The Elephant In the Room

There is no doubt that Planet Earth is facing some pretty serious problems. We hear every day about a climate emergency, and many other woes are not that far behind: rainforest destruction, loss of habitat, melting ice-sheets, disappearing species, ocean plastics, pollution, depletion of raw materials. It’s not a very pretty picture, yet no-one dare mention the elephant in the room…


None of those other problems would be a problem if there were not far too many people.

Most people who are older than millennials will remember when global warming first found its way into the public consciousness. To a large extent it was bounced up the agenda by the high level bickering over the famous hockey stick graph. The graph was heavily promoted by failed US presidential candidate Al Gore and showed an abrupt rise in northern hemisphere in recent decades compared to the long term trend. Soon it was mired in controversy, much of it of a highly political nature, but finally the conclusion has been drawn that it was broadly correct.

World population over the last 12,000 years That argument over one hockey stick graph seems to have kept another hockey stick hidden from view, even though this is one that is entirely undisputed. This plot of the world population over the last 12,000 years illustrates the alarming increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the even more meteoric rise since the second world war. When this writer was born the world was occupied by 2.5 billion people and now there are 7.7 billion. Population has trebled in less than a lifetime. It took the entire span of human history up to 1800 for the population to reach 1 billion. It took 124 years to add the next billion. More recently, the last billion has been added in just 12 years! How much longer can this go on? And what will be the final conclusion?

Before we attempt to answer those questions, let's just take a look at the population of the UK and a few other countries. On the face of it, the population growth in the UK has been considerably less than in the world at large. But it has still be unsustainably great. From 1953 to the present day, there are now well over 16 million more people in the country. That's twice the population of London, or an increase of 33%. Even in just the last five years the population has ballooned by 2.1 million. That's four cities the size of Bristol.

How has this growth come about? In the 80s and 90s, the growth of the UK population was around 0.2% per annum but in the 21st century it has averaged around 0.8%. Much of the difference between the two figures can be attributed directly to immigration, although immigration has a secondary affect too.Population of various countries since 1800 Deeper analysis of the data shows that the underlying level of population growth has also increased even when direct immigration is taken out. It is likely that this is because the large number of immigrants typically have more children, many having come from Africa and Asia where they are culturally disposed to larger families.

Looking at the other countries shown on the second graph, the relative fecundity is clear to see when compared with the UK. The China curve is particularly interesting because it is the only one that shows anything but a continuously increasing upward trend. The mid-19th century actually shows a fall in population (one of the few that ever seems to have occurred anywhere) and the first part of the 20th century shows a distinct levelling of the curve. Without having studied the history too closely, there were a series of devastating famines in China that presumably reflect in this data. Nevertheless from about 1950 the increase parallels closely that of India until the late 20th century. This was the time of the introduction of the One Child Policy which certainly seems to have flattened the curve slightly but was clearly ineffectual in preventing the population growing by one-fifth in just 25 years.

Returning to those questions: How much longer can this go on? Well numerous climate activists tell us that we need radical changes now and those promoting the causes of rainforests, wildlife, pollution and the ice-sheets tell a similar story. So in order to reduce the world population and solve all those other ailments of modern humanity, something will have to change very quickly. Either humanity voluntarily finds a way to dramatically depopulate, or nature will find a way to do it for us. The first option will be so unpleasant that I don't think it will ever happen. The second option will be very, very much worse.

What will be the final conclusion? The Chinese experiment with a One Child Policy has shown that what should theoretically result in a halving of the population every generation (I know it's not quite as simple as that, but I'm trying not to over-complicate things) falls woefully short of that objective. Some ostriches will claim that improvements to agriculture and changes of the western diet will make food available to the ever-burgeoning population, and therefore we can swerve the issue. But greater agricultural production demands more land; forests are cut down and soil erosion accelerates; rainfall runs off faster and flooding becomes a greater problem. At the same time drinking water gets more and more scarce.

As Asian and African populations increase wildly, we have already seen that many people will try to escape to Europe. If those migrations become bigger, countries will put up greater obstacles. Conflict will grow. Likewise, many countries will extract water from acquifers and rivers for their own people causing ever-growing problems for any country downstream.

Returning to the first graph, it's interesting to see that it's inexorable rise is almost entirely independent of wars and plagues. There is a tiny wiggle coinciding with the 14th century Black Death which killed as many as two-thirds of the population in some areas, and one-third of the population over Europe as a whole.  The first and second world wars, Spanish flu and the genocides of Hitler, Stanlin, Mao, Pol Pot and others were totally insignificant in population terms.

So if wars and disasters on a collossal scale can't control the population, what can? Evidently not any form of voluntary birth control. Perhaps war, pandemic and natural disaster will grow to such an unprecedented scale that it eventually will become a true apocalypse. If not, I suspect it will eventually exert a control on the human population that will stabilise at some level around 10-12 billion. Life will go on, but it won't be a nice life. As well as the aforesaid wars and pandemics, all those other gloom-laden prophesies will come to fruition: climate change, rainforest destruction, loss of habitat, melting ice-sheets, disappearing species, pollution and a desperate lack of raw materials. I don't worry for myself, but I do worry for my children and grandchildren. I just wish I could see a realistic solution that is more than just tinkering at the edges.

15 Mar 2020