7 Billion Minds, 7 Billion Hearts

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.

Leave a comment


  1. Kevin McGrath

     /  January 22, 2012

    We live on an island in an ocean called space. We are incapable of fishing in this ocean and must survive on the resources from our own island. The furthest anyone has travelled is to a rocky lunar outcrop in the bay and they returned with nothing. Since 1960 when there was 3 billion of us on this island our population has more than doubled yet some of us take a stroll down to the beach and bury our heads in the sand consoling ourselves with the fact that there were 35 births per 1000 back then and only 20 per 1000 now. A mathematician could tell us that that’s 20 per 1000 in a population of 7 billion which equates to 50 per thousand in the 3 billion population of 1960. Percentages can be deceptive. It reminds me of the story of the king who placed rice grains on the chess board, one on the first square, two on the second, four on the third and so forth. After days of running back and forth to the field it took him longer to collect up all the grains he needed so his rate of progress slowed. On his 14 day he collected all day without returning once to the chess board and sighed with relief at the less exhausting pace. I’m not suggesting we “do something” about population growth, it will take care of itself eventually through disease, war, and hunger etc. I won’t be wearing a “Save the planet, Kill yourself” T-shirt anytime soon and I don’t think by discussing the topic I am suggesting that some people don’t deserve to live. Reducing poverty is a noble aim in itself but I doubt it will solve the problem that we all have our snouts in a rubber trough that’s eventually going to be stretched too far, unless of course that 7 billionth mind can design a raft that will ferry all those newborn piglets to a lush green island of their own.

  2. Mooloo

     /  April 9, 2012

    There’s two worlds: Africa and the rest.

    The rest is getting on fairly nicely really, with population trends dropping and wealth increasing.

    And then there’s Africa.

  3. Lizzie

     /  May 18, 2012

    You can view the population debate as being polarised between development issues and what you see as racist notions of over-population in the developing world, but it is also more complicated than that – it is also about quality of life. In that sense most countries may well be “over-populated”. More work needs to be done to analyse what is a “sustainable” population, not just in terms of habitat/space and resources, but also its sociological and psychological ramifications. Obviously this is highly complex/variable, related to culture and society, but one can easily be distracted by food security, habitat loss as well as demographics – Europe’s population may well be declining, but the projected population in 2060 is 505 million. This is, of course, a decline from a peak of 520 million. It is a “decline” when compared with the post-Industrial age boom, but is it really sustainable? We may be able to find ways to feed ourselves etc, but will we be truly happy as a species? The developed world is a melting pot of neuroses and psychological pathologies distinct from the general crimes and malaises of societies common to every country. Is this a condition of finding ourselves in post-Industrial countries with access to education and a certain standard of living, but still missing something essential, something vague and complicated to understand but related to population density? There is a fine balance to be struck and I’m not convinced that being laissez-faire based on projections about population is a good policy. I think we should strive to find that balance between resources and space, as well as what allows us to be psychologically healthy, and in doing so, I think we will find that population is still the elephant in the room. Perhaps not as big or as pink, but still there nonetheless.
    After all, you, like myself, have been attracted to Ireland for certain lifestyle choices. In doing so we have rejected the rat race of the city, for example. We are extremely privileged to be able to make that choice. But is it feasible for everyone on the planet to make that decision given the opportunity? Even if the population remains at 7 billion? Or less? What is the figure? What quality of life could we hope for within those figures? Obviously not everyone would want to live like we do and nor would it be economically viable given the current circumstances, but isn’t the whole idea you are advocating about opportunity and equal rights for all in the world relevant then to the sustainability of population? Not everyone wants the greener grass across the fence, but surely we should have the potential to access it? Is it this that may create happiness – that the choices we make are positive, not based on necessity and limitations? How then do these issues influence the population debate?

    • Hi Lizzie
      it is not about being laissez-faire, but understanding that high population growth rates are a function of poverty and a certain stage of development; wealthier societies dramatically reduce there birth rates. So the correct approach to the population issue is to focus on general development issues, rather than take the traditional environmentalist approach based on “limits to growth” ideologies which invariably mean coercion of one form or another- a typically western/paternalistic approach to the reproductive behaviour of poor countries.
      Hand-wringing over whether xbillion people is “sustainable” or not is irrelevant- humans have the capacity to both extend the carrying capacity of the environment and respond to real constraints when they arise.

      The developed world is a melting pot of neuroses and psychological pathologies distinct from the general crimes and malaises of societies common to every country

      Evidence? Yes, there are problems that come with affluence, but they are trivial compared to the problems of poverty. Im afraid that if you follow the logic of your own arguments you will end up supporting appalling coercive strategies like forced sterilization, which have indeed been the conventional approach.

      Clearly living in a remote rural dwelling as I do is a lifestyle choice and nothing to do with “sustainability”- see Stewart Brand on how cities are greener.

  4. Lizzie

     /  May 19, 2012

    Hi Graham,

    I was at pains in my comment to raise other arguments about the population debate other than sustainability. I wasn’t discussing the issues of “green” sustainability at all – I wasn’t talking about population related to resources. I was also not talking about the relationship between development and population. All this is well-known, that education and being freed from poverty is related to decreased birth rates – nowhere did I refute that, did I? Nor was I suggesting in my comment that to discuss the sociological and psychological impact of population density was to suggest such radical solutions as “forced sterilization”. I was merely trying to raise questions and debate about the other, albeit vaguer, notions of population density that I feel are missed, as I mentioned when I said people are easily distracted by food security etc.

    “Evidence” of the neuroses of the developed world are all around us. Your blog could be one example! People in the developing world are not sitting around worrying about such things because they have, as you suggested, greater issues to deal with. Nevertheless, the philosophical concept of living a simpler life is not a new one – dating back to the Greek philosophers. There must be a balance between material affluence and natural affluence in order for people to be truly happy. This is all beyond the argument about sustainability, may I stress, and it is in striking this balance that population density plays a crucial role. This is not to say we must all become hippies living in the countryside! But there is plenty of evidence to be found about the importance of striking this balance when you look at trends within various countries – Scandinavian countries, for example, often score high on “happiness” indexes because there is just such a balance that we ought to be striving for (social welfare, education, economy and “space/nature/the great outdoors”). You will also find that they have low population densities. Compare Norway or Sweden then to The Netherlands or the south east of the UK. It is not just about economic equality but a cultural appreciation of the natural world which is lacking in many developed nations. The likes of Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavian countries foster this appreciation. Therefore it is important for us as individuals to be aware of and to think about population density in order to achieve similar satisfaction. It will be very difficult for people in the south east of the UK to achieve this in the current conditions, even though the population according to you is not something to be concerned about. You did not answer any of these issues in your response to me, but perhaps you find them irrelevant since they are beyond practicalities and overly philosophical – but then by the same token, your blogs are irrelevant because by arguing, for example, that population is a non-issue since it’s related to poverty is not actually tackling the issues related to poverty and is just hot-air spouting. So what’s the point?

  5. Lizzie

     /  May 19, 2012

    P.S. My comment may be read as offensive (on my re-reading anyhow!), and I’m sorry if it’s regarded that way, I’m rather meaning to suggest the philosophical nature of the population debate and by asking what the point is I am pushing for self-reflection, which we could all do with in such matters. I assume this is why you write your blogs – to strive for a greater understanding of complex issues, since there is so much knee-jerk reaction to be found in such matters. I am just adding my penny’s worth on the matter and not aiming to be reactionary, just to make that clear.

  6. michaeljamesbarker

     /  December 16, 2012

    You might be interested in my critique of Julia Whitty’s headlining feature story, “The Last Taboo,”

    My article was published in 2010 and was titled “The Mother Jones Conspiracy?” http://www.swans.com/library/art16/barker49.html


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