium sealed in with a fixed supply of food.  The flies will breed and the population curve will look a lot like that in Figure 1 and eventually the food supply will be exhausted and population will collapse.  However, simply extending that argument to human population by arguing the resources of the planet are fixed only works if we assume that our current ability to deal with the problems does not change.  All other things are not given.

Human beings differ dramatically from the fruit flies – they can think, reason and innovate.  As human population expands, they look for solutions to resource issues.  As their population expands, fruit flies in the sealed aquarium do not begin to hold symposiums on the technological change required to breach the glass walls of the aquarium. Humans do.  Indeed, technological change has been the hallmark of the economic progress of the last two hundred years.  Technological change has shifted that PPF to the right and afforded improvements to the human material condition.

In the end, it is a race between education and catastrophe.   Human thought and ingenuity can fix things but can also screw things up – one solution to a short-term problem can cause other problems down the road.  For example, solving transportation problems with the development of the internal combustion engine or extending human lifespan with vaccines and medical technology has created longer-term problems down the line, which in turn require solving.   Provided there is enough time and the problem identified, solutions will emerge. The real random variable is being blindsided by problems that we cannot anticipate or have vary little time to deal with – case in point – a massive asteroid discovered just a few days before impact.

John Brunner’s preface to Philip Wylie’s End of the Dream (another apocalyptic novel from my teen years) contains the following line: “Perhaps one of these days, archaeologists will come to Earth from another planet and think of erecting a monument to mark our passing.  If so, they could choose no better inscription for it than this: Here lies a species capable of thinking, but too lazy to think anything right through.”  Provided there is time, thinking things through is our best hope for the future.