Cairo's Faulty Assumption

Population growth isn't antithetical to progress; it's a result of it

NOW that the United Nations conference on population in Cairo is over, we should step back and look at what I believe is its dubious underlying principle. Vice President Gore, who led the United States delegation, offers a typical sample of this principle when he worries that ``it took roughly 10,000 generations for the world to reach a population of 2 billion. And yet in my 46 years, we have gone from a little over 2 billion to almost 6 billion.''

The comparison is dramatic. But his inference - that accelerated population increase is a problem - is not true. As economist Julian Simon suggests, the pace of population growth mirrors the pace of progress.

In 10,000 BC, the world population is estimated to have been about 5 million. Between then and 1650 AD, when the human race reached about half a billion, the population grew at only 0.04 percent a year. People who worry about population growth might long for those days. But something else about that period should be noted. The rate of improvement in human well-being was just as sluggish. Life expectancy was age 30. Infant mortality was high. Nutrition levels were low. So were incomes. Housing was decrepit and clothing costly. All aspects of human welfare were meager and stagnant.

Then something changed. Between 1650 and 1750 the population rate jumped from 0.04 to 0.29 percent, leaving three-quarters of a billion people on earth. In the next 50 years it jumped to 0.45 percent, and nearly a billion people. By 1900 the rate hit 0.65, and population 1.6 billion. That was an unprecedented increase. But it was not all. All measures of human welfare matched the dynamic growth rates from 1650 onward. Between 1776 and 1976, world population increased sixfold, but real wealth increased 80-fold. America was the paradigm: rapid population growth, rapid progress in human welfare.

For example, life expectancy began to climb steadily for the first time, a clear indication of improving health. Infant mortality began to fall. Productivity took off. Food production, contrary to Malthus, surpassed population growth. Incomes rose. The pace of change quickened; the Industrial Revolution took off.

IN the 20th century, all these trends accelerated. After World War II, the annual population growth rose to nearly 1 percent. In the 1960s it went above 2 percent before falling back. The postwar period also saw the market-oriented West rise mightily; and in parts of the developing world, progress was especially pronounced. For example, Hong Kong, a backwater without resources in 1945, embarked on its road to riches even as its population growth exceeded India's.

Life expectancy grew dramatically. From 1950 to '55 and 1980 to '85, it went from 65 to 73 in the developed world, a 12 percent gain. In less developed areas, life expectancy jumped 38 percent, from 41 to nearly 57. In East Asia it increased 60 percent, to 68 years. Even in Africa there was a 33 percent gain, to 49 years. The 20th century has seen more progress in life expectancy than has all the rest of human history.

At the same time, infant mortality plummeted. In the less developed world, it fell from 159 infant deaths per 1,000 live births 1950-55 to 92 deaths 1980-85, a 42 percent decline. Fertility rates fell significantly also.

Nutrition, per capita food production, per acre agricultural yields, incomes, resources, air and water quality, and other indicators of human welfare have also improved. Improvement has occurred at a rate that would have stunned our ancestors. It has occurred during the modern population explosion, and as people have gained individual liberty. The trends continue. Since Paul Ehrlich wrote ``The Population Bomb'' in 1968, world population has increased some 50 percent. Food prices have fallen by the same proportion.

The growth in human numbers has been no barrier to economic advance. Population growth and high density - in a free economy - promote progress by allowing a more elaborate division of labor, which raises productivity and incomes, and by creating economies of scale. More people mean more producers of knowledge that make our lives better.

Contrary to the vice president, we don't need to impose population control to head off a struggle for survival. History shows that a growing and free population takes the struggle out of survival and makes prosperity easier. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.