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Halloween fright, population fear are both fantasy

By Laura E. Huggins

Prepare for a frightening Halloween – not from ghosts, ghouls and goblins at your doorstep – but because on Oct. 31, the world’s population is expected to reach 7 billion people. For many, the new milestone is a haunting premonition of what lies ahead for the human race. Witness a few alarming headlines warning of doom and gloom: “The World’s Biggest Problem? Too Many People,” and “As Earth’s population hits 7 billion, the consequences for humanity could be grim.”

Such scary predictions are nothing new. Aristotle cautioned that populations could strip their resources and that poverty would follow. Nineteenth-century theorist Thomas Malthus argued – at a time when the world’s population was fewer than 1 billion – that birthrates had to be lowered or famine and violence would ensue.

Even in the past century, it was fashionable to emphasize the negative consequences of growth. In 1945, demographer Kingsley Davis wrote, “The earth’s population has been like a long, thin powder fuse that burns slowly and haltingly until it finally reaches the charge and explodes.” Paul Ehrlich picked up on this theme with his 1968 best-seller, ThePopulation Bomb.

Human ingenuity and technology have played a big part in defying Malthus, Mr. Ehrlich and other pessimists. In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley offers a counterblast to the prevailing pessimism and shows that despite how much we like to think to the contrary, things are getting better.

Ten thousand years ago, there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today, we are approaching 7 billion, 99 percent of whom are better fed, sheltered and protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors, Mr. Ridley writes. The availability of almost everything a person could need, such as calories, vitamins and clean water has been increasing for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the past 200 years – paralleling a rapid rise in population.

But alarmists point out that it’s been only 12 years since the arrival of the 6 billionth baby back in October 1999 and the rate is rising too fast. What we rarely hear is that during this same short time period the world’s birthrates have slowed dramatically. Some nations are even trying to engineer baby booms to avoid shrinking. The United Nations predicts that world population will peak around 2050. Moreover, as scholars such as David Bloom with the Harvard School of Public Health explain, changes in population age structure have opened the door to increased prosperity.

Yet as our quality of life continues to improve, the prevailing sentiment continues to be one of a disastrous future. Are we naturally pessimistic and averse to celebrating our accomplishments, or is it simply that we like to be scared?

Perhaps it’s the latter. Consider horror movies. Investigators generally use one of two theories to explain why people like scary movies. The first is that the individual is not afraid, but excited by the movie. The second is that a person is willing to endure fear in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end.

This second theory might explain the long track record of warning cries over population. People get a rush thinking about the arrival of the 7 billionth baby and how that might be a trigger for the world’s agricultural systems to collapse, the energy grid to go dark or abject environmental destruction. But then feel safe and secure knowing that the babies of today are better off than their parents and so much better off than their parents’ parents.

Horror is big business because it taps a basic human need: People like to be scared. Americans will spend more than $1 billion on creepy costumes, home decorating and theme parks in the month of October. But on this All Hallow’s Eve, don’t be tricked into thinking the population bomb is going to go off any minute.

Laura E. Huggins is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. She is the co-author of Population Puzzle: Boom or Bust? (Hoover Institution Press, 2005).

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