James Schneider  

Even When More Isn't Merrier, It Can Still Be Better

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In 1966, Paul Ehrlich visited India to study butterflies. This trip provided a perfect rhetorical device to help his readers imagine the dangers of overpopulation. He was able to describe his firsthand reaction to Delhi:

As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area.... the streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating.... People, people, people, people.

Forcing people to look at poverty generates a strong emotional response. For example, many people who go on island vacations are deeply disturbed by the poverty of the local area. These emotional responses can mislead people into underestimating the merits of an increasing human population. Humans are on a hedonic treadmill; they have a tendency to adapt to increasing standards of living. Empathetic people who have adapted to a high income will almost certainly find the poor more disturbing than the poor find each other. Unfortunately, empathy for the poor can backfire if it leads a vacationer to visit a wealthier island or if, as in Ehrlich's case, it helps spur a life-long struggle against humanity.

Viewing poverty makes us uncomfortable, and so we look away. Interestingly, poverty and famine aren't even pictured on Paul Ehrlich's Wikipedia page. His page contains a striking crowd scene from China. However, it isn't a picture of the poor and suffering; it's a picture of people trying to see the Olympic torch.

Our reaction to pictures are based on the average wellbeing of those depicted. A picture of two joyful people can be just as pleasing as a joyous crowd scene. Consider the following chart summarizing the populations of two countries. Now imagine random pictures taken in these countries.


The average picture of country B will be depressing and might lead to the view that overpopulation is a problem. Well-meaning people might think that country B should aspire to be more like country A. Compared to country A, however, country B has more of every possible type of person. It has both more ecstatic people and more content people. The people in the lowest category are still better alive than dead; we shouldn't wish them away.

Although fears of overpopulation have subsided since the publication of The Population Bomb, the view that there are too many people is alive and well. For example, overpopulation is the spiritual villain of Dan Brown's latest novel, Inferno. Many environmentalists link overpopulation to ills like global warming. If increased temperatures become palpable to the average person, overpopulation fears could make a strong resurgence.

HT: Matthew Connelly's Fatal Misconception for the Ehrlich lead.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Pajser writes:

If overpopulation is serious, there will be something like 10/10/3000 rather than 30/30/3000. Also, people rarely use the word "dead" for "unconceived." Maybe it is justified to think that way, if it is, the conclusions should be radical. Haiti and Zimbabwe have higher birth rate than USA and Sweden...

Shane L writes:

Geeky side-note: over-population is referred to in The Matrix:

Agent Smith: "Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure."

Regarding rich people finding poverty more disturbing than poor people, I'm reminded of a BBC article about the definition of slum:

Some Indians were annoyed that BBC characterised their area as a slum:

"From the outside the structure looked shabby and the building which must once have been white was now a dirty grey colour. There were open sewers outside it and the area was full of people - many of them children, who probably should have been at school.

There was silence for what seemed like a minute or more. Then one of Badar's neighbours, Ghulam Mohammed, who had been listening to the conversation announced: "This cannot be a slum - because decent people live here."

He then told me he had a proper job in an office - so how could he live in a slum?

"I have a television and a motorbike, sir. Do slum-dwellers have these sorts of things?" he asked.""

S writes:

Defining overpopulation is hard, but dismissing it outright leads to the repugnant conclusion.

S writes:

While it is easy to say that more people is always better, even the most ardent believers can get a little squeamish when faced with the implications.

Floccina writes:

I grew up in Providence Rhode Island, RI has 1,016 people/sq mile. I also lived in Tegucigalpa Honduras, Honduras has only 64 people /sq mile. RI felt nice and uncrowded with nice rural areas, Honduras felt crowded.

It is easy to mistake lack of good transportation causing people to live close together for over population.

Floccina writes:

One other point: I think a country/state/city cannot really be overpopulated without the whole world being overpopulated. Think Manhattan/Singapore with more and taller high rise apartments that would still not really be overpopulated if the transportation was sufficient. The world limit would the ability to grow food.

Hazel Meade writes:

Not sure if I agree here.

In country A, the average happiness is much higher.

If I had a choice, I would rather be born in country A, knowing that my statistical likelihood of being happy is much higher there. In country B, I have a 98% chance of being one of the 3000 miserable people at the bottom.

And if I had to make a choice for my kids, I would pick country A too.

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