Overpopulation or Underpopulation

25 October 2011

Portrait of Dr Toby Ord

by Dr Toby Ord
James Martin Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute

Toby Ord's background combines theoretical computer science with analytic philosophy. He is especially interested in how certain key future technologies may seriously affect society for good or ill, on a timescale of around thirty to a hundred years....

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© Istock/Adisa

This year will see the world’s population reach 7 billion, and there has been considerable media interest. However, almost all of the press focuses on the downsides of population growth but neglects the upsides. These upsides may even outweigh the downsides, making a larger population a good thing overall.

One example is the rapidly growing information economy. If someone makes a hammer, only a few people get the benefit, but if someone records a new song, writes a computer program, or invents a new technology, everyone can benefit. These activities thus produce more value the more people we have. With twice as many people doing jobs like these, we could all get roughly twice the benefits (more art, culture, science, technology), or they could work roughly half as many hours. A larger population thus has the potential to make life much better, so long as we can find the resources to support it.

Moreover, there are also benefits for the extra people. Isn’t it good for you that you exist? You’re population too! People often talk cavalierly of reducing the population by a billion. This is more than the number of people who have ever lived in my adopted homeland of the United Kingdom. Setting aside all the positive and negative ways in which the UK has influenced the rest of the world, isn’t there a lot of value in all of their hopes and dreams, experiences and culture, over all its long history?

I’ve thought a lot about these upsides of a larger population and how to think about balancing them against all of the downsides. For those interested in seeing these thoughts developed, have a look at the lecture I gave last week on the topic for the Oxford Martin School’s series: Is the Planet Full?.

This opinion piece first appeared on the Practical Ethics Blog.