“There was a time when the countless tribes of men, though wide-dispersed, oppressed the surface of the deep-bosomed Earth.” ~ 7th-century-BCE Greek poet Stasinos
Setting aside for the moment the environmental havoc humans are so prone to, or the pollution they so effusively spew, their very existence in such large herds disbursed all over the Earth alone would have had a profound impact on the entire planet, even if their sense of “environmentalism” had been impeccable.
In a Malthusian manner, the herds were long kept in relative check by limits on agricultural productivity. This did not keep observant men from presciently fretting over human breeding proclivity.
The strongest witness is the vast population of the Earth to which we are a burden, and she scarcely can provide for our needs. ~ Tertullian, in the 3rd century
The dam to Malthusian population explosion broke by accumulative technological advance. World population mushroomed from under 700 million in 1700 to 7 billion in 2011.
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in an arithmetical ratio. ~ Thomas Malthus
From 1700 to 1900, Europe’s population more than tripled: from about 100 million to over 400 million. Europe had 36% of the world’s people in 1900.
Improving living conditions and sanitation contributed to longer life expectancy, and greatly reduced youth mortality. Using nutrition as an indicator, the health of the world’s population is nowhere near what it could be, considering its overall wealth and the general education level.
Of the 7.7 billion people on the planet in 2019, 960 million (12.5%) did not get enough to eat. Conversely, 1.8 billion (24%) were overweight; of those, 535 million (7%) were obese. The fraction of adults physically fit was small indeed.
The population of the United States grew from 5.3 million in 1800 to 76 million in 1900: over 14 times as many people in a century. By 2010, there were 307 million in the US; a quadrupling in 110 years.
A laggard in industrialization, Russia’s population tripled from 1800–1900: from 37 million to 111 million. There were 143 million Russians in 2010.
In the 20th century, besides wars, the brutal Soviet regime under Joseph Stalin suppressed population growth by killing 20 million of its citizens. Of all the major industrialized nations, Russia’s population has been the slowest growing. Stalin is long in the grave, but his successors have only been marginally better in creating conditions for a contented citizenry.
A burgeoning population is good for economic growth and signifies in political minds the potential for expanding power. Hence, governments generally encourage breeding by their citizenry through various incentives, especially tax breaks. A notable exception has been China.
China has long had too large a population, but it was stable for more than a millennium. In 1 BCE, China had 86 million people. 1,000 years later, there were only another million more Chinese.
From 1000, China’s growth was tepid: less than 0.4% every century. There were 268 million Chinese in 1800.
In 1900, China’s population was 415 million. By 1950, just after the Communists took power in 1949, there were 550 million Chinese.
At first, the Communist government was ideologically disposed to view the large population as an asset. It quickly changed its mind.
A mass birth-control effort was attempted in 1956, to little effect. In the early 1960s, a more concerted push was made, which was successful in urban areas, before the onset of the political turmoil that came with the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The Party restarted its birth-control efforts in the early 1970s, sending doctors into rural areas to practice medicine and distribute contraceptives.
By 1979, birth control had evolved into an ambitious 1-child policy, which employed a combination of education, social pressure, and coercion, including forced sterilization and abortion. As before, urbanites were more inclined to limit family size than those in the countryside.
One side effect of the birth-control effort was to increase female feticide and infanticide. If only having 1 child, Chinese couples (at least the men) wanted a son. While killing baby girls has a long history in both China and India, China’s 1-child policy ratcheted up the slaughter among the Chinese. By 2010 there were 119 Chinese boys under 5 years of age for every 100 girls. China is missing more than 60 million females.
(The natural sex ratio is 105 boys to 100 girls. Males, being the weaker sex, are more likely to die young; so, by the time they reach reproductive age, the ratio of men and women balances out. Nature is a wondrous statistician.)
Whereas India has dowries, China has bride prices: a groom’s parents, not the bride’s, pay for the wedding, and give money and property to the marrying couple. Chinese bride prices shot up 100-fold from 2007 to 2017. A bride may cost the equivalent of 5 years of a respectable annual salary.
Many rural Chinese families have now come to view sons more as an economic burden than as security for their old age. Couples who failed to produce a boy decades ago, and endured the mockery of their neighbors, are having the last laugh.
China had 0.65 billion people in 1960. By 1982, there were over 1 billion Chinese. Population numbers have since continued to creep up: 1990 = 1.13 billion; 2000 = 1.27 billion; 2010 = 1.34 billion.
China’s recent population increment has been during a time of tremendous economic growth, which has historically been the cue for a baby boom. China defied a strong historical trend. But then, China was already heavily populated, and its late industrialization was breakneck.
Further, income inequality in China is among the highest in the world. In 2010, the top 10% of Chinese households garnered 57% of the country’s income.
This seems ironic for a supposedly communist country. But China has long been totalitarian without ever being egalitarian. The hard-edged self-interest of the Chinese people comes from millennia of living in a hierarchical, largely hardscrabble culture. Communism has been elitist monarchism under a different name.
The prospect for much further population increase in China is low. Instead, as China’s pollution approaches lethal levels in urban areas, and environmental quality of life otherwise declines, its population will winnow in the coming decades as a consequence.
Carrying capacity is the concept of the population size that a habitat might sustain. It is merely an abstract idea that fails to account for environmental dynamics. Given stable conditions, animal populations tend to grow toward carrying capacity. This certainly has been true of humans, with technology as a multiplier of what carrying capacity would be otherwise.
Technology has been a double-edged sword: affording burgeoning populations immediately while undercutting carrying capacity from environmentally unsustainable practices. This tendency has been apparent from prehistoric times, as hominins harvested all a locale had to give until it was exhausted, and then moved on.
With industrial-strength technologies and a diaspora resembling microbial infection on a global scale, the human toll on the planet provoked the instant mass extinction event, of which we now witness the early throes.
“Not only human population density, but the growth of the human population, is still having an effect on extinction threats to other species.” ~ American anthropologist Jeffrey McKee
The history of the world’s population growth rate vividly illustrates humans with the breeding instincts of bacteria. To the mid-20th century, populations grew practically as quickly as resources could be exploited. Then a slowdown in reproduction rates occurred, as the marginal cost of additional offspring outweighed the benefits for people in developed economies. In agrarian societies, children are a helping hand. For city folk, a child is another mouth to feed, and another logistic issue.
In the aggregate, population and economic growth rates highly correlate. The economic growth rate peaked shortly before the population growth rate responded in the late 20th century.
As of 2015, the United Nations expected world population growth in 2100 to be 0.1% (as shown on the graph on the previous page). That is optimistic.
Along with countless other species, people are to be casualties of the pollution and climate change they wrought with their technologies and economics. The first alarming inkling of this will only come when human populations start dying off in large numbers: people are collectively slow to catch on.
As climate change increasingly takes its toll, the failure of governments to address the root of the problem – capitalism – may become more obvious to all concerned. That creeping realization has barely started.
Certainly, the water and food shortages won’t help. But it will be faltering optimism and loss of faith that cause economies to stutter and fall in the wake of widespread unrest. Capitalism always was, after all, just a confidence game.