Too Many People? Not in the View of Some Economists World Population

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CAN the planet Earth, regions of which are already sagging under the weight of its 5 billion passengers, sustain 5 billion or 10 billion more?

By the conventional wisdom, the answer is a resounding no. A majority of demographers and environmentalists say the earth's soils, forests, and water resources are already being depleted at a dangerous rate. If population doubles or triples, they warn, the human load could produce an ecological nightmare.

But a sturdy group of demographic contrarians takes exception, scoffing at the notion that population growth will mortgage the world's future.

"Why should we worry?" asks Ben Wattenberg, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "We've gone from 1 {billion} to 5 billion while living standards have gone up exponentially. There's no evidence that population growth diminishes or dilutes development."

The optimism of academics like Mr. Wattenberg is rooted in an array of hopeful statistics on rising incomes, food production, and literacy rates that seem to belie the notion that population growth breeds declining living standards and ecological overload. If population growth creates problems, they say, then history has proved time and again that it also calls forth the human ingenuity needed to solve them. Case in point: the green revolution.

"The track record of these kinds of extrapolative predictions is simply historically dismal," says Larry Summers, chief economist of the World Bank in Washington, referring to the forecasts of doomsayers. "1990 is as close to 1930 as it is to 2050. No one in 1930 predicted the green revolution, antibiotics, North Sea oil, or the environmental movement."

Demographers acknowledge that they have failed to anticipate such developments. But they say they also failed to anticipate global warming, ozone depletion, and deforestation, all attributed in part to population growth.

"It makes you wonder what else is going on out there that we don't know about yet," says Paul Erlich, author of the 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb" (Ballantine).

The main locus of disagreement between mainstream demographers and some economists is whether the world will be able to feed billions more people.

The economists say that by using technology and management skills already available, farmers in Bangladesh can become as productive as farmers in Kansas.

Demographers say sweeping political and social changes will be required to make such technical possibilities a reality. …