Debunking “Overpopulation is a Myth”
Episode One: “The Making of a Myth”

Population Research Institute has produced a series of videos attempting to prove that there are not more of us than Earth can sustain.

They start with Robert Malthus, who wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 to counter what he felt were unrealistic and counter-productive efforts to alleviate poverty in London. Proving Malthus wrong will somehow show that there aren’t too many of us two centuries later.

It’s easier to prove Malthus wrong if his position is misrepresented. From the video:

The myth of overpopulation began in England in 1798 when a vicar named Thomas Malthus, who fancied himself something of a mathematician, saw that food production increased incrementally but people increased exponentially. He sat down and did some simple math, and summarily decided that the world would be out of food by 1890.

The world was already “out of food” in the sense that not enough was being produced to feed existing people.

Either PRI didn’t bother to read the whole essay or they intentionally took his comments out of context:

He blamed reduced mortality rates, and recommended killing off the have-nots of society lest the haves starve to death.

Parliament was encouraging earlier marriage and paying a bonus for every child beyond two. Early marriage was to intended reduce pre-marital sex, and larger families’ poverty would be reduced with welfare.

Malthus was concerned that these policies would increase starvation among the poor, since no more land was being cultivated to feed their increasing numbers. To be consistent, parliament may as well encourage deaths in other ways while they’re at it.

The video seamlessly jumps 170 years to:
This cry was taken up by Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in 1968, who claimed that reckless human reproduction had overwhelmed the earth. Massive famines would result, which would destroy, best case scenario, one fifth of humanity by the end of the 70s. And the planet would follow.
The Green Revolution avoided much of the famine predicted in The Population Bomb. Seventy million people—one fifth of humanity—didn’t die in 1970s famines, only a few million died.
This fear produced large donations for the newly created UNFPA which thrives on an imagined crisis that has been both imminent and rescheduled again and again over the past two centuries.

Increased awareness of our excessive breeding may have helped create the United Nations Family Planning Agency, UNFPA, now called UN Population Fund. Ongoing crises of unwanted conceptions, unsafe abortions, maternal mortality from a lack of reproductive care, and high infant mortality are not imaginary. Limiting our population density has never been one of their priorities. Their purpose is to help couples safely plan their families and keep them healthy.

The truth of the matter is that every family on this planet could have a house, with a yard, and all live together on a land mass the size of Texas.
Variations of this Texas-sized myth are almost as plentiful as misinterpretations of Malthus. Our agriculture alone uses a landmass the size of South America.

The population growth will peak in 30 years and then start to go back down. We’re not overpopulated. Do the math.
We may be assured that, since our numbers will stop increasing in 30 years, there can’t be too many of us today. That’s doing some tricky math.

Malthus was wrong to oppose contraception, but he would have been quickly defrocked if he hadn’t. Ehrlich’s “stop at two” message was inadequate in 1968, but he too is a product of his time. If he had claimed that three and a half billion of us was already too many, and instead of stopping at two we should stop at once, his message would never have been published, let alone become a best seller.

Forty years after The Population Bomb, public opinion remains stuck in a worldview which approves of continued human breeding, as long as we just replace ourselves: 2.1 offspring per couple.

And more than 200 years after An Essay on the Principle of Population, Population Research Institute continues to support Malthus’ misguided opposition to contraception.

From the “Making of a Myth” website:

Did Malthus really say to kill off the poor?
Yep. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus calls for increased mortality among the poor: "All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons… To act consistently therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations." (Book IV, Chap. V) — Read it online.
Sounds like Reverend Malthus really hates people, until we realize his satirical advice to parliament is titled “Of the Consequences of pursuing the opposite Mode”—the mode opposite to Malthus’ conservative plan, which was:
This duty is intelligible to the humblest capacity. It is merely, that he is not to bring beings into the world, for whom he cannot find the means of support... It is clearly his interest, and will tend greatly to promote his happiness, to defer marrying, till by industry and economy he is in a capacity to support the children that he may reasonably expect from his marriage. Essay IV.III.4

Basically, work hard, save money, and raise as many children as you can afford. Wages would go up as labor supply goes down, reducing poverty. Rather than recommending contraception, which was barely available and he opposed, he believed postponing marriage would effectively limit birth rates to the number which may be well-supported.

He continues:

If after all, however, these arguments should appear insufficient; if the reprobate idea of endeavouring to encourage the virtue of moral restraint among the poor, from a fear of producing vice; and if we think, that to facilitate marriage by all possible means is a point of the first consequence to the morality and happiness of the people; let us act consistently, and before we proceed, endeavour to make ourselves acquainted with the mode by which alone we can effect our object. Essay IV.IV.10
Translation: If you’re still not convinced, let’s be consistent and encourage early marriage by increasing deaths, because “...there is no encouragement to early unions so powerful as a great mortality.” Due to prohibition of contraceptives, delaying marriage was seen as the only way to reduce birth rates.

Returning to PRI’s selective quotations:

Malthus thought doctors shouldn’t cure diseases?
“But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.”
Malthus drives home his point by accusing doctors of discouraging early marriage by reducing mortality, not realizing that his satire might someday be quoted as a serious plan. Perhaps PRI would argue that Jonathan Swift wanted children to be eaten, as advocated in A Modest Proposal.

Malthus argued that society may as well just kill the poor outright instead of increasing their numbers beyond what could be supported. The natural result of encouraging population growth would be disease and famine for even more people in the long run. Today there are more hungry people than the entire world population of 1798.

Did Paul Ehrlich really say that famines would devastate humanity in the 1970s?
Yep. In his 1968 work The Population Bomb, Ehrlich stated: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
The book’s prologue included that exaggerated alarm, and although hundreds of millions of people have starved to death since then, it didn’t all happen in the 70s. Inside was a tamer warning:
The battle to feed humanity is already lost, in the sense that we will not be able to prevent large-scale famines in the next decade or so. It is difficult to guess what the exact scale and consequences of the famines will be. But there will be famines. page 36
And there have been, and continue to be, famines.
What’s the UNFPA? How do they profit from fear?
The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) was founded in 1969, the year after Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. They have been involved in programs with governments around the world who deny their women the right to choose the number and spacing of their children.
This is a bizarre accusation. The Catholic-oriented organization presenting this series states:
We also pursue the agenda common to all truly pro-life organizations: against abortion, against euthanasia, in favor of traditional marriage, against artificial contraception, and in favor of family-friendly societies and economies, all of which are essential to maintaining healthy populations. PRI’s specialty in the pro-life movement is the question of population.
While the UNFPA states:
UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.
The Catholic Church’s opposition to all contraception except “natural family planning” has done more to deny women their right to choose the number and spacing of their children than any other institution.

PRI continues:

Their complicit work with the infamous “one-child policy" mandated by the government of the People’s Republic of China, uncovered by an investigation of the U.S. State Department in 2001, led the United States to pull its funding.
The investigation found no evidence that UNFPA funds paid for abortions, and recommended funding. However, President Bush pulled funding due to political pressure.
The wealthy of the West, in their terror of poverty, have given copiously to the UNFPA and its population control programs. Visit Population Research Institute for more info.
The wealthy can’t fully comprehend the terror which billions in poverty live with constantly. Nonetheless, many wealthy nations support the UNFPA’s efforts to enable couples to avoid bringing more children into their families than they can feed.
As the above chart shows, donations aren’t keeping up with demand. In addition, limited funds for family planning programs have shifted to HIV/AIDS programs.
No way everyone could fit in Texas …
According to the U.N. Population Database, the world’s population in 2010 will be 6,908,688,000. The landmass of Texas is 268,820 sq mi (7,494,271,488,000 sq ft). So, divide 7,494,271,488,000 sq ft by 6,908,688,000 people, and you get 1084.76 sq ft/person. That’s approximately a 33' x 33' plot of land for every person on the planet, enough space for a town house. Given an average four person family, every family would have a 66' x 66' plot of land, which would comfortably provide a single family home and yard—and all of them fit on a landmass the size of Texas. Admittedly, it’d basically be one massive subdivision, but Texas is a tiny portion of the inhabitable Earth. Such an arrangement would leave the entire rest of the world vacant. There’s plenty of space for humanity.

And what about space for all the other Earth-dwelling species?

An average human Earthling today uses the equivalent of 278,784 square feet of productive land, while Earth provides 200,376 square feet. Each of us, on average, uses 82,764 square feet more than is sustainable. This is our overshoot of carrying capacity. It’s also 262 times the space we would be allotted in Texas.

An average US resident’s present lifestyle requires 22.3 acres (9 hectares) which is 971,388 square feet or roughly 900 times the 1,084.76 square feet of a Texas fit. Our standard of living would need to be reduced to 1/900th of what we now enjoy—more than a little belt-tightening. Footprint Network

Back to the PRI site:

Where are you getting these numbers?
U.N. Population Database. While they provide Low, Medium, and High Variants, the Low Variant is the one that keeps coming true, so the Low variant numbers are the ones used in this video.
Actually, the medium variant projection has historically come closer to matching reality.
The world’s population will peak in 30 years? Prove it.
According to the U.N. Population Database, using the historically accurate low variant projection, the Earth’s population will only add another billion people or so over the next thirty years, peaking around 8.02 billion people in the year 2040, and then it will begin to decline.
Projections have been updated since this video was created:


When we consider the fact that humanity is already utilizing the resources of 1.5 Earths, increasing demand can only exacerbate existing shortages and environmental impacts, while providing no benefit to planet or people.

Next in the series: “2.1 Kids: Stable Population”
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