Marilyn vos Savant

Savant on Overpopulation

My mother recently brought to my attention a smart comment by Parade magazine columnist Marilyn vos Savant. She was asked by John Stroot of Camarillo, California, “In a thousand years, people will look back on our society and say whether we were a success or not. If you were one of those people, what do you think you might say?” Vos Savant’s answer was worthy of the Wall of Fame here at Growth Bias Busted:

“In the best case, I might say that we were wildly successful at raising the standard of living…for all. But in the worst case, I might need to add that our accomplishments paved the way for the population growth that irrecoverably damaged the beauty and livability of the planet.”

So rarely do people with a bully pulpit shine light on the overpopulation issue, it doesn’t take much to impress me. It would have been more accurate to write that in the worst case the human race will have extinguished itself due to population growth far beyond the ability of the Earth to support us.

Still, I want to give kudos to Marilyn vos Savant for not shying away from the topic. Here’s a sampling turned up in a cursory search:


Overpopulation (OCTOBER 28, 2010)
Marilyn: Would you agree with me that a large percentage of the world’s problems are caused either directly or indirectly by human overpopulation? If so, can anything be done about it?

Marilyn responds: Yes, I definitely agree. And plenty of actions would help–some immensely–but most of them would be politically impossible to put into accomplish.


Overpopulation in the News–or Not (JUNE 6, 2011)
Marilyn: How much does human over-population factor into the problems that people are facing in the world today? Why does this topic get so little coverage?

Marilyn responds: I believe that over-population is the #1 problem. The reason it gets little coverage is that the subject was much discussed in the past, and news media depend on novelty (news!) to get attention.


How Many People Can the Earth Sustain? (DECEMBER 5, 2011)
Marilyn: If we presume that there are ultimately physical and biological constraints on growth, and that even in a near-perfect world where technology maximizes resources to the limits of those constraints, what is the maximum human population that the world can reasonably be expected to sustain for the next 10,000 years?

Marilyn responds: Let’s say that “sustain” means a good quality of life and that we value a wide-open environment and nature, with a great diversity of animal and plant life. Then maybe ten billion, depending on how people behave. If they behave foolishly, then maybe five billion. And yes, that means fewer people than we have now.
Are There Too Many People on Planet Earth? (JANUARY 10, 2012)
Marilyn: Why did you conclude that the human race should keep the population under 10 billion or that we might even need to reduce the number of people on the planet? I find this outlook surprisingly pessimistic from someone who generally stands on the brighter side of the street. One of the parameters laid out in the inquiry was “a near-perfect world where technology maximizes resources.” Just looking at the past century with all of the advances in technology, the possibilities for 10,000 years from now seem unimaginable but very hopeful. Malthusian catastrophe theories have been around for centuries, and all of them have underestimated the ability of humans to adapt. As China is finding out, controlling the population can have serious unintended consequences. We almost certainly have less to fear from overpopulation than we do from any governmental attempts to control the number of people on our planet.

Marilyn responds: My reply had nothing to do with misguided governmental efforts to limit population growth, and I didn’t predict any kind of catastrophe. Yet while I know that humans are adaptable, and technology will be greatly beneficial, I do believe that no good will come from a constantly-increasing population. Do any of the following statements meet with your heartfelt agreement? 1) What societies most everywhere need is a lot more people; 2) A larger population would improve the human condition overall; or 3) A greater human population would be great for our planetary environment. I didn’t think so.

Parade’s Ask Marilyn column grew out of the fact that vos Savant held a Guinness World Record for high IQ. I’ll add that her overpopulation literacy is above average. Incidentally, she has two children (not 4, 6, 8 or even 3). She has a clear record of including human overpopulation in her column and making it clear she believes we’d be wise not to keep growing our numbers. She’s hinted we might be better off well below our current 7.25 billion. If you take the word of scientists over economists, a sustainable global population is closer to 3 billion than vos Savant’s well-behaved 10 billion. But I give her a gold star for stating, “over-population is the #1 problem.” Thank you, Marilyn. If only more columnists would give the #1 problem of human overpopulation some ink!

Join me in celebrating enlightened thinking and busting pro-growth bias in the media. Click this button:

Become a GrowthBuster

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

Comments (4)

  • Avatar



    So disappointing…
    Here we have one of the most intelligent people on Earth, EVER; and yet she utters a bunch of baloney.
    Why? Because, like all people, she lets her arbitrary likes or dislikes rule over her brain, not listening to the voice of reason. In this particular case, she happens to like the idea that overpopulation is a huge problem. Consequently, she shuts up her beautiful mind (which would show her that this is an idiotic idea dear only to hysterical people who like to scare themselves – but she’s not one of them is she?!?) and warps reality in order to fit what she likes. So sad…
    All problems that she has mentioned or may mention (I’ll do it for her) are obviously caused by evil or incompetent governments which won’t or can’t control the aggressive instincts of the human monkey.
    Authorities in tropical countries won’t or can’t enforce the laws forbidding tree cutting.
    American government won’t push for letting go of fossil fuels. All governments have woken up too late to the consequences greenhouse effect.
    Governments in all countries with huge, toxic urban blobs didn’t act on time to stop them from developing.
    The overwhelming majority of countries in the world have enough resources to feed, clothe and provide a civilized shelter to each and every citizen, now and for many generations to come.*

    All these evils are NOT caused by lack of resources (insufficient for the number of living people, my oh my), they’re caused by the governments’ inability or unwillingness to enforce the laws.
    Imagine the following: on a night when mosquitoes were particularly many and aggressive, a man can’t stand it anymore, takes his gun and goes on a killing spree. Now, if someone were to say that the wacko did what he did because BECAUSE OF THE MOSQUITOES, everyone would say that’s obviously moronic. One doesn’t need an IQ of 225 to see that, right? Yet, Ms. Von Savant purports the equivalent crazy explanation for the problems of mankind. Because she LIKES the idea that overpopulation is the cause.
    If even the most intelligent human lets a whim guide her and makes herself stupid in order to support said whim, is there any hope for humanity?
    THAT, my friends, is the main problem of humanity!

    * There are exceptions, Bangladesh comes first to mind, this is where the world should intervene (on condition they implement population control measures). But it’s definitely NOT a WORLD problem. Yet. Will discuss the future in another post. But she claims that overpopulation caused worldwide damage up to now. And that is just false.


    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner


      Teddy, I cannot agree with your perspective. You can see overpopulation in Bangladesh because the density makes it so obvious and observable. Even though it may not LOOK overcrowded in the middle of Kansas, farmers there are busy pumping the Ogalala Aquifer dry to feed the world. We’re only managing to poorly feed most of today’s 7.6 billion people by depleting fertile soil and fresh water, creating vast ocean dead zones, destabilizing our climate and extinguishing other species.


      • Avatar



        Yeah, perfect example. For my argument. Let me break this down for you. Many people (which you choose to call overpopulation) want a lot of cheap food . That would be *Demand*. This (alpha) prompts farmers to deplete the Ogallala Aquifer in order to make money by satisfying Alpha. Let’s call the farmers Beta. And the bad effects of their practices Gamma. And finally, the authorities who don’t do their duty of protecting the Aquifer, Delta. You’re saying that we have gamma because of alpha. But if delta did their duty, not allowing beta to commit gamma, we wouldn’t have gamma, would we now? Problem solved. One might say that then there wouldn’t be enough food for ALL the people currently fed by depleting the aquifer. Well, first off, cynically, this is not America’s problem. No country is obliged to destroy its natural environment to feed other countries. But what about human values etc. Well, at the moment there is no such moral dilemma. For country like the US, using mildly industrial agriculture (like some pesticides but the least-damaging ones, maybe cattle fed with grains, but no hormones or antibiotics, no aquifer depletion etc.), rule of thumb is, it can feed well over 100 persons/km square. That’s well over 1 BILLION people. Just the US. If we take in also southern Canada (and Southern can mean quite far up north – i read some species of wheat can grow up to 60 degrees latitude, not to mention native upper latitudes cattle), just these two countries can feed at least 1.5, maybe up to 2 BILLION people. More than enough to feed their own populations not only now, but for many CENTURIES to come, and a sizable part of the rest of the world. So, ya know, gimme a break, mate. A similar case can be made for Russia. European countries can also feed their own without problem and also export some. World’s inability to properly feed all its 7.6 billion people comes from delta, not from alpha. Remember that. If people in power the world over did their duty, we wouldn’t have any of the real problems you mention, but which you wrongly attribute to so-called overpopulation. If current Earth resources were manged properly by those in charge, they could feed double that number. Problems lie in the future. But that time is just not there yet. So please, both you and Ms savant, stop being such drama queens and use your minds for more productive activities than crying “wolf” when the wolf is just a small puppy :).


  • Avatar

    Brian Sanderson


    I’d raise a question about a statement that appears in one of the questions:
    “Just looking at the past century with all of the advances in technology, the possibilities for 10,000 years from now seem unimaginable but very hopeful.”
    Really the issue is not the advance of technology by the continued advance of the utility of advancing technology. Just because the science up to the early 20’th century turned out to have great material utility, it does not mean that material utility will be so easily gained from science in future. Indeed, every field of science tends to saturate and not all of science will have utility — beyond satisfying intellectual interests of those of us who love science.

    Personally, as a scientist looking critically at science, I think that the utility of science/technology for achieving human satisfaction will approach an asymptote. Perhaps I am wrong. But few scientists are willing even to think about this question let alone utter it in public… It is an important question. I have jotted a few thoughts:


Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Get Involved! is an interactive online community where you can vote, discuss and even submit stories about bias in the media. Get involved today!
Submit a Story

How Can I Help?

This is a donor-supported non-profit project. Your tax-deductible donation allows us to continue pushing the media to improve growth issues coverage.
Donate Now

Wall Of Shame

Reporting & commentary that assume eternal growth is feasible, good, and necessary for prosperity.

Wall Of Fame

Reporting & commentary that recognize growth has limits, costs, and consequences.

User Nominated

Examples of classic pro-growth bias or exceptional acknowledgement of limits to growth, submitted by our readers!.

Top Voted

Every Friday we honor the week’s top-voted story, from the Wall of Shame, Wall of Fame, or User Nominations.

Citizen-Powered Media – 2016