Population concern is fundamentally a concern about the balance between human needs and the resources available to meet those needs, now, and for the foreseeable future. From the period of Confucious and Aristotle, observers throughout history have noted the consequences of unsustainable population growth. Such concerns tended to increase at times when population grew, but then subsided when technology enabled resources to catch up. However, their concerns about a rising population have too often been drowned out by those who support population growth for economic or political reasons.
Confucius (551 – 479 BC) wrote that, “excessive (population) growth may reduce output per worker, repress levels of living for the masses and engender strife.”
Writing at a time when world population stood at 100 million, Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) observed that, “[a large increase in population would bring] certain poverty on the citizenry, and poverty is the cause of sedition and evil.”
Many observed that famine, war and pestilence were consequences of too rapid a growth in population. Writing when world population had reached 450 million, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) predicted, “When every province of the world so teems with inhabitants that they can neither subsist where they are nor remove themselves elsewhere… the world will purge itself in one or another of these three ways floods, plague and famine.”
Perhaps the most famous writer on population was the English clergyman Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834), who wrote when the human population was at 900 million. He attempted to theorise humanity’s growth pattern, observing, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” Malthus therefore advocated family planning to ensure the demand for food did not exceed supply.
The famines which Malthus predicted were averted by the agricultural and largely fossil fuel based industrial revolutions which followed his lifetime. These facilitated a dramatic increase in food productivity. Episodes of famine, relatively common in previous periods, became rare. Nevertheless, as the planet’s total population reached 1,700 million, a mass movement took place and millions of people emigrated from Europe over the following century for a better life overseas.
Following the Second World War, the world population reached 2,500 million. Improvements in public health spread to the developing world and population numbers took a huge leap upward.
Robert McNamara, then President of the World Bank, said, “Short of nuclear war itself, population growth is the gravest issue the world faces. If we do not act, the problem will be solved by famine, riots, insurrection and war.”
This view was shared by people as diverse as Albert Einstein, Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King. Concerned nations and organizations, led by the United States, accelerated support for family planning programmes, using newly-developed modern contraceptive methods.
Nevertheless, by 1968 world population had increased to approximately 3.6 billion. Biologist Paul Ehrlich responded to the growth with his book, Population Bomb. Ehrlich introduced the famous analogy of an equation I = P × A × T (where I = Environmental Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology). It proposed that the impact a community has on the environment depends principally on the community’s population size, its wealth and the technology it uses.
Ehrlich warned in his book that population growth was again raising the spectre of widepsread famine. However, another development which occurred at this time was the ‘Green Revolution’. This transformed agricultural productivity in many developing countries through the introduction of high yield crop variants and the use of modern high input farming methods.
The continued absence of the mass famines predicted by Ehrlich and other environmental activists in the late 1960’s, was seen by some as proof that such “Malthusian Theories” were invalid — rather than simply ahead of their time.
Following the combination of the forecast famines failing to occur and the rejection of excessively top down family planning programmes, many major NGOs placed the population issue off-limits to discussion. The issue became the “invisible elephant in the room”, i.e. a taboo subject that few NGOs wished to recognise, let alone address.
Ehrlich reissued his book in 1990 as the world population reached 5,250 million. The predicted famine never took place, although in 2009 the UN estimated that up to one billion people were undernourished.
In 2010 the global population reached 6,800 million. Some countries continue to limit their population growth by providing reproductive health services and adopting a variety of approaches to influence family size. Pressure on individuals is firmly rejected by international bodies and NGOs in the field, who emphasise the importance of a rights-based approach such that couples make their own reproductive choices freely.
As we look ahead to the middle of this century, world population is projected to reach between 8 and 11 billion. Increasing numbers of people are voicing concerns about population numbers in a context of biodiversity loss, climate change and rapid depletion of limited oil, fresh water, land, habitat and wildlife resources.
Past population concern organizations in the UK include the following:
Population Concern 1974 – 1993
– originally Population Countdown
– part of the Family Planning Association until 1991
– became Interact Worldwide in 1993
– merged with Plan UK in 2013
The Conservation Society 1966 – 1987
The Simon Population Trust 1957 – 2004
The Malthusian League 1877 – 1927
For more about population concern, see the Wikipedia entry devoted to it.