The World at 7 Billion: Are People the Problem or the Solution?

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Is seven billion too many people on earth or not enough?

It is commonly assumed that population growth is bad. More people means more mouths to feed, more homes to heat, and more bodies to transport. Land is limited. Can we feed more people? Oil, gas, and much of the energy that we use are nonrenewable. More people means, on average, less per person for home heating, transportation, and production. Have we exceeded the limits of earth’s carrying capacity?

July 11 marked World Population Day, a day defined by the United Nations Development Program in 1989. In the last two centuries, life expectancy at birth has more than doubled. The global population has doubled in the last thirty years. This year will mark the global population reaching 7 billion people.

Yet life on earth is getting better, not worse. People are living longer, they are wealthier and healthier, the air and water is getting cleaner, and we are not running out of resources. In fact, the general trend of resource prices (after adjusting for inflation) is declining.

We owe this to human innovation and our ability to adapt. We grow more food on less land. As prosperity rises there has also been an increased demand for environmental quality. Our demand for resources stems from the benefits they provide to us, not the resource per se. Hence, as resource prices rise, people adapt through innovation and technology to get more from a given resource and by finding alternatives and substitutes.

There are tradeoffs. As more and more people inhabit more land there is less habitat available for wildlife. But even wildlife prospers when the institutions are right. Once endangered, rhinos in South Africa are now abundant where they are seen as an asset to locals, even with more people, but they are scarce in Kenya where property rights and laws differ.

The Center for Biologicial Diversity claims there are “Too many of us. Not enough room for them [wildlife].” But is it really a population problem or is it a behavioral problem that is defined by the incentives provided (i.e. the institutions)?

Are people the problem or the solution? I agree with the late economist Julian Simon, given proper institutions people are “the ultimate resource.”

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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