Acton Institute Powerblog

The Ever-Persistent, Always-Destructive Myth of Overpopulation

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overpopulationThe Nordic philosopher and priest Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) — the “Adam Smith of the North” — once asked:

Would the Great Master, who adorns the valley with flowers and covers the cliff itself with grass and mosses, exhibit such a great mistake in man, his masterpiece, that man should not be able to enrich the globe with as many inhabitants as it can support? That would be a mean thought even in a Pagan, but blasphemy in a Christian, when reading the Almighty’s precept: ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.’

Unfortunately, this mean and blasphemous thought was soon popularized as an obvious and incontrovertible fact by Chydenius’ contemporary, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. In An Essay on the Principle of Population Malthus argued that excesses in population are held within resource limits by two types of checks: positive checks (hunger, disease, war) raised the death rate while preventative checks (abortion, birth control, postponement of marriage) lowered the birth rate.

Malthus’ views have been shared by a broad range of scientists, from Charles Darwin to Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the neo-Malthusian error has garnered a degree of scientific respectability. What is surprising is the degree to which this thin veneer of legitimacy has been used to justify global promotion of abortion, forced sterilization, and other “preventative checks” in the name of progress and sustainability.

It has even affected one of America’s most controversial legal decisions. In deciding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s majority relied heavily on popular, but unproved and later disproved, 1970s-era evidence that there was an urgent need for population control in the United States. As legal scholar Clark Forsythe explains, “Fear of ‘the population crisis’ was a huge influence. [The Court] drank that in without any trial or evidence or expert opinion in the lower courts. There was no evidence. There was no record. They absorbed that through the media.”

Fortunately, the myth of overpopulation is easy to debunk as the Population Research Institute shows in their series of humorous cartoons on the subject.

Overpopulation: The Making of a Myth

2.1 Kids: Stable Population

7 Billion People: Everybody Relax!

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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