Jack A. Goldstone
Much of the talk about population and world crises these days is apocalyptic. Such talk misses two vital issues-precisely how population growth is going to impact developing areas and what can be done about it. To determine whether population growth will produce a more unstable and dangerous world in coming decades, we need to identify the precise institutional pathways through which population growth creates political crises and discuss ways to intervene in those pathways to avert the worst effects. There certainly will be crises, but there are also sensible policy responses, and our ultimate future is not written in stone.
The obvious fears since the mid-1970s-that we shall run out of food, of water, of energy, of land, etc.-have been proven false, at least on a global scale. Julian Simon and his followers are correct that over the long haul, the human race has survived repeated crises to become richer and more numerous than ever. 1 However, over the short run and for specific regions, all of these shortages have occurred and will occur, with severe consequences. To ignore this fact and say that "population growth is not a problem" is like saying that since the human race has triumphed over numerous diseases, we need no longer concern ourselves with medical research or clinical treatment of diseases. In fact, we devote enormous resources to medical research and treatment not merely to save the human race (although large parts of it would surely perish without it), but to mitigate human suffering and improve the quality of our lives. It is for these same reasons, rather than only to avert apocalypse, that the effects of population growth demand our attention.
Given that many of the crises we now see stemming from population growth and accompanying environmental degradation are short term and local in their effects, economists and political scientists sometimes tell us that the real problem is not population growth; the problem lies in the political and social institutions that fail to distribute the available resources. Fair enough; in theory one could view a situation in which population growth is overwhelming the immediately available supply of housing as one in which better policy should have previously allocated more resources for building