How Many People Can the Earth Support? by Joel E. Cohen
For decades, debate about overpopulation has been frozen at two poles. In one camp are what have been called “neo-Malthusians,” pessimists who believe that the world already holds more people than it can sustain, and that as environmental degradation proceeds, excess population will likely be pruned by disease, disorder, starvation, and war. In the other camp are people whom some critics have labeled “Cornucopians,” those who observe that in many locations rapid population growth has been consistent with broad improvement in the conditions of life; they maintain that thanks to the self-correcting mechanism of markets, and to human ingenuity, scarcity can be fended off indefinitely.
In this debate, the neo-Malthusians’ position is by far the more popular, even if intellectually theirs is much the harder row to hoe. Paul Ehrlich, perhaps the most vocal exponent of this camp and the author of the runaway best-seller, The Population Bomb (1968), has been repeatedly proved wrong in his predictions; the 1970′s, 80′s, and half the 90′s have come and gone without a sign of anything resembling his frightening scenarios of destruction. On the other side, perhaps the most outspoken of the Cornucopians is the economist Julian Simon, the author of, among other books, The Ultimate Resource (1981). Simon’s contention that scarcity does not set “limits to growth” has yet to be contradicted by the final arbiter: history itself.
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