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Too much of a good thing
Do you think the world is over-populated?
Member Name: duncantorr
Do you think the world is over-populated?
Date: 14/11/11, updated on 30/05/13 (164 review reads)
Advantages: "Our children are our future"
Disadvantages: More children, less future
It was impossible, was it not, to be unmoved by the televised images of the recent - and continuing - famine in the horn of Africa. Emaciated mothers lugging their emaciated babies across tracts of parched landscape in search of sustenance, many dying on the way, infants almost skeletal save for their distended stomachs, too weak to swallow the proffered rations at the feeding stations. Anyone with a heart will have wanted to contribute to help alleviate their suffering, or at least keep some of them alive. But anyone with a head will also have wondered about the long-term effect of doing so, whether it might only contribute to even worse calamities in the future. After all, that corner of Africa has one of the highest birth rates in the world, and, despite the famine, one of the fastest-growing populations, so every child saved now will not only be one more mouth to feed in the future, but will on average breed three further mouths to feed, and so on - and all from cultivating exhausted, drought-prone land that cannot even now reliably sustain those already living there.
Discussing this situation with people, I find I encounter four main reactions. The first runs thus: "People are starving now; we in the developed world should send food now and worry about the future later." The second, equally charitable but more thoughtful, runs along these lines: "Yes, It's a problem, and we in the developed world should be helping not just with food aid, but with education, family planning advice and supplies, water conservation projects, agricultural expertise and so forth, so that they can build a sustainable future." The third is more cynical: "Oh yes, it's awfully sad, but that's what happens in places like Africa. Food aid is counter-productive in the long run. There's nothing one can do, except thank goodness it couldn't happen in developed countries like our own." And the fourth goes thus: "What we're seeing in Africa is a microcosm and foretaste of what's going to happen everywhere before long. The world is already over-populated and is becoming more so. We can only feed ourselves now by squandering the earth's resources and as they become exhausted we'll all discover what famine really means."
Of these four reactions, the first comes from people who, to be frank, seem to me to have more heart than head. The second is admirably well-intentioned, but begs huge questions as to the practicality of enacting what is proposed. The third seems not just hard-hearted but complacent; there is certainly no certainty that it couldn't happen here. The fourth offers the most coherent case intellectually, backed by persuasive evidence, but is perhaps too pessimistic. Two centuries have, after all, passed since Malthus published a similarly coherent case, arguing that the mass of mankind would be forever condemned to near-starvation by its tendency to breed as least as quickly as the supply of food could be increased. So far his misgivings - and those of subsequent prophets of over-populated doom - have not been realised. Which is not to say that they will never be realised, or that they will not be imminently realised. Or even that they are not already in the process of being realised although we are still to feel the full effects. There must be, after all, a limit; since the world's space and resources are not infinite, the population reliant on them cannot go on increasing forever. The only question is where that limit lies.
Since it is one of the two more important questions facing mankind at present (the other being the related question of climate change), it seems worth devoting a little thought to seeing if we can take a stab at an answer.
* Frying pan or fire *
The world's population has just passed seven billion, having doubled in the past fifty years, and is still increasing at a headlong rate. The last billion took only a dozen years to accumulate, and - barring a world war, a pandemic plague or the arrival of global famine even sooner than the gloomiest pessimists predict - the next billion will be added in about the same timespan. The rate of increase is then expected to slow, but the total is still projected to reach nine billion by 2050 - the official United Nations prediction for that date is 9.3 billion - before continuing to decelerate through the rest of the century to give a total of around 10 billion by its close. If so, the world will have nearly half as many again mouths to feed as it has now. Of course, predictions, however 'official', are by their very nature unreliable and the further ahead they aim to forecast the more unreliable they become.
In this particular case, the further ahead one looks the greater heed should be paid to the proviso of 'barring a world war, a pandemic plague or global famine'. It is impossible to bar any of these catastrophes, and there are strong arguments for believing that at least two of them will be made more likely by a growing population: global famine for reasons which we will examine in more detail below, and world war because competition for ever scarcer natural resources will intensify national rivalries, especially if famine conditions prevail. A pandemic plague is, of course, more of an unpredictable wild card, but even that could be rendered more likely by climate change, or by more people travelling more widely and interacting more frequently than has been the case in the past.
In the event of such catastrophes, the forecast population increase may not happen after all, but world wars, pandemic plagues and global famine are all decidedly unpalatable methods of population restraint and no human in his or her right mind would wish them on humanity. Meanwhile, even if none of the threatened catastrophes transpires, there are good reasons to fear that life on earth will be rendered more difficult, dangerous and impoverished by an unrestrained increase in human numbers. So the question arises of whether humanity should be devoting more effort into more palatable approaches to population restraint than appears to be the case at the moment, when hardly any effort seems to be being devoted to encouraging population restraint at all. Indeed, many countries, including Britain, are pursuing policies that encourage population increase.
* Reasons to be fearful *
The famines forecast by past pessimists have so far been largely averted in three ways: by bringing more and more land under cultivation, by greater use of mechanisation and chemical inputs and by breeding more productive and disease-resistant crop strains. Mankind's ability to rely on any of these continuing into the future is in grave doubt.
The least rosy prospect is that for bringing more land under cultivation. Nowhere in the world are there any wide open prairies still waiting for the plough. On the contrary, the current trend is for more land to be lost than gained, and for the land gained to be less naturally productive than that which is lost. Since people have always settled where their crops grew best, such land is also where cities are found, and these cities are constantly spreading, eating up arable not just for houses, offices and shops, but for roads, railways, airports, reservoirs and so on. Further afield, farmland is being lost to soil erosion, exhaustion from over-exploitation, the draining of irrigation aquifers, salination and desertification - some of it the result of climate change. (If, incidentally, despite the overwhelming evidence, you don't think mankind can be causing climate change, please note that we humans are doing quite enough in other ways to deplete the amount of food-producing land available to us; climate change simply accelerates the process.) Most self-defeating of all is displacing food crops to grow crops for refining into fuel; self-defeating because almost as much fuel is burnt as is produced in the process, whilst replacing the agricultural land lost can only be achieved by deforestation, which reduces the world's capacity to turn the carbon dioxide back into oxygen. Moreover, land opened up by deforestation is seldom particularly fertile and is often quickly eroded and rendered barren. And, of course, if we are to find room for the population growth currently projected, the pressure to turn arable land to other uses will only intensify, as will demand for water essential to irrigation.
There is still scope for the increased use of mechanised methods and chemical inputs, but less than in the past. Such methods require heavy investment and countries able to afford to employ them are mostly already doing so. Moreover the cost is rising: mechanised agriculture needs a lot of fuel, and fuel prices have, of course, risen sharply in recent years, as has the cost of artificial fertiliser and crop protection chemicals. They are unlikely to become cheaper any time soon, or very possibly ever again. Why would they, if there are to be ever more people in the world, all of them eager to consume what is produced? Meanwhile, these methods have unwelcome side-effects in pollution (for example, run-off killing fish in rivers and the sea around estuaries, eliminating another source of food), soil exhaustion, and greenhouse gas emission. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that agriculture directly contributes 13.5% of such emissions worldwide, and changes in land use - mostly deforestation for agricultural purposes - another 17.4%. That's an awful lot of gas contributing to climatic conditions that are likely to render agriculture in many parts of the world even more difficult in the future than it is today.
There may still be scope too for breeding more productive crop strains, but recent experience has not been all that encouraging. During the "green revolution" of the 1960s-1980s, yields per hectare for staple crops were growing at about 3% a year, a figure that has gradually declined to about 1% a year now, slower than the annual rate of increase in the world's population. It may be that the quick wins have already been won; the easy improvements available from plant-breeding have already been exploited and further advances will be harder and harder to find as time goes on.
All this has focussed on crop-growing, since that is the source of most of mankind's sustenance. People in rich countries, of course, consume a relatively high proportion of animal protein, which requires more land per unit of food value to produce. Emerging countries, as they become richer, tend to follow this fashion, making still greater demands on the available land in the process. Moreover, excessively intensive grazing is already a major contributor to land degradation. As for fishing, over-exploitation in the past gives little room for an improved take in the future; 75% of the world fish stocks are already fished at or beyond a sustainable rate. So prospects for feeding the world's growing population look grimmer the more closely one examines them.
* Loaves and fishes *
So what can optimists say in response to all this?
Broadly, they say that the world still has just about enough resources to feed 9 billion people by the middle of the century, provided that those resources are not further degraded or diverted for alternative uses like urban development or biofuels. They say that while climate change may render some terrain unusable for agriculture it may make other regions more productive - northerly latitudes of Russia and Canada, for example. They further say that the food price increases that will come - are already coming - with scarcity will both incentivise farmers to raise output and inventors to devise more efficient methods to enable them to do so. Never, they say, underestimate the power of human ingenuity, especially when motivated by the stick of necessity or the carrot of profit. They point to the scope for further advances in genetic modification for crops, and in factory farming for meat and fish - all of which may be abhorrent to some people but would nevertheless increase output.
Such arguments may have some merit, but I personally find them only mildly reassuring, for two reasons. The first is that they rely on assumptions that may not be borne out in practice, in particular that we won't go on despoiling or misusing what we have. That might be the case if mankind could be relied on act in intelligent cooperation, but all experience shows that this seldom happens in reality - one need only look at what has already become of the world's fisheries and forests to see that. The second is that they rest too heavily for comfort on faith in humanity's ability to rise to any challenge. It is simply not the case that human civilisations have always risen to challenges, sometimes self-imposed, in the past; on the contrary, many have collapsed and perished. We, by definition, are the descendants of those which did not, and may therefore be predisposed to think that we will always muddle through somehow. It would be ironic indeed if we let this complacency lead us to set ourselves ever more daunting challenges until we found one we could not meet, but this may be exactly what we are doing now.
* Quantity of people versus quality of life *
So far we have only looked at the most extreme aspect of overpopulation - the prospect that our numbers are growing to levels that the world may prove incapable of feeding in future. But a growing population creates problems for itself long before that point is reached. It increases competition not only for agricultural land, but for all kinds of other resources of which the supply is limited - water, raw materials, energy and living space. The more prosperous people become the more demands each one of them makes on all these resources. When supply is limited and demand increases, prices rise, once more reducing that prosperity. Increased efficiency in the use made of the natural inputs can mitigate that effect, but not indefinitely. Ultimately, the earth can support a smaller number of people living more prosperously, or a larger number of people living less prosperously. What it cannot do indefinitely is to support an ever-rising number of people living ever more prosperously. Sooner or later, if population continues to grow the average living standards of that population will contract. And that's without taking into account the further complications of climate change.
* Little local difficulty *
Here in Britain, where at present most people lead relatively comfortable lives and have enough to eat, it would be easy to be self-satisfied and regard overpopulation as a problem only for the under-developed world. Yet we live in one of the world's most densely populated countries, and one in which the population is continuing to grow quickly. We are quite unable to feed ourselves by what can be produced here alone, so we have to import food from overseas. This presents little problem in times when there is a glut on the world's markets, and when our buying power is relatively high. But for reasons outlined above there is every prospect that the world's supplies will not increase in future as they have in the past, whilst competing demand from emerging nations like China is growing in buying power relative to our own. The last two years have already given us an example of how food price inflation can take hold for reasons entirely out of our domestic control and despite a generally supine economy. There is no reason to expect food price inflation to moderate in future, and every reason to suppose it will intensify. Much the same applies to price inflation in fuel, and in anything else derived from natural resources, which includes more or less all tradable goods. One does not need to envisage any nightmare famine scenarios to see how that would detract from our living standards. Nor to see how an ever-increasing population renders us ever more at the mercy of overseas supply of all those things.
Yet, oddly, we continue to pursue policies that encourage and subsidise childbirth - tax breaks, allowances, fertility treatment at public expense, and so on. There are, of course, those who argue that if birth rates decline there will be an insufficient number of young people coming through into productive adulthood to support the growing number of old age pensioners. But this is, in effect, an argument for an ever-increasing population, for each succeeding generation will, with any luck, grow through their working lives until they too become pensioners in need of support. At some point, in a finite world and even more in a finite, crowded country, it will be necessary to recognise that this is ultimately self-defeating. As Herbert Stein famously said: "when something can't go on forever, it will stop." The sooner it is recognised, the less severe the concomitant problems will be.
* Faith, hope and clarity *
It seems curious indeed that, amid all the alarm about climate change, the role of population growth in exacerbating humanity's problems receives relatively little attention. I suspect that there are two related reasons for this. The first is religious and cultural sensitivity. Many religions exhort their followers to fertility and some forbid contraception outright. Even where religion is less condemnatory or less strident, there are often customs and traditions in place that exert a similar influence. In the face of such ingrained beliefs, any attempt to point out the drawbacks of unrestrained fertility is bound to be controversial, and many otherwise well-meaning people shy away from such controversy. The second is that childbirth is widely seen as a joy, something to be celebrated, and anyone perceived as trying to tell people how many children they can have is regarded as intrusive and overbearing. Rightly so, perhaps, if that were really what they were doing. Official initiatives aimed at limiting population - like China's 'one child' policy - can only be enforced in totalitarian societies, which themselves may be at least as detrimental to human happiness as the effects of over-population.
To point out the possible results of over-population is not in itself to tell people how many children they can have; it is merely to point out the possible results of over-population. Those who react angrily when someone does so are simply blaming the messenger because they don't like the message. Naturally, we all love our children and hope for the best possible life for them, but clarity and foresight are needed if that is what they are to enjoy. Anyone having a child is planning not just for the next few years, but for the next fifty, sixty, seventy, hopefully a hundred. It behoves us to try to foresee what life on earth is likely to be like over that timespan, and to consider how many children our world will be able to support. Our children are their own future, not really ours at all, and by having too many of them we may be condemning them to a less comfortable and more dangerous future than if we only had a few.
* Too little, too late? *
There is some good news on the population front. The main good news is that fertility rates in most of the world are falling, hence the decelerating growth reflected in the UN forecasts. The bad news is that this may all be happening just a little bit too slowly and a little bit too late. Our numbers may already be above the earth's long-term carrying capacity, as many commenters have argued.
Personally, perhaps for no better reason than that I am temperamentally an optimist, I believe that there is still room to hope that we might find a way to sustain a population at the level forecast. But it is no more than hope. The pessimists have a formidable case, and more persuasive than that of their critics, whose stance often amounts to pointing out that Malthusians have been mistaken before, or at least ahead of their time. So what? Just because people have cried wolf prematurely in the past doesn't mean that no wolf is now at the door. The next line of defence tends to be an ever more exacting demand for proof of impending disaster, seemingly on the grounds that if those worried about the future can't prove that a disaster is imminent, then there can be no cause for concern. This is complacent nonsense. Disaster can be in the making irrespective of anyone's ability to prove it. There is no onus of proof in these matters, which are not, in any case - since we are talking about the future - susceptible to proof until that future transpires.
In the meantime, we can only try to make a judgement based on the evidence we have. And it does seem to me that there is strong evidence that we as a species have already taken an enormous risk by allowing our numbers to grow to the level they have, and would be most unwise not to heed the calls to strive for more population restraint in the future. There is truly a danger that if we do not limit our numbers voluntarily nature will do it for us involuntarily, with much misery engendered in the process. No one knows for certain what the future holds, but the safest, most comfortable and most prosperous path forward would be trod by fewer people.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2011
Summary: An attempt to assess whether the world is over-populated