On population

Malthus has been buried many times, and Malthusian scarcity with him. But as Garrett Hardin remarked, anyone who has to be reburied so often cannot be entirely dead.

Herman E. Daly, Steady-State Economics: The Economics of Biophysical Equilibrium and Moral Growth (1991)

There are several canned responses that always seem to come up whenever the topic of human population comes up. In this essay I want to discuss why none of them are very helpful, and to try and suggest some other ways of approaching it.

“There is no problem with over-population.” This is the techno-optimist position. It has no basis in either physical or ecological reality, and is merely a confession of faith in the Religion of Progress. Some proponents of this view do point out that there is enough food produced to feed everyone, and that malnutrition and starvation are the result of maldistribution. There’s some truth to this, although it ignores the fact that much of that food is produced by unsustainable industrial methods and that it depends on a reasonably stable climate, which is going away. (I saw just yesterday that olive oil production this year in both Spain and Italy – i.e. the world’s major producers – is expected to be down 75% due to the ongoing drought.) It also ignores the reality that this maldistribution is not actually going to be fixed.

People who adopt this view seem to think that more human beings on the planet must ipso facto be better than fewer human beings on the planet. I am not sure why they should think this. It seems to be an example of the fetishisation of quantity for its own sake that is so characteristic of industrial civilisation. More is not always better, nor is it always worse. More is just more. Without context, it means nothing.

“If you think there is a problem with over-population, you must be a racist.” This claim can just be a way of saying “I don’t want to talk about this,” in that calling someone a racist is basically telling them to shut up. Of course there have been unpleasant episodes in the not too distant past such as the Bengal famines of 1943 and 1770, not to mention the Irish “Great Hunger,” in which colonised peoples were allowed to starve due to malign neglect, to put it no more strongly, on the part of their imperial overlords. This isn’t purely a British thing either; the Holodomor was arguably another case, and a topical one at the present day. There was certainly a strong racist element in the thinking of the relevant decision-makers in those cases. The British had been thinking ot the Irish as more or less sub-human for centuries, so it is no surprise that they were largely unmoved by the thought of millions of them dying off.

But there is a big difference between predicting a fall in the global population and willing it to occur, let alone willing it to affect only some sub-group of humanity. When the Met Office forecasts rain, it isn’t because they want it to rain, and indeed nobody supposes that that is the case. They forecast rain because they have sound scientific reasons for expecting rain to occur. Saying that the global population is too high is not at all the same as suggesting that surplus people should be fed into gas-ovens, and it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that it is.

“There is an optimum number of people, and it is X.” A version of this claim used to be on the Georgia Guidestones before they got blown up. The problem is that even if we knew this – and X would need to be a range, not a single figure, because populations of all living things are constrained by factors that vary over time – it would be of no use whatever. Are we going to set up some kind of global population police? That’s back to the gas-ovens. Again, people want to say this kind of thing because they want to think about everything purely numerically. It’s not going to help us here.

“Human beings are evil and it would be better if they just died out.” This may not be a mainstream notion (or not yet), but you can easily find it on forums like the r/collapse Reddit group. I suppose you could interpret this view as a version of the previous one in which X is defined to be zero, but the motivation seems to be quite different. There’s a lot of self-hatred going on here, and also a lot of projection. Human beings are not simply evil, or at least I don’t find them to be so. It’s been my experience that most people, most of the time, under most circumstances, are pretty much okay.

What underlies this is the notion that human beings have some inevitable tendency to turn into planet-wrecking industrial capitalists. Now planet-wrecking industrial capitalists certainly exist, but they are a pretty small percentage of the population today, let alone of all the human beings who have walked the earth since we first evolved. Without romanticising indigenous people, they have generally worked out a more or less sustainable way of living in their environment, because, as the saying goes, what is not sustainable will not be sustained.

Industrial capitalism is an anomaly founded on a one-off energy bonanza from the exploitation of fossil fuels. As those fuels become scarcer, harder to access, and consequently more expensive – which is happening right now, in case you hadn’t noticed – its physical basis will go away.

This is what unsustainability looks like.

Even if it were the case that all human beings are somehow uniquely hard-wired to be planet-wrecking industrial capitalists, in other words, the ability to carry out these evil intentions will not be there in the future.

“Over-population is inevitable, and we are all doomed.” This is one of a diverse family of beliefs of the form “X is inevitable, and we are all doomed,” and I don’t put much store in any of them, apart from the trivial case where X is the heat death of the universe. Actually, of the many challenges we face today, over-population is one of the few that is self-correcting. We may not like the form that that self-correction will take, but we can be confident that it will happen.

In his classic book Overshoot, which I reviewed on this blog a little while back, the late William R. Catton Jr. lucidly explained the mechanics of this process. It applies generally to all living things, and human beings are no exception, however much we might like to suppose we are. We depend absolutely on certain environmental factors to survive: breathable air, drinking water, food, and a liveable climate. Where those things are absent, we cannot live. It is not a coincidence that nobody lives in Antarctica, apart from a few scientists who are completely dependent on supplies from elsewhere.

As with so many things, it seems to me that what we need to be thinking about here is mitigation. This can take many forms. Addressing the maldistribution of food I mentioned above would be helpful, although I see no reason to expect it go away. More importantly, we need to be looking at the ways we currently meet our needs and adapting them to methods that stand a chance of working in the future. Remember that the future we are facing includes an unstable climate, expensive oil and gas (and all their derivatives, like chemical fertilisers), and expensive long-distance transport, with all that that implies for international trade.

This means taking a lot more care of fresh water than we currently do. It means growing crops that are suitable for where we are growing them, and robust to the extremes of climate – which implies planting multiple varieties and/or species instead of monocultures. More than anything, it requires care of the soil, especially given that access to artificial fertilisers is already constrained. Food production will also need to be oriented towards local consumption rather than for export, as so much of it now is.

Some land where we currently grow food will no longer be usable for that purpose. On the other hands, some areas which are currently too cold for agriculture may become available as the planet warms. Large numbers of people are going to be moving out of areas where life has become difficult, if not impossible, in the hope of finding a home elsewhere, and indeed we are already seeing this. Obviously all this is going to lead to increasing political instability, and again we have been seeing this for a while; the ongoing Syrian civil war is a case in point.

A lot of this is ugly, but some of it need not be so ugly as it is if we face the problems squarely. And by “we,” I mean you and I as individuals, with the help of such like-minded people as we can gather around us, because very little of this is going to be fixed from the top down. Governments could help in theory, but politicians do not get elected if they are not committed to business as usual – the reasons for that are matter for another essay, but it’s clearly the case. Business will help if the right long-term thing to do happens to coincide with the profitable short-term thing to do, which it may do occasionally, but not most of the time.

Oxfam used to have a mantra: “Think globally, act locally.” It’s a great starting-point for dealing with global crises. After all, a lot of the practical solutions we’ll need are going to be local in nature. Accept that we’re not going to save the world. That doesn’t mean that what we can save isn’t worth saving. After all, as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run we are all dead.” All the same, life is worth living while we still have it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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