No such thing as "population explosion"

Marcus Roberts
23 Sep 2013
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

Just to stir last week's debate re "population explosion" some more, how about we have a look at the views of Robert Newman writing in the Guardian. His claim is that there is no population explosion and that any problems about the scarcity of resources are because of politics and not because of too many people. (Even the Guardian is seeing the light!)

First, according to Newman, the idea that "humans are a plague" is based upon a false claim that we are living through a "population explosion". This is simply not the case:

"The rate of population growth has been slowing since the 1960s, and has fallen below replacement levels half the world over. But what about the other half? That's where population is exploding, right? Well, actually, no. The UN Population Division's world fertility patterns show that, worldwide, fertility per woman has fallen from 4.7 babies in 1970-75 to 2.6 in 2005-10."

Secondly, and this I think is the crucial point, even if we were becoming overpopulated, it is "obscene" and "inhuman" to say that there are too many people on Earth:

"…even if there were a population explosion, it would still be inhuman to say that there are too many humans on the planet. You can say there are too many people in a lift (eight persons max') but not on Earth. To wish to reduce the number of living, breathing humans on this planet is an obscenity."

Exactly. Because if there are too many people on Earth, then presumably some people are in the "too many" category. And who do you think those people are? The one child family in London consuming massive amounts of resources in a Western standard of living? Or the family with eight children living in a shanty town consuming so few resources that they are under-nourished in some poor country that is difficult to locate on a map and somewhere overthere? Generally, the overpopulation drum-beaters are worried about too many people being born in poor overseas countries. The implicit racism in such a view has been canvassed before. After all, we in the enlightened West are not the problem, we've reached the state of perfection of small families that do not naturally replace our population. Newman draws a parallel to early twentieth century England:

"Today's overpopulation hysteria is not a patch on what it was a hundred years ago, however, when mainstream intellectuals such as HG Wells, WB Yeats, Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence were proposing not just sterilisation but actual extermination. Back then, there were fewer people in Britain, of course, but many more of them were homeless. It was thought that homelessness came from there being too many people. It was a population problem. Simple as that. But then voters - as opposed to intellectuals - realised that homelessness was caused not by too many people crowding too small a country, but by too few people owning too much land.

In came social housing and down - spectacularly - went urban homelessness. It's never gone away, but neither has it returned to anything like it was. And the era of notorious doss houses the Spike and the Peg came to an end thanks to extending democracy to cover land ownership and land use."

A political solution was found, rather than a radical eugenic based breeding programme that many luminaries of the time were proposing. In a similar way, food shortages are not because of too many poor people, but because of what we are using food for:

"As with shelter then, so with food now. Today's population panic goes on as if the Earth's temperate grasslands are straining under the weight of supporting voracious humans rather than voracious Big Ag. "We've run out of farmland," shriek op-eds and talking heads. "We're already at the limit. The population is booming, but every last hectare of prime arable land is already taken!"

Taken by what? According to the National Corn Growers Association, 30% of US corn ends up as fuel ethanol, while 5% is grown as corn syrup for junk food sweeteners and fizzy pop. Ain't it grand that we'd sooner say there are too many human beings in the world than too much Coca-Cola, Honey Nut Cheerios or Special K?"

I think that that last sentence is a good indication of where our priorities are today. So, now that that has stirred the pot, what is your response be? How do we change things so that people around the world are fed? Or is it simply that there are too many of us? And if so, who is in the "too many" category? Who decides? And what do we do about it?