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Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

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default Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Adrian on 19th January 2011, 6:35 pm



The doom-sayers are becoming more fashionable just as experts are coming to the view it has all been one giant false alarm.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011



The human appetite for bad news knows no bounds. That is why gossip is usually malicious and why, on a grander scale, prophets of doom are always guaranteed a credulous audience. Conversely, good news – however well attested – is generally squeezed in the margins of newspapers.

For example, The Independent buried in a few paragraphs a story with the headline "Population growth not a threat, say engineers". But at least The Independent found some space to cover the publication of a report last week by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers entitled Population: One Planet, Too Many People? – I could find nothing about it in other newspapers.

The reason for that distinct lack of column inches is that the institution answered its own question in the negative. No, there are not (and will never be) too many people for the planet to feed. As the report's lead author, Dr Tim Fox, pointed out, its verdict is not based on speculative guesses about the development of new agricultural processes as yet unknown: "We can meet the challenge of feeding a planet of 9 billion people through the application of existing technologies". For example, Dr Fox pointed out, in Africa, no less than half the food produced is destroyed before it reaches its local marketplace: with refrigeration and good roads, the developing world could avoid this horrendous waste.

Interestingly, another detailed report on "sustainability" published last week by the French national agricultural and development research agencies came up with the same answer. The French scientists set themselves the goal of discovering whether a global population of 9 billion, the likely peak according to the UN, could readily have access to 3,000 calories a day, even as farms take measures to cut down on the use of fossil fuels and refrain from cutting down more forests: their answer was, you will be thrilled to know, "yes".

Some people will not be so thrilled. There is an increasingly noisy claque of Malthusians who insist that an "exploding" global population (as they put it) is going to lead to disaster – from Boris Johnson to Joanna Lumley, not to mention Jeremy Irons and Prince Charles. For example, last weekend The Independent published a lengthy interview with the Bermuda-based philanthropist James Martin, who has given Oxford University $125m to set up a forecasting institute in his name. Mr Martin's own forecast is that "by mid-century we're going to be using the term 'giga-famine', meaning a famine where more than a billion people will die, a catastrophe on a scale that's never been known before on Earth."

Martin sounds uncannily like Paul Ehrlich, the secular saint of the neo-Malthusian movement. Back in the 1970s, Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb became a global best-seller on the back of his forecast that by the end of the century even the United States would be enduring mass famine and that there was no better than a 50 per chance of anyone remaining alive in Great Britain by the year 2000. You might have thought that events would have discredited Ehrlich as a forecaster, but he is still constantly cited as an authority by the population control freaks, and is himself remarkably unbothered by the fact that agricultural techniques had rapidly developed in a way which he was unable to envisage. Asked in 2000 about his prediction of a wipe-out of the UK by famine, he replied: "If you look closely at England, what can I tell you? They're having all kinds of problems just like everybody else." If his original forecast had merely been that "The world – including Britain – will have all kinds of problems", I somehow doubt he would have found a publisher.

One reason why the population doomsters have come out in force in recent weeks is that, according to the UN Population Division, this year will see the number of living inhabitants hit the figure of 7 billion; or according to an imaginative piece of global palm-reading by The Guardian: "Later this year, on 31 October to be precise, a boy will be born in a rural village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His parents will not know it, but his birth will prove to be a considerable landmark for our species as his arrival will mark the moment when the human population reaches 7 billion."

Or it might not; but we get the drift: lacking only the prognosticated presence of three wise men from the East, this is a Big Moment. It's also not a bad moment, either for the parents (they'll probably be delighted it's a boy) or for the planet. While the misanthropic Malthusians will gloomily see his arrival as just "another mouth to feed", he might more charitably be seen as another human whose ingenuity, creativity and intellect can be of benefit to the world.

As a matter of fact the population doom-sayers among the media and showbusiness are becoming more fashionable just as the experts are coming round to the view that it has all been one giant false alarm. This year National Geographic magazine is making population its theme; but its lengthy opening essay was notable for its lack of alarmism. It quoted Hania Zlotnik, the director of the UN's Population Division, saying: "We still don't understand why fertility has gone down so fast in so many societies, so many cultures and religions. It's just mind-boggling. At this moment, much as I want to say there's still a problem of high fertility rates, it's only about 16 per cent of the world's population, mostly in Africa."

The most fashionable of all arguments for some sort of global anti-natalist legislation comes in the form of professed concern for the atmosphere – too many people produce too much CO2, thus damaging the planet via climate change. The Malthusians have seized on this as grist to their mill, having been refuted on every other argument. Yet Joel Cohen, the professor of populations at Columbia University's Earth Institute, told National Geographic: "Those who say the whole problem is population are wrong. It's not even the dominant factor."

Apart from anything else, the developed world, which uses vastly more energy per capita than sub-Saharan Africa (the only part of the globe with high fertility rates), is going through a period of rapid demographic decline. As Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, pointed out last week, the world's population is not "exploding" but growing at 1 per cent a year, and the actual number of people added to the figure each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.

Still, morbid pessimism about the ability of the Earth to support its population has always been with us. In AD200, Tertullian wrote: "We are burdensome to the world; the resources are scarcely adequate for us." Of course, the resources of the planet are not, in the purely mathematical sense, infinite; but neither is the population.

This thought ought to be of some cheer; but I fear that even if the entire world of science and engineering accepts this form of rational optimism, it will not change the mind of a single Malthusian. They've been wrong for so long. Why stop now?

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default Re: Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Chilli-head on 20th January 2011, 9:56 am

Badger wrote:
The French scientists set themselves the goal of discovering whether a global population of 9 billion, the likely peak according to the UN, could readily have access to 3,000 calories a day, even as farms take measures to cut down on the use of fossil fuels and refrain from cutting down more forests: their answer was, you will be thrilled to know, "yes".

How very interesting. So in the future, 9 billion can have what is not available to many of the 6 billion today, whilst consuming less resources, readily and without new technologies. I suspect some Utopian assumptions are at the heart of this paradox !
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default Re: Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Mike on 20th January 2011, 2:08 pm

Poor Malthus (gets blamed for idiotic interpretations of what he actually wrot*").

In the immediate sense it is quite true. There will never be more humans on the Earth than can be fed. There cannot be, any excess would not survive. But that is not the same thing as saying "sustainably", not saying that feeding that number today wouldn't mean so much environmantal damage that the number that could be fed "tomorrow" not far less.

The "technofix" folks have to imagine that they will be able to come up with some way to feed 9 billion because the alternative (not being able to do so) is too dreadful to contemplate. That's the other side of "there will never be more humans on the Earth than the Earth can feed". If the Earth can only feed less then there will be less and how the number gets down to that less wouldn't be pretty.

Like that code word "anti-natalist"? Should the "Neo-Malthusians" counter by calling the "technofix" crowd pro death by starvation, killing each other fighting over diminishing resources, etc.?

The point here is that your position on "what must be done" is going to be very different if you believe that the long term (sustainable) carrying capacity of the Earth is 9 billion humans or 0.9 billion humans.


* If you actually read Malthus you will see at the end of that familiar list of things that could control human population (he has concluded that humans will not stop having sex) one less familiar because usually left off. Namley "vice". Now just what could he have meant by that? (what sort of "vice" could an 18th Century minister have had in mind that would reduce births -- what is he using "vice" a code word for. He was pretty radical for a churchman but there were some things he couldn't dare come right out and say).


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default Re: Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Compostwoman on 20th January 2011, 11:10 pm

Mike, I have often wondered that, myself...

Was he refering to masturbation? do you think? Possible, I suspect, given the social mores of the time.....

Or heterosexual marital anal sex ? (A method of birth control practised by a fair few couples!)

or what? You obviously have a few ideas, from the manner in which you couched your post....

Just curious, as I also have read him , and also wondered what, exactly, he meant by "vice"

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default Re: Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Mike on 21st January 2011, 2:01 pm

I don't think we can do more than guess as to what method of "birth control" he had in mind. But it is clear that the only sort of "vice" that would make sense here is something that would allow sex but not result in babies. In his day anything of the sort would be considered "vice". Remember, this need not be some method of absolute birth control (failure rate could be high) as long as the net effect was a significant reduction of the birth rate. My best guess is that he is advocating a mixture of rythm and coitus interuptis.

It is truly easy to misunderstand the earliest "scientists" because we take so much for granted in terms of the process of "doing science". Forget that at one time this was all brand new.

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, the important thing Malthus is doing is that he is basing his conclusions on data. He's actually trying to find numbers for births/deaths/population levels. Those who disagree (in principle as opposed to in detail) should present their reasons why they don't believe other animal populations have a quasi-stable* relationship to the carrying capacity of their environment or why humans are any different in this regard -- besides being able to perhaps use ""vice" to control their numbers instead of those other things.


* "stable" means will return to state from small enough peterbations. Not that the position of stability cannot be altered or destroyed by a large enough disturbance of the system.

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default Re: Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Wilhelm Von Rhomboid on 21st January 2011, 2:15 pm

Malthus referred to "“promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions, violations of the marriage bed, and improper arts to conceal the consequence of irregular connexions.” Although that doesn't clarify matters a great deal. I believe his definition of vice also covered abortion, infanticide and (for men at least) frequenting prostitutes. Historically infanticide is probably the most common form of restricting offspring - most forms of contraception being pretty rubbish and abortion too risky to the mother's health.

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default Re: Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Compostwoman on 21st January 2011, 5:29 pm

Yes, after I posted I had a think and realised "vice" covered a lot more in " those" days !

Sex, unless for procreation, was, after all, a vice.

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default Re: Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

Post by Mike on 23rd January 2011, 2:15 pm

Wilhelm Von Rhomboid wrote:Malthus referred to "“promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions, violations of the marriage bed, and improper arts to conceal the consequence of irregular connexions.” Although that doesn't clarify matters a great deal. I believe his definition of vice also covered abortion, infanticide and (for men at least) frequenting prostitutes. Historically infanticide is probably the most common form of restricting offspring - most forms of contraception being pretty rubbish and abortion too risky to the mother's health.

I disagree that those "code words" weren't understandable to his contemporaries and I don't think he had to be meaning either abortion or infanticide. Very important to remember that reducing the number/frequency of births doesn't call for the same measures as preventing all unplanned babies. For that purpose contraception can be far from 100% and still be effective.

unnatural passions = homosexual sex either male-male or male-female
violations of the mariage bed = sexual acts other than striaght intercourse
arts = everything from condoms* to pessaries (the "sponge" would be an example)

But as to how difficult or dangerous early abortion, this is very unclear. We lack the data. The "cunning women" and midwives wouldn't have to understand the bacterial cause of infections to have had traditional methods that worked without understanding (in modern terms) why they worked. That there was such "procedural knowledge" at least in the mid 19th Century is well document (and played a role** in how "modern medicine" learned about the causes of transmission of infection)

* Yes they did exist at the time, made from sheep intestine and far too expensive for all but the rich classes

** Poor Semmelweis --- see he noted that the midwives at his hospital had a far lower rate of "childbed fever" than he and his fellow doctors and figured out that it had to be differences in their procedures. Went insane when he couldn't convince his fellow doctors that they had to "scrub" between patients.

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