Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project

FULL HOUSE? Is lower population growth due to misery?

by Ronald Bleier

Note: The following article was accepted for publication by Real World, a British environmental journal in June 1997. Before it could be published, however, the journal ceased publication.

The world's population growth has been slowing, according to the latest estimates by two of the leading authorities on population, the U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations. In May 1997, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the annual growth of the world's population had fallen to just over 79 million. As recently as November 1995, the Census Bureau had estimated that the world's population was growing at 86.8 million yearly.

A year later, in November 1996, the U.N. Population Division, Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, announced that world population was growing at an average of 81 million persons a year between 1990 and 1995. The U.N. reported that the lower figure was down from a high of 87 million persons added every year between 1985 and 1990 -- which today stands as the peak period in the history of world population growth

Causes of Lower Growth

The major factors for the slowdown in world population growth according to the U.S. Census Bureau include: the impact of AIDS in 7 more countries; increased mortality and reduced fertility in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; reduced fertility in Western Europe and faster than predicted reductions in Southern Asia.

<Was Malthus Correct?

The current slowdown in world population growth may be a critical clue to the question of how many people the earth can support. Current population estimates may be an early indicator of an eventual decline or, in the event of a catastrophe, even a population crash on the scale of the Black Death which cut nearly in half the population of Europe in the 14th Century.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), the famous English political economist, Thomas Malthus, proposed that population must come into balance with food supplies, or "the means of subsistence." He argued that since we humans follow the same laws as all other plants and animals and we are essentially incapable of regulating our numbers, misery, in the form of war, disease, poverty and oppression was, and would always be, nature's way of effecting the necessary balance. Bearing in mind our current rates of resource extraction, pollution, and the signs of environmental stress such as global warming, acid rain, the thinning of the ozone layer and forest and species loss, we may be seeing on a global scale, the inevitable effects of too many people. It's possible that the earth no longer has the means to support continued growth in human numbers at the same pace as we have seen over the last decade.

The suggestion that our current world population which is expected to reach 6 billion by the first quarter of 1999 may already constitute a full house is new and highly controversial. Both the U.S. Census Bureau and the mid-level U.N. projection suggest that the world's human population will reach 9 billion in 2050 before it stabilizes. Even the "low" UN estimate calls for world population to reach 7.5 billion by 2050. While apocalyptic suggestions of population crash would not be taken seriously by most people, nevertheless many would agree that present rates of depletion of natural resources cannot be sustained indefinitely. One important indicator of resource impoverishment may be the historically high number of ongoing wars.

The Effect of War – A Symptom Overlooked?

In Worldwatch publication Fighting for Survival: Environmental Decline, Social Conflict, and the New Age of Insecurity (1996) Michael Renner presents a chart showing the number of "Armed Conflicts with More Than 1,000 Deaths, 1950-94." According to the chart, between 1950 and 1962 the number of armed conflicts held fairly steady at around ten. From 1962 to 1981 the number of conflicts moved up to average in the high teens. In 1983, the number shot up to 30 and has never gone below since. A correlation between the higher numbers of on-going wars and rising world population seems likely. In 1950 the world's population stood at 2.5 billion. By late 1996 it had reached 5.8 billion.

Interestingly, neither Worldwatch nor the Census Bureau mention the more than 30 ongoing wars as a cause for a slowdown in population growth. Wars may be indicators of overpopulation, defined as too many people fighting over limited resources; and wars also operate to effect a balance between demand and supply. By eliminating or marginalizing a portion of one or both sides' important leaders and followers, wars function to redistribute resources and often to reduce demand. The persistence of such a relatively high number of wars and ongoing intra-national and international tensions, may well be one of the warning signs that population is at a dangerously high level.

The Wrong Spin?

Even though we continue to add more than 215,000 people to the world's population daily, some have already begun to try to draw comfort from the fact that the drop in population growth has yielded tens of millions fewer people on earth today than demographers thought would be present just a few years ago. Optimists tend to emphasize lower fertility rates as the cause for the slowdown and they tend to play down or ignore higher rates of conflict, poverty and disease

While it may often be psychologically beneficial to highlight the positive, the unfortunate effect of a determinedly optimistic view of current population trends may be to reassure politicians and opinion makers that we can continue to ignore the ever growing and ever damaging demands of our current population increase (and rising consumption rates in many areas), on a diminishing resource base. Lester Brown of Worldwatch has argued that since roughly 1990 we have already entered a new era of environmental scarcity. In his 1996 book Tough Choices, Brown pointed to statistics highlighting falling per capita grain production, seafood catch, shrinking per capita irrigated area and other similar indicators. Brown argued that if current trends continue, it will become increasingly difficult to contend with nearly three quarters of a billion people more in the next decade as the U.S. Census Bureau now projects.

One of the dangers in our present situation is that for the first time in human civilization we may well be confronted with a new scenario of global -- rather than merely regional -- over­population. Despite local differences, one indication of a global full house is that countries such as the U.S., Canada, France, Germany and others, to which desperate people could formerly flee are beginning to tighten controls over their borders and may no longer be able to serve as safety valves.

Some may ask: What can be done to stop the inevitable human misery and environmental destruction associated with our currently growing human numbers? It is important to emphasize that human beings are remarkably adaptive and can achieve miracles of change relatively peacefully and sometimes quickly. However, in order to effect such change, human and economic resources must be mobilized towards a unified and focused goal.

If we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that the source of the problem is too many humans, it may become clear that much could be done to alleviate suffering even in today's era of budgetary constraints. For example, a concerted effort especially by the developed countries could virtually eliminate the 120 million unintended pregnancies worldwide which U.N. researchers expect between 1997 and 2000; and similarly, family planning aid could also eliminate the 70,000 annual deaths from unsafe abortions, more than 95% of which occur in less developed regions. By empowering women, increased family planning aid could also work to lowering fertility rates.

In addition, many countries could save hundreds of millions of dollars or more yearly by eliminating subsidies promoting population growth such as tax deductions for dependents. The money saved could be used to support environmental goals as well as the health and welfare of society and thus reduce political friction.

Unfortunately powerful political forces in most countries seem to be moving us in different directions. Despite our intelligence and our developed sense of compassion, by multiplying our numbers six times since 1800, and suffering the inevitable environmental, social and political costs, we may be confirming Malthus's prediction that misery is an absolutely necessary requirement of the human condition


Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project