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Overpopulation now considered science “myth”?

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Funny, forty years ago it was the No. 1 science fact. Right up there where human-caused climate change is today.

As I know from experience, pregnant women took their share of heat, even in sparsely populated countries like Canada.

Well, at Nature, it’s currently #5 myth

“The science myths that will not die”

But the human population has not and is not growing exponentially and is unlikely to do so, says Joel Cohen, a populations researcher at the Rockefeller University in New York City. The world’s population is now growing at just half the rate it was before 1965. Today there are an estimated 7.3 billion people, and that is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Yet beliefs that the rate of population growth will lead to some doomsday scenario have been continually perpetuated. Celebrated physicist Albert Bartlett, for example, gave more than 1,742 lectures on exponential human population growth and the dire consequences starting in 1969.

One dire consequence has been forcible sterilization and abortion.

The world’s population also has enough to eat.

Yes, and obesity is becoming a global problem .

Like others interviewed for this article, Cohen is less than optimistic about the chances of dispelling the idea of overpopulation and other ubiquitous myths (see ‘Myths that persist’), but he agrees that it is worthwhile to try to prevent future misconceptions. … Scientists need to be effective at communicating ideas and get away from simple, boiled-down messages. Myths that persist More.

What scientists need is science journalists who lose the pom poms and start asking the hard questions when they are unpopular.

It is precisely when the hard questions are unpopular that they are most urgently needed.

One wonders whether uncritically accepted climate change claims will do more or less damage than overpopulation claims.

See also: Some are starting to get it: Science journalist fed up with “nutrition science” Is this getting to be a trend?

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15 Replies to “Overpopulation now considered science “myth”?

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    Doesn’t it depend on how you define overpopulation? Is it the population size that exceeds the carrying capacity of the whole planet – which is a finite system after all – to provide sufficient resources to sustain that population? Or is it when the population exceeds the capacity of the world’s societies – as currently structured and organized – to make adequate provision for their members?

    If it’s the first measure, then we are probably some way off from reaching that limit. If it’s the second measure, then we may already be at that point, given the widespread conditions of famine, malnutrition, poverty and deaths from a whole range of preventable causes that obtain around the world.

    So is overpopulation a myth or not?

  2. 2
    Jim Smith says:

    I read somewhere that the rate of growth of the population is increasing but at a decreasing rate. If that continues, population growth will reach 0 and then go negative. If the population continues to decline, we will go extinct. Demographers have known this for many decades.

    This link is not what I said I read but it is on the subject:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/.....oding.html

  3. 3
    Zachriel says:

    News: The world’s population is now growing at just half the rate it was before 1965.

    It’s called birth control.

    • If we don’t do something about the fire, the town will burn down.

    • If we don’t do something about air pollution, we will choke on our own industrial wastes.

    • If we don’t do something about overpopulation, the world will become overcrowded.

    • If we don’t do something about greenhouse gas emissions, the climate will be adversely affected.

    There’s a common thread there, if you can find it.

  4. 4
    News says:

    FYI all: By the time the Population Bomb hit the main rags, population growth was beginning to subside anyway. (Though it was the bollocks of the century, it was too good a Science Scare to pass up, and created political advantages for secular elites.)

    Why population growth was already subsiding: Reduced child mortality rates began to sink in culturally, in many places. People started to sense that if they had six children, they would in due course, have six young adults instead of three (as in earlier times). That makes a difference to what happens next.

    Wherever machine power replaces human and animal power, we will broadly speaking, see reduced birth rates over time. The old theory was that healthy kids can work more than they need to eat (“Every child is born with one mouth but two hands).”)

    The new theory became, get your kid into a paid job, best of all in the middle classes (which is easier to do if one has only a few contenders than if one has many).

    Zachriel seems to believe that birth control causes low birth rates. No. Of course not.

    Birth control makes low birth rates more convenient to achieve, assuming the desire already exists. (Alternatives are abortion, infanticide, forced celibacy, very late marriage, castration, etc.)

    Smaller families generally happen in situations where there is an apparent advantage to smaller families.*

    Feminists today often talk as though a “childfree” status confers power; in antiquity, it would make a woman a shunned, possibly abandoned, non-entity.

    = She failed to produce the most valuable thing a woman could produce, which was a free labour force. Happy the woman who had ten strong sons; she was practically a queen, and even her husband had to defer to her.

    Now the wheel has turned and will probably not turn back.

    But the genius of the Population Bomb movement was to take a comprehensible demographic change and, with lots of help, turn it into a pseudo-crisis to advance irrelevant goals.

    No surprise if human-caused global warming turns out to be the same thing. One can only pity the victims, usually the wretched of the Earth in these cases.

    * Where birth control is readily available but not being used, you can be pretty sure that some factor still rewards childbearing. People can be stupid but not usually that stupid. As a group, they tend to be able to figure out whether 2, 4, 6, or 8 is the best number to aim for.

  5. 5
    Zachriel says:

    Here’s a graph of human population over time on a straight scale. Notice that it is hard to distinguish from exponential growth.
    http://www.globalchange.umich......rldpop.jpg

    Here’s a log-log scale of human population.
    http://www.thefourthrevolution.....v0_1-1.jpg

    News: (Alternatives are abortion, infanticide, forced celibacy, very late marriage, etc.)

    Those are all forms of controlling reproduction. However, modern birth control has been essential for controlling population growth in developing countries.

    News: * Where birth control is readily available but not being used, you can be pretty sure that some factor still rewards childbearing. People can be stupid but not usually that stupid.

    Men and women often have different concerns, but women have generally less power and less say.

  6. 6
    ppolish says:

    Birth Control is lowest where Religion is growing the fastest.

    Pseudoscience Myth#6:
    “Religion will disappear by 2040”

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birth_control_in_Africa

  7. 7
  8. 8
    News says:

    Hi all,

    Zachriel at 5: Exponential isn’t the point. The growth in privately owned cars in North America may have been exponential between the 1920s and the 1970s. But anyone who thought that all parks would become parking lots was simply not paying attention to the drivers of the demographic change. (However, if they could find Chicken Little News, Inc., they were sure of prime time.)

    Birth control is much more readily accepted than the other alternatives, of course. (I added castration, also widely used at various times).

    But that is beside the point. Human beings generally do manage their populations, well or badly, by whatever means. But it takes several generations for most to grasp the fact or significance of a long-term change. Cultural adjustments take time.

    Also, while women have less power and less say, most cultures don’t encourage men to have little at stake in the question of how many children they have or what becomes of them. Usually, special circumstances are required for that.

    ppolish at 6: Yes, insofar as religious groups grasp as a group, that demographics is a game of last man standing, they have often used higher birth rates to cement their position in a society in birthrate decline. In Quebec, it was once called “revanche de la bergere” (revenge of the cradle). After all, someone will inherit the Earth eventually.

  9. 9
    Zachriel says:

    News: Exponential isn’t the point.

    Exponential growth can never continue unabated. If the human population were to increase by 1% per year unchecked, their mass would exceed that of the Sun in less than 5000 years. The question is whether the human population will be limited gradually, or catastrophically. See @3.

    News: Also, while women have less power and less say, most cultures don’t encourage men to have little at stake in the question of how many children they have or what becomes of them.

    Populations explode with the advent of industrialization. This tends to decrease as the population becomes more educated, and women gain more control over their reproductive futures. Many developing countries are experiencing continued unchecked population growth. In the meantime, modern birth control is essential for limiting population.

  10. 10
    Seversky says:

    News @ 4

    Feminists today often talk as though a “childfree” status confers power; in antiquity, it would make a woman a shunned, possibly abandoned, non-entity.

    = She failed to produce the most valuable thing a woman could produce, which was a free labour force. Happy the woman who had ten strong sons; she was practically a queen, and even her husband had to defer to her.

    Now the wheel has turned and will probably not turn back.

    Okay, we can agree that women were oppressed and exploited in the past and still are in msny ways and many places. How much the feminist movement helped relieve that oppression, at least in the affluent West, is open to debate, but it was probably more than the established churches did.

    But the genius of the Population Bomb movement was to take a comprehensible demographic change and, with lots of help, turn it into a pseudo-crisis to advance irrelevant goals.

    Is there any doubt that there is a limit to the carrying capacity of the planet?

    Is there any doubt that human societies, as currently structured, are often grossly inefficient at making adequate provision for all their members?

    You still haven’t answered the question of which definition of overpopulation is a pseudo-crisis.

  11. 11
    ppolish says:

    “Is there any doubt that there is a limit to the carrying capacity of the planet?”

    Seversky, are you arguing that the Earth is a “closed system”? Just curious.

  12. 12
    Robert Byers says:

    Why is this Cohen right anymore then the old ones??
    Why were the old ones wrong? Is it not simply that its not good intelligent research period and then the few who do it ARE TRUSTED as the experts.
    In fact if we said to the old ones THERE was not this pop issue they would of said we were rejecting science and denialists and a threat and censored us.
    Its just now the EXPERTS changed their mind but the myths anatomy has not changed.
    Evolution is a myth and a lot more. When evolutionism crasehes in the next decade it will be the experts who say its wrong and not the merits of the case.
    Experts really do largely determine truth I note.

  13. 13

    Z@9: The difference between people and say, deer populations, is that people anticipate the future and react preventively. Some of that occurs with oaks and bear populations too, but isn’t really understood right now. What News is saying is that people are smarter than your average bear, and have a couple of years to figure out if they want 4 more kids, or none at all. Let me repeat—catastrophes are unlikely if people have any knowledge of the world, the future, history, tradition, etc.
    And secondly, statistics is difficult, demographics even more difficult, and prediction is nearly impossible, especially of the future. Just because industrialization occurred at the same time as population growth neither makes it a cause nor a consequence, it is just a correlation. Check out the birthrate of Iran over the past 30 years. Pretty astonishing first derivative after a highly conservative religious group took over. Which caused which? I don’t know. But to my untrained eye, it would appear to contradict everything in your second paragraph.

    S@10
    From a physics viewpoint, there actually is a doubt about the “the limit of the carrying capacity of the planet”. Limits work nicely on continuous functions, but suppose for the moment that humans colonize the Moon and Mars. Is that function continuous with the “carrying capacity of the planet?” We could come up with all sorts of silly limits–like the supposed caloric intake of a human and the sunlight power intercepted by the Earth’s surface, but every one of these attempts would have to assume that no human is smart enough to find a workaround—like Dyson spheres or cold fusion. As a consequence there is a huge doubt that any limit we define would be true in five years, much less in fifty.
    And regarding the definition of “pseudo-crisis”, I will try to make one for you. A crisis is “early death, greater than normal deathrate, or potential for extinction”. The “Population Bomb” promised all three and delivered none. A famous bet was made between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon (see Wikipedia) that five metals Ehrlich said would be in short supply would be cheaper and more abundant in 10 years. All five were cheaper. Mind you, not 20%, not 60% but 100% failure. I’d call that a reasonable claim for “pseudo-crisis” status. And don’t get me started on the disaster scenarios for global warming.

  14. 14
    Zachriel says:

    Robert Sheldon: The difference between people and say, deer populations, is that people anticipate the future and react preventively.

    Exactly!

    @3

  15. 15
    Virgil Cain says:

    • If we don’t do something about the fire, the town will burn down.

    But the fire is no where near town and it doesn’t have a chance to reach it.

    Oops…

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