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Are there too many people?

Are there too many people? thumbnail

Whatever the answer, we need a population policy

How many people do we need? How many do we want? The astonishing announcement last year that the population of England and Wales increased by more than 3.7 million between 2001 and 2011 brought population to the forefront of political debate here in Britain. Two recently published books on the consequences of continuing world population growth – Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion and Danny Dorling’s Population Ten Billion – remind us that they are of global significance as well.

In 1926, John Maynard Keynes published one of his most celebrated essays – “The End of Laissez-Faire”, in which he proclaimed the demise of the ideology that had served as the fundamental underpinning of economic and social policy for most of the previous century. The Great War and its economic aftermath, Keynes explained, had done for the dogma that the unfettered pursuit of individual self-interest would always and everywhere be for the best. A new age was dawning: one in which the virtues of judicious government intervention would be rediscovered. There were three fields in particular, he predicted, in which deliberate regulation by government policy would be required.

The first was industry and national investment; the second, money and finance. On both these fronts, Keynes proved prophetic. After 1945, nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy did indeed put control of aggregate investment firmly in the hands of the state and ingrained a presumption that the government is responsible for macroeconomic management, which survived intact the reprivatisation of industry in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, in the monetary sphere, the self-regulating mechanism of the gold standard was swept away and replaced by today’s system of a central bank that sets interest rates in a deliberate effort to achieve low inflation and imposes rules (however feeble) to control the behaviour of commercial banks.

But in the third field that Keynes proposed, state regulation remains as taboo today as it was 87 years ago. “The time has already come,” he wrote, “when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient.”

Keynes merely asserted his point. Professors Emmott and Dorling make their cases in more detail, and in doing so they exemplify the two approaches to the population question that have dominated this debate for centuries.

Emmott takes the natural scientists’ approach – the perspective of biologists, chemists and physicists (though one that originated, ironically enough, with Robert Malthus – one of the fathers of modern economics). It sees the growth of human population, like that of other living things, as being constrained by the carrying capacity of the ecosystem: a physical limit defined by the scarce availability of natural resources.

Dorling, on the other hand, takes the social scientists’ approach – the way of geographers, economists and anthropologists. This sees population growth as determined by political, social and economic factors, rather than physical conditions.

At one level, the natural scientists’ approach is correct. There must be some physical limit to the number of human beings that can be sustained by the earth. In practice, however, the social scientists’ approach is the more relevant one. Human beings live in society and for many millennia now the binding constraints on population growth have been not physical but social and political. Famines, as Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen demonstrated, are generally the result of political failures, not natural causes.

It would be nice if we could understand human society as a natural system, but unfortunately we can’t. In modern economies, people make decisions – about everything from what to buy to how many children to have – based on economic and social incentives, not physical needs. And while physical needs and the earth’s capacity to supply them may be fixed, social needs and the economy’s ability to meet them are not.

In the physical sphere, requirements don’t change: we need the same number of calories to survive today as our ancestors did 500 generations ago. In the social sphere, however, what is valued today is often worthless tomorrow, and people’s behaviour changes accordingly. Just ask the management of BlackBerry or Nokia. Conversely, things not even imagined today may be considered bare necessities in five years’ time. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg – or, on a more prosaic level, whoever it was that invented the chain coffee shop on the high street.

The point, when it comes to population, is that it is social conventions, economic incentives and (most importantly in China) state decrees that determine how many children people have, not physical constraints or the lack of them. These social determinants can be changed and the rate of population growth will change with them.

Many people prefer this social scientists’ perspective because it sounds liberating – or at least, less pessimistic than the Malthusian vision of the natural scientists. Emmott predicts that the world’s population will imminently outrun its resources and so concludes with the apocalyptic advice that today’s children should learn how to use a gun. Dorling’s first chapter, by contrast, is called “Stop Worrying” – because the optimal population level is not some objective fact that can be backed out of a mathematical model of agricultural inputs and outputs, but a collective choice. So maybe there’s no problem after all.

In fact, it cuts both ways. If the question of the optimal level of population is political, not scientific, it may indeed be that the answer will be larger than today’s. But it might also be the same, or smaller. It seems Keynes was right: in matters of demography no less than macroeconomics, it is a fiction to believe that we are objects in a natural system governed by unalterable laws – and that things will therefore take care of themselves and a policy of laissez-faire is the best we can do. Britain, and the world, should indeed start thinking seriously about what level of population it wants.

New Statesmen

17 Comments on "Are there too many people?"

  1. TIKIMAN on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 12:34 pm 

    We need another Spanish flu.

  2. BillT on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 2:39 pm 

    I just watched a 30 year old movie on YouTube that portrays what is more likely than a flu to cut population. How about a nuclear war started in the ME over Iran with the Russians and the US facing off? It’s called “Threads”.

    If you are a prepper, you need to watch this and then access your current preparations. I know it opened my eyes. From all I know and understand, it is portrayed as realistic as was allowed at the time (1984) and more so than you will see in any movie today. Especially a made for TV movie. (Originally broadcast on BBC.) I cannot imagine this on ABC or NBC …lol.

  3. J-Gav on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 3:55 pm 

    I’d say Emmott outguns Dorling in this dual.

    As for the flu vs nuke as an imminent threat, it looks like a stand-off to me.
    With resistance against antibiotics constantly on the rise, some sort of pestilence could do major damage in a relatively short time. On the other hand, when you see (just revealed) that the U.S. came within a whisker of nuking itself (North Carolina) back in 1961, it’s pretty clear we’re all playing the sorcerer’s apprentice here.

  4. bobinget on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 7:05 pm 

    Optimists, they say live longer, happier lives.
    For me, so far, so good.
    Facts that we nuked North Carolina were actually declassified offers hope for guys like me.

    Not being anti science (technology) in these times is
    so encouraging. It cheers to read people smarter then I are busy looking for not only new antibiotics
    but also more versatile, powerful, smarter,
    anti bacterial agents.

    AIDS, epidemic continues to kill millions every year.
    Here’s a fun list;

    This will make you laugh, humans are still here!

    Overpopulation mitigated violently or through plague, how would ‘survivors’ fare? Would YOU even want to outlast everyone?

  5. action on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 8:10 pm 


    Solid movie, they held nothing back.

  6. GregT on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 8:20 pm 

    “Optimists, they say live longer, happier lives.”

    Not according to research from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany earlier this year. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it, there were articles in almost ever major newspaper and scientific publication nation wide.

    Pessimists are 10% more likely to live longer and healthier lives. They tend to be more realistic about the future, and also tend to take better care of themselves.

  7. bobinget on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 9:57 pm 

    Yeah, I guess your right GregT. But I’ll bet life just SEEMS longer if a person is constantly looking for the crash helmet.

    I’m right about one thing. Go down that list of past epidemics, today, most are curable or containable.

  8. BillT on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 1:30 am 

    bobinget, being an optimist is also being blinded to the real world, the one that will kill you. About like not looking when going through an intersection because there is a stop sign on the crossing road. I have never trusted that a sign will stop a car from hitting me so I always look. Don’t you?

    Also, diseases ARE getting more and more virulent as the bugs mutate to keep ahead of Big Pharm. And, as climates change, diseases are going to move into new territory, like malaria and sleeping sickness. AND, if the drugs are not available, like in a breakdown of society, they and many others will be deadly.

    When the SHTF, the drug stores will NOT be open, and may never reopen. Many diseases that are curable now, with drugs, will become deadly then. The list is endless. If you have one of them, like diabetes, you may be dead within a few weeks.

  9. BillT on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 1:42 am 

    BTW: Chagas – “It likes to bite you on the face,” CNN reported. “It’s called the kissing bug. When it ingests your blood, it excretes the parasite at the same time. When you wake up and scratch the itch, the parasite moves into the wound and you’re infected.”

    More than 8 million people have been infected by Chagas, most of them in Latin and Central America. But more than 300,000 live in the United States.

    And while just 20 percent of those infected with Chagas develop a life-threatening form of the disease, Chagas is “hard or impossible to cure,” the Times reports…

    Think positive … and ignore reality.

  10. rollin on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 2:04 am 

    If the total land surface of the planet minus the amount of land used for agriculture and ranching is divided by the number of people on earth, the amount of land per person comes to a whopping 330 foot square.
    Considering that agriculture uses the best lands available and ranching also uses very good land, that leaves wetlands, steep hillsides, arctic regions, deserts, etc. for people to occupy.

    Before I did the calculation I figured we would each have about 4 acres, but that is not true.

    No wonder people are stuffed into concrete apartment vaults and little suburban plots. Otherwise there would be no forest land or wild lands left except those in the most inhospitable places. So if you have a personal space of 100 feet square, be happy.

  11. mo on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 2:23 am 

    Ck out Npr today. Talking about optimal apartment space in hong Kong, between 3 and 400 sq ft. Were already there

  12. GregT on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 4:07 am 


    It is not just space that we take up. If you really think about it, we take up biomass. Every single human being, is composed of atoms, cellular structures, and micro-organisms.

    The Earth is a finite biosphere. There is a limited amount of ‘matter’. The more ‘matter’ that is human beings, the less ‘matter’ that is everything else.

    We have been able to shift the balance of the natural biosphere, in favour of human matter, only because we have found a source of energy above
    the natural energy allotment that the planet receives from the Sun.

    We are basically a cancer, and with all cancers, they eventually are eradicated by their host, or they consume their host, until their host dies.

  13. KingM on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 11:43 am 

    There are a lot of things to worry about, but the biomass of humanity is not one of them. Walk through the woods for two minutes and you’ll see more biomass than lives in your town.

    General Sherman (the Sequoia) weighs 2.7 million pounds. That’s as much as 18,000 people. One tree.

  14. rollin on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 12:49 pm 

    I agree, biomass is not the question right now and with gigatons of carbon being introduced each year biomass can increase dramatically. What is critical is that farming is near limits as far as space and the space left for humans and other species is dwindling fast. Space is a big factor since when did a large predator have only a small square of land to roam as his individual territory. Add to that the fact the humans now predate upon the non-living world to a large degree in their efforts to increase society and civilization, giving them a much larger needed territory.

    Usually predators war on each other when they get too crowded, killing the other groups or at least their young to extend territory. Even omnivores like bears have territorial limits.

    Overcrowding leads to sociopathic behavior, self-destructive behavior, mental disease and major dysfunctional behavior in child rearing.

    Seen any of that lately?

  15. GregT on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 2:40 pm 

    I have ‘walked through the woods’ my entire life. Every time I do, I see less trees, less animals, less fish, less fresh water, less glaciers, and more humans. 90% of the large species of fish are now gone from the oceans, coral reefs are dissapearing, and species are going extinct at a rate of almost 200 per day.

    The gigatons of carbon released into the environment every day, have the potential to kill off most life in the oceans within a few decades.

    Sorry guys, but the biomass of 6 billion human beings too many comes from somewhere, and it certainly isn’t coming from Mars.

  16. Malarchy on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 5:33 pm 

    Some quick research from the internet informs me that there are about 200 million acres of land under cultivation of some sort in total around the world. Self-sufficiency experts reckon on one acre supporting one person on average with minimal use of oil. This will of course depend on location, climate, soil quality and so on. Thus, the world could comfortably support perhaps 200 million people.
    You can argue that with our higher knowledge base and a technological advantage – like solar powered equipment – the same area will support more people, perhaps as much as ten times that number. However, the world population in 1800 was less than a billion. The increasing use of coal as a primary energy source, before the advent of oil, probably matches the rising population throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
    With oil and coal in short and/or expensive supply the world’s population will inevitably, eventually, drop to 19th Century levels. The main question is how drawn out this process will be, and how painful?

  17. rollin on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 8:35 pm 

    Anyone who does not know where human biomass comes from gets a free pass.

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