The latest census in Ukraine revealed an apocalyptic drop of 10% in its population from 52.5 million a decade ago to a mere 47.5 million last year. Demographers predict a precipitous decline of one third in Russia’s impoverished, inebriated, disillusioned, and ageing citizenry. Births in many countries in the rich, industrialized, West are below the replacement rate. These bastions of conspicuous affluence are shriveling.
Scholars and decision-makers, once terrified by the Malthusian dystopia of a “population bomb”, are more sanguine now. Advances in agricultural technology eradicated hunger even in teeming places like India and China. And then there is the old idea of progress: birth rates tend to decline with higher education levels and growing incomes. Family planning has had resounding successes in places as diverse as Thailand, China, and western Africa.
In the near past, fecundity used to compensate for infant mortality. As the latter declined, so did the former. Children are means of production in many destitute countries. Hence the inordinately large families of the past; a form of insurance against the economic outcomes of the inevitable demise of some of one’s off-spring.
Yet, despite these trends, the world’s populace is augmented by 80 million people annually. All of them are born to the younger inhabitants of the more penurious corners of the Earth. There were only one billion people alive in 1804. The number doubled a century later.
But our last billion the sixth required only 12 fertile years. The entire population of Germany is added every half a decade to both India and China. Clearly, Mankind’s growth is out of control, as affirmed in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.
Dozens of millions of people regularly go hungry, many of them starve to death. In only one corner of the Earth, southern Africa, food aid is the sole subsistence of entire countries. More than 18 million people in Zambia, Malawi, and Angola survived on charitable donations in 1992. More than 10 million expect the same this year, among them the emaciated denizens of erstwhile food exporter, Zimbabwe.
According to Medecins Sans Frontiere, AIDS kills three million people a year, tuberculosis another two million. Malaria decimates two people every minute. More than 14 million people fall prey to parasitic and infectious diseases every year 90% of them in the developing countries.
Millions emigrate every year in search of a better life. These massive shifts are facilitated by modern modes of transportation. But, despite these tectonic relocations and despite famine, disease, and war, the classic Malthusian regulatory mechanisms the depletion of natural resources, from arable land to water, is undeniable and gargantuan.
Our pressing environmental issues global warming, salinization, desertification, deforestation, pollution, and loss of biological diversity and our ominous social ills crime at the forefront are traceable to one, politically incorrect, truth:
There are too many of us. We are way too numerous. The population load is unsustainable. We, the survivors, would be better off if others were to perish. Should population growth continue unabated we are all doomed.
Doomed to what?
Numerous Cassandras and countless Jeremiads have been falsified by history. With proper governance, scientific research, education, affordable medicines, effective family planning, and economic growth, this planet can support even 10-12 billion people. We are not at risk of physical extinction and never have been.
What is hazarded is not our life, but our quality of life. As any insurance actuary will attest, we are governed by statistical datasets. Consider this single fact:
About one percent of the population suffer from the perniciously debilitating and all-pervasive mental health disorder, schizophrenia. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 16.5 million schizophrenics. Nowadays there are 64 million. Their impact on friends, family, and colleagues is exponential and incalculable. This is not a merely quantitative leap. It is a qualitative phase transition.
Large populations lead to the emergence of high density urban centers. It is inefficient to cultivate ever smaller plots of land. Surplus manpower moves to centers of industrial production. A second wave of internal migrants caters to their needs, thus spawning a service sector. Network effects generate excess capital and a virtuous cycle of investment, employment, and consumption ensues.
But over-crowding breeds violence (as has been demonstrated in experiments with mice). The sheer numbers involved serve to magnify and amplify social anomies, deviate behaviour, and antisocial traits. In the city, there are more criminals, more perverts, more victims, more immigrants, and more racists per square mile than in less populated areas.
Moreover, only a planned and orderly urbanization is desirable. The blights that pass for cities in most third world countries are the outgrowth of neither premeditation nor method. These mega-cities are infested with non-disposed of waste and prone to natural catastrophes and epidemics.
No one can vouchsafe for a “critical mass” of humans, a threshold beyond which the species will implode and vanish. Luckily, the ebb and flow of human numbers is subject to three regulatory demographic mechanisms, the combined action of which gives hope.
The Malthusian Mechanism
Limited resources lead to wars, famine, and diseases and, thus, to a decrease in human numbers. Mankind has done well to check famine, fend off disease, and staunch war. But to have done so without a commensurate policy of population control was irresponsible.
The Assimilative Mechanism
Mankind is not divorced from nature. Humanity is destined to be impacted by its choices and by the reverberations of its actions. Damage caused to the environment haunts in a complex feedback loop the perpetrators.
Immoderate use of antibiotics leads to the eruption of drug-resistant strains of pathogens. A myriad types of cancer are caused by human pollution. Man is the victim of its own destructive excesses.
The Cognitive Mechanism
Humans intentionally limit the propagation of their race through family planning, abortion, and contraceptives. Genetic engineering will likely intermesh with these to produce “enhanced” or “designed” progeny to specifications.
We must stop procreating. Or, else, pray for a reduction in our numbers. This could be achieved benignly, for instance by colonizing space, or the ocean depths both remote and technologically unfeasible possibilities. Yet, the alternative is cataclysmic. Unintended wars, rampant disease, and lethal famines will ultimately trim our numbers, no matter how noble our intentions and how diligent our efforts to curb them.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. To my mind, even a Malthusian resolution is preferable to the alternative of slow decay, uniform impecuniosity, and perdition by installments an alternative made inevitable by our collective irresponsibility and denial.