By: Robbie Mitchnick

This piece was originally published in March, 2015 by Robbie Mitchnick.

In May of 2009, a group of the world’s foremost billionaires gathered in an ultra-secret meeting in Manhattan. Attendees included the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, David Rockefeller, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Bloomberg and Ted Turner. Each person was given 15 minutes to present on a cause that he or she considered most critical to the world. It may have come as a surprise that the single, overarching focus of the meeting was not one of the many front-page, well-documented crises of the day – not climate change, global poverty, nuclear proliferation, or disease. Rather, the single greatest threat to civilization, according to this collection of the world’s most  successful people, was overpopulation.

Malthus returns

This idea is hardly novel. In 1798, with the earth’s population yet to reach one billion, philosopher Thomas Malthus wrote his now-famous An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he postulated that, “the power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race”. Malthus’s prediction relied on a simple mathematical law, which states that a function that grows exponentially will always overtake one that grows arithmetically, no matter how much smaller it is at the outset.

While Malthus’s dire predictions did not come to fruition as rapidly as he had estimated, his observations nonetheless appear prescient today. In 2012, our planet celebrated the dubious milestone of having welcomed its seven-billionth living person. Based on current projections, the human race is expected to approach ten billion people some time shortly after the year 2050, with close to one and a half billion in  each of China and India. While estimates of the earth’s true carrying capacity vary widely, there is broad consensus amongst the scientific community that the true number is well below this. Adding to the problem is the fact that, as globalization brings increased prosperity to the developing world, per capita ecological impact will continue to surge. The consequences of this are devastating and far-reaching. Overpopulation is one of the greatest contributors to climate change; it exacerbates the impact of disease, harms quality of life, and will eventually become increasingly likely to incite catastrophic wars as rival populations compete over insufficient, dwindling resources.

Hidden in plain sight

Unfortunately, the issue of overpopulation remains relegated uncomfortably to the shadows of our public conscience. Overpopulation is given but a fraction of the attention, time, and funding as such major global issues as AIDS, climate change, and hunger, and even a quick search of the internet reveals that the number of organizations dedicated to raising awareness of overpopulation issues (<10) pales in comparison to those dedicated to such comparatively obscure causes as saving sharks (100+).

Why, then, is overpopulation so underplayed in comparison to many of the preferred causes of the day? The explanation is both complex and troubling, but because understanding the issue is perhaps more important than elucidating in further detail the ways in which overpopulation could decimate the human race, the remainder of this article will focus primarily on addressing this question.

An uncomfortable truth

The first part of the explanation lies in the human tendency to be consumed by short-term outcomes and to look no further than first-order effects. Causes such as reducing hunger, fighting disease, or addressing poverty are unassailable in their magnanimity; in each of these cases, lives are either saved or improved – an unquestionable good. In contrast, working to combat overpopulation seems far more sinister; not only are lives not being saved, they are actually being prevented – an idea many people find unpalatable. Of course, this aversion is misguided because the addition of a marginal life (or one billion marginal lives) into the world is likely to result in greater collective misery when the world is already over-crowded. Adding to the irrational prejudice against confronting overpopulation is the fact that many people consider any policy that controls population to be an affront to one of the most fundamental forms of human liberty – the right to reproduce. While notionally valid, even this right is trumped by an existential threat to the human race.

One need look no further to find evidence of the strong aversion to combating overpopulation than the backlash against China’s one-child policy. While the negative consequences attributable to China’s policy were indeed horrific (including thousands of cases of abandoned baby girls), its impact in reining in the most explosive population boom in history cannot be understated. Yet, because the negative impacts were immediate and visible, while the positive impacts were long-term and difficult to quantify, the policy has been widely vilified.

The oldest pyramid scheme of all

The second source of our aversion to combating overpopulation is our dependence on population growth to sustain short-term economic prosperity. Since the early ages of human development, people have recognized that living prosperously in old age requires procreating sufficiently such that the number of working-age people could continue to exceed the number of old-age dependents. So long as each generation exceeds the last in abundance, the system could sustain itself. In so doing, the world’s population has effectively created the oldest and greatest pyramid scheme ever conceived.

Our ill-conceived infatuation with GDP growth as the de facto indicator of economic strength is a fitting illustration of this mindset. GDP growth can be broken down into two parts: population growth, and growth in income per capita. Of these two, only growth in income per capita actually reflects the improvement in wealth and living standards of the country and, as such, ought to be the primary metric used to gauge economic progress. And yet, we have let ourselves become fixated on GDP growth, which indulges our misguided fixation on population growth. This fixation could only exist in a society that is either: i) preoccupied with the size and influence of each nation; or ii) dependent on population growth to keep the system functioning. While both explanations likely contribute, the latter surely predominates. One need only examine the manner in which India is repeatedly lauded in financial publications for its young, fast-growing population, and Japan and Europe lamented for their shrinking populations to realize the narrow-mindedness of our current thinking.

What is exponential growth, really?

Finally, there is a rather unsettling element of population growth that also helps explain our deluded ignorance. Noted physicist Albert Bartlett once proclaimed that the greatest shortcoming of the human race is its inability to comprehend exponential growth. He once presented the following compelling analogy for exponential growth: Imagine a bottle containing bacteria whose numbers double every minute. At 11 AM the bottle has one bacterium in it, and an hour later, at noon, the bottle is full. Working backward, the bottle must be half full at 11:59 AM, a quarter full at 11:58 AM, and so on. “If you were an average bacterium in the bottle,” Bartlett asks, “at what time would you realize you were running out of space?”At 11:55 AM, the bottle looks pretty empty – it is only about 1/32 or 3% full. Would the bacteria realize that they were only five minutes from full capacity? While the earth’s population of course grows at a far slower rate, this analogy is nonetheless a precautionary tale for the world.

Time is running out

How, then, should our planet go about reversing this self-destructive course? While some experts on the subject argue it is already too late to avoid a massive, sharp correction in the human population, this cynicism may be undue. As a first step, efforts to educate the population of the world’s developing countries (where the problem is concentrated) need to become far more explicitly focused around the consequences of over-reproduction and the benefits of birth control. The past approach–centred on the belief that simply raising the education standards of developing countries would naturally lead to lower fertility rates–works too slowly and is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of dogmatic, contradictory teachings from powerful religious groups. Secondly, this greater investment in education for the developing world must be complemented with a policy that ties all forms of aid to fertility rate outcomes. In order to be eligible for aid from the World Bank, the IMF, and other important global programs, countries that currently have the highest fertility rates will need to show tangible progress in hitting their targets.

These measures may sound draconian, and indeed, they are. Sooner or later, the world will be forced to come to grips with the catastrophic threat presented by over-population and realize that the seemingly harsh remedies needed today to prevent such a crisis are far more benign than the eventual costs would be. When our planet is faced with the prospect of hundreds of millions or even billions of people dying due to lack of food and water or increasingly violent wars over scarce resources, it will make the other leading crises of the day seem rudimentary by comparison. Too often, a real crisis is needed before political action becomes possible. The question for our global community today is: when that crisis comes and the world is finally willing to act, will it be too little, too late?

Robbie Mitchnick is an alumnus of Smith School of Business.  He is a former CEO of the Queen's University Investment Counsel and the Medal in Commerce Winner for the Class of 2013.