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Does Population Growth Really Exacerbate Poverty? May 28, 2007

Posted by Maddog in Religion and Social Issues.
Tags: , , , , ,

It is often alleged that high population growth and high population density result in greater consumption of resource in a locale and as such are “contributing factors” to poverty. These factors — if we follow the population controllers’ reasoning — should be reduced as they “exacerbate” poverty.

That is a flawed argument. Let’s examine the logic.

We have to remember that ANY activity that consumes resources can be considered a “contributing factor” that “exacerbates” poverty including such activities as manufacturing, raising livestock, and planting. But should we now lessen such productive activity?

And if having more people “exacerbates” poverty, then aren’t such things as decreased infant mortality and longer life expectancy also “contributing factors” that “exacerbate” poverty? Should we now close hospitals so more of these “contributing factors” can die off?

What about art and culture? These use up resources too and don’t produce a whole lot of mass consumables. Should we minimize these beneficial “contributing factors” too?

Argumentum ad absurdum. The argument of the population controllers leads to absurd conclusions.

The Benefits of Population Growth

Although it is true that, in general, bigger populations can consume more resources than a smaller one, people do more than merely consume. They also PRODUCE through activities like manufacturing and farming.

In addition, high population density allows for mass markets, greater interaction, more efficient distribution of services, and economies of scale. Growing populations can also mean growing markets and increased innovation. It’s no wonder that people are generally acknowledged as nation’s most valuable resource.

If population density and population growth contribute to productivity in such important ways, why then should these be singled out as something to be minimized while other productive “contributing factors” aren’t?

The Real Causes of Poverty

More important, why should the government spend millions on trying to minimize a productive “contributing factor” when there are OTHER, greater contributing factors that are NOT PRODUCTIVE at all?

Numerous surveys, for example, have shown that the economic situation in the Philippines (and in many other countries as well) is adversely affected by massive government graft and corruption, siphoning away anywhere from 30-70% of tax revenues and government funds, depending on which survey you look at. Shouldn’t efforts be focused on eliminating this proven “contributing factor” instead?

Private sector greed and corruption is just as alarming, and may be just as much a cause of poverty — or a contributing or exacerbating factor. Do not land-grabbing, bribery, overpricing, tax evasion, oppression, and drug trafficking contribute far more to poverty?

What about the excessive use of pork barrel funds? How much money does that take away from the edcuation budget? Or incessant partisan politicking? How productive is that activity? Dare I mention misplacing some of the Marcos millions, diversion of funds, and war? Aren’t these “contributing” more to poverty and “exacerbating” it?

The existence of these other causes of poverty indicate that perhaps a large population doesn’t really cause poverty at all, nor contribute to poverty in a significant way.

Why then are columnist Tony Abaya, congressman Edcel Lagman, and other legislators proposing that we waste millions of pesos on population control programs designed to attack a factor that has NOT been proven to cause poverty in the first place? Why don’t they advocate attacking the REAL causes instead?

Sadly, there’s too much foreign money coming into to fund population control than to eliminate corruption and greed. One wonders, are these foreign interests really trying to help the Philippines, or do they have a different agenda?

That is the question we should all be asking.

Update to this post (2007-08-16)

Councilor John Carlos de los Reyes courageously opposed the Reproductive Health Code of Olongapo City. Click here to read the text of his letter to the city council, read in open session, on August 1, 2007.

Here is a quote from his statement:

Population control is the wrong solution to the wrong problem. The root social problem of our nation is not over-population but massive, enslaving poverty. Philippine poverty cannot be the result of a growing population, but rather the outcome of corruption in both government and business sectors. Both government and business conspire to put half of the national wealth and income in the hands of less than 1% of the population…

So very true!

Update (2007-09-07)

An informed reader of the Philippine Daily Inquirer wrote this letter to the editor entitled “Overpopulation: a 20th-century myth“.



1. dominiquec - May 31, 2007

Hi, Manny! Just found your blog through your post on mine.

2. Blogie - May 31, 2007

Very clear-headed views on population control, Manny. I’ve actually been a silent supporter of the idea of population management, because I did subscribe to the concept that high population = poverty. Even when the Catholic Church reiterated that there was no connection between poverty and population growth, I didn’t want to listen. But your take on this issue has opened my eyes. Now I can’t imagine why I didn’t see it this way before….

3. Manny - May 31, 2007

I’m glad you found this piece enlightening Blogie. We all have been fed a lot of misinformation over the years. To counter this, I would recommend reading some of the works of the late Julian Simon and Jacqueline Kasun. They have some very well-researched observations on this topic.

Julian Simon’s website (with links to his works):

Article by Jacqueline Kasun in Envoy Magazine:

“People Aren’t the Problem” by J. Kasun:

Hi Dom!!! I’ve been reading your blog for some time now. Keep it up!

4. Mark - June 5, 2007

Interesting and quite a convincing argument.

But allow me to think out load for a second: Michael Porter has stated previously that a nation’s productivity is THE key to improving/increasing its competitive advantage. So then, we might say that a growing population doesn’t necessarily exacerbate poverty for as long as the average productivity per capita remains the same. To do that, every individual should start producing immediately after entering the legal working age. Question is: is this true in the Philippines? Perhaps not, but then again, even if it isn’t true, we can’t really say that it’s the fault of a growing population now, can we. Graft and corruption, as you said, could also be the culprit. (I’m going around in circles now. Hehe)

One thing that concerns me though is the implication of a continually growing global population on Mother Earth. (I’m assuming of course that population growth worldwide continues to rise at an alarming rate. I haven’t any data with me right now) The more people there are, the more natural resources are needed for consumption. It probably won’t be a problem if we all gave back to Earth the same amount that we consume. But having seen Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ leads me to believe that this isn’t so. So I would think that this is probably one reason why we get so much funding for population control. What do you think?

5. Manny - June 5, 2007

Thoughtful observations there, Mark. Thanks so much for your comments.

I personally think that given the productivity of human beings, even if a large number of people are not able to produce immediately upon reaching working age, the economy would still grow substantially and we shouldn’t be running out of any essentials. In some countries, for example, only a small percentage of the population can produce more than enough food to feed the entire nation. But that, of course, can all be destroyed by greed and corruption, as you have pointed out. Hence, the problem isn’t “overpopulation” but something else.

As for possibly overpopulating the earth because of population growth, in my opinion that scenario is very farfetched. The UN Population Division has already estimated that the earth’s population will probably stop growing (topping off at 9-12 billion) and actually decline within this century. And even at present, the population growth isn’t alarming at all. The growth rate has been dropping for a quite along time now. In some countries, it is below replacement level and recently, Japan’s population actually declined.

The earth’s resources are finite, but human beings consume so little (and have the potential to produce so much more wealth) that it may as well be infinite. The earth can support many, many times the number of people we have now. And yet, as the UN Population Division said, we won’t even get close to the number needed to deplete the earths’ resources.

But as you imply, perhaps there’s some other reason why there’s so much funding for population control. I guess it’s the inertia from all those decades of misinformation from the population doomsayers. I’m surprised, for example, that to this day some people still listen to Paul Ehrlich, who has made so many wrong and wacky predictions about the effects of population growth that he ought to be committed (well, I’m kidding about getting him into the loony bin, but so far his dire predictions have always been wrong).

Al Gore, in my opinion, is barking up the wrong tree. It may not be population growth that’s causing global warming. It can also be caused by ABUSE of resources and power by a small segment of the population. Just like corruption, abuse of resources is unnecessary and not directly tied to population growth. Abuse is perpetrated by people, yes, but that is not the same as overpopulation. Look at it this way: industrialized countries with small populations can release far more greenhouse gases than third world countries with more people. Or, to take a more extreme example, even if the world’s population were cut in half instantly, a few warmongers launching a nuclear war could still mess up the environment. It’s not the number of people that matters, its what a lot of power in the wrong hands can do that matters.

Hence, I think it’s not “overpopulation” that is the culprit. It’s something else. So instead of wasting money on population control, maybe we should address those other causes first.

6. Mark - June 5, 2007

Great arguments there, Manny. While I’m not entirely convinced that population is not a major cause, you’ve managed to make me think twice about it. What I’d love to see now is a comprehensive and balanced report that ranks the top 10 or so major contributors to national poverty. I doubt though that we’ll ever find such a report in this lifetime.

Also, perhaps Al Gore’s line of thinking was: the more people there are, the more individuals there are who fart. More fart in the air exacerbates global warming. Thus, more people leads to a hot and stinky environment! (Sorry about that. Couldn’t resist :) )

Seriously now, I’m trying to think back if Al Gore was blaming some parts of global warming on the world population. I’m not too sure now. I’ll have to get back to you on this one. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

7. Manny - June 6, 2007

Thanks for coming back. This topic seems to be getting the most comments. Guess this isn’t going to be mainly a techblog after all!

Let me suggest one such objective study: Antonio, Emilio T., et al. 2004. “’Too Many People’ Doesn’t Cause Poverty, Bad Governance and Policies Do”. University of Asia and the Pacific, Pasig City.

This study states:

Bad governance and bad economic policies, not a large, fast-growing population, are the real causes of poverty. More specifically, we have found that:

* Poverty remains unaffected or even decreases in a larger or increasing population. Population growth has little or no direct effect on per capita GDP growth. Thus, there is no basis for a policy that aims to reduce population growth to raise per capita GDP growth.

* Poverty is usually caused by poor governance and inappropriate and badly implemented economic policies — which leads to corruption, poor tax collections, lack of education and roads, lack of irrigation systems — instead of a large and increasing population.”

8. Mark - June 12, 2007

Hello again Manny. I reviewed Al Gore’s inconvenient truth and it turns out he really did touch on population growth. His take was that a threefold growth of the population in one lifetime (from 2billion in the 40s to 9billion in the next decade) will put a lot pressure on food and energy supplies. However, I think he did qualify that it was not population growth that’s directly responsible for this. Rather, it’s old habits + new technologies. Still, population does have an impact on our resources because it is a multiplier of this equation: population * (old habits + new technologies).

Would you mind sending that paper by Antonio et al. my way? You have my email.

9. Manny - June 13, 2007

Hi Mark! As a response, may I modify the “equation” a little?

population x (old habits + new tech + innovation + production)

What I’m getting at here is that a bigger population also increases production, mass market opportunities, and innovation. It does not have a negative impact on our total resources. Rather, population growth can increase AVAILABLE resources.

I realize that might sound strange at first since the earth’s resources are theoretically limited. But as I noted before, the resources may as well be unlimited since these resources cannot possibly be used up by even several times our current world population. Take note also that the UN Population Division pointed out, the world’s population will not continue to increase indefinitely.

More important, however, is the fact that human beings continually find new ways to use previously useless resources (such as fossil oil and silicon, both of which had little value until the 20th century). They also find new ways to greatly increase production of food and other essentials. For example, the amount of land area hasn’t increased much throughout the world, but the production per given hectare of land has increased tremendously.

This increase in productivity is a point that Julian Simon also makes.

I’ll dig up that paper for you. It’s been a long time since I used it. Thanks again!!!

10. Mark - June 20, 2007

Hi manny, I hope I’m not flogging a dead horse here, but I just wanted to point out how I failed to clarify Al Gore’s point. He was simply pointing out the negative effects of population x (old habits + new tech) on the environment. Particularly the atmosphere. The point was simply that if we don’t change our habits, our carbon emissions will go up the roof and we’ll be facing another ice age soon (when the ice in Greenland melts).

So basically, by citing Al Gore, I’ve gone on a tangent to your topic here. :-)

11. Manny - June 20, 2007

Thanks for clarifying the point you raised. Gore’s film is related to the topic, but isn’t exactly about overpopulation, as you pointed out. Your right. It’s the practices and activities of some people (or groups of people) that can have a detrimental effect on the environment and not the size of the population in itself. I guess we can say that bad governance and bad usage policies (which can be imposed over small or large populations) are examples of that.

Thanks again!!!

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