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(article from 1996)
In 1798, a dour young cleric named Thomas Robert Malthus invented overpopulation. The growing numbers of poor, he wrote in Essay on the Principle of Population, were bound to starve because England simply couldn't produce enough food to feed them. England's population was, in his view, already higher then the country could ever hope to support. He urged his readers to let nature take its course, by which he meant making sure that all the poor people starved or went some place else.
Nearly 200 years later, educated people still worry about the poor interfering with the smooth functioning of the global economy. Worried that "the number of people on the Earth has reached, or will reach within half a century, the maximum number the Earth can support in modes of life that we and our children and their children will choose to want", Joel Cohen, head of Rockefeller University's Laboratory of Populations, has written How Many People Can the Earth Support? with an eye to the "population problem".
Now, overpopulation is a subtle and inconsistent creature. Attentive readers will have already noted that Cohen does not see the planet's problem as hyper-exploitation of natural resources, to be solved by curbing consumption in the overdeveloped nations. Instead, the perpetrators of the population problem are the dark-skinned and the poor.
Inquisitive souls may wonder why overpopulation supposedly ravages Indonesia whereas the Netherlands, with a population density over three times as high, is only a little crowded. No doubt the answer to this ingenuous question lies in the fact that the Dutch are wealthy and the Indonesians are poor.
And there is no shortage of poor people in the world, especially in countries deemed overpopulated. But, contrary to the Malthusoid musings of Professor Cohen as well as the State Department, the Ford Foundation and many a God-fearing liberal, there is no such thing as overpopulation, nor a global population problem. We well know that hunger, exploitation and overcrowding exist in nearly every nation, and in some nations more then others. But to classify those living in these conditions as a "surplus population" is to deny these people, already with little money and less hope, the very right to exist. Not only have they no right to exist, but this is a scientific law, like gravity, with whole disciplines, i.e., population biology, demography and economics, to prove it.
The deeply ideological "common sense" of Malthus still rules. So what rich Hong Kong has a higher population density than wretched Bangladesh? So what if five times more people live in Great Britain today than in Malthus' day, when he thought the limit had already been passed? So what if, according to the United Nations, per capita global food production has been increasing steadily the past 15 years? Population hysteria is as strong as ever.