On October 31, the world's seven billionth inhabitant will be born. This should
be a matter for deep mourning. Not only does inexorably increasing population
pollute the planet, and lessen the likelihood that the majority rather than a
minority of the world's inhabitants can achieve a Western living standard, it
also hugely raises the probability of a crisis in which billions are killed.
When Thomas Malthus wrote in 1798, the world's population had not yet passed 1
billion, a milestone it was to reach in 1804. At that point, the world's
increasing trade and technology following
the Renaissance had allowed the global population to double in the preceding
300 years. As is well known, Malthus believed that by 1798 the planet was close
to its carrying capacity, certainly in the more populous areas such as China,
India and Western Europe. Extrapolating the population growth rate of
1500-1800, we can estimate that, without the Industrial Revolution after 1800,
global population might have grown to 1.62 billion by today.
It is now clear that the Industrial Revolution, by increasing the planet's
productive capacity, allowed global population to increase artificially far
beyond its natural level. Instead of the great majority of infants dying in
childhood, the majority began to survive, producing population growth rates far
in excess of historical precedent. As Malthus pointed out, any such population
surge without industrialization would quickly have resulted in mass famine.
Thus the increase in population from today's natural level of 1.62 billion to
its current 7 billion is entirely due to a one-off technological change.
There can be no assurance that this increase is sustainable in the long run, or
that the further increase we are now undertaking may not run beyond the
planet's carrying capacity. A few years ago, the UN population projection
showed population peaking around 2047 at just above 9 billion, with decline
beginning thereafter. Alas the latest projection, released earlier this year,
shows no peak before 2100, but a steady increase to 10.12 billion in that year.
There are several reasons to believe that the risk of population running beyond
carrying capacity is a real one. First, since industrialization has only been
running for a couple of centuries, we have no assurance that all the resources
it needs are freely available. Use of many kinds of natural resources has
increased exponentially since 1800, and the recent panic over rare earths is
just one example of how some resources essential to the modern economy may turn
out not to be available in sufficient quantities.
Substitutes for most things can be found, with only mild degradation in
quality, but it seems very unlikely indeed that by 2100 we won't have suffered
an absolute shortage of some essential mineral, that causes a major economic
disruption while the economy is adjusted for its absence.
Second, the resource and environmental burden of industrialization is hugely
increased when more people come to enjoy ''Western'' standards of living, with
modern consumer goods and appliances. Whereas about 600 million people enjoyed
such benefits 20 years ago, in the US, Western Europe and the Anglophone
countries, with the opening of China and India the potential universe of
Western-style consumers has quintupled to around 3 billion.
The idea that global income differentials would persist throughout the 21st
Century was always a myth and it is entirely desirable that humanity as a whole
should be brought into the modern economy. Nevertheless, the strain on
resources from having 7 billion potential Western-style consumers is literally
an order of magnitude greater than that of having only 600 million such
consumers, and the dangers of Malthusian scarcity or environmental problems are
Thus continued increases in population produce a relentlessly increasing stress
on resources and environmental quality. In the long run, this is unlikely to
manifest itself simply in a gradual increase in resource costs and
deterioration in such measurable factors as air quality, with accompanying slow
decline in our living standards. Complex systems are not like that.
The Club of Rome in the 1970s made itself a mockery by designing a computer
model in which, whatever adjustments you made, environmental collapse occurred
within about 30-40 years. That model was flawed - it relied on simple
extrapolation with 40 iterations, and did not correct for the tendency under
such extrapolation for rounding errors to expand exponentially and overwhelm
The collapse of the world's economic and environmental systems is not
inevitable; if we consume resources conservatively, not approaching the limits
of the system, it will continue to run smoothly for an indefinite period.
However if we increase population, pollution and resource consumption until we
are close to the capacity of our planetary ecosystem, the probability of
systemic collapse becomes very high.
That will solve the population problem for the moment, by a mass wipeout that
removes most of the existing population. Whether it allows civilization to
continue thereafter is anyone's guess. The political and social strains
accompanying the mass wipeout could cause wars that prevent recovery
If we have overused some vital resource, civilization may not be re-buildable
even with a lower population. Alternatively, since we have overused antibiotics
for the last half-century, the population wipeout may be accomplished by a
disease, in which case if a significant proportion of humanity survives the
disease, the resources necessary for our civilization will still be available
and it will continue. But in general, if we get too close to the planet's
carrying capacity, gradual controllable decline is unlikely, and a mass
population wipeout by disease is probably the best outcome we can hope for.
Since continual population increase is almost certain to lead to catastrophe,
and we have no means of knowing at precisely what point catastrophe will occur,
the only alternative is to return global population to its natural level of
under 2 billion, at which the planet can easily support it, even with a
Westernization of emerging market living standards. Allowing population to
stabilize at 8 billion or 9 billion is not enough; we don't know that the
planet can support this number in the Western-style comfort which the poor
desire and will probably get whether we Westerners want them to or not.
Since in many advanced Western countries the population is already reproducing
at below replacement levels, there is reason to suppose that
industrialization's population explosion contains its own correcting mechanism.
Once living standards get to modern Western levels, fertility declines and
population begins to return to its pre-industrialization level.
While there are transition problems (mostly financial) caused by the aging of
low-fertility rate societies, these are temporary and can mostly be solved by
mandating higher retirement ages and greater savings rates, turning some of the
wealthy society's consumption into trust funds for the future. Japan is the
purest example of this, with a fertility rate of 1.37 children per couple and a
projected 2100 population of 91 million, 29% below its 2007 peak, equal to that
of 1959 and well on the way to its Meiji Restoration level of 33 million. In
other countries high immigration and the high fertility of first generation
immigrants from poorer countries has blurred this process, but it is
nevertheless apparent in all wealthy societies.
Population control, bafflingly, always seems to bring to mind two ugly 20th
century specters, the Third Reich and China's one-child policy, pursued since
the 1970s. Both associations are inappropriate. The Third Reich wasn't trying
to control population overall; it wanted Aryans to breed like rabbits. The
Reich was racist before it was eugenicist, let alone environmentalist, and its
evil fantasies are of no relevance today.
As for the one-child policy, that was imposed brutally by non-economic means
and caused much hardship. But everything was brutal in China in 1978, when it
was implemented - the country had just ended the Cultural Revolution, which
killed around 1 million of its citizens, and was less than 20 years removed
from the Great Leap Forward, which killed about 30 million.
You cannot however argue with one-child's results, which have reduced the 2011
population of China by an estimated 400 million, thus allowing that country for
the first time since the Song Dynasty fell to take its rightful place among the
world's most advanced economies, while raising its people to living standards
they had only dreamed of. Minus the brutality and intrusion into people's
lives, therefore the one-child policy had much to recommend it.
It is perfectly possible to move towards the goal of population reduction by
economic and cultural means, without cruelty, coercion or excessive intrusion
into private lives. The principal effort must be made in poor countries, those
51 of the world's 195 countries whose population is growing at 2% per annum or
It's not good hoping for enrichment to reduce the population growth rate in
such countries; the immense burden in infrastructure, education and social
unrest imposed by rapid population growth will keep those countries
impoverished. You have only look at Egypt, poorer today per capita with a
population of 82 million than it was with a population of 14 million in 1911 -
yet Egypt's annual population growth rate is only 1.96%, below the 2% cutoff.
Countries like Kenya (2.46% growth rate), Congo (2.84%) Ethiopia (3.19%) Uganda
(3.58%) and above all Zimbabwe (4.31%) are where the biggest problems lie. Not
all of them are in Africa, but most are, reflecting Africa's unhappy position
at the bottom of world wealth tables. Modern communications, which connect even
remote regions to the world economy, are beginning to lift much of Africa out
of the deepest poverty, but not quickly enough to eliminate the damage and
dangers of its population growth.
Culturally, much can be done by advertising programs, by ensuring that
contraception is readily available, and by improving women's education.
Economically, there is more scope for action, which is more feasible because of
the poverty of these societies, so that modest amounts of money mean a lot.
For example, I have suggested that an old age pension of $2 per day, payable
from the age of 70, would relieve much of the fear of impoverishment in old
age, and thus much of the incentive to excessive child-bearing. With the
eligible population of African septuagenarians being less than 30 million, such
a pension program would cost $20 billion a year.
That's peanuts compared to the cost of global warming programs, yet a
side-benefit of population control programs in the long run is their effect on
global warming - they do not simply produce a one-off improvement in carbon
emissions, they bend the curve over and produce a permanent reduction. For a
environmental problem like global warming whose worst adverse effects are
expected to appear in 2100 or after, population control is by far the cheapest
and most effective mechanism to address it.
Achieving a global population of 7 billion is not something to celebrate.
Rather than waiting passively until we hit 8 billion in 2025 or even earlier,
let's address the problem aggressively but non-coercively, aiming for global
population to peak below 8 billion and begin a steady decline thereafter.
Getting population down below 6 billion by 2075 instead of the currently
projected 9.9 billion, now THAT would be something to celebrate.
Martin Hutchinson is the author of Great Conservatives (Academica Press,
2005) - details can be found on the website www.greatconservatives.com - and
co-author with Professor Kevin Dowd of Alchemists of Loss (Wiley, 2010). Both
are now available on Amazon.com, Great Conservatives only in a Kindle edition,
Alchemists of Loss in both Kindle and print editions.
(Republished with permission from PrudentBear.com. Copyright 2005-11
David W Tice & Associates.)