As Simon argued for much of his professional life, population growth drives prosperity because it challenges society to come up with daring, inventive ways to serve people’s needs, and for much of its history humanity has responded to the challenge. “The standard of living has risen along with the size of the world’s population since the beginning of recorded time,” Simon wrote in The Ultimate Resource. “The most important benefit of population … growth is the increase it brings to the stock of useful knowledge. Minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths.”
This is not, of course, the standard line in the popular media these days. Instead, some 211 years after Malthus argued that human population growth strains the earth’s ability to provide for us (“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”), one of the abiding messages of the environmental movement, now widely accepted by ordinary folks, is that the earth is overcrowded and will soon be running short of resources. In a recent online poll conducted by The Economist, 80 percent of those surveyed said the world would be better off with fewer people. National Geographic’s website has an entire section devoted to overpopulation with an image gallery replete with photos of crowded train stations and city streets. Books with titles like Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families line the library stacks.
The long-term trends, however, suggest exactly the opposite problem. Birthrates have been falling in the industrialized world for more than a century now and worldwide since the 1970s. They are now predicted to drop below what’s known as replacement levels somewhere 2040 and 2050. Shortly thereafter the world’s population itself will peak and begin declining, unless something momentous changes.
It’s interesting to consider that Catholicism is close to unique in its pro-population culture. (The only comparables I can think of are Mormons and Orthodox Jews.)
It’s interesting, though, that Latin America is seeing the same population implosion that the rest of the world is experiencing.