Cairo's Faulty Assumption Population Growth Isn't Antithetical to Progress; It's a Result of It

By Sheldon Richman. Sheldon Richman is senior editor at the Cato Institute . | The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

Cairo's Faulty Assumption Population Growth Isn't Antithetical to Progress; It's a Result of It


Sheldon Richman. Sheldon Richman is senior editor at the Cato Institute ., The Christian Science Monitor


NOW that the United Nations conference on population in Cairo is over, we should step back and look at what I believe is its dubious underlying principle. Vice President Gore, who led the United States delegation, offers a typical sample of this principle when he worries that "it took roughly 10,000 generations for the world to reach a population of 2 billion. And yet in my 46 years, we have gone from a little over 2 billion to almost 6 billion."

The comparison is dramatic. But his inference - that accelerated population increase is a problem - is not true. As economist Julian Simon suggests, the pace of population growth mirrors the pace of progress.

In 10,000 BC, the world population is estimated to have been about 5 million. Between then and 1650 AD, when the human race reached about half a billion, the population grew at only 0.04 percent a year. People who worry about population growth might long for those days. But something else about that period should be noted. The rate of improvement in human well-being was just as sluggish. Life expectancy was age 30. Infant mortality was high. Nutrition levels were low. So were incomes. Housing was decrepit and clothing costly. All aspects of human welfare were meager and stagnant.

Then something changed. Between 1650 and 1750 the population rate jumped from 0.04 to 0.29 percent, leaving three-quarters of a billion people on earth. In the next 50 years it jumped to 0.45 percent, and nearly a billion people. By 1900 the rate hit 0.65, and population 1.6 billion. That was an unprecedented increase. But it was not all. All measures of human welfare matched the dynamic growth rates from 1650 onward. Between 1776 and 1976, world population increased sixfold, but real wealth increased 80-fold. America was the paradigm: rapid population growth, rapid progress in human welfare.

For example, life expectancy began to climb steadily for the first time, a clear indication of improving health. Infant mortality began to fall. Productivity took off. Food production, contrary to Malthus, surpassed population growth. Incomes rose. The pace of change quickened; the Industrial Revolution took off.

IN the 20th century, all these trends accelerated. After World War II, the annual population growth rose to nearly 1 percent. In the 1960s it went above 2 percent before falling back. …

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