Is it Time to Talk about Population Control?
“Anyone who believes you can have infinite exponential growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.”
Human beings are obsessed with growth. We are obsessed with growing our personal wealth, the value of our stocks and shares, our property portfolios. In fact, somehow we have come to believe that having more is a manifestation of progress. This extends to our number. We love making more of ourselves. We reproduce and multiply on a scale not seen anywhere else in nature. After all, if the number of human beings on the planet was declining, this would reflect an overall diminishment of our species, right? It would signal the start of the collapse of the human race, right? One of the great misconceptions of our time is that population growth is necessary to drive the global economy, and that a healthy global economy is key to the continued evolution of our species. I’m here to posit a different argument. I’m here to suggest that over-population is the greatest threat that humankind has ever faced and that in order to survive, we need to find a way of dragging this topic out from the shadows of political obscurity and embedding it firmly into the public consciousness. We need to find a way to constrain ourselves.
It goes without saying that there are many of us. Too many of us. In fact the world is literally teaming with human life. We no longer have any natural predators. We propagate and reproduce completely unchecked. Yes, we occasionally die on a grand scale due to one natural disaster or another, but for the most part we have figured out how to control our natural world so that it does not threaten us. We have evolved. We have adapted. The agricultural revolution, our great break-through moment as a species, set us on a path towards unheralded numbers. In the 50,000 years since we have grown to 7.3 Billion. By 2030 the world’s population is forecast to reach 8.4 Billion. This means the global economy will need to support a population that is 15% larger than what it is today. Just so we’re clear; when I say the global economy, I’m really referring to the planet.
The data is striking. In real terms, 14% of all the human beings that ever lived are alive today. In the last 200 years the population of our planet has grown by 1.9% per year. The World Bank forecasts a peak human population of 12.4 Billion. The United Nations thinks the number is closer to 14 Billion. Either way we have a problem. If we continue to reproduce at this rate, by the year 2600 we will literally be standing shoulder to shoulder. The problem with over-population is so manifest that even if the world adopted a one-child policy today, it would have little effect on current growth rates. So why aren’t we more informed? Why doesn’t this subject occupy greater mindshare with our leaders and politicians? Why aren’t we debating this on the floor of the United Nations and building policy?
The answer is that to some extent we are. Leading intellectuals and thinkers have been highlighting this problem and the need for a solution for some time. Thousands of years in fact. In 322 B.C Aristotle said, “To the size of states there is a limit, as there is with all things, for nothing retains it’s natural power when it is too large.” Some of the great minds of our age have identified over-population as not just a significant issue, but the most significant issue facing humankind. Writers, scholars, religious leaders, and yes, some politicians, have acknowledged that without some form of population control we can not ensure the survival of our environment, and thus ourselves. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one such leader…
“So the question is…the population of the human being…So the only choice…limited number …happy life…meaningful life. Too many population…miserable life and always bullying one another, exploiting one another…there is no use.”
Over the years recognition of the problem has come from a diverse range of thinkers; the likes of Aristotle, Shakespeare, William Blake, Martin Luther King Jr, Sir David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, Stephen Hawking, Richard Nixon, J.D Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan. Hundreds of other, lesser known scientists and scholars have identified over-population as our collective ‘achilles heel.’ Organisations like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank and Unicef have all commissioned reports on what effect over-population will have on the planet and our species. All have concluded that if left unchecked, the exponential growth in the human population will result in vital global systems being damaged beyond repair. In 1992, 1600 senior scientists from 70 countries, including 102 Noble Prize laureates, issued an open letter to the world that was entitled, ‘Warning to Humanity’. It read…
“Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth.”
There are others of course, for whom open discussion about population control serves no purpose. In fact it is the antithesis of what it is they are looking to achieve. I refer of course to the military industrial complex; that shadowy network of bankers and industrialists that manages and controls the worlds monetary system. The cabal of the mega-rich. The promoters of the ‘infinite growth’ myth, for whom self interest and a desire for greater wealth supersedes any thought of sustainable resource management. Seen through the lens of big business, any debate about population control is effectively a discussion about implementing a market cap. Big business is not about capping the market.
So what sort of world can we expect to live in when we number 8.4 Billion? After all, most people reading this post will still be alive. Well the first thing we can expect is greater scarcity of resources. Food, water, arable land on which to cultivate crops, stuff we find in the ground; all will be harder to come by. All will be more expensive to buy. Assuming we are still living within the constructs of a monetary system in the year 2030 (I’m not convinced we will make it to 2030 without our current financial system collapsing), those with financial wealth will thrive and those without it won’t. The gap between rich and poor will be even greater, although now it won’t be a vehicle you can’t afford to buy, it will be food and water. A little apocalyptic, I know. Dramatic? Perhaps. Melodramatic? I’m not so sure.
So what is the fix? Well, it’s pretty simple – we have two choices. Choice number one is we implement a birth-rate solution; one that is based on effective, voluntary family planning. A policy that is arrived at through a process of mature debate and equanimity. A policy equally defined and determined by a global community of scientists, business leaders and religious leaders. That is fair and measured and that is driven and championed by the developed world. Choice number two is we wait for a death-rate solution to find us. To do nothing and ignore the problem is to sit back and wait for war and famine and pestilence to descend upon us on a greater scale than it ever has. To wait for the reality of finite resources being unevenly distributed across a seemingly infinite populous to kick-in and take effect. I know which choice I prefer. It’s time to start thinking about population control.