From the beginning, says French demographer Hervé Le Bras, demography has been steeped in talk of the apocalypse. Some of the field’s founding papers were written just a few years after Leeuwenhoek’s discovery by Sir William Petty, a founder of the Royal Society. He estimated that world population would double six times by the Last Judgment, which was expected in about 2,000 years. At that point it would exceed 20 billion people—more, Petty thought, than the planet could feed. “And then, according to the prediction of the Scriptures, there must be wars, and great slaughter,” he wrote.Kunzig subsequently explores the intricacies of the surprising decline of fertility in the world, the "demographic dividend" that societies receive from booms in population, and the acute dilemmas they face when fertility falls below the replacement rate and societies age. He takes a long look at India's experience in controlling population and the unanticipated consequences that ensued when coercive measures, such as forced sterilizations, were attempted. Demographers, he cheerily reports, believe that the global population problem "has become a bit passé" and are "generally confident that by the second half of this century we will be ending one unique era in history--the population explosion--and entering another, in which population will level out or even fall." However, there is still cause for alarm:
As religious forecasts of the world’s end receded, Le Bras argues, population growth itself provided an ersatz mechanism of apocalypse. “It crystallized the ancient fear, and perhaps the ancient hope, of the end of days,” he writes. In 1798 Thomas Malthus, an English priest and economist, enunciated his general law of population: that it necessarily grows faster than the food supply, until war, disease, and famine arrive to reduce the number of people. As it turned out, the last plagues great enough to put a dent in global population had already happened when Malthus wrote. World population hasn’t fallen, historians think, since the Black Death of the 14th century.
In the two centuries after Malthus declared that population couldn’t continue to soar, that’s exactly what it did. The process started in what we now call the developed countries, which were then still developing. The spread of New World crops like corn and the potato, along with the discovery of chemical fertilizers, helped banish starvation in Europe. Growing cities remained cesspools of disease at first, but from the mid-19th century on, sewers began to channel human waste away from drinking water, which was then filtered and chlorinated; that dramatically reduced the spread of cholera and typhus.
Moreover in 1798, the same year that Malthus published his dyspeptic tract, his compatriot Edward Jenner described a vaccine for smallpox—the first and most important in a series of vaccines and antibiotics that, along with better nutrition and sanitation, would double life expectancy in the industrializing countries, from 35 years to 77 today. It would take a cranky person to see that trend as gloomy: “The development of medical science was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” wrote Stanford population biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968.
Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, made him the most famous of modern Malthusians. In the 1970s, Ehrlich predicted, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death,” and it was too late to do anything about it. “The cancer of population growth … must be cut out,” Ehrlich wrote, “by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” The very future of the United States was at risk. In spite or perhaps because of such language, the book was a best seller, as Malthus’s had been. And this time too the bomb proved a dud. The green revolution—a combination of high-yield seeds, irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers that enabled grain production to double—was already under way. Today many people are undernourished, but mass starvation is rare.
Ehrlich was right, though, that population would surge as medical science spared many lives. After World War II the developing countries got a sudden transfusion of preventive care, with the help of institutions like the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Penicillin, the smallpox vaccine, DDT (which, though later controversial, saved millions from dying of malaria)—all arrived at once. In India life expectancy went from 38 years in 1952 to 64 today; in China, from 41 to 73. Millions of people in developing countries who would have died in childhood survived to have children themselves. That’s why the population explosion spread around the planet: because a great many people were saved from dying.
And because, for a time, women kept giving birth at a high rate. In 18th-century Europe or early 20th-century Asia, when the average woman had six children, she was doing what it took to replace herself and her mate, because most of those children never reached adulthood. When child mortality declines, couples eventually have fewer children—but that transition usually takes a generation at the very least. Today in developed countries, an average of 2.1 births per woman would maintain a steady population; in the developing world, “replacement fertility” is somewhat higher. In the time it takes for the birthrate to settle into that new balance with the death rate, population explodes.
Demographers call this evolution the demographic transition. All countries go through it in their own time. It’s a hallmark of human progress: In a country that has completed the transition, people have wrested from nature at least some control over death and birth. The global population explosion is an inevitable side effect, a huge one that some people are not sure our civilization can survive. But the growth rate was actually at its peak just as Ehrlich was sounding his alarm. By the early 1970s, fertility rates around the world had begun dropping faster than anyone had anticipated. Since then, the population growth rate has fallen by more than 40 percent.
Many people are justifiably worried that Malthus will finally be proved right on a global scale—that the planet won’t be able to feed nine billion people. Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute and now head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, believes food shortages could cause a collapse of global civilization. Human beings are living off natural capital, Brown argues, eroding soil and depleting groundwater faster than they can be replenished. All of that will soon be cramping food production. Brown’s Plan B to save civilization would put the whole world on a wartime footing, like the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, to stabilize climate and repair the ecological damage. “Filling the family planning gap may be the most urgent item on the global agenda,” he writes, so if we don’t hold the world’s population to eight billion by reducing fertility, the death rate may increase instead.
Eight billion corresponds to the UN’s lowest projection for 2050. In that optimistic scenario, Bangladesh has a fertility rate of 1.35 in 2050, but it still has 25 million more people than it does today. Rwanda’s fertility rate also falls below the replacement level, but its population still rises to well over twice what it was before the genocide. If that’s the optimistic scenario, one might argue, the future is indeed bleak.
But one can also draw a different conclusion—that fixating on population numbers is not the best way to confront the future. People packed into slums need help, but the problem that needs solving is poverty and lack of infrastructure, not overpopulation. Giving every woman access to family planning services is a good idea—“the one strategy that can make the biggest difference to women’s lives,” Chandra calls it. But the most aggressive population control program imaginable will not save Bangladesh from sea level rise, Rwanda from another genocide, or all of us from our enormous environmental problems.
Global warming is a good example. Carbon emissions from fossil fuels are growing fastest in China, thanks to its prolonged economic boom, but fertility there is already below replacement; not much more can be done to control population. Where population is growing fastest, in sub-Saharan Africa, emissions per person are only a few percent of what they are in the U.S.—so population control would have little effect on climate. Brian O’Neill of the National Center for Atmospheric Research has calculated that if the population were to reach 7.4 billion in 2050 instead of 8.9 billion, it would reduce emissions by 15 percent. “Those who say the whole problem is population are wrong,” Joel Cohen says. “It’s not even the dominant factor.” To stop global warming we’ll have to switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy—regardless of how big the population gets.
The number of people does matter, of course. But how people consume resources matters a lot more. Some of us leave much bigger footprints than others. The central challenge for the future of people and the planet is how to raise more of us out of poverty—the slum dwellers in Delhi, the subsistence farmers in Rwanda—while reducing the impact each of us has on the planet.
The World Bank has predicted that by 2030 more than a billion people in the developing world will belong to the “global middle class,” up from just 400 million in 2005. That’s a good thing. But it will be a hard thing for the planet if those people are eating meat and driving gasoline-powered cars at the same rate as Americans now do. It’s too late to keep the new middle class of 2030 from being born; it’s not too late to change how they and the rest of us will produce and consume food and energy. “Eating less meat seems more reasonable to me than saying, ‘Have fewer children!’ ” Le Bras says.
How many people can the Earth support? Cohen spent years reviewing all the research, from Leeuwenhoek on. “I wrote the book thinking I would answer the question,” he says. “I found out it’s unanswerable in the present state of knowledge.” What he found instead was an enormous range of “political numbers, intended to persuade people” one way or the other.
For centuries population pessimists have hurled apocalyptic warnings at the congenital optimists, who believe in their bones that humanity will find ways to cope and even improve its lot. History, on the whole, has so far favored the optimists, but history is no certain guide to the future. Neither is science. It cannot predict the outcome of People v. Planet, because all the facts of the case—how many of us there will be and how we will live—depend on choices we have yet to make and ideas we have yet to have. We may, for example, says Cohen, “see to it that all children are nourished well enough to learn in school and are educated well enough to solve the problems they will face as adults.” That would change the future significantly.
The debate was present at the creation of population alarmism, in the person of Rev. Thomas Malthus himself. Toward the end of the book in which he formulated the iron law by which unchecked population growth leads to famine, he declared that law a good thing: It gets us off our duffs. It leads us to conquer the world. Man, Malthus wrote, and he must have meant woman too, is “inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity.” But necessity, he added, gives hope:
“The exertions that men find it necessary to make, in order to support themselves or families, frequently awaken faculties that might otherwise have lain for ever dormant, and it has been commonly remarked that new and extraordinary situations generally create minds adequate to grapple with the difficulties in which they are involved.”
Seven billion of us soon, nine billion in 2045. Let’s hope that Malthus was right about our ingenuity.
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Robert Kunzig, "Population 7 Billion," National Geographic, January 2011.
See also Joel Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support? (Norton, 1996)