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Experts in economic development agree that impoverishment is much more closely linked to insecure property rights, limits on exchange and institutional uncertainty than on factors like population.
Remember the oil shortages of the 1970s? They did not result because petroleum was a finite resource, but because competitive markets were hampered by conflict, price controls and cartels. High prices from those shortages induced increased exploration and substitution so that 40 years later we still enjoy abundant supplies of oil.

On Monday, according to United Nations estimates, the world's population will reach 7 billion. This comes just 12 years after the U.N. pegged world population at 6 billion.

Many worry this rate of population growth is creating conditions for catastrophe. We, however, consider population growth to be an expansion of the planet's most precious resource: human ingenuity. Although not without its challenges, this milestone is an occasion to celebrate instead of lament.

Just over 200 years ago, Thomas Malthus published his dismal "Essay on the Principle of Population," wherein he predicted that human population growth would tax natural resources to the point that there would be starvation and depopulation. Malthus wrote that "the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race."

He predicted "sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague" that would "sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands." And if that didn't sufficiently reduce the human population, Malthus spoke of a "gigantic inevitable famine" that "with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world."

Malthus' predictions were in general wrong. Since his day, when there were an estimated 1 billion inhabitants on the earth, life expectancy has soared and economic output per person has increased more than 10 times.

Nonetheless, concerns about population growth persist. And understandably so. Any survey of the material conditions for much of the human family shows that scarcity is the hallmark of daily life for far too many.

Today, some 925 million people suffer from food insecurity or undernourishment. In parts of Asia and Africa, more than half of all children suffer chronic hunger so severe it stunts their physical and mental development. Ready access to fresh water is denied to hundreds of millions.

But such horrific conditions are not directly attributable to population growth. There is plenty to share. For example, in 2009-10, the world produced enough cereal grains to sustain 11 billion people. It was the misdistribution of the earth's abundance that failed to meet critical needs.

Experts in economic development agree that impoverishment is much more closely linked to insecure property rights, limits on exchange and institutional uncertainty than on factors like population.

Indeed, many have shown that all things being equal, population growth increases prosperity. Why? Because as population grows, so does the stock of useful knowledge. That knowledge, manifest through know-how and technology, transforms scarcity into opportunity, either by finding ways to increase supply or provide a substitution.

If property rights are clear and markets are competitive, the higher prices stemming from shortages induce inventors and businesses to satisfy that shortage — either by finding ways to increase supply or provide a substitution.

Remember the oil shortages of the 1970s? They did not result because petroleum was a finite resource, but because competitive markets were hampered by conflict, price controls and cartels. High prices from those shortages induced increased exploration and substitution so that 40 years later we still enjoy abundant supplies of oil.

In theory then, securing peace, competitive markets and property rights for the world's poor so that they can profit from their ingenuity to "truck and barter" could redress the grossest distributional inequities related to life's necessities.

Another objection raised by contemporary Malthusians focuses on ecological disaster. Their question is, even if we can feed the masses, at what cost to the planet? Unlike commodities, society generally doesn't put a price on ecological resources like clean air and clean oceans. Since there's no individual gain from preserving ecological resources, they say, the market can't solve this Malthusian dilemma.

But even the answer to this particular dilemma, and others like it, will come with population growth. Analysts too often discuss population growth just in terms of mouths to feed. But each of those mouths also comes with a heart and mind — a mind capable of finding new, creative solutions to the challenges of scarcity, as other minds have done for thousands of years.

History has taught that individuals with the moral courage and ingenuity to solve what seem like intractable problems will often come from the most unlikely of places. Since we can't predict or plan their coming, we should welcome, celebrate and nurture every unique heart and mind sent to bless and teach us. Heaven knows we can use their help.