Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

It’s time we put the population myth to rest

Mon 25 July 2011, 11:56am

There was an article published recently in the Guardian which struck me. It couldn’t have been more annoying, wrong or dangerous. The article was announcing a recent UN report that world population will hit 7 Billion on Halloween this year. But rather than simply report this fact, the article insisted on propagating a tired, disproved and altogether ignorant message: there are too many of us on this planet.

The obsession with population found its most popular spokesperson in the form of Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus who, in the late 18th Century, argued that if the poor of the world kept reproducing at a high rate (and the poorest tend to have the highest birth rates) then the only possible result in a world of limited resources will be mass starvation. It was in part due to such ideas that the Irish famine was allowed to run its terrible course. There is indeed some evidence to suggest that nature provides mass population reduction as a way of benefiting those left behind: incomes rose significantly in Britain following the devastation of the Black Death, leaving one person in three dead.

World population has skyrocketed since the days of the Plague and Famine, leading academics to postulate that the next Big Disaster could well eclipse all those that went before it. The 20th Century anti population movement reached its zenith in 1968 with the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. The book brought home to non academic readers the potential horrors of overpopulation with the prediction that hundreds of millions of people in developing countries would perish to hunger in the coming decades. Its front cover loudly proclaimed “While you are reading these words four people will have died from hunger”.

Well, those decades have passed and 2.8 billion extra people now walk this Earth, an increase greater than that anticipated by Ehrlich. And the result? In the last 50 years, world population may have doubled but agricultural production tripled. Daily food supply per person has increased by around 25%. But the news is even more positive; population growth is beginning to tail off. As people get richer, despite being more able to afford more children, they by and large choose to have fewer. Better job opportunities cause people to focus more on their careers and improved child mortality means fewer children need be born in the first place. The average world birth rate declined from 5.3 births per woman in 1960 to 3.0 in 2006. It is true that these are just averages and some regions have gotten significantly worse. But these are countries such as North Korea and Zimbabwe and clearly due to political circumstances. The data paint a clear picture- increasing global population is not leaving people worse off and is anyway reaching equilibrium, not exploding.

But while Ehrich’s theory seems disproved, many modern environmentalists point to Malthusianism in a new form- global warming. The increased emission of CO2 that growing population creates is endangering the very people who, by being born, create it. This was certainly the message of the Guardian article: more people= more warming.

Nonsense.

More consumption= more warming, regardless of the number of people creating it. I fail to see how a moral person can worry about the existence of a child in a large family in rural Africa who burns a little wood for cooking while we enjoy CO2 intensive Western lifestyles over here.

Here’s a statistic that every such person should read: doubling the incomes of the world’s poorest 650 million people would take the same resources as a bit less than 1% of the incomes of the world’s richest 650 million. Concerned about global warming? Great, hand out condoms to bankers, not Bangladeshis. It’s time to put the population myth to rest.

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Comments (29)

  1. Rory,

    You’re correct that a simplistic “there are too many people” narrative conceals important details. But Panglossianism is just as dangerous as Malthusianism. Nobody would seriously contend that the Earth could support an infinite number of people, so there must be a limit to our usage of resources. The simple fact is that we just don’t know where that limit lies, or whether the pace of technological change will keep up with population growth. History provides us with plenty of examples of “lost civilisations” such as the Anasazi and Easter Island which collapsed because they crossed that line. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance and all that. It behooves us to be cautious.

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  2. Oh dear. It’s really not brilliant timing to be exalting global food production output when an estimated 10 million people are at risk of starvation in East Africa in one of the world’s worst drought in living memory. Clearly something doesn’t add up here.

    The main reason the population ‘myth’ has stuck around so long is that it makes perfect sense. It stands to reason that the world cannot support an infinite number of human beings because there are a finite amount of space and exploitable resources, ergo there must be a limit to the number of people that can be. The only real debate is over when the point will be reached. Myth it certainly isn’t.

    And citing a greater percentage increase in rates of food production is entirely misleading. The technological advances that have achieved increased agricultural output in a finite – that all-important word – area of land cannot be guaranteed to sustain these outputs, let alone keep increasing them. Environmental degradation of farmland is a serious long-term problem; the global human population, on the other hand, shows no signs of decreasing in real terms.

    And you yourself make an interesting point; that economic parity between rich and poor nations is still a very long way off. Just how will this inequality be resolved whilst birth rates remain so high in those areas?

    Sounds like you’re sticking your head.

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  3. JR (profile) says:

    This article is over simplified nonsense. Population increases have come with massive improvements in Agriculture brought about by modern machinery, fueled by one thing Cheap oil. Without cheap oil we would be starving. Not only does it allow one man to plough, fertilize or harvest many acres in a few hours it also allows for the easy distribution of food around the world. From where there is a glut to where there is a shortage.

    Food security is a very complex issue and as Andrew says above the exact population limit of the earth is debatable and is constantly changing. Whether we have reached it now, will reach it in the future or are OK for now but if a few things change we will be over the limit is arguable but this article is the biggest pile of nonsense I have read on the issue in a while.

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  4. The Raven (profile) says:

    “I fail to see how a moral person can worry about the existence of a child in a large family in rural Africa who burns a little wood for cooking while we enjoy CO2 intensive Western lifestyles over here.”

    Except it’s not just one large family. It’s millions of them. I’m not differentiating between African and Western lifestyles here, I’m objecting the simplification of ‘a child…burning a little wood’. And it isn’t limited to that.

    Your article doesn’t differentiate between the effect of a few hundred tribes in the early part of the last century, which mayhave engaged in subsistence farming and the occasional hunt for meat, and the millions of people who now encroach upon natural habitats with slash-and-burn agriculture, logging and deforestation for housing needs.

    You only need look at these isles to see the folly of it all. Seventy million-odd people now live on these Islands, a space around the size of Texas. Prior to the Second World War, if all food production stopped on these islands, we could have held out for four to five weeks without imports. Now, it’s closer to two to three days.

    I’m not a believer in the environmental apocalypse. I just think at some point, there will be nothing left. The Chinese courtship of smaller African nations for their mineral and natural resources is, I believe, simply the next stage in the gradual attrition of the natural environment, and for what?

    Crap toys and dodgy steel.

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  5. circles (profile) says:

    This increase in food production is also thanks to the availability of affiordable mineral fertilisers – which in a way can be traced back to cheap oil, but also to available mineral reserves – particularly phosphorous.
    But as many are now pointing out, this cheap, available P won’t be around forever. (see http://www.thebrokeronline.eu/en/Articles/Peak-phosphorus or http://www.cse.org.in/cover.asp?foldername=20040630&filename=anal&sid=1&sec_id=7 for the implications of our denpendence on phosphorous).

    In your own words Rory, this post could hardly be more annoying, wrong or dangerous.

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  6. Mike the First (profile) says:

    “Concerned about global warming? Great, hand out condoms to bankers, not Bangladeshis”

    Call me crazy, but wouldn’t bankers already have pretty decent access to condoms?

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  7. ayeYerMa (profile) says:

    This article has to be one of the most dangerously deluded pieces that I’ve read in a very very long time. (and that is really saying something, given that we’re reading Slugger O’Toole here!).

    It is far too early to say if Paul Ehrlich was wrong. It is doubtful that even current population levels are sustainable.

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  8. JAH (profile) says:

    I’ll agree with Rory that the prophets of doom are invariably wrong. Can I point those interested to Hans Rosling’s fascinating Gapminder site which is an absolute treasure trove of facts which often explains current events at http://www.gapminder.org/

    He also believes that with decreasing child mortality we have a peak in the number of children born.

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  9. pauluk (profile) says:

    Leave it to the Guardian to perpetuate myths. Over the past couple of months they have been obsessed with perpetuating them about Palin and Murdoch.

    Fact is, there has been no global warming in the past 15 years despite the fact that the population of the earth has greatly increased. When is the Guardian, and most of the other mainstream media outlets, going to own up to the indisputable fact that AGW is a huge con?

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  10. aquifer (profile) says:

    Is this the Papal empire striking back after Enda’s speech?

    Or just someone who cannot do long division?

    Lets see, if we add 10% his year that is 110%, and ten percent next year, that makes 121%, then 132% etc.

    If every one of them wants a fridge and a car that is 32% more global warming other things being equal.

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  11. Democrat (profile) says:

    Poor Rory Fenton. He says that 7 billion and rising is no cause for concern. He pins his optimism on better food production and the prospect of lower birth rates eventually when the Third World gets education and contraception. But nobody agrees with him. And neither do I.

    There are about 80 million people on these islands (75m Britain, 5 m RoI). We depend on food imports to survive. We pay for those imports with manufactured goods and services. Unfortunately our manufacturing sector has shrunk, as we have lost many of the large-scale industries (ship-building, steel, car-making, textiles, carpets, etc) and the service sector has been damaged by reckless bankers on huge salaries bringing the whole business into disrepute.

    And what are our politicians suggesting? – invest in tourism! Let’s have the Olympics, the Golf Open in Portrush, build holiday homes everywhere …. Just as Greece and Spain did, lining their coasts with apartment blocks and hotels. Pity their economies are now on the brink of collapse ….

    When you are dependent on food imports, you are subject to the old adage ‘Export or die’. And you can’t export houses, so don’t look to the construction industry to save you.

    I recommend the film “The End of the Line”. It’s a documentary about the destruction of fishing stocks. Everywhere. Fished out. What’s the answer? – longer nets (20 miles long already) and finer mesh (no bigger fish left).

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  12. joeCanuck (profile) says:

    The well known banker DSK didn’t appear to have pretty decent access to condoms.

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  13. Rory Carr (profile) says:

    I see that that most miserable of men, the Reverend Thomas Malthus has disciples alive and well and still despairing of the human race’s natural instinct to reproduce.

    When we examine his writings it is easy to imagine Malthus squirming in repressed fury at the thought of the poor coming together to enjoy the one comfort left to them outside of their masters’ control – the comfort of each others’ arms – as he laboured to produce a thesis favourable to his social superiors which inevitably concluded in exonerating existing tariff barriers to maintain the high price of their grain and denying cheap bread for the masses.

    The poet Shelley had his mark, “Sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus,” Shelley thought, were “calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security of everlasting triumph.”

    The pity is, we might have thought, that Malthus had not taken the logical conclusion of his own fear of catastrophic population expansion to heart, retired to his study with a Bible and a loaded pistol and reduced England ‘s numbers by at least one. Come to think of it why do today’s doomsayers who demand instant reductions in order to save the planet not do the decent thing themselves? I’m damned if I’m going for the high jump while they remain, floating around North London drinks parties nibbling tofu and cracked bulgar wheat canapés, bigging up their own childless sacrifice (lucky old might-have-been kids we might think) and moaning that, “Something must be done.”

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  14. pauluk (profile) says:

    Keith Ruffles,

    The current crisis in east Africa has nothing to do with a global lack of food, so your comment is something of an emotive red herring.

    In fact, Africa itself has enough food for everyone in Africa, including east Africa – if it could only manage to get its act together with distribution, etc. It could produce much, much more food with the implementation of modern farming techniques. Only a small percentage of arable land is utilised in Africa and it could, with proper management, produce vast amounts more food than is currently the case.

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  15. joeCanuck (profile) says:

    pauluk,

    Do you have sources for your assertions? UN reports for example?

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  16. pauluk (profile) says:

    Joe, to which particular assertions do you refer?

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  17. “It is far too early to say if Paul Ehrlich was wrong” Decades have passed. The hundreds of millions did not die. Just how wrong does someone have to be?

    “Call me crazy, but wouldn’t bankers already have pretty decent access to condoms?”

    Jeez can’t a fella use a little rhetoric? :(

    @Aquifier- that’s compound interest, not long division. You’ve grotesquely overestimated the rate of increase in world population and anyway missed my point about focusing on consumption, not population. Most of those extra people are born poor and pollute little. That doesn’t mean they have no impact, but the priority should not be population reduction or, if anything, it should be population reduction in wealthy countries.

    For those who accused me of blind optimism, I was simply looking at long term statistical trends. Food production is increasing more than commensurately with population. There must of course be an eventual limit, but there is little hard evidence to suggest we are reaching it just yet.

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  18. Stu DeNimm (profile) says:

    In the 20th C, birthrates in developed countries declined as standards of living improved. Population in 3rd world countries increased as modest improvements in health conditions reduced infant mortality but birthrates did not decline to compensate.

    The first part is cause for optimism, but I am not sure will continue. People in developed countries in the recent past could afford to have fewer children because of high levels of social provision, namely government pensions and health care. These things meant that people who had few or no children could rely on a decent standard of living in old age. Now, in the current conservative political climate, we are tearing all that down. If today’s young people in the developed world have any sense, they will have more children than their parents did, since their children are the only support they can expect after retirement.

    We certainly shouldn’t expect people in the Third World to use birth control if the result of that, for the individual personally, will be a miserable old age.

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  19. Democrat (profile) says:

    Trying to guess what would be a safe maximum population for planet Earth is a foolish and risky game. Events have already shown us how dangerous a game it is. Intensive farming methods lead to soil exhaustion and to epidemics among livestock such as salmonella, foot and mouth, mad cow, etc. Overfishing has left vast areas of ocean barren because humans were scooping out the fish faster than they could replenish themselves. Other species are being driven to extinction. Climate systems are being destabilised, producing freak weather events like floods, hurricanes, droughts, etc.

    The safe course of action is to recognise that smaller populations are a good idea. Smaller populations consume less and leave a smaller carbon footprint. They can enjoy a higher standard of living without damaging the planet. With a smaller population we could stop destroying our ever-diminishing countryside – stop building over more and more green fields and stop turning this whole island into one suburban estate.

    In the past we needed big populations – first as farm labourers, later as factory hands. We do not farm or manufacture in those ways any more. We do not need huge armies of workers any more. It is time that we started to encourage people to have small families, instead of encouraging reckless proliferation. Quality of life for all, instead of mere quantity.

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  20. HeinzGuderian (profile) says:

    Demo

    What you are proposing is a return to the Stone Age !!

    I’m with you,fella !! ;-)

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  21. articles (profile) says:

    There was a recent Economist special on food in February, see link

    http://www.economist.com/node/18200618

    One economist argues that the main reason for famines is not a shortage of basic food, rather other factors,wages, distribution, even democracy, matter more.

    We’ve more than enough food for 9 billion all things being equal but they ain’t.

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  22. john (profile) says:

    Not being funny but technology will only delay the inevitable. What makes us on earth with finite resources any different from bacteria on a petri dish. If I remember my Biology its slow growth followed by exponential growth followed by plateau followed by death phase. At what figure death phase will happen no one knows but to put your head in the sand and say it wont happen is foolish!

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  23. Democrat (profile) says:

    HeinzGuderian wrote “What you are proposing is a return to the Stone Age !!”

    Hardly. What I am proposing is to put a brake on the relentless growth of human population, which is destroying the environment and driving other species to extinction. The UK is grossly overpopulated and the RoI less so. The UK built up its huge population on the back of manufacturing industries which it no longer has. If its service industries lose out to competition from India, etc, then the scale of the problem will soon become apparent. The UK can feed about 20 million people, not 75 million. Blithely ignoring optimum population calculations is not a wise course of action. As for the RoI, in the past it always exported its excess population. You can only subdivide a farm a certain number of times before the holdings become too small to sustain a family. So you have to export your excess to avoid that. But where will the excess population go now?

    We are not at the stage of needing China’s one-child policy, but we should be encouraging small families and removing any incentives to large families. Up until last year Spain was handing out a £3000 maternity grant for every child born. Lunacy! There was even a mad rush of demands for premature deliveries to cash in before the grants stopped. At least Spain has come to its senses.

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  24. pauluk (profile) says:

    Tis the end of the road for Global Warming Alarmism!

    NASA has just destroyed the alarmists main hypothesis with new data just released.

    Global warming proponents had better start ginning up on how to give a gracious apology for their unfounded hysteria of the past ten years.

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  25. Democrat (profile) says:

    Yippee! The brakes are off again!!! Have another billion, why don’t you!

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  26. Does the author have to put the adjective ‘alarmist’ into every single sentence? No agenda being peddled there. I’ll wait for the modified models to start making predictions before passing judgement. Also, these new results don’t explain away the historical data. One new piece of data does not automatically invalidate all that went before it.

    On a general point, if people in the past did not have access to information obtained more recently, that does not make their theories unfounded. You cannot claim credit for holding a position in the past that you could not have justified in the past, but can now – that’s not being smart, that’s being lucky.

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  27. pauluk (profile) says:

    Andrew,

    But how much of the ‘information’ has been exaggerated or cunningly extrapolated, to gain, for example, more funds for research.

    Here’s another one to chew on: possible falsification of polar bear information?

    AP July 28, 2011 A federal wildlife biologist whose observation that polar bears likely drowned in the Arctic helped galvanize the global warming movement during the last decade was placed on administrative leave while officials investigate scientific misconduct allegations.

    While it wasn’t clear what the exact allegations are, a government watchdog group representing Anchorage-based scientist Charles Monnett said investigators have focused on his 2006 journal article about the bears that garnered worldwide attention.
    more…

    All in all, today’s revelations about global warming hysteria is pretty good news for the polar bear!

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  28. pauluk (profile) says:

    Just in case anyone is wondering, Pete Baker gave me a yellow card for pointing out that the recently released NASA data, mentioned above, has virtually demolished the case for anthropological global warming.

    I made the mistake of putting a comment on his post about NASA and the sun. He didn’t seem to like that.

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  29. pauluk (profile) says:

    Looks like the scientific folks on Slugger have lost interest, but here’s another nail in the coffin of the anthropogenic global warming theory from new research by a European nuclear research group.

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