Groups proposing policies of population control are once again making the headlines. They suggest that the world needs a smaller population to control its environmental footprint, to preserve natural resources and to ensure that we can live in peace and relative comfort. These ideas were once popular in the 1960s and 1970s. They are clearly incompatible with Catholic teaching on sex and the family. However, arguments in favour of an optimum population are also vacuous from an economic perspective. It is important that the economic arguments are understood. Particularly in Catholic schools, young people should not simply be taught the received wisdom on environmental issues: young Catholics should be encouraged to challenge the establishment view.
Todays environmentalists and population control enthusiasts are re-enacting a debate that took place a generation ago. In 1968 Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University in California, was hailed as a prophet when he predicted in his book The Population Bomb that the number of human beings on Earth would soon outstrip the food available. Mass starvation would come not just to the Third World, but to America itself, which would see rationing and food riots and might be left with only 30 million people by the end of the century - about 10% of the actual figure in 2000. I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000, he opined on a television chat show in 1969. The solution, he said, lay in population control, policies such as the encouragement of sterilisation, contraception and abortion and, in extremis, the cutting off even of humanitarian aid to countries who refused to take such measures.
Time has not proven kind to Ehrlichs predictions of doom. In comparison with butterflies, Ehrlichs specialist field of study, humans have a much greater ability to use and create technology. As the green revolution, the propagation of better crop strains and improved irrigation techniques, allowed the people of India, China and other nations to feed their growing populations, experts have become increasingly sanguine about prospects for the world. Regular UN population conferences used to be held every ten years, but the last, which bore little fruit, was in 1994 in Cairo.
Nevertheless, last week, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), of which Ehrlich is a patron along with the actress Susan Hampshire, argued in a submission to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health that immigrants coming to Britain did nothing for third-world development and damaged the global environment. In the process of becoming Western consumers, they argue, immigrants raise their ecological footprint, increase their environmental impact and accelerate global environmental damage. The OPTs views on immigration complement their views on population control more generally. They not only wish to control the number of people, but they also want to control where people live!
One reason for the OPTs pessimism is their belief in what is called the peak oil theory: the notion that the worlds energy is soon to run short, bringing about the collapse of industrial civilisation and leaving, an enormous surplus population. Another measure they use is a model called ecological footprinting. In their own words, this is a technique used to measure the ecologically sustainable bioproductivity of the planet and calculate by how much populations are overshooting sustainable levels of renewable resource consumption.
These issues are challenges, but they are relatively minor challenges to a developing world with a growing population.
Since the 1970s, economists have been adjusting standard economic statistics for the side-effects of economic growth, such as pollution. The fact that small and crowded industrialised trading nations with little land and few minerals to exploit such as Ireland, Japan and Singapore come out as the worlds most environmentally-sustainable economies is highly significant and a blow to the OPTs simplistic message that reducing the population somehow improves economic growth and the environment. But the reasons for these findings should be clear. As a country becomes more populated and natural resources are scarce or perhaps can only be obtained using costly methods of transport, there are strong incentives to conserve resources, or employ new technologies that use energy much more efficiently. The very fact of relative scarcity and rising prices of natural resources provides strong incentives to find ways to conserve and harness them. That is why, despite the predictions of the doomsayers over many decades, the world has not run out of energy or natural resources nor will it.
Indeed, extensive studies have shown that rather than making the environment worse, economic growth makes it better. Within living memory in Britain, domestic heating relied on coal fires that were expensive and dirty, causing Londons infamous smog in the fifties. Until the late 1970s, Londons ancient public buildings were black with pollution. Emissions of smog are now a tiny fraction of what they were and scrubbers eliminate the once-dreaded acid rain as a problem.
But, can population growth actually be good? On a casual observation, Europes fastest growing economy for the past decade and a half has been Ireland, where the economic boom coincided with the maturing of a baby boom. Almost half the population were under twenty five in 1990. In addition, emigrants returned home and newcomers from the EU, Eastern Europe and China have come to seek jobs in the Celtic Tiger economy.
A greater density of population actually provides more opportunities for trade, specialisation and the division of labour. That is why wages are higher in London than in the Shetlands and in Toronto than in the Yukon. A growing economy supports a bigger population and a bigger population supports a growing economy. We should not look at the slums in some South American and Asian countries and think that if we halved the density of population in those cities there would be more economic resources to go round. In the last 40 years, many densely populated Asian countries have developed rapidly, dramatically improving living conditions the key to their development was good internal economic and political policies, together with hard work and thrift. By contrast, many sparsely populated African countries remain tragically poor.
As has been noted, the population control lobby do not just want to control the size of the population, they want to control immigration flows too. But, we should be loathe to prevent immigrants who are either desperate to flee political repression in their home countries, such as Zimbabwe, or keen to improve their economic circumstances from coming to the West. In relative terms, Britain is still undergoing the longest sustained economic expansion since records began two centuries ago, and she is a more desirable destination for immigrants than the more the sclerotic economies of mainland Europe. Similarly, immigration from Asia and Latin America has contributed to the US population increasing by 30 million people between 1990 and 2000, coinciding with an economic expansion that saw 60% of all world economic growth taking place within Americas borders.
Neither Britain nor the developing would gain from controlling our population. If anything, the risks lie on the other side of the coin. At current birth rates, there will be only 15 people left in Catholic Italy in 500 years time. There is every danger that population decline in Europe will go hand-in-hand with economic decline. The population alarmists are wrong and it is important that we understand why.