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I think, therefore I harm

World Population

How many humans could the Earth sustain? You may have heard that question often during your life, but have you ever heard the answer?

That question is not new. In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, a British cleric and scholar, published An Essay on the Principle of Population. At a time when European population mainly perceived human civilization as being in perpetual improvement, his essay was received with controversy. But soon, it was considered an influential work, so much that the Census Act was enacted in 1800, leading to a census of the British population every ten years beginning in 1801. Today, 73 countries produce a census of their population, accounting for approximately 98% of the world population.

While the people generally saw an ever growing and ever improving civilization, Robert Malthus rather questioned the limit of our planet. He envisioned that the human race was deemed to grow, until a point at which it would exhaust the resources that the Earth could provide, and exterminate itself through famine and starvation.

Robert Malthus was not the first person to raise the question though. Around 200 AD, Tertullian wrote that we were pushing the limits of the world, as the people were already fighting for resources. He thought that hunger and war were necessary in order to prune the population and maintain it to an acceptable level. It is estimated that the world population back then was about 200 million.

overpopulation-featureOur species, Homo sapien, appeared about 200,000 years ago. However, for the largest part of our history, we were very low in number. Because of different circumstances, we only boomed at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, at which point our population quickly rose to one million individuals. Nearly 500 cities today have a population of more than one million. The human population reached the first billion around in the early 1800s. By 1950, it had reached 2.5 billion, and it was estimated at 6 billion in 2000. As I write this, we have just reached 7 billion. So what is the limit?

Many modern scientists evaluated this question, and 10 billion humans appear to be a reasonable limit. This, however, considers a perfect world. We give up on meat and eat only grain, maximizing the little space left to grow food. It also assumes that we stop our current trend toward overconsumption and that we learn to make better use of our resources. I assume that this figure also doesn’t take into account the rest of the life representatives around us, sacrificing any flora and fauna that we don’t directly need. The fact is, we don’t know how many people our planet can sustain, but a mere glance at our world suggests that we have already outreached that limit.

Oh! we will not die off. Robert Malthus’ dark future, predicted for around 1950, will no occur. We have a strong mechanism in effect that will protect us from our own damnation: Nature. As the population of rabbits decreases, so does the population of foxes. As the number of predators is reduced, the rabbits go through a period of fast expansion and the foxes return. The same way, those of us who can’t eat will die, and there will be plenty of food again for the stronger ones. This cycle will go on, and on, and on, as it always did.

Our planet can only produce so much food, and can only produce such food off unpopulated land. Our economy have prevented us from growing over capacity. As the resources become scarce, prices go up, following the rule of supply and demand. As a resource becomes rare, the price for that resource increases, pushing the demand downward. We can let go of some resources, but who could argue being able to live without food? The rapid inflation in prices for food will prevent our species from dying off. Those remaining, however, will not be able to claim any comfort.

The United Nations recently proposed that our population would cap in between 9 and 10 billion individuals, and would then remain stable at that number. Unfortunately, this will not be without suffering. As the net population of the planet increases, so does the number of people dying of starvation. We claim to have risen above nature, should we really let nature be our monitor?

For too many centuries, and in the hope of gaining more power from a larger population, nations and religions encouraged quick and effective reproduction. We have to stop that trend.

china-adoptionI am not suggesting that we immediately stop procreating, nor that any currently pregnant woman undergo an abortion. As a libertarian, I would be the very last person to ever suggest that any government should intervene in our decision to procreate. I am proposing that we, as people, think a little more before putting new people into this world.

Do you really want to take care of a little baby? Do you have the means, both physically and financially, to raise a baby into a fulfilled adult? Then the question is really only your will. However, if your condition would make it a challenge, leave that to others. Don’t be egoist, think of the child’s happiness, not yours. By all means, do not fall for government or social pressure. You are a human, not just any animal, and procreating is not the meaning of your life.

Before you take the final decision to raise a child, please have a thought for the thousands of babies currently waiting to be adopted by loving parents, both locally and internationally. Adopting is not a failure, it is the most human-like decision that you could ever take. The steps involved may be painful, but between you and I, so is giving birth.


12 comments on “World Population

  1. sledpress
    January 30, 2014

    Actually, I think at some point there is going to have to be government intervention in people’s desire to reproduce; it is done stupidly and selfishly more often than not, by people who have no realistic plan even for their individual progeny and have given no thought at all to the effect of dumping more people into the world. Asking nicely is not going to stop these ignoramuses from cluttering up our future with the living results of their self-centered fantasies (and let’s not kid ourselves, most people waste their lives scratching and avoiding concentrated thought, instead of discovering a cure for cancer or a clean fuel).

    I don’t know if a safe contraceptive is possible but research in that field has been pretty much stopped dead by people who get all upset and religious about sex without procreation. If medical science can invent anything that can be implanted without horrible side effects — we have implanted contraceptives now, but they mess up women’s bodies — it ought to be administered at puberty and only removed if a person can demonstrate maturity and a base level of financial solvency, and only from a certain number of people per year. Otherwise, this world is going to be an increasing Hell of screaming kids, bodies jammed together in subway cars and city streets, traffic jams, pollution, and devastated ecosystems. All because human beings think they’re the only deserving life form on the planet. We fine people for dumping their trash by the side of the road but not for producing more people to generate the trash. Something’s wrong there.

    • Tom Duhamel
      January 30, 2014

      Somehow, I must agree with your view regarding government control. I am fully aware of how pink my view is, but I want to believe most people are intelligent and responsible. Beside, I fear what criterion a government may decide to use to pick who can have children and who cannot. Will they let an artist have children, as artists aren’t directly as useful as scientists? See what I mean?

      For some reason, I fear a world in which contraceptive is mandatory from early teenage. Would it work? yes. Is that really what we want? I still feel education goes a long way above any law. Should we all have to live through that because a minority aren’t responsible? Sadly, I still agree with your view, though I’m afraid by it.

      Maybe you should read this one, if you had not before:
      I still believe what I said back then (that was a year ago).

      • sledpress
        January 31, 2014

        Interesting that people will drive more observantly if they don’t have signals telling them what to do. But I suspect that is also about place and population.If you removed all traffic signals around here it would be more like Mexico City than what happened in Auckland, because where I live every other driver thinks he’s the most important person in the world.

        Likewise everyone seems to think they’re the most precious bag of genes in the world and that it is imperative they pass those genes on immediately. I don’t propose that governments, if a program like mine were even possible, ought to have the micro-management prerogative of choosing one profession or whatever over another; just screen people for basic life skills (bankruptcies? Traffic tickets or cited for intoxication? basically weed out anyone who doesn’t appear capable of managing even their own lives) and financial stability, then put them all into a lottery for who gets to reproduce if they really want it that damn bad. I suspect that having to jump through those hoops might even make some people realize that being a parent isn’t all that desirable, without their having to learn it the hard way.

        • Tom Duhamel
          January 31, 2014

          No traffic lights wouldn’t work in Montréal, where buildings are built right next to the sidewalk, so that you can’t possibly see a car coming. But generally, I believe that would work pretty much everywhere in QC. Apart from some stupid guys which always seem to be in a hurry, generally we make a sign at each others at stops to let the other car go first, and the same with pedestrians. I’d really like if they set up a test somewhere in my area.

          I better understand your point now. In some way, the rules for having the right to adopt would probably be about what would be required to have children of our own.

  2. heretherebespiders
    January 30, 2014

    Oh man. I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction for just this reason. I expect nature to start being more energetic about killing us off any time now. How many died in the influenza epidemic of 1918? No one knows for sure. But I’ve seen the graves in Ohio with all the same dates. Millions. People are still animals, and the drive to make more people is a strong one. Sadly most people are too goddamn stupid to realise that it is an evolutionary drive rather than a real need.

    • Tom Duhamel
      January 30, 2014

      Thanks Spiders for confirming I made my point 🙂

      I think I should write something about an event that killed many people, you’d likely like it 🙂

  3. Gary
    February 8, 2014

    Malthus was wrong and his vision never came to fruition, though it might in the future. We really don’t know what the earth’s real carrying capacity is for people because we’ve effectively colonized the world as our habitat, because of technology, our unique intelligence and adaptability, and that we have no predators. With over 7 billion people there are over 1 billion starving and 3 billion living in poverty so technically it’s possible that we might’ve passed our carrying capacity. Overpopulation isn’t really a first world problem where working class women are educated, putting their careers first, having less kids, starting their families later, and have access to birth control. In developed countries the fertility rate is either stable or below replacement level, there’s just a problem with unchecked immigration. If they still want to cut population further they can do things like quit rewarding welfare queens for having more illegitimate kids, stop importing masses of foreigners, end tax breaks for having children, make reproductive health services more available and more private for all ages, and everyone being more diligent at preventing teen pregnancy. The overpopulation is mainly happening in developing countries and the underdeveloped third world where women in these areas don’t have access to all the above mentioned and have large families because of coercion or high mortality in children because of disease and malnutrition. That said, the third world would have to be industrialized if world population is to be stable or decline. Other than that I don’t think we’d peak at 9-10 billion seeing how growth has been exponential since the last two centuries even with the invention of the pill and other contraception.

    But I don’t think birth control research is being stifled at all. There’s a new discovery every day and once in a while there’ll be talk of future contraception like the male pill or zapping the groin. So I think a safe implant that can be given at puberty is very possible. In the future I think there’s going to be radical changes not just in futuristic cities and gadgetry but that human evolution will be controlled by corporations and the ruling class. Imagine hypothetically in the future a biotech company makes a vaccine that can stop menarche or makes it so a woman can only have a certain number of children. Or in a scary future where sexual reproduction can be made obsolete, eliminating the drive for sex altogether where babies are grown in pods like in the movies, or Soylent Green becoming reality. Or governments limiting births to one or two and making birth control mandatory for all girls starting at puberty. Or even human evolution being induced by modern birth control. Or a complete reorganization of society in the futuristic world where men and women are separated from infancy and allowed to reproduce together after X amount of years. Or there’s some cataclysmic event in the future, natural or man made.

  4. Steve Morris
    March 3, 2014

    Malthus was right when he predicted that the world would starve under the technological conditions that prevailed in the 18th century. Likewise, Tertullian was right when he thought that the maximum sustainable world population was 200 million. And you are probably right when you estimate the world’s maximum population as 9-10 billion using current technology.

    What changes is technology. That’s what enables human population to grow. The population cannot grow beyond the level that technology can sustain. It never has, it never will. But that limit keeps growing.

    By the way, current population predictions show a flattening of growth in the 21st century. By the way (2), malnutrition and poverty are in sharp decline in the third world – they aren’t growing as the doomsters like to think. I’m sure that you know that.

    • Tom Duhamel
      March 3, 2014

      While the maximum sustainable population increase with technology and infrastructure, the growth was possible when there were space left. There isn’t much space left now. Yes, we could use the 90% of space left in Northern Canada, the space left in Sahara… But realistically, there isn’t much usable space that we haven’t used yet. Technology would allow us to use these spaces, but the cost would be prohibitive.

      Yes, the situation in third world has improved, on an average. The world as its entirety, however, is impoverishing. You can’t raise as many children then your grandparents used to, with the same income they had.

      Thanks for your comment and your opinions. You bring much needed discussion to my blog 🙂

      • Steve Morris
        March 3, 2014

        Tom, thanks for your feedback. But I’m surprised you say that the world is impoverishing, at the same time you say that the average situation in the third world has improved. I don’t know how you reconcile those statements. World GDP has grown at an average sustained rate of 3% per year for the past century. That’s a doubling of total wealth every 25 years.

        As for space, the world is urbanizing rapidly. In Manhattan, total floor space is more than 40,000 acres in an island of less than 3,000 acres. That’s a lot of space that technology created out of nothing.

        • Tom Duhamel
          March 5, 2014

          Two statisticians go hunting. The first one shot on a deer and miss it by 5 feet to the left. The second one tries the same deer and miss it by 5 feet to the left. They look at each other and scream: We got it!

          An average is just that, the middle of numbers that can be far apart from each other. The third world has improved, on average. Some of them are doing better, some of them are doing worst. Looking at the average, it may look like it has improved, but the reality is far from it.

          GDP has nothing to do with individual wealth. It’s merely a measure of how much a country is producing. The measurement shows how much, in dollars, an individual in a particular country has produced on average in a year. This is not to be confused with how much goes into their pocket, which is not usually proportional. Half the wealth of the world is owned by 1% of the population (that’s an average — in poorer countries, it’s more like 70% of the wealth is owned by 0.5%).

          Packing more people in less space doesn’t give these people access to more resources. I don’t doubt we could could pack the world population to a density equal to what they did in Tokyo, that won’t suddenly make the Earth spout more resources. The limit is not about how much space there is, but about how many people we can feed. As you said, technology will continue to improve. We could theoretically produce more food using less space. At this point though, technology isn’t what will help us though, there is a standard you want to maintain. We could all live on pills, these could be made to provide you with everything you need to live, but do you really want to? More realistically, we could all give up on meat and become vegans (we can feed more people with an acre used to grow wheat than an acre used to grow cattle), but years of trying showed we don’t really want to do that.

    • Stenkil
      October 15, 2014

      At the time of Tertullian no one knew about the existence of the Americas and Australia, so he was probably talking about Eurasia and Africa only, with the rest I totally agree.

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This entry was posted on January 30, 2014 by in Society and tagged , , , , .
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