The Netherlands Fallacy

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Paul Ehrlich is widely recognized as a leader of the "anti-overpopulation" movement. In his book, The Population Explosion, he refers to an article by an editor of Forbes magazine which points out that the Netherlands has one of the highest population densities in the world, and yet is a prosperous and pleasant place to live.

Ehrlich replies:

The key to understanding overpopulation is not population density but the numbers of people in an area relative to its resources and the capacity of the environment to sustain human activities; that is, to the area's carrying capacity. ... By this standard, the entire planet and virtually every nation is already vastly overpopulated. ...

It is especially ironic that Forbes considered the Netherlands not to be overpopulated. This is such a common error that it has been known for two decades as the "Netherlands Fallacy." The Netherlands can support 1,031 people per square mile only because the rest of the world does not. In 1984-86, the Netherlands imported almost 4 million tons of cereals, 130,000 tons of oils, and 480,000 tons of pulses (peas, beans, lentils). It took some of these relatively inexpensive imports and used them to boost their production of expensive exports -- 330,000 tons of milk and 1.2 million tons of meat. The Netherlands also extracted about a half-million tons of fishes from the sea during this period, and imported more in the form of fish meal.

The Netherlands is also a major importer of minerals, bringing in virtually all the iron, antimony, bauxite, copper, tin, etc., that it requires. Most of its fresh water is "imported" from upstream nations via the Rhine River. The Dutch built their wealth using imported energy. Then, in the 1970s, the discovery of a large gas field in the northern part of the nation allowed the Netherlands temporarily to export as gas roughly the equivalent in energy of the petroleum it continued to import. But when the gas fields (which represent about twenty years' worth of Dutch energy consumption at current rates) are exhausted, Holland will once again depend heavily on the rest of the world for fossil fuels or uranium.

In short, the people of the Netherlands didn't build their prosperity on the bounty of the Netherlands, and are not living on it now. Before World War II, they drew raw materials from their colonies; today they still depend on the resources of much of the world. Saying that the Netherlands is thriving with a density of 1,031 people per square mile simply ignores that those 1,031 Dutch people far exceed the carrying capacity of that square mile.


We could raise some quibbles here. For example, he says that the Netherlands is not self-sufficient in energy, because someday the energy reserves that they presently have discovered and are harvesting may run out. Well, hmm. He is saying that the Netherlands is overpopulated today because of something that he predicts might happen in 20 years. How does he know that new energy reserves will not be discovered, or that new energy technologies might not be invented? This is a little like saying that the country is in the midst of a terrible drought because, even though there is plenty of water now, we will use up all the water that is presently available within a few months, and if we assume that it will never rain again, at that point we will be in serious trouble.

But let's get to the main points.

How big is a place?

Mr Ehrlich defines the word "overpopulation" to mean that a given place cannot support itself using only the resources available within the boundaries of that place.

By this definition we would, I suppose, have to concede that indeed the Netherlands is seriously overpopulated. It must import many things to keep its economy going. But if we accept his definition, we arrive at some very curious paradoxes.

For example: Suppose there are two countries, let us call them simply Country A and Country B. Country A is a barren desert, it is almost impossible to grow any food, and so the people of A must import almost all of their food from other countries. Meanwhile, Country B is filled with lush farmland, and is easily able to produce enough food to feed all of its people, plus have a surplus which it exports to Country A. But Country B has no energy resources -- no oil, no coal, not even a good river for hydroelectric power. And so Country B is forced to import all its energy. Fortunately Country A has abundant supplies of energy, which it trades to Country B in exchange for the food that they buy.

This scenario hardly seems fanciful. The description of Country A fits many nations in the Middle East. The description of Country B fits many nations in Europe.

By Mr Ehrlich's definition, Country A is overpopulated, because it cannot produce enough food to feed its people. Country B is also overpopulated, because it cannot produce enough energy to power its economy. But taken together, the two are not overpopulated. If we consider the two countries as one combined "place", this place produces enough food for all its people and produces enough energy for its economy.

It is surely a curious definition of overpopulation when A by itself is "overpopulated", and B by itself is "overpopulated", but the two taken together are not. This surely challenges any reasonable idea of what we mean by the word.

Note that Mr Ehrlich effectively concedes that the Netherlands exports many products in exchange for what it imports. The situation is not that the Netherlands is an international charity case which only survives because sympathetic foreigners continue to supply it with the essentials of survival. No, the Netherlands buys what it needs on the open market, trading what it can produce efficiently for the things that it cannot.

A little thought will show that by Mr Ehrlich's definition, any "place" in the world is overpopulated, as long as you define the "place" to be small enough. My house is vastly overpopulated. We grow only a miniscule amount of food in our backyard: almost everything we eat comes from the grocery store across town. We must bring our water in through pipes from a well several blocks away. (We carelessly squander the little bit of rain that falls on our property by letting it run off into the street.) We produce no energy: we import it all from another city. We produce no shoes or clothing, we mine no metals and pump no petroleum. Etc etc. About the only thing we do produce for "export" is computer software: I sell my services as a software engineer in exchange for cash to pay for all the things we must import. Of course I am far from unusual. I'm sure that most families today do not produce everything they need by themselves on their own property. And why should they? It makes far more sense for people to specialize, to pick one thing that they do well and hopefully enjoy, produce far more of it than they could possibly use themselves, and exchange this surplus for all the other things they want to consume. (Maybe this is a bad example: with four children, my wife insists that our house is seriously overpopulated ...)

If we increase the scale from family to town to state or province to nation, of course the degree of specialization decreases as the number of people and pool of resources grows. But it is not at all clear why a nation should be expected to be entirely self-sufficient. It is not even clear that this is a worthwhile goal to pursue. It makes far more sense to specialize on producing what you can produce better than others, and trade your surplus for the surplus of others.

Less is more

Here's a second, even funnier paradox to Mr Ehrlich's concept of overpopulation: A country that is not overpopulated now could become overpopulated by losing people, and a country that is overpopulated could cease to be overpopulated because more people moved in. Here's how:

Suppose there is a small community of, say 1000 people. These people are totally self-sufficient: the community grows all its own food, mines all the metals they need, they have doctors and teachers and carpenters and plumbers, they even have a little hydroelectric plant on the river through town that supplies all their energy needs. The community is completely self-sufficient. By Mr Ehrlich's definition, it is not overpopulated.

Then one day the engineer who maintains the power plant dies. Not long after that the generator breaks down, and there is no one in town who knows how to repair it. Community leaders decide that the easiest solution is to run a power line to the next town and trade some of their extra food for electricity. (Now that the community is feeding one less person, they have some extra food and various other commodities.) The community is no longer self-sufficient. By Mr Ehrlich's definition, they are now overpopulated.

They became overpopulated because their population went down by one.

If they ever manage to replace this person and get local energy production going again, they may once again not be overpopulated. That is, if they can increase their population by one -- by the "right" one, of course -- they will cease to be overpopulated. Indeed they may well conclude that the best way to avoid ever becoming overpopulated again is to persuade a number of competent engineers to join their community. Increasing the population by a larger number may help to insure that they don't become "overpopulated" again any time soon.

Surely any definition of "overpopulation" in which the problem can be solved by bringing in more people challenges any coherent idea of what we mean by the word.

Taken in isolation

I suppose that an anti-populationist might insist at this point that lack of self-sufficiency is overpopulation, because the place could not survive by itself; it must draw on resources from the outside world. If the place -- the Netherlands in this example -- were to be cut off from outside resources, their economy would quickly crumble and the people might well starve, because they are not able to support themselves using their own resources.

My reply to this is to quote Mr Ehrlich. Just a little later in his book than the excerpt I quoted above, he discusses an objection that some have made to his theories: Pro-populationists often say that the world could support a far larger population than it does now if people made better use of resources, for example, if the most advanced technologies were applied in places that presently use primitive methods of farming or lumbering; or people used more fuel-efficient engines; etc. Mr Ehrlich replies that this is irrelevant:

But, for now and the foreseeable future, Africa and the United States will remain overpopulated -- and will probably become even more so. To say they are not because, if people changed their ways, overpopulation might be eliminated is simply wrong -- overpopulation is defined by the animals that occupy the turf, behaving as they naturally behave, not by a hypothetical group that might be substituted for them.

Exactly. To say that the Netherlands would be overpopulated in some hypothetical case where the rest of the world vanished into the mists like Brigadoon, and the Netherlands was then left floating alone in space ... well, yes, in such a situation the Netherlands would have a very difficult time sustaining itself. But so what? The reality is that there is a world outside the Netherlands, and there is no good reason to believe that that world is going to disappear anytime soon. It makes good sense for the people of the Netherlands to run their lives based on the world the way it actually is, not the world the way it might be in some far-out science fiction scenario.


Mr Ehrlich confuses "overpopulated" with "not self-sufficient". It is quite a stretch to say that these two ideas are the same. It is not at all clear why it is a bad thing for people to co-operate and share for their mutual advantage. If a country must import vital goods to maintain its economy and population, this might be because the country is overpopulated and has overburdened their available resources. But it might also simply mean that they have chosen to concentrate their efforts on things that they do better than other people, and trade their surpluses in some categories for others' surpluses in other categories.

Mr Ehrlich gives this strange definition of "overpopulation", and then solemnly informs us, "By this standard, the entire planet and virtually every nation is already vastly overpopulated." This is exactly the opposite of the truth. By his standard, every household, every town, and most nations are vastly overpopulated -- if taken by themselves. But taking the entire world, we are not overpopulated at all.

In short, Mr Ehrlich can "prove" that the Netherlands is overpopulated by giving a counter-intuitive, almost meaningless definition to the word.

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Posted 30 Oct 2000.

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