The Population Explosion: Sustainability and Control
As world population levels soar, our planet is struggling to supply us with sufficient resources such as food, water and energy. We are already consuming beyond the sustainable limit.
In order to avoid an eventual humanitarian catastrophe, world governments must seek to decrease the fertility rate thus ensuring manageable population levels for the
Many ethical questions must be considered such that any action taken garners broad public support and ensures lasting prosperity for humanity.
We live in an era of ever-increasing wealth and consumption, but also of impending instability, uncertainty and upheaval as a result of climate change, energy shortages and economic turmoil.
Indeed, predictions of imminent catastrophe as a result of overpopulation have circulated since Thomas Malthus published his landmark ‘Essay on the Principles of Population’ in 1798. Too many people, too little food, went his argument. Malthus was the first to argue for the British government to implement strict population control measures.
Can we achieve the standard of living for
everyone that, at present, is reserved for just
one sixth of the population?
Six years later, in 1804, the total world population broke the one billion-person milestone. Today, 6.8 billion individuals, far beyond Malthus’ expectations, inhabit the
Earth. This number increases by one billion approximately every twelve years.
How, given the limited amount of land and natural resources available on our small planet, can we hope to satisfy the needs and wants of such a vast number the
Can we achieve a standard of living for everyone that, at present, is reserved for just one sixth of the population?
How can we ensure that what is consumed today will not become a debt to be shouldered by future generations?
A Fragile Equilibrium
Crucially, population levels seem to be the single greatest factor behind many of today’s problems. This is simply due to the fact that any activity on a massive scale can
destabilize nature’s equilibrium. With only a handful of people, energy consumption, food production or land use would not pose problems such as those we face today.
The question is: just how many people can the planet provide for sustainably?
Malthusian arguments proclaiming that humanity is in a state of overpopulation with regards to the sustainable carrying capacity of the Earth are back in vogue. This time
round, however, it seems that there may be some truth in his argument after all.
Food Fights and Famines
According to estimates from the United Nations, the total number of ‘hungry’ people worldwide topped one billion in June 2009 for the first time in human history. This may be partially attributed to the global economic decline but is largely due to the continuing long-term trend in increasing population levels and decreasing food supplies.
What did Malthus say about this phenomenon in 1798?
Certain nations have initiated a new practice
of buying up vast planes of foreign land to
feed their domestic populations
Malthus’ theory rested upon a mathematical assumption that population grows geometrically (e.g. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32), while food supply can, at best, only grow arithmetically
(e.g. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) over a period of 25 years.
Quickly population levels will be too large to be sustained by relatively diminishing food supplies and people will starve. His dire predictions didn’t come true, however, as
this model was overly simplistic.
Malthus had failed to foresee the green revolution in agriculture that swept Europe in the 19th Century and Asia in the second half of the 20th Century. These saw crop
yields increase enormously, up to tenfold for some rice plantations, with the use of modern agricultural techniques and fertilizers.
Malthus, however, was not wrong when he said that improvements in agricultural techniques couldn’t increase food production on a par with population growth rates.
Indeed, we are now witnessing the effects of population growth that outstrips advances in food production.
Not only is most arable land already being used but also a significant amount of it has been over-farmed. Modern agricultural methods have eroded the topsoil layer, which is only 6 inches thick and requires hundreds of years to form, so that plants can no longer grow in the nutrient-deficient ground.
Worse still, much of the boom in agricultural activity was due to a plentiful supply of water drawn from large underground freshwater reservoirs known as aquifers.
These have, however, become seriously depleted and cannot be relied upon for much longer.
Furthermore, as the climate warms, and mountain glaciers shrink, many of the world’s rivers around which populations tend to conglomerate could also dry up.
Combined, these two factors have already caused food production to fall in many parts of the world.
And yet, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food availability in developing countries will have to double by 2050 if it is to
meet the needs of the booming populations there. This does not seem likely however, not only due to limits on production growth as mentioned above, but also because
of a new phenomenon, land grabs.
Resulting from the 2008 spike in food prices, certain nations have initiated a new practice of buying up vast planes of foreign land to feed their domestic populations.
Indeed, mainly Arab and East Asian countries have purchased huge swathes of African and South-East Asian nations.
Cumulatively, these lands are equivalent to the area of France. Food grown in countries such as Madagascar, Sudan, Congo and the Philippines will be shipped back to
the landlord countries such as Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., China and South Korea to meet local demand for food there. Already, such moves have toppled a government in
Madagascar in early 2009, and threaten to further provoke violent reaction from local populations.
Furthermore, the population explosion will not only put unsustainable pressure on the food supply but also on a multitude of other non-renewable resources such as oil
and gas, metals and minerals. Resources that should be renewable, such as fish, forests and fresh water supplies, will no longer have sufficient time to recover. Together
these effects ensure a worsening of famines to come.
Baby Boom to Baby Bust
As a consequence of this population explosion, and the resulting shortage of food and other vital resources, it will be necessary to reduce, and eventually reverse, human population growth rates.
There are two routes by which this goal can be achieved: via the intervention of man or nature itself.
Nature will act by increasing the death rate through what Malthus called ‘positive checks’. As food becomes scarce, large swathes of the human population will succumb to
widespread famine. For example, the 1958-1962 famine in China, caused by the Great Leap Forward, left some 10-30 million people dead.
Whilst historically populations have recovered quickly from famines, as many of these were due to improper distribution of food, it is likely that a future famine will
permanently decrease world population levels due to a lack of food.
Before a famine occurs however, a conflict between nations may erupt as states desperately attempt to appropriate resources for themselves. This may lead to
war and hence also to population decline.
And so we turn to man’s ‘preventative checks’, which aim to reduce the birth rate through various voluntary, or legally enforced, measures. Approaches include family
planning, contraception, abstinence, abortion, birth permits or sterilizations.
While many of these tactics are far from desirable, do they perhaps comprise the lesser of two evils when measured against the possibility of war or famine?
Fortunately, it appears that one of the most efficient methods of bringing down the fertility rate is also the most desirable: educating and empowering women.
Indeed, a well-established trend indicates that the better educated a woman, the fewer children she will bear.
According to statistics from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, women with no schooling have an average of 4.5 children, whereas those with a few
years of primary school education have just 3.
If a woman completes just one or two years of secondary education she will have on average 1.9 children while with a couple of years in college this falls to 1.7. Any value
below about 2.1 is deemed to be below replacement levels and will lead to a shrinking population.
This is because, as evidence suggests, women do not necessarily want to have more children, but rather to have more for fewer children.
Educating women, especially in countries where the birth rate is high, such as in Africa, South America, and some parts of Asia, would shrink the populations, while
simultaneously unlocking vast potential for economic growth and development.
Women do not necessarily want to have
more children, but rather to have more
for fewer children
But will this change occur fast enough? Is it sufficient? In conjunction with an improved education in general, governments must also provide better sex education. In
Iran for instance, men and women attend compulsory sex education, leading to substantially decreased birth rates.
Another effective measure, which should encounter little opposition, is to reduce infant mortality. While this initially may seem to increase population levels, the
evidence clearly indicates that when child mortality levels fall, birth rates fall even more dramatically. This is due to an increased confidence in the survival of a child to
adulthood and can be achieved, for example, through better access to medicine or the distribution of mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa.
Should these measures fail, governments may have to resort to birth permits, allowing each family to have, say, two children. China has already successfully implemented
a ‘one-child’ policy in its urban centres, with a ‘two-child’ policy in rural areas, which, according to some estimates, has averted the birth of some 400 million people.
Such schemes can be hugely successful, but can also end in disastrous failure, such as India’s sterilization programs to keep population in check in the 1970s. The 1968 book The Population Bomb, by Paul R. Ehrlich, in which he proposes a mechanism by which governments could effectively control population levels, inspired many such
programmes. Ehrlich is a proponent of "compulsory birth regulation... [through] the addition of temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food”, suggesting
“doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired family size".
Evidently, the ethical issues that arise are complicated, and should not be dismissed. It must first be determined whether there is a justifiable need for an enforceable
government-level intervention in family planning.
But is the collective freedom of society, the
freedom of the human species ... more
important the right of the individual today
Will such measures be acceptable to the populations of the free world?
When considering the ethical aspects of population control, there are five principles that must be addressed: freedom, justice, welfare, truth, and survival. Forced
abortion or compulsory sterilization, for example, violate human freedom, justice and welfare. It is certainly no easy task to make people accept that they no longer have
control over the size of their own family!
Could governments avoid the need for population control altogether?
Arguably, food production can be further increased, and food waste decreased in developed countries, by intervention in the agricultural sector.
But flawed government interventions can also create problems such as the ‘butter mountains’ and ‘wine lakes’ of Europe which serve to prop up prices thus protecting
farmers at the expense of consumers.
In any case, the developed world is a net exporter of food. Most of the progress to be made will not be achieved through economic incentives for European or American
farmers to produce more, but instead by encouraging African farmers to use modern agricultural techniques and improve their use of arable land.
The Loyal Opposition
Despite the dire consequences of overpopulation, and despite the benefits of reduced population levels, there are some vociferous opponents to many of the propositions that have been outlined above.
Indeed, many people refuse to believe that the Earth’s resources are so limited. Numerous governments, for instance, are eager to see their population grow, as a
larger population will credit a state with greater political and economic power. True, a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) may grow yet the GDP per capita cannot
grow indefinitely as it is so closely tied to the fixed and limited amount of available resources.
Instead, if a population is manageably and progressively reduced, the same quantity of resources can be distributed to a smaller group, and so all stand to benefit.
Great reductions in poverty can be achieved.
It is then imperative that countries, such as Germany, Russia, Australia, and many others which have provided huge incentives for large families, including cash payouts
for each child, extended paid maternity leave, free childcare services, and others, abolish these measures immediately, and instead of relying an increasingly large
base to pay for pensions, tackle the political minefield of reforming the pension system itself and push back the retirement age.
In direct contradiction to the Biblical command to ‘be ye fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 9:7), perhaps the greatest institution at odds with population control is organized
The Roman Catholic Church, particularly under the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, has repeatedly condemned the use of contraception and abortions to terminate
This same institution has greatest power in countries with the fastest population growth – in sub-Saharan Africa, and in some Latin American nations. The Church’s moral
objections however, seem frail in comparison to the alternatives, notably severe food shortages and possible famine. The Church has successfully modified their moral
code over the centuries, despite the immutability of the written word of the Bible, and in time will once again have to change and adapt to the realities of modern day life.
Further opposition will come from free-minded people who simply want more children, claiming that such is their right, and any attempt to prevent them from doing so is
an assault upon their personal freedom.
But is the collective freedom of society, the freedom of the human species to survive long into the future, not more important the right of the individual today?
When this collective freedom, the freedom for all humans to prosper, and not just a particular group, is taken into account, such claims can be seen to be nothing shy of
selfish. For indeed it is selfish to forcefully appropriate for oneself a greater share of the resources, and thereby reducing the share of some other unfortunate soul at
another point in time and space.
Less is More
In short, a smaller population, which efficiently manages the Earth’s limited resources will benefit from higher standards of living than ever before.
Slower population growth could save one to two billion tons of carbon emissions per year thus contributing enormously to the fight against global warming.
Ecosystems, which have been under such unnatural strain in recent years, will, perhaps, be able to recover from the onslaught of human industry. Biodiversity could once
again flourish. We would lessen the risk of pushing nature beyond the tipping point.
A population catastrophe may be imminent, and could easily occur within our lifetime. It is imperative that governments act immediately, and collectively, in an
effort to manage their population levels ensuring sustainability of resources.
This will not be easy, and it will not be pleasant. It will require difficult negotiation, concessions from all sides, and the wilful, informed support of the populace itself.
But if this is not achieved, nature will always find a way to keep us in check, by the cruellest means if necessary.
Raphael Houdmont is a physics student at Imperial College with an interest in international relations and debating particularly in the field of demographics.