Population control’s inevitable realities
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 20:01
Thomas Malthus once proposed that the human population was growing exponentially, while the food supply was not. If we didn’t slow our rate of growth, human civilization would soon suffer wide-spread famine, epidemic and war. Unfortunately for Malthus, he didn’t anticipate the agricultural revolution, which allowed farmers to produce previously unimaginable quantities of food. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries passed without as many starvation-fueled wars as Malthus predicted, but his thesis needs to be reconsidered.
Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich wrote “The Population Bomb,” back in 1968, which predicted that unless measures were taken to bring the human population under reasonable control, then Malthus’ predictions would become inevitable.
The book has many criticisms, among them its alarmist rhetoric, ridiculously specific predictions and of course Malthus’ own nearsightedness: the unpredictability of technological innovation.
I’ve never been one to support alarmist anything. But population growth scares me and it should scare you. When criticized for how none of his predictions ever came true, Ehrlich responded with the observation that since writing the book, the global population has reach three-and-a-half times the number it was when he was born (2 billion in 1938). “If that’s not a population explosion,” Ehrlich asks, “what is?”
When Malthus first wrote his thesis, he only considered the food supply as the resource most in danger of causing catastrophic decline. And logically it is: we are essentially eating machines. Everything we do in our daily lives surrounds eating, finding ways to eat and producing more tiny humans that will also eat. But human society has changed quite a lot since 1800. The self-sustainable, yeoman farmer – the one who eats only what he grows or raises himself, chops his own wood and is comfortable defecating in the woods rather than into our shrinking water supply – is admirable. However, it’s no longer the standard, and the prospects of shifting the world economy to that style of economy is pessimistic at best.
In between 1800 and 2013, the global economy is based on all sorts of different resources: most notably fossil fuels. Do a search for “strange night lights in North Dakota” and you can see how fracking to release natural gas is setting a metropolis-sized section of empty North Dakota on fire. Are the oil companies creating jobs in the region? Yes. North Dakota now has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, but soon those jobs will be gone, the North Dakotan soil will be too poisonous to grow anything, and the water will be filled with viscous chemicals that will cause cancer for all those shortly-employed natural gas workers.
Do you think well-intentioned philanthropic non-profit organizations will ensure insurance initiatives to try curing all that cancer, supporting all those unemployed, and sharing all those profits? The answer isn’t a hard one.
Ripping our own planet apart for resources to support an exponentially growing population does have its limits. We may not reach the limit today; we may not reach it in our generation. But should we really rely on the unpredictability of technological innovations that may or may not ever come? It’s not just a matter of food (and between the rich oil moguls and the poor unemployed, who do you think will get to eat when there’s a shortage?) but all the resources and materials that make modern life run: precious metals in our electronics, simple living space to put all of these people at the expense of land to grow food, potable water to support a growing population. The list is endless.
The People’s Republic of China, an exemplar for human rights abuse if there ever was one, imposed a one-child policy on their population to limit their growth. The endeavor is not enough, but it also fails to address the crippling social ramifications of despotically enforcing population regulations: forced abortions, infanticide (especially of infant girls) and other horrors result. Seeing the example of the dystopia that currently is the heavily polluted, crime-ridden, thought-controlled People’s Republic, it’s not something I want to experience first hand. But unless we do something on the personal level (turning off our lights when not using the room) and the local level (installing motion-sensors to our hallway dorm lights) there’s absolutely nothing we’ll be able to do on the global level (turning out those lights in North Dakota).