Today we are told the world’s population has reached 7billion. For many environmentalists concerns about population growth remains a critical issue, overwhelming all others, as they see more and more people meaning more and more resources being consumed and more and more pollution and CO2 being produced.
William Stanton, in his 2003 book The Rapid Growth of Human populations 1750-2000 lists graph after graph showing how populations have soared during the industrial era.
“Lemmings and locusts are classic examples of animals whose numbers explode when conditions are favourable and crash when they run out of resources. Does a population crash, lemming style, await our species?”
Al Bartlett is an influential voice in the Peak Oil movement; in his “Laws of Sustainability” his point “F” under the First Law states for example:
“Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.”
One problem with this idea is that “sustainability” is not clearly defined, and implies a static state of affairs which may never be achievable in practice, while demographic trends are by their very nature fluid.
Oil geologist Colin Campbell also links peak oil and declining resources to population, warning of the unsustainable nature of current growth rates, as in this interview:
“Today’s oil supply support 6.7 billion people, but by 2050 the supply will be enough to support no more than about 2.5 billion in their present way of life. So the challenges of using less and finding other energy sources is great.”
Campbell quoted Stanton’s piece “Oil and People” in a 2005 ASPO newsletter:
To those sentimentalists who cannot understand the need to reduce UK population from 60 million to about 2 million over 150 years, and who are outraged at the proposed replacement of human rights by cold logic, I would say “You have had your day, in which your woolly thinking has messed up not just the Western world but the whole planet, which could, if Homo sapiens had been truly intelligent, have supported a small population enjoying a wonderful quality of life almost for ever. You have thrown away that opportunity.”
David Holmgren, in his 2008 book Future Scenarios also sees, in a worst-case scenario, a rapid decline in energy supplies leading to a rapid population collapse:
Successive waves of famine and disease breakdown social and economic capacity on a larger scale than the Black Death in medieval Europe leading to a halving of global population in a few decades.
Another Peak Oil pundit, Richard Heinberg, also sees the rapidly expanding human popualtion in negative terms, and subject to the same rules that apply to other species, as in his book The Party’s Over:
We like to think that our intelligence and moral code sets us apart from other creatures. When other creatures gain an energy subsidy, they instinctively react by proliferating: their population goes through the well- studied stages of bloom, overshoot, and die-off. If we humans are more than mere animals, we should be expected to behave differently. Yet so far we have reacted to the energy subsidy of fossil fuels exactly the way rats, fruit flies, or bacteria respond to an abundant new food source. A hard look at the evidence tends to make one skeptical of (such) human claims to uniqueness…
Julia Whitty writing for MotherJones to mark the 7 billionth human alive presents this graph showing the exponential growth rate:
She comments “Understood or not, the exponential growth model—also known as the Malthusian growth model—runs in the background, amplifying our childbearing choices.”
In class discussions on food supply and feeding future growing populations it is common for someone to suggest that actually, no we should not try to feed the starving masses- they may then survive long enough to breed themselves, thus making things worse for the future.
This depressing but common viewpoint is based I think on a lack of basic knowledge about demographics.
What caused the population explosion? It was not simply having more food to keep people alive- more importantly, first must come the control of the death rate- which historically was achieved mainly by advances in sewage, hygiene and medical advances such as vaccination.
Birth rates have been generally quite high because of high infant mortality- something which is usual in nature as well- you have to have lots of kids to ensure some of them survive. If suddenly a much higher proportion of your offspring survive, then you have an exponential increase since it takes a generation or so to pass before birth rates decline: this is the demographic transition, which began over a hundred years ago in the developed world, and is now being seen nearly everywhere.
In fact, the exponential of world population growth ended at least 20 years ago and is now leveling off.
The total number of new humans added to the planet peaked at about 87million in 1989, while the average annual rate of growth for the globe’s population peaked in 1963-1964 at 2.2% and is now below 0.5%.
Global average birth rates have declined from over 35 per 1000/population in the 1950s to less than 20 today, and the trend is nearly everywhere downwards.
The other factor that effects this demographic transition is increased wealth: the poor have many children, the more affluent and middle-class in general have fewer. Matt Ridley points out:
In 1955, the birth rates per woman in Yemen, Iran, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Brazil and China were, respectively, 8.3, 7.0, 6.8, 6.5, 6.1 and 5.6. Today they are 5.1, 1.7, 2.7, 5.2, 1.8 and 1.7. Notice: The poorer a country has remained, the slower the fall.
What does this mean for the neo-Malthussians and Deep Ecologists who see humans as just like “bacteria on a petri dish”? Their concerns- and I used to share them- inevitably focus on the need to take population seriously, to look at the elephant in the room, to break the last taboo- with recommendations around more access to birth control and “other measures” to “do something” about population.
But there have been many large-scale centralised attempts to control population, and concerns about it are nothing new, as documented in Fred Pierce’s book PeopleQuake. Mainly they have been oppressive and punitive interventions and have not worked very well.
Instead, population growth rates tend to sort themselves out once people have access to what we in the developed world tend to take for granted: basic health care, education- particularly for women- and a certain standard of living. The best way to address concerns of over-population then is to address poverty. Birth rates are still high in the developing world and are likely to remain so until further development takes place.
As Whitty points out in the Mother Jones article, “The paradox embedded in our future is that the fastest way to slow our population growth is to reduce poverty, yet the fastest way to run out of resources is to increase wealth.”
Yet this depends on a “scarcity” mentality that sees resources in a simplistic fashion as simply being like a trough of food that diminishes faster the more snouts that are stuck in it, and ignores the ability of humans to adapt and innovate and develop new technologies;
it also makes me wonder, how much of this concern about over-population is really a subconscious but very old fear of being over-run by the Yellow Peril?
The real problem with the “there are to many people” meme is that it is not really possible not to take it personally. Who f us are in the “too many” category? Anyone believing this must surely include both themselves and anyone else they know, because the only other possibility is that they are really referring to poor dark-skinned people living in other countries.
Humans are not like bacteria in a petri dish, and we are unlike any other animal in that we have the ability to extend the carrying capacity of our environment through technology. To what degree we can do this s unknown but there is no reason to suppose that Malthussian projections are going to come true just yet.
The 7 billionth human brings not just an extra mouth to feed, but an extra brain to think, an extra pair of hands to create and an extra heart with which to care.