7 billion

In light of the headlines about the arrival of the seven billionth human being somewhere in the world today, and the inevitable hand-wringing over whether we have enough resources to sustain such a population, we thought it was appropriate to revisit some things we have written previously on the subject.

Back in 2009, we published a post entitled "The dark side of zero-sum thinking," noting that the angst over "overpopulation" has its roots in a zero-sum view of the world which sees resources as limited, like a "fixed pie," and every additional person as having the potential to leave a smaller slice for everyone else.

While declaring the 7 billion milestone as a "victory for mankind," the UN population fund abounds with this type of thinking, and their webpage entitled "Linking Population, Poverty and Development" makes declarations such as "slower population growth" reduces poverty, perhaps because "smaller families share income among fewer people" and "families with fewer children are better able to invest in the health and education of each child."

On a national level, the same page suggests that decreasing the population creates a "one-time only demographic window" in which countries can "spur economic growth" with government spending before the population ages and "dependency increases once more."

This kind of thinking is completely backwards, but it is consistent with the idea that growth is created by government spending (which often goes along with these same zero-sum assumptions) and that, since there is a limited amount of such spending to go around, the best way to maximize it is to create a one-time only "population window" for the fewer citizens who can enjoy the increased funding per person for a limited time.

Similar zero-sum beliefs are reinforced by the stark questions appearing on National Geographic's web site on the 7 billion milestone, such as
  • "Can we feed 7 billion of us?"
  • "Are there too many people on the planet?"
  • "Is there enough for everyone?"
  • "What influences women to have fewer children?"
Another article appears to be serious when it asks whether, in light of the population reaching the 7 billion mark, "the world should adopt a one-child policy" because the increased "demand on resources and the environment" might be "too large a demand for Earth to support."

In contrast to those who see the world as a fixed pie and every additional person as a potential drain on those resources, a few voices recognize that every additional person is actually a potential contributor who can make the pie bigger.

Not surprisingly, these voices tend to coincide with a view that governments and government spending do not grow economies, but rather innovation and entrepreneurial activity grow economies and make countries (and those who live in them) wealthier.

Last week, for instance, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page had an article by chief editorial writer William McGurn entitled "And baby makes seven billion" points out that prosperity is not linked so much to abundance of resources as to the correct view of the human being -- the right view being that "so long as people are free to trade and use their talents, the more the merrier."

For evidence that abundance of "resources" is not the central issue, he offers places such as Hong Kong that have prospered with almost no natural resources, while many countries with abundant resources have not.

This fact shows that the most important "natural resources" are human beings themselves!