Population and Resources.
THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule
By ALAN MACFARLANE.
THE FUNDAMENTAL RELATIONSHIP between population and resources was described two centuries ago by Thomas Malthus. In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798 and a second, enlarged, edition in 1803) Malthus explained that women can, with natural fertility (that is without any use of contraception, and marrying reasonably young) produce an average of at least six live births. With even medium to highish mortality, four of these will survive to adulthood. So each couple will produce an average of four children, thus doubling the population each generation.
By the mathematical law of doubling, you will get what is called exponential, or non-linear, growth of the order of 2: 4: 8: 16: 32: 64. Very soon the numbers become huge. Thus it only took about 34 doublings to move from a hypothetical pair of humans, Adam and Eve we might call them, to our current world population of 7.4 billion people. If we continue at current population levels of growth, doubling say every 30 years, in 200 years the world population will be approaching 500 billion. Another thirty years on and there are 1000 billion!
There have been some signs of slowing of growth rates for various regions. Yet even in my own lifetime, as the rate drops in parts of the world and the One Child Policy reduces growth in China, world population has gone up by threefold in seventy years. When I was born the world population was 2.3 billion, now it is 7.4 billion. Currently it is ten times as great as when Malthus made his calculations.
The rates vary. Western European population has almost stopped growing, apart from immigration, but there is still massive growth in Africa, the Muslim belt and India. For example in India a population of about 288 million in 1901, about 400 million at Independence in 1947, is now over three times that size, at over 1.3 billion.
The other part of Malthus’s argument concerns resources. He looked at a basically agricultural world where it was only possible to increase output of food and other goods rather slowly. He estimated that, at the most optimistic, such resources could increase in a linear rate in each generation – one, two, three, four.
The intersection of the two laws meant that the population would rapidly outstrip resource increases. For example, if unimpeded, from an original situation where population and resources were balanced, after two centuries of increase it would mean that an initial population of one million persons would reach thirty-two million after twelve generations, while original resources to feed the one million would have increased to twelve. The gap would grow faster and faster.
As Malthus looked back over the historical record he could see that this gap has led to the collapse of empires and states and much of the misery of mankind. The gap was periodically closed by catastrophes – what he called the ‘positive checks’, that is those which act to raise the death rates. These were principally war, famine and disease. Unless population was checked, he believed that there was no escape from the inevitable nightmare.
SINCE MALTHUS WROTE there have been two major changes which have not disproved his theory, but made the outcome more complex. The first, which he had advocated, is the widespread control of fertility in many parts of the world. Malthus approved of methods that had long been used in England, Norway and Switzerland, namely natural control through delaying marriages until the later twenties for women, combined with non-marriage and non-reproduction by a large part of the female population, perhaps a quarter or more.
What Malthus did not approve of was what he called ‘Vice’, namely any form of artificial contraception — both prevention of conception (the predecessors of a condom, Pill, IUD etc) and post-conception control — abortion and infanticide. Yet it is precisely this growth of ways of inhibiting conception which has now given many the control over how many children they have. As a result of this, over perhaps half of the surface of the world, delays in marrying as women become educated and go into the labour force, fertility rates have come down to about parity, or two children per couple. Yet there is persistent high fertility in the other half of the world, so population is now still growing, given the absolute size of the population, which is breeding faster than it has ever done in history.
THE SECOND CHANGE concerns Malthus’s theory about the possible rate of increase in production. Here, two things have happened, one positive and one negative. Malthus, as noted, was only able to envisage an agricultural world expanding slowly, constrained by how much of the sun’s energy could be converted by plants and animals for human use. Yet, even as he was writing, a new world of industrial production was emerging for the first time on this planet. This was composed of two new features, which would change, temporarily at least, his laws.
One change was the discovery of vast resources of carbon energy in the form of coal and later of oil, which could be harnessed through machines to produce goods. This unlocked a vast treasure which meant that production could also, at least for a while, grow exponentially, matching population.
The machines themselves were partly made possible by a second development of this period, which was the systematic application of an expanding, increasingly accurate, knowledge of the laws of nature in physics, chemistry and biology. The application included the making of more powerful machines, and the rapid improvements in agricultural production through new fertilisers and improved plants and animals. New plants and ideas, as well as cheap goods, were also flooding into Europe from all over the world as navigation improved, and railways were starting to make the cost of shipping goods much cheaper.
So again, for a century or two, the Malthusian law appeared to be suspended. This more than compensated for the fact that some of the new knowledge was used to rapidly reduce death rates, especially in infancy, from epidemic and endemic disease. The rapid drop in mortality, and the gradual elimination of famine, meant that population rocketed in many parts of the world over the next century, even if fertility rates started to drop somewhat.
YET IF MALTHUS were writing today he might well argue that while the catastrophes of war, famine and disease, caused by the intersection of population and resources, have been temporarily suspended, we are now much more aware that there are finite limits to economic growth and of the disastrous effects of the endless increase of population.
Malthus would have pointed out that the absolute numbers, growing exponentially, are pressing on all of the Earth’s resources in an extreme way because the numbers of people are combined with something he did not anticipate. That is the extraordinary rise in the expectations and standard of living in the quarter of humanity who live with what we might call a Western or modern lifestyle.
The richest quarter of mankind consumes ten times as much per person in the way of resources, with their large houses, meat diets, cars and consumer goods as the rest of the world’s population. Even in 2000, it was estimated that the top 16% of the world’s population consumed four-fifths of the world’s resources. The richest ten per cent cause over half of the world’s carbon emissions.
Since the aspiration of the other, poorer, four fifths is to join the top fifth, how are we to cope with a world which is still growing by a billion or so every few years, but also where millions are attempting to lift themselves out of poverty?
What, for example, is the effect of the rightly welcomed achievement of the Chinese government in lifting seven hundred million poor farmers in China out of poverty in one generation since 1980? What happens when this tenth of humankind suddenly quadruples its demand for various resources? Or when, as is planned in India, and is already happening in a rich middle-class of perhaps 250 million in the cities, millions and hundreds of millions in India and elsewhere start to consume ten times as much as they did a generation ago? In effect what has happened in just China or India in the last generation has been the equivalent of adding at least two billion people, in terms of consumption, to the planet.
ALTHOUGH WE CAN now produce so much in ‘factories’ – whether cars or washing machines, chickens or milk, or increasingly vegetables and proteins, this does not take away the problem of the wider ‘externalities’ or outside influences of soaring population and higher wealth. Let me just mention a few of the well-known pressure points.
One is the forests. Everyone knows that vast swathes of the last remaining great forests, whether in the Amazon, Central Africa, Indonesia or South East Asia are being destroyed. In the desire to farm crops and animals, the Indonesian and central African and South American jungles and forests are being decimated. In south-east Asia the precious woods are being stripped out for furniture and buildings. In Nepal, China and elsewhere the last forests are being logged for firewood.
Attempts to replace wood in parts of the world — for use as paper, furniture, buildings — with the use of ‘sustainable’ planting, while admirable, only touch part of the edges of the problem. At present rates, within a generation, most of the forests and jungles will have gone, with huge consequences for biodiversity, animals and plants, as well as the loss of the carbon absorption function of trees.
A similar picture can, of course, be painted for the oceans. The ever greater demand for ocean products, particularly fish, the dumping of chemicals, micro-beads, plastics and sewage, has already depleted many fish stocks and destroyed large swathes of the coral reefs. The story is depressing and though recognising certain success stories of commercial conservation, the pressures of population and higher living standards are unlikely to improve the situation any time soon.
A third well-known cause of concern is the diminishing supplies of fresh water. It is known that a combination of the mounting needs in agriculture and cities is leading to a crisis of water supplies in India and China and elsewhere as the aquifers and rivers which stored water are used up.
The situation in those two vast nations, comprising about a third of mankind, is made worse by the global warming which is melting the reserves of water previously stored in the Himalayas, mountains which are the source of all the great rivers of India and China. This is exacerbated by the increasing demand for hydro-electric power and huge irrigation projects. With present trends, many predict that the wars of the future will be over water supplies and that scorched farm fields and desertification loom.
This is turning into a depressing catalogue of future disasters so I shall not go into other very serious problems – urban pollution which is afflicting many cities from Beijing to Kathmandu, the poisoning of the rivers with industrial effluent, noise and light pollution which damages the lives of many.
Instead I will end the outline of where we are now with noting the greatest threat of all, the one which some deny is happening, or if they concede it is present, deny that it is related to human activity, namely global warming.
The general principles are now roughly understood. The emission of ‘greenhouse gases’, that is certain elements which form a kind of ‘greenhouse’ or glass roof over the earth and stop accumulated heat from escaping, has been warming the planet rapidly over the last half-century. Many of these gases come from farming – particularly cattle for meat and milk – but the greatest comes from factories, transport and the burning of coal for energy. The result is that almost all of the hottest years in history have occurred in the last twenty years.
Measurements of the melting of the polar ice caps show that at both poles, vast amounts of hitherto frozen water and ice covered land, is unfreezing and even the permafrost across the belt across Russia and North America is unfreezing to allow increasing amounts of the dangerous greenhouse gas, methane, to escape.
It is predicted that, within the next generation, sea levels will rise to cover many low-lying islands and coastal districts. There may be other wider effects on the great ocean currents, for example shifting the Gulf Stream or altering El Niño. The likelihood of extreme climatic events – hurricanes, droughts, floods – is increasing.
I will not go into more of the details, most of which are generally known and the stuff of climate conferences. Standing back we can see that although Malthus was thinking within an agricultural world, where energy sources were obviously finite, since animals, wind, water and plants could, without a huge change technology, only produce a gradually increasing return, we are still trapped in a finite world. Unless we migrate in large numbers to other planets we seem to be heading towards the crises which he predicted – war, famine and disease.
YET PEOPLE POINT out that Malthus and Adam Smith predicted the limits to growth and an inescapable trap at precisely the moment when, in fact, new knowledge and machines, were, for a couple of centuries at least, able to raise the threshold of disaster. These two founders of modern economics could not with their laws and tendencies have imagined a world two hundred years later with ten times the population but where at least three quarters of the world population are above absolute poverty. Edward Gibbon estimated that three quarters of the world’s population at that time were in misery – afflicted by poverty and war. Now, with ten times as many, three quarters have partially escaped from those disasters, at least temporarily.
In Smith’s day, the top one percent lived a reasonably comfortable life of leisure, ample food, clothing and health. Now, more than twenty percent of a world population ten times that size, in other words well over 200 times as many people, live decently. So it is clear that it is difficult to suggest what will happen. What we can do, however, is to guess some useful ways of avoiding catastrophe.
THE FIRST CONCERNS population control. It is clear that, at some point, population growth on this planet has to be restrained. If we continue at present rates, within a few hundred years the human mass will be expanding outwards through space at thousands of miles a year. Whether we are content with the hoped for nine to twelve billion in the middle of the twenty-first century, or some higher figure another generation on, it is obvious that either through control of fertility, or through the Malthusian positive checks, population will shortly be halted.
Two things are needed if levelling is to occur. The first is that contraception, hopefully much improved, can be made available without stigma and very cheaply or freely to all on this planet who want it. The second is that religious or family systems which still encourage very large families, or forbid contraception, need to be challenged.
As we know, two of the most powerful religious-cum-family systems in the world, Roman Catholic and Islamic, are opposed to all family limitation. Yet things are changing as the reality of the connection between population, poverty and the miserable life of women becomes ever more obvious. The rising status of women, and in particular their ability to continue in education and to have a career, is having a huge effect. The wider effect of the consumer society and structural changes in such things as pensions and the perceived effects of a decline in infant mortality rates are other factors.
So it is not beyond hope that, when people look back in two generations, they will indeed see that population stopped galloping upwards sometime in the twenty-first century, even though at present we have a huge momentum with a very young world population entering the reproductive phase and often feeling that it is their duty, as well as to their private economic and social well-being, to have many children.
THE SECOND AREA to consider is how we produce energy. If anyone had predicted a generation ago that China would become the greatest producer of renewable energy products by 2016 it would have sounded incredible. It would at that time also have also seemed impossible that Germany is now producing all its energy without using coal, or that Britain now produces a quarter of its energy from renewable sources.
What is happening is that a mixture of a deeper understanding of scientific possibilities, combined with market pressures, is making it possible to envisage a future with much better batteries, much better distribution systems, much greater use of solar, wind and water power, and perhaps the longed-for major breakthrough. Such a breakthrough would be the discovery of a simple, effective, cheap, and non-polluting energy source such as fusion energy, or adapting the new miracle materials such as graphene. Such a breakthrough, could suddenly allow us to imagine a world with limitless, nonpolluting, renewable energy which can be distributed more or less freely, perhaps using effective superconductivity.
At a stroke, this would alleviate many of the other problems. The urban pollution by cars, the horrors of factory farming of animals, the destruction of forests, the shortage of fresh water, all these could be mitigated or avoided, if there was limitless, almost free, and non-destructive energy.
Just as someone looking back from the present is amazed at what coal and oil have done to lighten the load of human labour and to alleviate so much other misery, so, perhaps, in a hundred years if someone reads this they will say the same.
They may well ask, ‘Was it not obvious to Macfarlane as he wrote this gloomy account that things were already changing? Did he not remember that Adam Smith was not aware of the implications of what was happening down the corridors in Glasgow University as James Watt was constructing a machine efficiently to convert coal into power through steam and machinery? Did Macfarlane not realise that, in the same way, in the ring of high tech and biotech science companies round Cambridge University, the silicone fen of East Anglia, small firms were inventing technologies which would soon be generalised and provide the basis for a new industrial revolution? This revolution would give humans an infinitely expanded set of new possibilities.’
In fact, this revolution is obviously already upon us and I have met and interviewed some of those who are already experimenting with the light receiving and emitting diodes, or the superconductivity systems, which will quite soon reshape our potential resources.
YET TECHNOLOGY ALONE, without population control as we have seen, only puts off the evil day without a change in attitudes to our wider environment and ecology. For one of our inherited problems, as economists and ecologists have pointed out, is to do with how we think of what is around us – the land, seas, forests, mountains and air.
Traditionally, most civilisations have divided the world into private property, protected in the interests of the owner, and public or ‘common’ property. This has led to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as it is called, whereby public spaces are open to exploitation by all. There is little cost and often great benefits in exploiting these common resources. It is in people’s private interest to pour industrial waste into rivers, to dump rubbish in the oceans, to belch out fumes from factories, farms and car exhausts into the atmosphere, to scoop up the fish or cut down the ‘common’ forests.
All this will continue until we recognise that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’. All resources are, in fact, finite and in some sense, in this highly interconnected world, belong to us all. If Indonesia burns down its forests for palm oil, the neighbouring nations suffer terrible air pollution. If America fills its soil with chemicals and sand and releases huge amounts of carbon energy through fracking, all of us are affected. If Japan and China suck in the softwoods of Southeast Asia and the metals of Australia for their huge construction projects, it affect us all. If the Amazon is destroyed to produce hamburgers for McDonald’s, all our lives are diminished.
‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls — it tolls for thee’. In other words, we have to go through a mental and cultural revolution, which can only be achieved through political decisions, based on better education and explanation, whereby we look on all of the world’s resources not as ‘free-for-all’ Commons, but held in trust for the future. We have to think of stewardship, and shared responsibility.
The model of ‘Commons’ in the English past, where a village would preserve its woods, waters, grazing and moors century after century by giving each household very strictly defined and limited rights and obligations could be extended. A system of quotas and limits, as has started to be effective in preserving fish stocks in the North Sea, is obviously the only way we can avoid wholesale destruction.
Often this runs into the law of ‘free riding’ pointed out long ago – namely that it is in a person’s narrow self-interest to have three cars or go on many long-haul flights, or keep a large yacht, or a pack of dogs and cats, while each of these things contributes to the general diminution of mankind.
Whether we can, in time, learn how to share and steward our resources, is not certain. It has been done in the past, particularly when it becomes obvious that by forgoing their narrow and short-term gains, humans will benefit, as will their children and children’s children. Casting your bread on the waters – eating less meat, economising on water and car journeys, seriously recycling, all these are small, personal, gestures, but they add up. They already make more sense to many who are increasingly aware that we live in a small, fragile, crowded, planet which is under huge pressure.
Our attitudes are changing, and often for the better. We cannot afford to despair and, with the leisure promised in a later chapter, we will have plenty of time to think about neat solutions to our apparently insurmountable, but ultimately soluble, difficulties.
Alan Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for subscribers to the Fortnightly.