It has been two hundred years since the Rev. Thomas R. Malthus wrote his essay on population, in which he argued that exponential population growth would outstrip global capacity to produce food. He foresaw an inevitable result: struggle, famine, disease, and war. His analysis was in sharp contrast to that of his compatriot William Godwin, who argued that a more egalitarian society and economics would end poverty and hold famine, disease, and war at bay.
Today, with six times the population, our concerns go beyond Malthus’s concern over our capacity to feed ourselves — yet the same debate is going on. Our worries involve (a) the carrying capacity of the globe, in terms of sustaining life (food, land, water, air), (b) our impact on that carrying capacity by creating climate change and environmental degradation, and © the capacity of human society (the collective human mind) to address these problems intelligently.
There is growing evidence that human population is stressing the capacity of the environment to sustain that same human population. The core issue is not about the capacity to produce food. Humans have been resourceful with respect to food production, but not with regard to ending poverty, famine, disease, or war. Godwin’s recommendations, which are part of the solution, have mostly been ignored.
The “Gaia” perspective sees the planet as a living organism, constantly adjusting to maintain the precarious equilibrium of its various natural systems, such as the climate and biological ecosystems. From this perspective current human activity threatens sustainable human life on the planet. The risks are great and time is not on our side.
But dealing with the population issue is much like playing “whack-a-mole”, a carnival game where a mechanical mole pops up randomly through different “mole holes” in a tabletop. The challenge is to whack the mole with a mallet before it disappears. But when it comes to population, there is no agreement as to whether it should be whacked, and if so, how to whack it.
Population growth has always exerted pressure on the status quo. The growth expands extensively by migration and intensively by urbanization, insofar as it can be sustained by technological advances in agriculture, energy, and transportation. But all these technologies have the potential for creating unforeseen adverse effects.
Today the population debate deals with climate change and increasing scarcities of resources. We are required to confront both Godwin and Malthus again, but with a new sense of urgency.
Some, however, disbelieve the urgency of the environmental issue. They may see population as a problem, but frame it in xenophobic terms, with alarm about population growth “over there” and hordes of migrants coming “over here.” On the other side are environmental alarmists who push for draconian social engineering solutions with scant regard to what is known about population dynamics. They include proponents of Chinese-style (that is, one child per couple) population control policies, who ignore what has been learned from that experiment in social engineering.
There are major uncertainties facing us. First, what are the threats to the planet’s basic equilibrium as a system? Second, how robust is its homeostasis? Third, how adaptable are human systems when facing danger?
Failure to address these questions may push the planet’s homeostasis beyond some unfortunate tipping point so that it will survive while humans do not.
Malthus and Godwin both came out of an Enlightenment mindset, but their assumptions differed considerably. Malthus started from a notion of laws of motion driving population and agricultural growth. Godwin started with the potential of the enlightened mind. It is from that “enlightened mind” that we have come to embrace notions of human rights and human dignity — notions that are at odds with the current conditions of poverty, famine, pestilence and war.
In Malthus’s time the global population was around one billion people. Today, it is around 6.5 billion and projected to hit between 8 and 10 billion by 2050. Advances in agriculture have expanded food production sufficiently to provide food for all. Yet many reside in zones of pestilence and conflict, resulting mainly from poverty and fights over scarce resources. Such conflicts are increasingly exacerbated by climate factors. The number facing hunger and privation today equals the inhabitants of the planet in Malthus’s time.
While early population numbers cannot be estimated with precision, there is relative consensus as to global population figures over the past half millennium. At the time of Columbus (1500) the global population was approximately one-half billion. About a fifth of that population resided in Europe, with an additional 2-3 percent in those areas (Western hemisphere, Oceania, Australia, New Zealand) that were to become regions of European settlement. Another fifth resided in Africa. Slightly over half of the global population resided in Asia, the Middle East, and those regions that made up the Soviet Union in the last century.
Three hundred years later, at the time of Malthus (1800), global population had doubled to 1 billion. The population of Europe and the New World regions had grown two and one-half times, to about one-quarter of global population. This was primarily due to population growth in Europe. European migration to the New World before 1800 was modest.
The nineteenth century saw the first wave of the European population boom. Going from a quarter of world population in 1800 when total population was just under 1 billion, it doubled to over one third of world population in 1900, when total population had risen to just over 1.5 billion.
Global population growth accelerated over the first half of the 20th century, and by 1950 global population was just shy of 2.5 billion. This represented the second and final stage in the European population boom. The European and New World population had risen to its peak share, just shy of 40% of global population, doubling again to almost 1 billion, with resulting falls in the shares of Asia, Africa, and the regions of the Soviet Union.
Population growth over the last half of the twentieth century saw dramatic shifts in the location and determinants of population growth. Economic prosperity, greater equity, and growing human rights and personal security propelled the areas of European populations to a transition from high birth rates to low birthrates. While global population grew at just under 2% per year, areas of European population grew at about half that rate.
Recall that for a century and a half, population growth was primarily a process of European population multiplication. To ignore why the rates fell so dramatically in the last half century is to miss the lessons of population dynamics. Moreover, a Westerner runs the risk of sounding hypocritical when targeting populations which currently show high birth rates.
The population debate has a tendency to polarize opinion between extremes, and result in “tit-for-tat” rounds of futile negotiations over policy choices. The key reason for this is the Gaia-like nature of social systems. A change in one element disturbs the equilibrium elsewhere, with differential impacts on groups. This may generate resistance to intervention.
Going back to Malthus and Godwin, we find that Malthus’s formulation has appealing simplicity whereas Godwin’s approach shows a deeper understanding of population dynamics. Malthus felt that the reproductive urge was primary, whereas we know today that it is socially conditioned — indeed, it is socially conditioned by those very factors that concerned Godwin.
The good news is that reduced population growth is achievable through the pursuit of objectives such as the UN Millennium Development Goals. The sad news is that society lacks the enlightened collective mind and consensus necessary to pursue those desirable and achievable goals. While lacking an enlightened collective mind to confront famine and poverty-related pestilence, society deploys its resources to carry out war.
The current challenge goes beyond Malthus’s concerns. It now involves building a societal system of equilibrium capable of supporting human existence. The challenge is not whether there is enough food, but whether we will avoid “spoiling our nest” with effects of production and consumption that threaten our very existence.
The past half-century of human history gives us hope. Without design, a desirable demographic shift took place with improvements in standards of living and human rights. Still, cause for concern remains about the enlightened mind.
Societies still find it difficult to build sufficient consensus to face the challenges confronting human survival. Gaia is not purposeful. It is up to humans to use wisdom and a collective enlightened mind, for human survival.
Sam Lanfranco is a professor emeritus at York University.