Summary: A recent op-ed in the New York Times suggests that we should conserve resources by making humanity shorter. However, this argument relies on false assumptions about resource scarcity and population. Tall or short, humans make resources more, not less, abundant.

A strange new twist on the idea that the planet would benefit from having fewer people (to consume fewer resources) is that the planet would also benefit from having shorter people (again, to consume fewer resources). The proposal to shrink the population, whether in terms of its total size or its average height, seems to be in vogue. An op-ed in the New York Times argues:

Short people don’t just save resources; as resources become scarcer owing to overpopulation and global warming, they may also be best suited for long-term survival. . . . When you mate with shorter people, you’re potentially saving the planet by shrinking the needs of subsequent generations. Lowering the height minimum for prospective partners on your dating profile is a step toward a greener planet.

This opinion piece by journalist Mara Altman assumes that resource scarcity is an urgent threat in our modern, globalized economy and that less resource consumption is the solution. To that end, she suggests that human beings attempt to lower their species’ average height and thus their consumption needs and that they accomplish this through romantic discrimination against the tall (specifically, tall men).

The strange argument reminded me of an old but excellent quote by economic historian Deirdre McCloskey (emphasis added):

The rich became richer, true. But the poor have gas heating, cars, smallpox vaccinations, indoor plumbing, cheap travel, rights for women, low child mortality, adequate nutrition, taller bodies, doubled life expectancy, schooling for their kids, newspapers, a vote, a shot at university and respect.

One of the results of improved nutrition and health that accompanied the Great Enrichment—the dramatic, unprecedented, and ongoing transformation in global living standards—has been that people have become taller than in the past. For example, research suggests the average height of Dutch people has shot up in the last 160 years by at least 20 centimeters (around 8 inches), making them the tallest on the planet. “The Dutch have become so much taller in such a short period that scientists chalk most of it up to their changing environment. As the Netherlands developed, it became one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of cheese and milk,” which are highly nutritious, notes science journalist Martin Enserink. Many people consider the Netherlands the site of the beginning of the Great Enrichment.

In advanced economies, many more people may be reaching their height potential thanks to improved diets and health. “The most reasonable explanation is that the overall increase in average height is a reflection of the overall improvement in health,” according to Christopher S. Baird, a physics professor at West Texas A&M University. “As western civilizations entered the modern age, improved technology made it possible for more and more people to have consistent access to a nutritious diet and a healthy environment. While a person’s genetic code may specify the potential height that he can reach once mature, he will fall short of that height if his body does not have adequate health and nutrition.”

It may be that precisely because being tall is associated with better health, taller men tend to be viewed as more attractive by the opposite sex. “We know that in children proper nutrition makes a big difference for height, health, and intellectual development. The evidence is clear in poor countries where some children come close to starving,” according to John Malouff, a professor of psychology at the University of New England in Australia, who studies romantic attraction. Women’s widely known preference for tall men has been confirmed by various studies, and Altman’s proposal that women ignore what they find attractive for the greater good of conserving the Earth’s resources is unlikely to have much of an effect.

But why call for the shortening of the population at all? Altman is, of course, right that shorter people usually require less food to eat, less cloth to clothe them, and so on. But human ingenuity offers many other ways to increase resource abundance—new ideas, tested in the marketplace, can result in the discovery of greater stores of natural resources, resource alternatives, and creative ways to reduce resource use without sacrificing living standards. As long as they maintain the freedom to experiment and exchange, people are net creators rather than consumers of resources—and that holds for both the short and the tall alike. So there is no reason to sacrifice the greater average height that humanity has achieved largely through advances against poverty.