Will the Population Bomb never die?
I ask because actor Tom Hanks brought it up while doing publicity for his latest movie based on a Dan Brown novel—yes, unfortunately, another one—in which the overpopulation scare figures prominently.
I’ll venture a guess because Dan Brown novels are pretty predictable: the villain will turn out to be a guy who is using nefarious means in an attempt to stop overpopulation. The good guys will try to stop him, but will view him as someone who used misguided methods to achieve an “idealistic” goal.
Oh, look: nailed it.
I don’t think it’s any great secret that Dan Brown uses his Robert Langdon novels as a passive-aggressive way of working out his issues with Christianity, and in this case he’s clearly targeting Catholicism’s opposition to contraception. But in doing so—spoiler warning, in case you care—he ends up basically condoning forced mass sterilization as a reasonable solution to overpopulation, which pretty much captures the terrifying totalitarian implications of the overpopulation hysteria.
But the new movie gives this awful idea a wholesome front man in the person of lovable everyman Tom Hanks. And here’s what he had to say about overpopulation, or as he calls it, “Malthusian theory.”
You know, when I graduated—when I was at junior college, Chabot Junior College—we finished a history course, and the professor wrote up—you need to learn this word—he wrote up the word “triage”—which represented, I was told, the concept that eventually, the world will have too many people in it in order to subsist on its own. And that stuck with me for a long time. And that’s what ‘Inferno’ is about, the quantum physics of overpopulation. In an instant, there could be too many people on the planet. And actually, the math does add up.
Yes, I know. This is coming from an actor in a puffball interview with puffball morning show hosts—who, ahem, also moderate presidential forums, whoops. Actors aren’t scientists and don’t really know what “Malthusian theory” is and certainly don’t know what the heck “quantum physics” is.
But this is how the overpopulation scare ends up being propagated forever, even though the math most definitely does not add up. Hanks says he learned about this from a history teacher. If so, then he should also have learned that Malthusian theory is history, not just in the literal sense of having been around since it was first described by Thomas Malthus in 1798, but also in the sense of having been debunked repeatedly.
I didn’t know until very recently that one of the people who debunked it was Friedrich Engels. In what may be the only correct thing he or Karl Marx ever wrote about economics, he provided this rebuttal.
“Malthus establishes a formula on which he bases his entire system: population is said to increase in a geometrical progression—1+2+4+8+16+32, etc.; the productive power of the land in an arithmetical progression—1+2+3+4+5+6. The difference is obvious, is terrifying; but is it correct? Where has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in an arithmetical progression? The extent of land is limited. All right! The labor-power to be employed on this land-surface increases with population. Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labor does not always rise in proportion to the labor, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist—science—whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population.”
So a super-scientific Communist utopia will be able to solve the problem of feeding a growing population, thanks to the breakthroughs of Comrade Lysenko.
Oh wait, sorry, it was the capitalist countries that banished hunger. But Engels was right about the basic means. Scientific and technological progress—advances in fertilization and irrigation; new agricultural techniques; the breeding of higher-yielding crops; the mechanization of agriculture—resulted in vast increases in the production of food and of everything else, at a geometric rate far greater than the growth in population. (And science, in the form of contraception, also helped decrease the rate of population growth from what was expected in Malthusian and neo-Malthusian projections.)
The result is two hundred years of data that thoroughly contradict Malthusian theory. Malthus worried that big increases in population from a global population of about one billion people in his day would lead to the mass impoverishment of the common man. Here’s what actually happened: overall population increased geometrically, but the percentage of mankind living in extreme poverty has decreased geometrically.
Here’s another way of visualizing the crash in world poverty.
Note that these data sets begin at 1820, when Malthus was still alive and still working on his theory. The math adds up, and the Malthusian theory is definitely wrong. Heck, even the New York Times has given up on neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich, acknowledging that his theories about a deadly “population bomb” didn’t pan out.
But popular culture is last, if ever, to get the message, so we’re going to have to endure writers and actors who are ignorant of science and history, who continue to promote these theories to the unwary.
You would think we could finally learn our lesson, which is broader than just the failure of Malthusian theory. The lesson is to be skeptical from the start about any doomsday theory that lacks much of a foundation in science but fits in well with a fashionable political worldview.