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Who Cares About Overpopulation? Smart People and Atheists
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If you had the sense that Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin are very much figures of the 1970s nexus of environmentalism and population control, it seems you are right. According to Google Ngrams mention of these topics has been declining since peaking during the oil crisis, in the afterglow of the influence of the late 1960s counter-culture. The general social survey has a variable, POPGRWTH, which asks:

And please circle one number for each of these statements to show how much you agree or disagree with it. The earth cannot continue to support population growth at its present rate.

The question was asked in the year 2000 and 2010. Demographic breakdowns below for the pooled responses….

Earth can not sustain population growth
Strongly agree Agree Neither Disagree Strongly disagree
Non-Hispanic white 15 41 22 20 3
Non-Hispanic black 6 32 28 29 5
Hispanic 14 39 22 23 3
Male 14 42 18 22 4
Female 13 38 26 21 3
Highest educational attainment
< HS 14 46 18 19 3
HS 13 38 24 22 3
Junior College 11 37 28 23 2
Bachelor 14 41 20 21 4
Graduate 16 40 17 23 5
Intelligence, measured by vocab score (WORDSUM 0-4 = stupid, 5-8 = average, 9-10 = smart)
Stupid 14 38 23 21 4
Average 12 41 23 22 3
Smart 21 37 15 22 5
Liberal 20 43 19 17 1
Moderate 12 41 27 18 1
Conservative 11 36 19 28 6
Protestant 12 39 22 23 3
Catholic 13 39 24 21 4
Jewish 15 33 22 30 0
No Religion 18 47 20 13 2
Bible is….
Word of God 11 35 23 27 5
Inspired Word of God 11 41 25 21 3
Book of Fables 23 43 14 18 2
Opinion as to the existence of God
Don’t believe 35 34 13 15 3
No way to find out 24 39 22 14 1
Some higher power 21 51 11 17 1
Believe sometimes 18 43 23 16 0
Believe but with doubts 13 44 22 19 2
Know God exists 11 37 24 24 4
(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis 
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  1. Even though I said in another thread I don’t think overpopulation is a problem, I’d agree with the above statement as it is worded. The problem is “present rate” has continued to decline since the early 1960s. So while I’d agree that the current rate of 1.1% or so per annum is unsustainable, I have every reason to think that the same general downward trend of growth will continue for decades to come, absent some major medical advances like “curing” aging.

    Would it be great for the environment if we could drop the growth rate even more? Absolutely, although I’m not sure we’re quite ready yet to deal with a global demographic hump of oldsters, along with the drag on real economic growth caused by a shrinking labor force. We will see in the next few decades with how China plays out the wisdom of a forced demographic transition before an economy is fully developed.

  2. This is kind of a weird question. Is it to be taken literally as current rates extended indefinitely into the future? Then no that couldn’t be sustained forever. It’s also not the current trajectory of growth rates (which is falling).

  3. i get the impression that many religious people don’t care much about resource management/pollution, etc. because they think god put everything we need to live on earth for a reason so we don’t need to worry about it. (animals were put here for us to eat, trees to cut down, etc.) then i often hear them say that the world is going to end anyway so it wouldn’t matter even if we did ruin the Earth. i’m thinking: “yeah, it WILL end…in about 500 million years.”

  4. By some amazing coincidence, the same groups also tend to lament all the dumbasses and religious obsessives they have to share the planet with.

  5. Is it to be taken literally as current rates extended indefinitely into the future?

    you really think people are assessing it like this? the average person can’t even figure out compounding growth in their credit card bill ;=)

  6. #1

    I think overpopulation wouldn’t be a problem as long as we could ween off of fossil fuels and focus on future energy. Energy, after all, goes hand-in-hand with standard of living yeah?. One of the main problems “environmentalists” have with 3rd generation+ nuclear energy is that they “generate nuclear materials closer to weapons grade”. In any case it’s the right of these nations to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. What about Throium? From what I have heard, many of the same academics who warn us about global warming support a switch to nuclear energy as the best option.. Despite Green party rhetoric.

  7. “From what I have heard, many of the same academics who warn us about global warming support a switch to nuclear energy as the best option”

    Global-warming alarmist James Hansen is a big proponent of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel use. As a right-winger, I feel this greatly enhances the credibility of his alarmism.

  8. Razib I repeated the analysis of POPWLTH – because I’m interested in the intelligence as a means of identifying views more likely to be correct (see my Smart Vote concept at Freakostats) – and I found that intelligence (Wordsum) is completely unrelated it, either on its own or when controlling for other factors such as education, income, sex, age, race, religious belief, political ideology, year etc.

    That this is not an issue illuminated by IQ differences of opinion is strange because I would have thought that some degree of knowledge is possible on this question.

    I did however confirm that atheists are more likely to believe in overpopulation.

  9. 6 –

    My own experience is most younger (post-boomer) environmentalists who aren’t wacko deep ecologists are somewhat pro-nuclear power. George Monbiot famously switched his position to being pro-nuclear in the aftermath of the Fukishima disaster (basically he decided since nuclear accidents are so rare, the damage from the occasional one every few decades was far less than that caused by fossil fuels every day.

    8 –

    I’m not sure why you think intelligence would correlate with more correct policy views.

    Yes, it’s true that smart people tend to be more right when it comes to scientifically recognized truth But they accept these truths because they are taught in school, or because they pick up the social signalling that a smart person is supposed to believe them. The rightness of the ideas has nothing to do with it, which is why there isn’t a strong correlation with being smart and “correct” on anything considered controversial. Most people, regardless of intelligence, pick up individual ideas and beliefs without reflecting upon them at all.

  10. God will take care every thing. It makes sense for God believers.

  11. This is very consistent with my own findings about who is breeding these days, seen here and here.

    In perhaps the height of irony, the ones most concerned about overpopulation are also the ones least contributing to it.

    #6 has the right idea. Energy isn’t really a problem in the long run since we have more energy than we will likely ever need in the form of thorium, and perhaps hydrogen and boron if fusion ever gets off the ground. This is not even considering the prospect of vastly improved ability to tap solar energy, which is certainly a watershed energy source in the long run.

  12. In response to Karl Zimmerman,

    Birth rates are declining due to changing lifestyles, and this will hypothetically result in an end or even reversal of population growth, but IMO this will be temporary. Natural selection will ensure that the population will eventually start growing again, unless natural checks on reproduction return (e.g. food shortage), or we deliberately regulate fecundity. People who have many children for whatever reason will become overrepresented in the gene pool.

  13. In response to Karl Zimmerman

    The opinions of smart people do not only reflect signaling but also real reasoning and better knowledge – where knowledge and insight is possible. If there is no correlation between intelligence and being ‘correct’ on controversial questions then there will be no IQ related differences of opinion. Where differences of opinion do correlate with IQ then its extremely likely that reason, insight and knowledge are relevant – especially when one controls for interests that may differ along IQ lines e.g. income, education, etc as I do.

    I therefore disagree that “there isn’t a strong correlation with being smart and “correct” on anything considered controversial.”

  14. 11 –

    While your argument makes logical sense, I’d like to see some data showing this to be the case.

    AFAIK there’s been no case as of yet where natural population growth declined and then rose once again, despite our being 2-3 generations into a global decline in fertility now. Even in the case of Israel, which arguably would be a case (where secular Jews are falling as a percent of the population, and the ultra-orthodox are rising) there hasn’t been a big change. From 1990 to 2009, the Jewish fertility rate only rose from 2.7 to 2.9. The Muslim fertility rate actually fell from 4.7 to 3.7, which meant the total fertility rate was unchanged at 3.0.

    If it’s not the case for Israel, I have a hard time thinking it’s the case in any developed or semi-developed country. In the U.S. at least while very low fertility seems to be a upper-middle class thing, as is often the case, others who aspire to these norms follow them to a lesser degree. Black family sizes for example, although still slightly larger than white families, are essentially falling in tandem (although overall fertility rates are higher, since fewer black women never become mothers). The same thing is true, from what I have read, of most Muslim immigrants to Europe – within a generation their fertility rates are also very low.

    I think part of the reason why it hasn’t manifested yet is for the most part differential birth rates are mainly due to cultural factors. People from pro-natalist minorities in the U.S., for example, like Mormons and Amish, may have many kids, but there is nothing inherent to their DNA which makes them want to have more kids. Some of their children leave the community each generation (for the Amish, about 25%), and group norms themselves may change with time to closer approach societal-wide norms. Until the cultural portions of fertility differences are exhausted, we’d expect the general anti-natalist social norm to work to suppress birth rates.

  15. 12 –

    A smart person, all things considered, should be able to use reason to discern which argument is more flimsy. But only a rare subset of the bright actually contribute something worthwhile to the greater corpus of human knowledge. Most passively absorb knowledge – knowledge which happens to be more correct than in the past because we’ve developed a process (the scientific method) to separate truth from falsehood. The smarter you are, the more likely you’ll be exposed to a great deal of this corpus, and find it personally engaging.

    That said, in matters of basic ideology, or anything which a person has chosen not to reflect upon to any great degree, I wouldn’t expect most bright people to be superior to average. If reason mainly existed for naval-gazing about our own beliefs, it would be useless in both life-threatening decisions as well as in-group social interactions. Indeed, I think all things considered intelligence makes both those right and wrong more intractable, as unlike the dull, they’re always able to come up with some plausible defense for their beliefs.

  16. Personally I don’t believe even our present population is sustainable in the long run — the important question of course being what one means by “the long run.” Many people think about the long run in terms of their grandchildren, so they see the long run as maybe 70 or 100 years. But I think of it in terms of ancient Greece and Rome, or the first farmers, or the end of the last ice age, and I have an extremely difficult time imagining how the Earth can support seven billion people at anything like our current life styles over such periods. The problem is not so much energy — the sun will be shining for a long time — but other resources. We are furiously digging anything of value out of the ground an scattering it all over the landscape, and there is only so much to dig up! Jeremy Grantham put it well in a recent GMO newsletter:

    … entropy in metals is merciless. However hard we try to recycle and however
    low our growth in physical output, metals will still slip slowly through our fingers
    . They are never replaced.

    What I am most afraid of is a collapse that can never be recovered from, because there will be no more copper or tin or oil or coal accessible without advanced technologies, and no way to redevelop advanced technologies without them. Unless we are very careful, or very lucky, I think there is a disturbingly high possibility that the long term future of the human race may turn out to be a million years of wood and stone and iron.

  17. 16 – The asteroid belt has enough metal in it to support trillions of people.

  18. The asteroid belt has enough metal in it to support trillions of people.

    Sure. (Although mining it and getting those metals back to Earth in sufficiently large quantities strikes me as rather more difficult than many people seem to think, and it probably isn’t something that we’ll see in our lifetimes).

    But we have to get there first! My concern is that Earth’s resources are already so depleted that if we had some sort of technological collapse no recovery would ever be possible, so we would never get there. And even if we got to the asteroid belt, and started mining it, a technological collapse on Earth would still be disastrous, because the miners would almost certainly be dependent on support from Earth.

    So we need to be very, very, very careful. And I’m having a hard time seeing us being that careful, because nobody is thinking in the really long run. And the bigger our population, the closer we skate to the edge, and the more difficult the task becomes.

  19. Most of the discussion I see about this topic is about differences in consumption patterns which also ties into economic fears about China, India, etc i.e. the growth is in a class of consumer. so the rise in the idea might not be as much about environmentalism as thinking there will be some kind of realignment (they took er jerbs)

  20. 5 – Right, but it may have affected how ‘smart’ people answered. Like Karl, I don’t believe overpopulation is or will be a problem, but I would have to agree with the question as worded.

    18 – A very common error is to badly underestimate how big the Earth really is. Humans have actually explored and mined only a small fraction of the planet. We’ve barely touched the oceans and even on land we have only extensively explored a few miles down in a few regions (even in the heavily explored United States, new reserves are being discovered).

    Technological collapse would indeed be fatal, but just think about what would be required to bring that about globally.

  21. Albert Bartlett has good information (free) on exponential growth. He’s a professor emeritus from Colorado-Boulder. I’ve seen his work plagiarized by quite a few.
    I love those “1 minute to midnight” analogies.

    The rule of 70 is good to know. Sometimes, it’s called the rule of 72.

    Basically, for small growth rates, take 70 and divide the growth rate (in percent) to get the doubling time. So, if you had a population or bank balance or whatever growing at 5% annually, then 70/5=14. It doubles in about 14 years. It’s an artifact of logs (log of 1+x is roughly x for small x).

    There’s a export land model for oil that is pretty scary. It’s not just peak oil or plateaued oil, but these oil producing nations have extremely high population growth rates, so internal consumption will take away from export.

    A report from Citi, no doubt using the elements of the export land model, states that the Kingdom of SA could run out of oil to export by 2030 even if their oil production can remain constant.

    Also, do y’all realize that we eat fossil fuels? Carbos are easily synthesized from sunlight from plants, but what about proteins? With the exception of some legumes, plants need nitrogen fertilizer to create protein. But not atmospheric nitrogen. Plants need some fixed nitrogen, like ammonium nitrates. Where does this come from? Natural gas. Natural gas, CH4, gets reformed to hydrogen, then is combined with nitrogen (fractional distillation from the atmosphere), then there’s the Haber-Bosch process…. and we have our ammonia as the building block for fertilizer. When the natural gas runs out, the fertilizer runs out. What will be the world’s population when this happens? Well, I’ll be dead by then…

  22. 20 – The Earth’s surface above water has actually been very well explored, and there are not going to be any big surprises. (Underwater is less well explored, but, well, that’s hard to get to). And the thing is, the easily accessible metals are already all gone! In the time of the ancient Greeks there were hills in Spain where, after a big fire, you could find silver melting right out of the ground. Not any more. In fact I am quite certain that there is no longer any place on Earth where copper or tin can be mined with Neolithic technology; therefore, whatever else happens, there will never be another Bronze Age.

    I also think technological collapse could happen fairly easily, via any number of routes. Highly complicated and interdependent systems are vulnerable to all sorts of unexpected cascading failures. Here is one possibility: nuclear proliferation; followed by a local nuclear war somewhere, brought on by creeping resource shortages; followed by some sort of nuclear winter; followed by widespread famine and chaos in heavily populated countries; followed by universal social collapse, as even those parts of the world left relatively unscathed find they can no longer acquire all the trade goods they need to maintain a high technology society. If you don’t like that scenario, I could certainly come up with others. And common to all of them is one fact: the bigger our population, the greater the stress on our social fabric, and the more likely we will find ourselves in a worst case scenario.

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