Population explosion – or decline?

Population explosion – a definition: – A sudden, rapid increase in a population. In human terms this could be caused by economic growth coupled with the global oversupply of food, increased birth rate, reduction in infant mortality, increase in life expectancy and better healthcare generally, poor education and awareness of birth control in some countries, religious reasons and more. Population growth really took off at about the same time as the industrial revolution started. However, since World War II the global population has seen an exponential growth from an estimated 2.3 billion to a now estimated 7.2 billion and expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. This growth comes mainly from developing continents and countries such as Africa and, until recently, India. The governments of China and Russia, as examples, were until recently, actively encouraging population growth to help support the growing older population, as well as for political reasons, as the tensions between these two super powers ebb and flow!

The planet cannot sustain this exponential growth indefinitely. It is argued that we are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction (Holocene extinction) on the planet with only the fittest and richest surviving. Indeed it is estimated that the planet now loses three species every hour! That’s a staggering 26,000 every year. Even taking into account NEW species being discovered there is still an estimated net loss of some 2,000 every year – and this is true particularly in the insect world due to changes in farming methods, pesticides and climate change. Modern humans have to take responsibility since their arrival at the top of the food chain. The Law of Correlation tends to iron out peaks and troughs and the population may well, therefore, be self leveling in the short term due to checks by nature – famines, floods, pandemics and other disasters.

In 1798 the cleric and philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus, in his essay ‘Principles of Population’, decreed that a population, if left unchecked, would increase at a geometric rate (1,2,4,8,16,32…..) and would double itself every 25 years. Food production, on the other hand, increases arithmetically (2,4,6,8,10….) and, therefore, food would eventually run out. His prognosis was that within two thousand years, such would be the growth of population that it would be incalculable – if indeed it still existed! He spoke of ‘preventative checks’ and ‘positive checks’. Preventative checks insofar as humans are able to check their own behaviour, for example limiting family size, marrying later and exercising self control to maintain a higher standard of living with fewer children. Positive checks are those supplied by nature in the form of famines, floods, earthquakes, diseases, pandemics and other disasters causing the population overall to ultimately decline. Lets not forget also the ultimate man made disaster: war.

The Malthusian theory did not take into account the effects of industrialisation, mechanisation of food production and globalisation. Malthus could not have possibly foreseen these events or the rise of feminism over the decades to come, empowering women, at last, to have a say in their own future and wellbeing (and that of the planet). The cumulative effect has seen the beginning of a new chapter and an empirical based philosophy.

Fast forward to 1973 when the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess wrote of two kinds of ecological movement. The shallow kind, concerned with human interests particularly in the developed world and the deep kind, concerned with peoples of the developing world and the rights of other species affirming their equal rights to live and blossom. He acknowledged the need to kill animals and harvest plants for the long term benefit of humans but adhered to the principle that all species have the right to live their own way of life. He called this ‘biospherical egalitarianism‘. (This brings us to next week’s blog – ‘The Rights of Animals’). This more broadly expands into ‘biological diversity‘ encompassing as broad a range of species as possible with all things living in harmony for the good of animals and life-enhancing experiences for humans.

Naess’s ‘Deep Ecology’ platform advocated, in many ways not unlike Malthus, a significant reduction in the human population. This was necessary to ensure the continued flourishing of those remaining along with other species. This led to some of Naess’s advocates to welcome the thought of the ‘positive’ checks mentioned above! Needless to say others were horrified at the idea.

In their 2019 book ‘Empty Planet’, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson write, “The great defining event of the 21st century will occur in three decades……..when the global population starts to decline”. Their claim is made on the ‘simple fact’ that in most regions fertility rates are falling thanks to a combination of female empowerment, urbanisation and greater affluence. In Brazil and China “astonishing” numbers of women now opt for early sterilisation (“half of Chinese couples take this route”); “in South Korea and Japan women delay childbirth until their late 30s or forego it altogether”; most ethnic groups in the US now have below replacement birth rates. The authors suggest that pressures causing such trends will increase and that once global population starts to fall it will never end.

This can only be good news as this will relieve pressure on finite food supplies and shift power from a capital based economy to one labour based, helping to reduce inequality. In the short term however it will not reduce pressure on migration with peoples still eager to enter the West. Furthermore, the theory is not entirely new as this was discussed by Fred Pearce a decade ago in his book ‘Peoplequake’. Neither is the argument completely watertight as Nigeria’s fertility rates have remained stable in spite of intense urbanisation and is currently the world’s most populous country after the US. However, the Malthusians may well be finally silenced!

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