As someone who has spent a good chunk of his life concerned with and warning about the dangers of overpopulation, I was somewhat taken aback to recently encounter a warning about “underpopulation.”
I had never seen the word before and a search revealed scant usage of the term, but CNBC warned, “Researchers expect the U.S. to face underpopulation... .”
With over 330 million people, America is the third most populated country, after China and India. Its population has increased by 50 million during the last two decades, a figure twice the current population of Australia. California’s population density is already one-third higher than the Old World of Europe.
Immediately, I pondered the many dangers of underpopulation in the United States. Fewer and smaller traffic jams, more open space and wildlife habitat, and less air and water pollution were some that came to mind.
In 1972, after two years of research, the bipartisan Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, established by Congress and chaired by John D. Rockefeller III, issued its report to Congress and the president:
“We have concluded that, in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the nation’s population, rather that the gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the Nation’s ability to solve its problems. We have looked for, and have not found, any convincing economic argument for continued population growth.”
Since then, the U.S. population has grown by about 120 million.
Economists are notorious for singing the praises of larger populations - more people mean a larger economy. “At the end of the day, people matter. So the more people there are, the more economic activity there is,” said Wellesley College economics professor Phil Levine.
I get it. That’s why Pakistan with a GDP of $284 billion is richer than Finland with a GDP of $268 billion. Conversely, Finland has a per capita GDP of $48,500 compared to $1,285 for Pakistan. I am always amazed at the number of economists who have acquired an advanced degree or two, but have never learned the meaning of per capita. The average bloke understands that Finland is much, much richer than Pakistan even if the average economist does not.
Taiwan, for instance, has achieved population stabilization - after several years of very slight increases in population, it probably had a slight decrease in 2020. Last year, when nearly all national economies were shrinking, Taiwan had one of the globe’s few growing economies, and the fastest among industrialized nations. Its GDP increased by over 3% and is expected to expand almost 5% in 2021, its fastest pace in seven years. Its economy grew not because of, nor in spite of, its achievement of population stabilization, but for factors that had nothing to do with population.
And while we all want a healthy and robust economy that provides a high quality of life and boundless opportunities for its citizens, endless economic growth should not be at the top of our priority list. Remember that the economy is but a subset of the environment and the resources it provides. As economics professor Kenneth Boulding said, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
Underpopulation? A half century ago, The Commission on Population Growth recognized the environmental consequences of an ever-growing human population in America:
“From an environmental and resource point of view, there are no advantages from further growth of population... . Indeed, we would be considerably better off ... if there were a prompt reduction in our population growth rate. This is especially true with regard to problems of water, agricultural land, and outdoor recreation.”
Oberlink is the executive director of the nonprofit group, Californians for Population Stabilization