In 1798 Robert Malthus (anonymously) published his hugely influential book, "An Essay on the Principle of Population." By no means the first academic writing on the topic of human population Malthus' magnum opus looked into the potential problems presented by a hugely increasing UK population. - When Malthus first highlighted that population grows geometrically whilst food production linearly in 1798 there were about 980 million humans on Earth.
By the time American president Lyndon B. Johnson said in the mid 1960s-
“The hungry world cannot be fed until and unless the growth of its resources and the growth of its population come into balance. Each man and woman-and each nation --must make decisions of conscience and policy in the face of this great problem.”
- there were over 3 billion people on Earth!
And still the growth has continued, if Johnson were to address the world again today with these same words his audience would of more than doubled to - 6.8 billion!
If the scale of human population increase over the last two centuries is a testament to our success as a species, then its continued growth in the face of warning after warning from a full spectrum of commentators; politician, layman and scientist, is testament to how much modern (and post-modern) man is still ruled by our primal instinct to reproduce and spread the species.
However dislocated we think or wish we are from the natural world and instincts of wild animals, collectively as a species we are still ruled by a carnal desire to increase.
Pre-agriculture (about 8,000 B.C) humans were probably outnumbered by some other species of primates such as baboons.1 However once we learnt to master the land and dominate the beast the exponential creep that sees us hovering in the rafters of a building only 10 billion tall (many models and scientists predict that human population will/must peak at 10 billion), began- and homo sapiens became le numero uno of the mammalian world.
Our insatiable growth through the last two centuries of this burgeoning boom was driven by huge technological and medical advances, from the harnessing of fossil fuels to the discovery of bacteria and pathogens. Yet despite repeatedly science and technology enabling us to produce more from less, the human penchant for models built on growth (population, economic, empire) means that resources are now scarcer than ever.
The average European now works no more than 48 hours a week, thanks to EU legislation, a huge improvement on the conditions of 18th century mill workers and middle age peasants toiling the land- however still nothing on the relatively leisure filled lives of primitive societies which most anthropologists now agree on. Studies of the !Kung hunter-gatherers in southern Africa have shown that the average working day is no more than 6 hours long,2 maybe the old adage that, high culture emerges only when people have the leisure time to build monuments or to create art needs drastically revising!
One of the largest changes that has symbiotically grown with population is the revolution in social structure that is urbanisation. The rush to no longer be rural, triggered in 17th century Europe by industrialisation and the division of labour has seen us without many qualms move from small social structures typical of most primate species into large urban conglomerates much more equatable with insect social structures of hives and colonies.
In 1700 there were only 5 cities with populations over half a million - 10 points if you can name them?
By 1800 there were 6 - 20 points if you can name the new kid on the 19th century block?
By 1900 there were 43 - it becomes a bit of an arbitrary task at this point doesn't it? - but if you want to try...
By 2000 there were over 800 (with about 250+ of these having over 1 million residents and 10ish over 10 million - depending on where you draw the boundaries of what a city is!)
Whilst both our overall population growth and assimilation into huge urban expanses is metaphorically speaking insect like, it is worth humbling our successes by remembering that ants still outweigh us 4:1!3
Even so we are considerably larger (and more destructive) than the industrious formicidae family and by the 1990s we accounted for about 5% of the animal biomass on the planet. A number that means in measurement of sheer bulk we far outnumber any other mammal species.
Whilst most of the numbers thus far should be cause for alarm, the rate at which our global population is on the increase, is in fact on the decrease.
In the 1960s the rate at which we were globally increasing peaked at a staggering 2.04-2.2% per year, now this number is substantially lower at approximately 1.167% per year (according to the CIA world factbook).
Remember that 1.167% of 6.8 billion is still an increase between 2009-2010 of approximately 79 million!
Some countries are now well below this average global population increase and have populations which are decreasing year on year - in some areas (such as eastern Europe) this is driven by migration, whilst in others (such as Japan) it is driven purely by reductions in birth against a backdrop of increasing life expectancy.
Huzzah- I hear you cry, some countries are moving into what your A-level geography teacher may have called "Stage 5 of Rostow's Model of Development." Their populations are healthy and wealthy and no longer increasing! But hang fire with the party, Rostow rather worryingly named stage 5- "Age of High mass consumption" and viewed this as the last and final period in a countries development!
Sustainable vs. mass consumption debate aside a naturally decreasing population such as that in Japan, isn't simply where all countries of the world should aim. A population in decline, even on such a densely populous island as Japan opens a whole can of problems for society and governance. Most notably declines in production, cultural vitality, an ageing population and the pressure on social services (especially pensions and healthcare) that such a demographic shift causes.
So what to do!? - we can't win if we keep increasing globally but any country which doesn't seek to address issues of a declining and ageing population is seen as naive and foolhardy!
I think before the global human population becomes such a behemoth that it collapses on itself some broad mindset shifts are needed - the aim of life no longer needs to be sheer growth. The metrics of capitalism; GDP, production, life expectancy, power no longer work- we need to replace them with measurement of quality of life, ability to persist and sustain.
It may sound woolly but if we continue down the projected population path to a peak of 10 billion there may be literally no room for the materialist ideals which have spurred much of our present growth.
A sentiment best summed up by a far superior orator than myself, Sir David Attenborough;
"Using his burgeoning intelligence, this most successful of all mammals has exploited the environment to produce food for an ever-increasing population. In spite of disasters when civilisations have over-reached themselves, that process has continued, indeed accelerated, even today. Now mankind is looking for food, not just on this planet but on others. Perhaps the time has now come to put that process into reverse. Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we control the population to allow the survival of the environment."
Feel free to comment or post ideas below, until next time;
Additionally to the below referenced figures, the UN document "The World at Six Billion" and the CIA World Factbook online provided the majority of the numbers in this article. Many authors inspired this blog and have written in much better detail and ability on this topic- contact me if you would like some further references on writings on population.
1 - McNeill, J. (2001) - Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth century (Penguin Books) - Page 8
2- Cohen, Yehudi (1974). Man in Adaptation: the cultural present - 94-95. The same tribe is visited by Dr Alice Roberts in her 2009 BBC television series The Incredible Human Journey
3 - Turco, R. P. (1997) - Earth Under Siege: from air pollution to global change (Oxford University Press) - Page 105