OCALA, Fla., May 16, 2014 — Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus warned about what could happen if populations were left to grow unchecked.
According to Michael E. Arth, a leading voice on population matters, “we have a catastrophe, but it is necessarily more complicated than what a country parson living in England envisioned back in the 18th century. When Thomas Malthus published his ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1798, the world’s population was around 1 billion.
READ ALSO: Can free contraceptives save America?
“Malthus argued that population multiplies geometrically and food multiplies arithmetically, so that the growing population will outstrip the food supply. He was not able to foresee technological innovation because before his time the rate of innovation in agricultural practices and distribution was very low.
“It took until 1927 for the world’s population to reach 2 billion. Innovation and modern technology that accelerated during WWII allowed for a 20th century population explosion that took us from 2.5 billion to 6 billion. It only took 13 years for us to go from 6 billion to 7 billion.
“As I point out in my book, Democracy and Common Wealth, the number of people on the planet living in moderate and extreme poverty — 3 billion — is roughly equal to the number of people born since 1985. If we had stopped population growth then, especially in developing countries, we could have essentially solved the problem of world hunger, along with a lot of other problems.
“Two to three hundred million people have died of starvation since Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968.
“Overpopulation has also contributed to global warming, acidification of the ocean, widespread pollution, resource wars, stress on the environment, deforestation, political instability, religious extremism and terrorism. The UN estimates that nearly a billion people are in a constant state of hunger.”
Jo Wideman, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization, explains, “In the case of human societies, while famine, starvation, disease, civil strife and war can and do occur in situations that may have little or nothing to do with overpopulation, these factors can also serve as checks on populations that have grown too large for their resource base to support.
“Carrying capacity refers to the population size of any species that can be supported in perpetuity by the available habitat/environment without degrading that habitat or environment. When the population of a species exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat, it causes habitat damage, and impairs the ability of the habitat to support the organism in question.
“When this happens, in nature, populations tend to crash or collapse and may take many years to regain their former size, due to long-lasting habitat damage.
“With regard to human population, many scientists believe that it already exceeds the carrying capacity of the earth and a readjustment is forthcoming. It may still be possible to avoid a Malthusian catastrophe however, but only if a number of strong steps are taken.
“These steps would likely generate a considerable political backlash on the part of those who feel they are being treated unfairly or who fundamentally reject the idea that humanity faces this crisis of historic proportions.
“Too much time is currently spent debating whether there will or will not be a catastrophe instead of the broader question of whether population growth is going to alleviate problems or exacerbate problems. Suppose that a new disease begins to destroy large portions of a major crop—wheat, soybeans, corn, rice.
“Our ability to respond would be much better if the global population were at its current 7 billion, or much less, instead of a projected 9 or 10 billion.
“We already use about 40 percent of the earth’s land area for food production and another 9 percent for other human uses. Much of the remaining land is not arable. A better question is whether continuing growth in the human population makes it easier or more difficult to solve our existing environmental problems.”
Not long ago, overpopulation was a big issue in American politics. Since the 1970s, however, both the left and right have cast it aside in order to win votes from select constituencies. Will attention return to overpopulation as an important political issue?
“It is a problem that cannot be ignored indefinitely,” Arth said. “However, under our current dysfunctional and corrupt winner-take-all, pay-to-play electoral system, we will continue for some time to have politicians who are owned by special interests who are not interested in solving society’s problems.
“I don’t think we will wise up until strong AI becomes prominent and increases the wisdom of the crowd. What I call UNICE, Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities, may become the scolding group mind that will overshadow stupidity, callousness and corruption. It will know how to do math.”
“Look at the disparate examples of Britain and Australia — one densely populated, one sparsely populated,” Wideman says. “Yet in both countries, population growth and its impact on the environment, and the contribution of immigration to that growth, have been a major part of the political debate.
“In order for overpopulation to ever regain respectability, it has to be disentangled from the emotional, polarizing politics of family planning and the overwrought racial/ethnic sensibilities and sensitivities surrounding immigration.
“This is an extremely tall order, on both counts. However, by focusing its advocacy on the numbers and on the documented environmental impacts of increasing population, CAPS believes that the American people could still opt for a rational, scientifically-supported goal of U.S. population stabilization.
“Convincing vested economic and business interests — for whom ever-growing numbers of producers (to keep wages low) and consumers (to keep demand high and ever-increasing) — that population stabilization is ultimately in their own enlightened self-interest may be the toughest challenge we face. But one thing is clear: No nation’s population can grow forever.”