Friday, 23 September 2011

Prophecies of doom – the warning echoes of Thomas Malthus

Two minutes after midnight on 12 October 1999 a baby boy was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He was 3.55kg (8lbs), healthy and welcomed in to the world by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The baby, Adnan Mević, was given such high profile attention after being selected by the United Nations Population Fund as the symbolic six billionth person concurrently alive on Earth.

Just twelve years later and the Day of Six Billion will be superseded on 31 October as the world welcomes its seven billionth inhabitant. Both of these days are highly symbolic projections – no demographer can be certain of the world’s population let alone able to balance births and deaths to reach an accurate conclusion on the six or seven billionth person. But they do prompt debate on the world’s population, rekindle discussion on the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ and see demographers and politicians ask how many people can the earth support?

World population in 1800 – 1 billion

One name above all others is associated with the arguments – the Reverend Thomas Malthus. In 1798 he published “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, which argued that population would expand in times of plenty until checked by a shortage of primary resources. If the population continued to grow in excess of the earth’s ability to provide for them, it would be checked by “premature death” that “in some shape or other visit the human race”. His prediction was that mankind, through warfare are “active and able ministers of depopulations”:

“But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”

Malthus’s work is considered the most influential founding text on population. It was not, however, the first book to consider overpopulation. Jonathan Swift’s devastating satire in “A Modest Proposal” (a preferred shortening of the unwieldy long title of “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick”) mockingly suggested a radical use for ‘surplus’ Irish children.

The tract retains its ability to shock, puncturing even the cynicism of the twenty-first century reader. Swift argues that 100,000 surplus children of the Irish poor could be sold for good price to grace the tables of the better off:

“a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”

Swift’s Ireland would suffer the terrible consequences of overpopulation and crop failure in the Great Famine. But Malthus’s concerns were largely confounded in nineteenth century Britain by improvements in agriculture and vast imports of wheat from the American and Canadian plains and Russian steppes.

World population in 1900 – 1.65 billion

Malthus’s work continued to be widely read, and influenced Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” and his theory that the struggle to survive was a consequence of overpopulation and the spur to natural selection and evolution.  Both works would heavily influence the development of eugenic theory, with Henry Fairfield Osborn advocating “humane birth selection through humane birth control” in order to avoid a Malthusian catastrophy by eliminating the “unfit”. The predictions of human catastrophe were largely rejected by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and those advocating population controls were largely concerned with conservation issues.

Malthusian ideas were largely dormant until 1948, when two works would spark a debate that would become one of the twentieth century’s biggest issues. Fairfield Osborn’s ‘Our Plundered Planet’ and William Vogt’s ‘Road to Survival’ were both best-sellers and triggered the debate that would develop into the ‘population bomb’. Vogt argued for population control whilst Osborn criticized man’s poor stewardship of the earth and depletion of natural resources.  

World population in 1950 – 2.5 billion

The concept of a population explosion was explored throughout the 50s and 60s. On 11 January 1960, Time magazine featured a front cover on the population explosion. Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 would be followed by the widely read and hugely influential ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul Ehrlich in 1968.

Population control was now more than an intellectual discourse, it was a struggle for mankind’s survival. The vast and increasing populations of India and China were cited as major contributors to population growth, and it was these countries that embarked on high profile population control campaigns. China’s ‘one-child policy’ was introduced in 1978 and the authorities claim that it has since prevented 400 million births.

India’s national policy was more permissive, focusing on education, contraception and legalization of abortion. As a result, China’s fertility rate is currently 1.8 (and below the replacement rate of 2.1), whilst India’s is 2.7. India is predicted to overtake China as the most populous nation in 2026. Concerns about overpopulated extended to humanitarian relief, for example with Lyndon Johnson’s shipments of wheat to famine-struck India in 1966. The grain was exported on the strict condition that the country accelerated its family planning campaign.

World population in 2050? 12 billion, 9.75 billion, 5 billion?  

But catastrophe was averted and famine avoided by the Green Revolution, which caused a dramatic increase in the production of cereal crops. More recently, the debate on population has been linked with concerns over global warming, resource depletion and peak oil. The concept of the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ has been discussed, reigniting the debate on the planet’s ability to cope with an increasing population. 

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