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!

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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 (1)

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    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:


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