Too Many People

Tom Flynn

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 5.

Too Many PeopleOverpopulation long mattered to me. A high schooler when the Club of Rome issued The Limits to Growth, I had already embraced its agenda. If too many people2 burdened the planet, I would add no more. I resolved not to father children, and remain child-free to this day.

In 1981, even my decision to move to Buffalo, New York—which eventually led me to Free Inquiry—reflected my concern about what we then called "popullution." Human numbers had been too high for decades; I dreamed that in my lifetime society might set out to roll them back. A massive controlled demographic contraction would be required to retreat from however many fearsome billions we would then have become. A hard-hit Rust Belt city, Buffalo faced decades of real shrinkage; it was undergoing involuntarily the dwindling I hoped the world would one day purposely embrace. I wondered how Buffalo's political and social institutions would cope with demographic decline. (The answer: really badly.)

I was a little out of step, still worrying about overpopulation in 1981; it was already a fading cause. Several simplistic Malthusian "crash points" predicted by The Limits to Growth or Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb2 had been exceeded, and we hadn't run out of food, water, oil, copper, or whatever commodity one cared to name. After decades, some activists burned out. Overpopulation lost its grip on the zeitgeist.3

Yet the crisis continued. Human numbers are still rising in many countries. California's population is growing faster than India's; Americans born today will retire in a nation with more than half a billion inhabitants.4 This is frightening, given that even the present human population consumes 40 percent of Earth's biological productivity.5 Moreover, indications suggest that Ehrlich and the Club of Rome had merely centered their doomsday predictions on the wrong Malthusian crash points. Their logic was sound; today new, unanticipated crash points loom before us:

Overpopulation never went away, it's just that too many of us stopped paying attention.

What Is the Optimum?

As the authors in our special section demonstrate, it's difficult to establish an optimum population for the world, or even the United States. But expert opinion began to warn about overpopulation circa 1950, when Earth held 2.55 billion humans. Authorities generally if not unanimously agree that we've gone on overpopulating ever since. Should it be our long-term goal to shrink back to the population of the 1950s? Surely 2.5 billion people would be enough to support broad economic, cultural, and artistic diversity. Given current and likely future technologies, a human community that size might sustain itself and the biosphere indefinitely.

We may choose some other target. Some argue for simply slowing the rate of population growth, aiming for a less rapid increase or for eventual stabilization at near-current levels. Either goal spares us the economic and political impacts of real shrinkage. Yet if we opt for slower growth, someday we will have ten billion humans, then fifteen, and so on. We'll just reach those benchmarks later. Advancing technology may expand the planet's carrying capacity, but still no truly realistic solution can accept endless population growth. As Lindsey Grant cautions, "The principle of prudence suggests that we not press our present systems to the limit, if only in order to have space to maneuver should unexpected changes reduce the productive capacity of our support systems."

The mid-range objective of stabilizing at near-current levels is more attractive, but even it assumes that a human population of six to eight billion is sustainable indefinitely. Current ecological dislocations suggest otherwise. In her article, Rosamund McDougall cautions that "at current levels of consumption and technology . . . the planet may be able to sustain only about half its current numbers in the next century." How much are we willing to gamble on the hope that advancing technology will bail us out? Consider that the "windfall technology" of hydrogen fusion has been a couple of breakthroughs away for better than fifty years.

In my opinion, just slowing the pace of population growth is not enough. If we don't reduce our numbers purposely, catastrophe may do it for us. If we don't learn how to shrink our polities elegantly, it will occur inelegantly—and what horrors are veiled in that euphemism?

Yet political leaders worldwide champion the suicidal notion that human numbers should go on growing as they did during the second half of the twentieth century. It is commonly supposed that, if we fail to maintain that pace, the world's economies will collapse. In part this is because first-world social welfare architectures resemble Ponzi schemes: they work best when each generation outnumbers the last. Arguably, human beings have never figured out how to operate a thriving society whose economy and population don't grow by a percent or so each year. But we're going to have to learn.

Population StatisticsThat's why political responses to the so-called baby bust have been so frustrating. In many countries, initiatives set into motion in the 1960s and 1970s are finally bearing fruit. Japan's fertility rate fell to 1.33 children per woman (2.1, "replacement level," would keep the population static). 13 Scotland's fertility rate is 1.49.14 Canada's is 1.52.15 Nor is this phenomenon confined to the first world: twenty-nine of the United Nation's Less Developed Countries (LDCs) have below-replacement fertility. Putatively Catholic Italy has tied Estonia for the world's lowest fertility rate: just 1.2. If maintained for about three decades, those countries' populations would decline by a third.16,17

Pardon my posing a radical question . . . but isn't that good? Don't we want population to decline? Tragically, the opportunity presented by falling birthrates is being misperceived as a crisis. Frantic leaders call for a return to the geometrical birthrates of old. It's no surprise that the pope hectored Italians to "reverse 'the crisis of their birthrate' by having more babies."18 It is more remarkable that Sweden and Italy offer new tax breaks for parents.19 Towns from Europe to French Canada subsidize large families.20 Convinced that citizens aren't having enough sex, Singapore's government runs matchmaking services. State-controlled media urge, "Let's Get on the Love Wagon."21 But the record for bluntness goes to Australia's treasurer, Peter Costello. Stumping for a budget that would pay a bounty of A$2,000 for each baby born, he called for three-child families and exhorted his countrymen (and women) to "go home and do your patriotic duty tonight."22

The challenges posed by a graying population, a lower ratio of workers to retirees, and eventual shrinkage are genuine. Human history offers few examples of polities undergoing planned, orderly reduction. Still, that's what we've got to shoot for. Unless human extinction is our goal, we can't keep overburdening the planet just because no one knows how to run societies that don't display perpetual growth. The low-birthrate countries in Europe, Asia, and Oceania offer laboratories in which to seek solutions, but first we must accept that it's okay to have fewer of us.

One dubious remedy for population decline is massive immigration. Low-birthrate countries are considering it; it is also the de facto policy of the United States. Immigration has great benefits. The admixture of viewpoints and traditions it brings heightens cultural, artistic, and intellectual vigor and propels us toward the hoped-for "universal culture" of the future. But these benefits do not depend on any particular level of immigration, and high immigration has dire population consequences. Native-born Americans reproduce at less than replacement level; U.S. population growth is driven by post-1965 immigrants and their children. In this section, Edward Tabash argues for capping U.S. immigration to hold U.S. population constant. That stance attracts passionate opposition but sadly more heat than light. If America is overpopulating and immigration is the cause, immigration proponents will need powerful arguments for keeping borders open, not just the reflexive accusations of racism that have too often passed for rhetoric from their side.

Restricting immigration may be necessary to reverse U.S. population growth, but saying so is political dynamite. Consider an astonishing essay in The Nation by Earl Shorris, a holder of the National Humanities Medal: "As any actuary can tell the nativists, America is about to run out of the one thing neither xenophobia nor racism can provide: youth. There is no imaginable solution to the problem now other than immigration." (Apparently for Shorris, solutions that envisage fewer Americans are unimaginable.) If immigration opponents succeed, he warns, "the United States will wither, becoming a crone among nations."23 A crone? Liberal opinion has come to a sorry pass when it can only underscore its disdain for perceived xenophobia and racism by indulging in sexism instead.

Ideologues wielding crude accusations have largely forced overpopulation outside of polite discussion. It's no surprise when, as Alan Kuper chronicles, groups like the Sierra Club duck the issue. But we can't duck overpopulation any longer. Unlimited growth is no longer conceivable, worldwide or in the United States.24 The planet cannot endure it.

It's time to bring not only population control but population reduction back into public discussion. To that end, we present this expanded special issue with its Court of Wisdom section. The Court of Wisdom was developed by Mr. S. Morgan Barber of California to examine significant social issues and help well-informed citizens to "evaluate alternatives and reach considered judgments about basic moral concerns."25

This issue's Court of Wisdom focuses on a limited question: What is the optimum population of the United States? Of the world? How can we know? Ancillary articles tackle broader issues: How can we return overpopulation to the head of the contemporary agenda? How can we rebut attempts to characterize population activism as racist? How can we manage dwindling polities so that our societies can shrink gently but not crash—particularly during the perilous decades when retirees from bloated earlier generations will significantly outnumber those of working age?

I'd like to call particular attention to the article by Jan Narveson, who alone among our contributors maintains that rapid population growth poses no problem. In the tradition of Julian Simon—who did, after all, win public wagers with Paul Ehrlich over whether population growth would cause commodity shortages26—Narveson reminds us that population growth means not only more mouths, but more hands and brains. Advancing technology, he suggests, can forestall those Malthusian crash points indefinitely.
Narveson needs to be heard in a balanced debate. But with due respect, I cannot agree with him that overpopulation is nothing to worry about. I'm scared stiff of it. On my view, human numbers must begin to decline, and soon. Given how little we know about managing demographic contraction, that's a frightening prospect. But the alternatives are worse.

What is the optimum population? Can the planet survive infinite population growth, if we only slow it down? Can today's population be sustained indefinitely? If not, then demographic shrinkage is no nightmare scenario, but an economic and political puzzle whose solution could be humanity's only hope. With Lindsey Grant and others, I suspect that the 1950s-era population of 2.5 billion is close to optimum. Barring that, any decline is preferable to stasis, and stasis is preferable to continued growth.

Then there are the quirky, enigmatic Georgia Guidestones (on which Ed Buckner offers a tongue-in-cheek report). Erected by mysterious persons for shadowy purposes, these New Age monoliths propose a target human population of just five hundred million, a truly radical decline. That this prescription appears directly above a plug for Esperanto does nothing to help us take it seriously. Yet when we try to imagine a human society that could live sustainably on this planet for countless generations even as its members harness ever more powerful technologies, maybe five hundred million people is enough.

Wherever the optimum lies, to my mind there is little question that there are too many people2 right now. The human community seems disinclined to acknowledge this. Of late the humanist community has done little better. I've learned not to cringe when humanists I know rush to marry, buy homes in the suburbs, fill them up with children, and then grumble about how something ought to be done about sprawl. Yet secular humanists have important contributions to make to the population debate, not only in resisting opposition rooted in religious dogmatism but—dare I hope?—leading by example in our willingness to consider unconventional solutions. Clunky as this may sound, our planet needs us.

In this issue of Free Inquiry, we hope to make the unspeakable speakable again, and return the population debate to the prominence it deserves.


1. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jurgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972) predicted the collapse of civilization by 2000 unless population and industrial development were frozen at 1975 levels. Deeply defective, it was flawed by hubristic overinterpretation of primitive computer models. But the furor it created upon its release gave enormous impetus to an already-vital population control movement. In a 2004 update, authors Meadows, Meadows, and Randers argue that the record since 1972 shows that humanity overwhelmed the planet's carrying capacity two decades ago in a process whose broad outlines—if not its details—indeed were predicted in the 1972 volume. See Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Donella Meadows, Limits to Growth, the 30-Year Global Update (S. Burlington, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004).

2. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1976).

3. The silence wasn't total; my predecessors Tim Madigan and Lewis Vaughn focused two disturbing special issues of Free Inquiry on overpopulation (Spring 1994 and Spring 1999).

4. Froma Harrop, "People, People Everywhere." Denver Post, November 1, 2001.

5. Richard Manning, "The Oil We Eat." Harper's, February 2004, p. 37.

6. Kirk Johnson and Dean E. Murphy, "Drought Settles In, Lake Shrinks, and West's Worries Grow," New York Times, May 2, 2004.

7. David Lynch, "China Finds Western Ways Bring New Woes." USA Today, May 19, 2004, p. 13A.

8. Paul Krugman, "The Oil Crunch." New York Times, May 7, 2004.

9. "Report: Consumer Appetite Erodes Quality of Life for Rich and Poor.", January 9, 2004.

10. Mike Davis, "Planet of Slums." Harper's, June 2004, pp. 17-22.

11. Paul Krugman, "The Death of Horatio Alger." The Nation, January 5, 2004, pp. 16-17.

12. Julia Dzwonkoski, "Technology Delivers People." The Squealer (Buffalo, N.Y.: Squeaky Wheel, Winter-Spring 2004), p. 16.

13. Staff, "The Baby Bust: What Can Be Done?" Asahi Shimbun, August 5, 2002.

14. Lizette Alvarez, "Scotland Takes Action to Halt Drop in Population." New York Times, November 30, 2003.

15. Staff, "The Baby Bust: What Can Be Done?"

16., downloaded December 25, 2003.

17. Estonia data from "Political Economy: Global Baby Bust,"

18. Michael McGuire, "Have More Babies, Pope Tells Italians." Chicago Tribune, November 15, 2002, sec. 1 p. 3.

19. Alvarez, "Scotland Takes Action to Halt Drop in Population."

20. Clifford Krauss, "In Aging Quebec, Town Pays to Keep the Babies Coming." New York Times, March 2, 2004.

21. Peter Edidin, "Singapore Swingers: Romance, the Patriotic Duty of Procreation and the Fate of Nations." New York Times, February 8, 2004.

22. Staff, "World Briefings: What You Can Do for Your Country." New York Times, May 13, 2004.

23. Earl Shorris, "A Nation of WASPs?" The Nation, May 31, 2004, pp. 21-22.

24. Though U.S. population density is lower than that of many countries, the environmental impact of each American is disproportionate because we consume so lavishly. For this reason, even though it is not overpopulated by some world standards, U.S. population reduction may be nonetheless essential for long-term human sustainability.

25. Paul Kurtz, "The Court of Wisdom Convenes." Free Inquiry Spring 2003, p. 28.

26. See Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981).

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry. He is child-free by choice.