research institute for compassionate economics

Optimal Population and Exhaustible Resource Constraints

By Nicholas Lawson, Dean Spears, on August 23rd, 2016

A large literature considers the optimal size and growth rate of the human population, trading o the utility value of additional people with the costs of a larger population. In this literature, an important parameter is the social weight placed on population size; a standard result is that a planner with a larger weight on population chooses larger population levels and growth rates. We demonstrate that this result is conditionally overturned when an exhaustible resource constraint is introduced: if the discount rate is small enough, the optimal population today decreases with the welfare weight on population size. That is, a more total-utilitarian social planner could prefer a smaller population today than a more average-utilitarian social planner. We also present a numerical illustration applied to the case of climate change, where we show that under plausible real-world parameter values, our result matters for the direction and magnitude of optimal population policy.

Download Published: Working Paper       Geography: International