Population growth: doom or necessity?

Marcus Roberts
21 Oct 2013
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

I came across a very interesting article from the New Yorker the other day. (As an aside, isn't the ability to find pretty much any information you want on the internet just amazing! We take it for granted now, but really the amount of information and knowledge we have at our fingertips would have been unthinkable for most people only 15-20 years ago...)

Back to the New Yorker article - it is a review article by Elizabeth Kolbert entitled "Head Count: Fertilizer, fertility, and the clashes over population" and you can imagine that it piqued my interest immediately...Did you know that Fritz Haber discovered how to make "bread out of air" when he discovered how to make synthetic ammonia in the early twentieth century? No longer did countries have to import guano to provide nitrogen for fertilizing fields, they could make it in huge amounts in factories. As Kolbert states:

"Since the end of the Second World War, nitrogen-based fertilizer production has increased at least twentyfold...It's been estimated that half of the world's current population subsists on crops grown with the output of the Haber-Bosch process."

This is another example of a technological advance that made it possible for us to produce food to support millions upon millions of people in a way that was inconceivable before the advance was made. Of course, for writers like Alan Weisman who thinks that there are too many of us, this advance was when things took a turn for the worse.

"The circumventing of the nitrogen cycle allowed Homo Sapiens to reproduce at an unprecedented pace. (E O Wilson described the rate as 'more bacterial than primate.')"

Perhaps, pace E O Wilson, the rate could be described as neither bacterial nor primate but human?? Just a thought...Kolbert then goes to relate the history of population prophets of doom: Malthus in1798; Crookes in 1898; Ehrlich in 1968. She then makes a point we have made constantly on this blog:

"According to one school of thought, what's instructive about the Malthusian tradition is how consistently wrong its predictions have turned out to be. At any particular moment, it may look as if we're at the end of our proverbial rope, but just at that moment we find new rope: synthetic fertilizers, the Green Revolution, genetically modified crops. If human number increase geometrically, so, too, it seems, does human ingenuity."

In defence of these doom-laden prophecies, people who think there are too many of us offer another prophecy:

"According to a second school of thought, Malthus et al weren't wrong, exactly; it's just that their timing was off. Technologies like Haber-Bosch and genetic engineering mask but do not solve the underlying problem, which is that the earth's resources are finite. By delaying the final reckoning, they guarantee that when that crash eventually comes it will be that much uglier."

Unfortunately there are only so many times that you can cry "wolf", right? When do we decide that actually these predictions are based upon a false assumption - that is, that additional humans are only consumers and are not also innovators and producers.

Kolbert also discusses fertility rates around the world, from Singapore (0.79 children per woman) to Niger (7 children per woman) and how many people in countries with relatively high fertility rates are not desperate to reduce the number of children they are having. (This of course may have been a shock if you thought all third world inhabitants were crying out for contraceptives and abortion thank you, Gates Foundation).

"When [population author Weisman] asks people in these countries what should be done to bring down the numbers, mostly the answer is 'Nothing'. In Niger, in the village of Mailafia, he encounters a mother of eight who laments the lack of milk in her town. 'All we want is food so we can produce children,' she exclaims...At a clinic in Karachi, Pakistan, he meets a technician who refuses to administer the contraceptive injection that one of the clinic's patients has just been prescribed. 'I don't believe we should practice family planning,' the technician says. 'Our community should increase in number'."

Kolbert finishes her article with the views of Philip Kramer who thinks that many countries are doomed with their low birthrates (and thus is not a prophet of population doom). She ends her article with an interesting thought:

"In most of Europe and also in the US, social-welfare systems were put in place at a time of rapid, Haber-Bosch-fuelled population growth. The programs were structured around the assumption that there would always be more young people paying for benefits than there would be old people receiving them. (As Last points out, Social Security operates on much the same principles as a Ponzi scheme.) Thus the systems depend on endless population growth, but endless population growth is probably not possible and certainly not desirable."

How to break out of that Ponzi scheme though? Raise taxes? Lower social security? Massively increase immigration? Ignore it? (I guess that for a while yet we will all choose the latter option...)