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2001 Kidding Aside 
(The British Childfree Association)
Last modified: 
October 30, 2002

 

A Malthusian nightmare made real.

In 1825, when the Earth's population had just rocketed up to one billion, Malthus predicted that it would very soon reach the limit of what the planet could realistically be expected to support, after which point it would fall rapidly because of famines, wars and epidemics. In fact, it proceeded to double in a century and to double yet again in the proceeding half century. It is now roughly twenty five times greater than at the time of Christ, and growing at the rate of a quarter of a million people PER DAY. The doubling time for the world's population is down to thirty five years or so. Even if fertility were to fall tonight to the "replacement rate", just over two babies to each grown woman, the figure would still climb from today's roughly six billion souls to around eight and a half billion before stabilising, because so many of those now alive have yet to reach reproductive age.

Although the USA has itself doubled its population since 1940, it is the developing world which has shouldered most of the increase. Between the years 1800 and 2040 the population of Asia is expected to have grown by ten times and that of Latin America by fifty times. In 1975, the Kenyan fertility rate (lifetime births per woman) stood at over 8. Now it has fallen, but only to the level of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, namely 6. For Egypt, the figure is roughly five; for India and Peru, roughly four. In Indonesia the widely praised success of a campaign of education, advertising jingles and free contraceptives still leaves the figure above three. United Nations projections suggest a global population of about 10 billion by AD 2050, given a marked decline in fertility, and twelve and a half billion otherwise. Although over a billion people are already near to starvation, forecasts of mouths to feed in AD 2100 range up to twenty seven billion. Nigeria by itself, with a present doubling time of a little over twenty years, could move from its hundred or so million to nigh on half a billion. Crowded together as they are, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are expected to double their numbers.

In contrast, the ecologist P. Erlich - Author of _The Population Bomb_ (1968), a book whose predictions have on the whole turned out to be overly pessimistic, and then of _The Population Explosion_ (1990) - has suggested that the maximum readily sustainable global population would be two billion. True, one might cram in twenty billion if they lived at the miserably impoverished level of present-day Bangladeshis, but environmental disaster could seem inevitable if all of these people were to move up to the level of Parisians or New Yorkers in diet, resource consumption and production of pollutants. The average US citizen is said to put between forty and a hundred times as much strain on the environment as an average Somalian, Scientific progress (possibly some new source of energy, virtually non-polluting) could be of great help, but twenty billion people would seem more than twenty first century science could hope to sustain at any acceptable standard of living, or perhaps at all. And of course one would rapidly get to many more people than this if growth continued as rapidly as in recent times. Not even rapid expansion into space would remove the problem. With the best presently imaginable technology it could take some four million years to colonize our entire galaxy, while with modern rocket technology three hundred million years would be required. Yet in under 1,300 years a human population continuing to grow at the current rate, roughly 2% a year, would need to be distributed across one hundred billion Earth like planets. Even supposing, fantastically, that there were one such planet for every star in the galaxy, this result could be achieved only with faster than light travel, something which is deemed impossible by modern physics.

At least in the near future, a population of a s little as ten billion could be expected to cause desertifications and famines, intolerable local water scarcities and levels of pollution, which virtually guaranteed wars. (The recent mass killings in Rwanda's civil war can be viewed as a result of overpopulation and the resulting pressures on the country's agriculture : while the population had a doubling time of about two decades, soil nutrient depletion (a result of over-farming) had reduced harvests by almost 20%.) Despite advances in crop science, global population growth seems almost sure to outstrip growth in food production in the next forty years. Disease and environmental disaster might then sweep the planet. Species could become extinct in such numbers that the biosphere collapsed, or the greenhouse effect might run beyond all possible control : bear in mind that methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is generated plentifully by rice paddies and livestock, and that many in the developing world would like to own cars. All this gives some plausibility to the title "Ten Years to Save the World" which the president of the Worldwatch Institute gave to an article of 1192 : the population bomb is sometimes said to have exploded already. Ordinary wars seem unlikely to alter matters much" all the fighting from the start of the First World War to the end of the Second World War only caused the deaths of about a fifth of a billion people. This is a lot but when measured against the twelve and a half billion expected by some to be around in 2050, it's quite a small percentage. However, if some desperately hungry or thirsty country unleashed biological warfare, then that might indeed make quite a difference...

When one third-world bureaucrat was asked what he would like to see from his window twenty years in the future, the answer was "Smog". One can sympathise with this, better the smog of industrialisation than grinding poverty and the constant fear of starvation ("a challenging daily struggle for the daily bread", in the words of one clerical opponent of contraceptives). Yet the population which causes smog could cause famine too.

In 1972, with the backing of a group known as The Club of Rome, D.H. Meadows, D.L. Meadows, J. Randers and W.H. Behrens published _The Limits to Growth_, warning that the rapidly increasing exploitation of the environment could soon become disastrous. While some of their forecasts have proved too gloomy, many have been accurate, as evidenced by such things as collapsing fisheries. In _Beyond the Limits_, the first three of them point once again to the sad results to be expected from continuing, if only for a short while, on exponential curves of growth in population and in industrial production. A quantity grows exponentially, they remark, "when its increase is proportional to what is already there" , as with the imaginary water lily that chokes the out all the other life in the pond after thirty days of doubling in size " "For a long time the lily plant seems small, so you decide not to worry about it until it covers half the pond. On which day will that be? On the twenty ninth day. You have just one day to save your pond."

Even when not pushed by population increase, industrial production tends to grow exponentially as people seek higher standards of living. The combination of an exploding world population, a widespread demand for equalisation of living standards, and delays in reacting while the limits to growth approached easily could be disastrous.

There are some grounds for hope. First, technology might come to the rescue in unexpected ways, particularly if assisted by changes in society's values. _Beyond the Limits_ suggests that the impact of each new human on the environment might in theory be reduced "By a factor of a thousand or more" : a good start would be to give the world's population "the productivity of the Swiss, the consumption habits of the Chinese, the egalitarian instincts of the Swedes and the social discipline of the Japanese", type-based dreams aside, one way in which society's values could be changed is in attitudes towards parents. Should we be encouraging people to have children with benefits, tax cuts, tax credits and all of the other things governments give parents to "make life easier"? Is it fair to shift the burden of taxation from parents to non-parents?.

Second, as countries become richer they tend to move to lower fertility rates "the demographic transition"). If the fertility rate recently found in West Germany spread to the rest of the world, there would be no humans in existence by about the year 2400. Affluence means no need for children to share your labour, or to give assurance that one or other of them will survive to grow food for your old age. Again, because of the unavailability of contraceptives and exclusion of women from decision-making at least a quarter of today's pregnancies are definitely unwanted by the pregnant according to the World Health Organisation. Well, the equivalent of under a month's global expenditure on armaments could make contraceptives available to everyone. Television soaps in Brazil, showing families as typically small and happy but sometimes large and miserable, have been encouragingly effective, and there is evidence that the demographic transition begins in poor countries after just a small rise in incomes.

Third, governments have had some success by combinations of rewards and punishments. Despite the indignation expressed by Westerners at its population-control programme in 1975-77 - sterilisation was officially compulsory for one of the parents in each family that had three children, while tiny rewards were given for other sterilisations - India is still offering its citizens cash for voluntarily ending their reproductive lives. The amount involved, so few rupees that they couldn't buy twenty dollars, is accepted surprisingly often. In China, a more draconian "one child only" policy, backed by losses of benefits, by fines and by compulsory sterilisations, forced fertility downwards almost to the replacement rate. The cost in human misery was immense, but constant famine could well have been the alternative. China had doubled its already huge population between 1950 and 1980.

There are also major grounds for pessimism, however. China, still adding sixteen million a year to its population, will have 25% less arable soil per capita in 2010 than in 1994, and it will be soil suffering from erosion. The migration of tens of millions north from its impoverished interior to its booming coastal cities could initiate prolonged warring among regional states, as has so often occurred in the past. Incomes in most developing countries have long been falling, not rising in the way that encourages the demographic shift. Furthermore, religious fundamentalists often wish to make women powerless, treat all uses of contraceptives as instances of the sin of Onan (Genesis 39:9) or classify as infanticide any destruction of a fertilised human ovum, for instance by a "morning-after pill", while a few third-world leaders continue to dismiss as "racist plots" all suggestions about encouraging small families. Population policy was actually excluded from the official agenda of the 1992 "Earth Summit", the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The Reagan administration cut off US support for the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, the Bush and Clinton administrations then failing to restore it. And well-nourished Canadians scarcely help matters when they express outrage at the very idea of Indians being "Bribed" into sterilisation by offers of transistor radios.

It is doubtful whether voluntary population control could work for very long. Lovelock cites with approval the claim by C.G. Darwin, grandson of the author of _The Origins of Species_, that natural selection would make "Homo philoprogenitus" (lover of many offspring) bound to win in the end. This might seem correct despite the importance of social influences, Philoprogenitus might be expected to evolve so as to resist those influences if necessary; but pressures inside particular groups could in any case encourage their members to reproduce themselves prolifically in spite of pressures from outside, the groups in question then coming to dominate the world, breeding the human race into extinction. An urge to produce numerous offspring could be passed on to each next generation by displays of pride in large families or by the preaching of God's enthusiasm for them, instead of by genes, a process known as mimetic evolution.

If we consider the history of human attitudes towards parenting we can see that this is definitely true. Even in today's so called permissive and pluralistic society those who choose not to have children are seen as strange or somehow deficient, the majority of people convinced that they will "grow out of it". Religions preach that we should be "fruitful" and that we should "multiply" regardless of the dangers to our existence in the long term. Parenting is a hard job so the government decides to help parents and spend more money on them than on non-parents. Society does indeed seem to be built around the principle that the more children you have the better. If this attitude continues then we are doomed. We will reproduce until we are all living at the level of the poorest humans now alive as our environment struggles against the pollution caused by our factories supplying food and clothes to the countless billions of poor, hungry humans. In order to change our future we need to change ourselves, we need to change our attitudes towards families and parenting as well as towards people who choose not to have children. If there is any doubt in your minds that this is not in our best interest consider the following.

Overpopulation, environmental degradation, criminality and war all tend to come in a single package. In his 1994 article "The coming Anarchy", R.D. Kaplan writes to his fellow Americans, but we should listen to it as well :

"For a while the media will continue to ascribe riots and other violent upheavals abroad mainly to ethnic and religious conflicts. But as these conflicts multiply, it will become apparent that something else is afoot, making more and more places ungovernable. Mention "the environment" or "diminishing natural resources" in foreign-policy circles and you meet a brick wall of scepticism or boredom. To conservatives especially, the very terms seem flaky.... It is time to understand "the environment" for what it is : THE national-security issue of the early twenty-first century. The political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and, possibly, rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions like the Nile Delta and Bangladesh, will be the core foreign-political challenge. While a minority of the human population will be, as Francisco Fukuyama would put it, sufficiently sheltered so as to enter a "post-historical" realm in which the environment has been mastered and ethnic animosities quelled by bourgeois prosperity, an increasingly large number of people will be stuck in history, living in shantytowns where attempts to rise above poverty, cultural dysfunction, and ethnic strife will be doomed by a lack of water to drink, soil to till and space to survive in."

Jonathan McCalmont