Last April, the New Statesman published an article written by Sir David Attenborough called “This Heaving Planet”.  Much of it is worth quoting, so I take the liberty of doing so below.

My tuppence worth: what a handicap has been bequeathed to us population worriers and doomsayers by Malthus and his too-early warning of disaster.  As Attenborough says, Malthus was actually right in principle, but his timing was a bit out.  And we are continually derided by the Population Polyannas who point to Malthus’ “wrong” analysis.  Yes, Malthus may have “cried wolf”.  But people forget that, in the Aesop fable, the real wolf did eventually arrive.

Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded, there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion – over twice as many – every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools, roads and airfields. Where could that come from? A little might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had had to themselves – the natural world.

But the impact of these extra billions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically claimed. The spread of industrialisation has changed the chemical constituents of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. The earth is warming. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all – the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.

There have been prophets who have warned us of this impending disaster. One of the first was Thomas Malthus. His surname – Malthus – leads some to suppose that he was some continental European philosopher, a German perhaps. But he was not. He was an Englishman, born in Guildford, Surrey, in the middle of the 18th century. His most important book, An ­Essay on the Principle of Population, was published in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed “misery and vice”. Today, for some reason, that prophecy seems to be largely ignored – or, at any rate, disregarded. It is true that he did not foresee the so-called Green Revolution (from the 1940s to the late 1970s), which greatly increased the amount of food that can be produced in any given area of arable land. And there may be other advances in our food producing skills that we ourselves still cannot foresee. But such advances only delay things. The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.

Many people would like to deny that this is so. They would like to believe in that oxymoron “sustainable growth”. Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy’s environmental adviser 45 years ago, said something about this: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”

The population of the world is now growing by nearly 80 million a year. One and a half million a week. A quarter of a million a day. Ten thousand an hour..…

… our poor battered planet – the increase of greenhouse gases and consequential global warming, the acidification of the oceans and the collapse of fish stocks, the loss of rainforest, the spread of deserts, the shortage of arable land, the increase in violent weather, the growth of mega-cities, famine, migration patterns. The list goes on and on. But they all share one underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, social as well as environmental, becomes more difficult – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.

Here is a challenge for all you optimists out there.  Study the facts about Egypt set out below, and consider how likely it is that the current unrest will result in a stable, peaceful country.

  • In the past 25 years, Egypt’s population has risen by over 60%, from 50 million in 1985 to around 81 million today, with an average age of 24.   This rise places a heavy burden on housing and food production.  Population continues to grow, at 2% per annum. 
  • Based on information from the CIA World Fact Book, in 2009 government revenues were $46.82 billion and expenditures were $64.19 billion, a deficit of 27% .  For 2010, the Factbook reports government debt amounting to 80.5% of GDP.
  • Tourism normally accounts for more than 11 per cent of gross domestic profit, but is being dramatically affected by the recent unrest.
  • Egypt imports about half the food eaten by its 79 million people and is struggling with double-digit food inflation. In 2010, the oil minister stated that Egypt imports 40% of its food, and 60% of its wheat. 
  • Egypt is the world’s No. 1 wheat importer.
  • Food prices are rising steeply across the world, and recently rose to the highest levels since the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization began indexing them in 1990.
  • A massive government subsidy program provides bread for the poor
  • Egypt  is mostly desert and depends almost entirely on the Nile River which is in decline.
  • Egypt’s total water consumption had increased by 17 per cent in the five years up to 2010.  A report by the state-run Central Agency For Public Mobilisation And Statistics (CAPMAS) predicts that annual water resources would decline by 15.2 billion cubic metres by 2017 – from a required 86.2 billion cubic metres. 
  • In 2010, several African states that share the Nile with Egypt signed a treaty without Egypt or Sudan which would allocate to them more of the Nile waters at the expense of Egypt. A 1956 treaty allocated the majority of the Nile river waters to Egypt’s needs. The new treaty, if it takes hold, is a serious threat to Egypt.  Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation has said That Cairo will take “whatever steps are necessary” to protect its “historic rights” to the Nile waters to ensure the nation’s survival.
  • In the past, the Nile would flood annually, expanding and then retreating, leaving behind a thick fertilized soil layer. But since the building of the Aswan dam, that flood cycle has not occurred.  As a result, the soils are depleted of all natural supply of nutrients that plants rely upon. So Egypt is dependent on fertilizer and on various other chemicals to keep their soils going, and is therefore very exposed to oil price fluctuations.
  • Half of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.
  • H5NI avian influenza is a significant problem in Egypt.
  • 17% of adult Egyptian males cannot read or write; 41% of adult females cannot read or write.
  • According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the Egyptian public is radical in its religious views. 82% of Egyptian Muslims want adulterers punished with stoning; 77% want robbers to be whipped and have their hands amputated; 84% favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.

That’s quite a daunting list of challenges.  Watch this space.

“…. the dissolution of the old order should make the soul rejoice, but the frightening thing is that what the departing order leaves behind is not an heir but a pregnant widow, and that between the death of the one and the birth of the other is a long night of chaos and desolation.”  (Alexander Herzen)

This from the Guardian on 12th December:   

Climate change: human numbers don’t add up

The best way to cut emissions is to have fewer babies – but you won’t find it in the Cancún bulletin, or any politician’s vision ….  China’s “one child” policy – which may have stopped 250-400 million births, on official calculations – is not a polite subject for discussion anywhere in the west. Indeed, it’s often lumped into Beijing’s long list of human rights abuses. David and Sam, Ed and Justine, have their “happy events”.  Some year soon, perhaps, William and Kate will join in.  But set all that alongside LSE research last year for the Optimum Population TrustIt costs £5 on family planning to abate a tonne of CO2 – against £15 for wind power and £31 for solar power. In short, too many happy events equal global misery. It’s the harsh truth where Cancún communiques fall silent.

There are some areas where democracy can’t tread, some subjects too vexed for manifesto treatment. So we’re left with very modest proposals indeed; with Cancún, small headlines and small reasons to be cheerful.

Previous posts on this topic are here, here, and here.  Stop me if I’m becoming a bore.  But isn’t this about the most important issue we face today?

One: the current population of Ethiopia is 85 million.  In 1985, when we all gave so generously to Band Aid and Live Aid to help deal with widespread famine, the population was about 40 million.   By the year 2050, according to Population Reference Bureau estimates,  Ethiopia’s population will increase to about 169 million people.  Some 14 million Ethiopians already have difficulty finding enough to eat, including, according to UNICEF, 62,000 children under the age of five.

Two: the population of Pakistan is currently estimated at 185 million.  At current fertility rates, and all else being equal (admittedly that’s quite a big qualifier, as recent flood deaths show), it will rise to 460 million by 2050 (source: UN demographic projection).

As far as quality of life on earth is concerned, we are watching a slow-motion car crash.  And fundamentalists from the political left and the political right, and from most religions, are blocking any sensible discussion of the problem.

This is a monstrous Tragedy of the Commons, which will have a profound effect on the lives of our children.

My hopes were cruelly raised yesterday by the headline on the main Irish Times editorial (“Our crowded planet”).  Aha, I thought, Madam is going to speak out about the awful impact which population growth is having on the environment and on quality of life and on prospects for peace and stability, and call for concerted action to deal with this impending self-inflicted tragedy.

So I read on, noting the extensive references to new and worrying projections from the Population Reference Bureau, and waiting for the call to arms (metaphorically, of course) which would surely bring the editorial to a conclusion with a flourish.  But no, the whole editorial consisted of a bland regurgitation of population-related facts from the PRB  and elsewhere, with some mention of what the implications of unchecked population growth are for age demographics in the developed world.  You will look in vain for any trace of what is the actual opinion of the editor (or editorial staff) of the Irish Times.

In fact, now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time this newspaper published an editorial which expressed a view that was even mildly controversial.  It’s all motherhood and apple pie, as the saying goes. This is in contrast to leading newspapers in say the United Kingdom, whose editors do appear to have real and interesting views on important matters, and are not afraid to publish them.

Maybe my expectations are too high.  Maybe our Newspaper of Record has decided it doesn’t need to have any editorial opinions any more, preferring to play it safe by letting its hired-gun columnists express definitive views on matters of importance. Or maybe it has gone the way of almost all our politicians, who are afraid of offending any potential voter and so express no real opinions on any difficult subject (or maybe they are such gombeens that they actually hold no such opinions?).

Yes, the Irish Times does give space to writers who take all sorts of positions on controversial topics – see for example this article on the population issue – but I don’t think this is adequate.  Readers are entitled to expect that the editor of the Newspaper of Record will present a real opinion in her editorial column on matters of great importance such as world overpopulation (just as the Financial Times did in this editorial last September).

So, madam, please start to earn your (over) generous salary, which is paid for by us readers, and give us some editorials of substance.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(William Butler Yeats )

While I’m at it, here are some articles available online that are worth reading.

Well-known Professor of Economics and writer/journalist Paul Krugman, in the New York Times, March 2008 writes an article entitled “Malthus was right!”. 

He refers therein to a Wall Street Journal article published in the same month entitled “New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears”.

And here’s a piece called “When Environmental Writers Are Part of the Problem” by John Feeney, from July 2007:

Something’s missing in today’s environmental discussion. When talking about causes and proposed solutions for our ecological plight, few environmental writers are telling us more than half the story. Al Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and long time sustainability activist, calls it “the silent lie.”

It’s the near universal tendency to focus on the importance of cutting fossil fuel use while staying mum on the topic of population growth.

Finally, a presentation called “Population and Climate Change” given by Karen Hardee, Vice President for Research of Population Action International can be found here.

There was an interesting comment piece in the Irish Times on Tuesday, “Rising populations are at core of overseas aid issue” .  My main reaction to it was one of mild surprise that a respected establishment organ was providing a platform for what, for some peculiar reason, seems to be treated as if it were a radical, minority, viewpoint: that we should try to do something about world population growth.  Bizarrely, it seems politically incorrect to advocate population control, even the sort of voluntary control policies advocated by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT)  .

 This quasi-taboo was referred to in a Financial Times editorial last September: 

“For too long population control has been virtually absent from international political discourse. Leaders have been reluctant to raise the issue for several reasons. One is fear of the powerful religious lobbies opposed to contraception. Another is the unfortunate legacy of some over-enthusiastic family planning campaigns in the past, such as India’s in the 1970s….But several factors are now coming together to put family planning back on the global agenda where it belongs. The most immediate is climate change.”

 The link between climate change and overpopulation should be almost too obvious to be mentioned.  Here’s what OPT have to say: 

“All serious environmentalists know perfectly well that population growth, exploding in the 20th century, has been a key driver of every environmental problem. It’s a fact, not an opinion, that total human impact is the average per person multiplied by the number of people.

“Yet for far too long, governments and environmental NGOs have observed a taboo – invented in the 1980s by a bizarre coalition of the religious right and the liberal left – on stating this obvious fact. So they keep on implying that our numbers can grow forever with no ill effects. It’s a ‘silent lie’ and by encouraging us to ignore the vital need to stabilise our numbers by humane means (contraception) before nature does it for us by inhumane, natural means (famine, disease, war) this absurd taboo betrays our children.”

David Attenborough, the world’s best-known natural history filmmaker, is now adding his voice to those who are calling for action, and has become a patron of OPT.  This was mentioned in another sensible Irish Times piece last July, called “Planet is buckling under weight of people”:

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Interesting article in a recent New Scientist, called “Cute, fluffy and horribly greedy”

….. Waggly tail or not, owning a pet comes at a far higher cost than you might imagine. As you watch a large dog bounding out of the back of an SUV, you might mentally reprimand the owner for their choice of vehicle. You would do better to save your indignation for their choice of pet. Because….. the ecological footprint of our companion animals can dwarf that of even the most gas-guzzling cars. Man’s best friend, it turns out, is the planet’s enemy.

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