The Population Bomb has Dropped

There seems precious little we can do about it

In 1968, Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich and his book The Population Bomb were ridiculed for predicting worldwide famine due to overpopulation and major social upheaval. In this, Ehrlich echoed the concerns on Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 in An Essay on the Principle of Population predicted that population growth would outstrip the globe’s capacity to feed the coming numbers. Both have been ridiculed, with Ehrlich most lately taking heat for alarmism and what were regarded as inaccurate predictions.

But in fact, the population bomb has already dropped. What the skeptics haven’t taken into consideration is the technological resources necessary to maintain food supplies, deliver them, provide for commerce and tend to the business of fending off wars among other things – are wrecking the planet.

“After nearly half a century of continuous population growth, the demand in many countries for food, water, and forest products is simply outrunning the capacity of local life-support systems,” according to academician Lester R. Brown in his book EcoEconomy: Building an Economy for the Earth. “In addition, the ever-growing number of young people who need health care and education is exceeding the availability of these services. If birth rates do not come down soon, these natural systems and social services are likely to deteriorate to the point where death rates will rise.”

According to a 2018 study by Bertrand Gilland, that time is long past. Using France as an example, Gilland writes, in 1950, the country had a population of 42 million and 20 million hectares of arable land, i.e. 2 persons per arable hectare, which was sustainable. Cereal production per person was about 400 kg per year, slightly higher than the present world average. If the ratio of population to arable land were 2 persons per hectare on the world’s 1.6 billion arable hectares, world population would be 3.2 billion, or less than half the current level.

Next to nuclear war, retired Australian Royal Navy Admiral Chris Barrie told an Australian legislative panel in May last year, “human-induced global warming is the greatest threat to human life on the planet. Today’s 7.5 billion human beings are already the most predatory species that ever existed, yet the global population has yet to peak and may reach 10 billion people, with dire implications absent a fundamental change in human behavior.” He went on to predict “the real possibility that human life on earth may be on the way to extinction, in the most horrible way.”

Nothing demonstrates that more than the events of 2019, which concluded with 12 million acres of Australia on fire, with a recorded 35 percent decline due to overfishing in northeast Atlantic and Sea of Japan fish populations according to a study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with increasing acidification emptying the ocean off the Pacific Coast. It has been estimated that humanity has wiped out 60 percent of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, raising concern that the annihilation of wildlife threatens civilization.

The Yemeni Civil War has, according to a February 2019 UN estimate, left an estimated 24 million people in need of assistance and protection. The Syrian civil war has killed an estimated 470,000 people, created an exodus of over 6.5 million refugees, half of them children and displaced millions more within the country.

As of December 2018, 12.8 million Congolese were in need of humanitarian assistance, including 5.6 million children. The country is currently the site of the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. As of March 2019, 7.2 million South Sudanese were in need of humanitarian assistance, including 4.4 million children. Over 63 percent of the country’s population faces food insecurity and hunger. There are 1.8 million internally displaced South Sudanese, and 2.3 million living in neighboring countries as refugees.

As of June 2019, 11.7 million people were severely insecure and over 785,000 children severely malnourished across Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says 5.9 million people are internally displaced, 1.8 million of whom have been displaced due to drought. The crisis has also created 2.7 million refugees. That is just in the middle east and the Horn of Africa.

Each of these tragedies – environmental, societal, developmental, has its own parent – refusal to recognize the hazards of pollution and climate change, newly minted mobility and the ability to cross borders, the lack of commitment by countries to develop their resources to take care of their citizenry. But there is one single bigger common denominator, and that is that there are too many people on this earth, and if the population goes to 10 billion, it will be a lot worse.

It is true that across the industrialized, wealthy world, population growth has largely stabilized. China’s growth, according to the latest World Bank figures, is flat. Belying Ehrlich and Malthus, starvation levels are historically low although, according to the United Nations World Food Program, 821 million people - more than 1 in 9 of the world population - do not get enough to eat. Nonetheless, starvation is manageable. The European Union is growing at a rate of only 0.2 percent annually. Japan’s population is shrinking, as is South Korea’s and several other countries.

The natural increase (the number of births minus the number of deaths) in the US dropped to 956,674 last year, the first time this figure dropped below one million in decades. With the Trump administration seeking to stop internal migration, it slowed to 595,348 last year, dropping total population growth to only 1,552,022 or 0.5 percent, one of the lowest rates since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Virtually every major urban area in the developed world has fallen below total fertility replacement levels.

But arrayed against that are the figures from poverty-stricken or conflict zone countries. Fragile or conflict-afflicted countries are growing at a 2.2 percent annual rate. Heavily-indebted poor countries are growing at 2.8 percent annually, sub-Saharan Africa at 2.7 percent, least-developed countries 2.4 percent. By country, Bahrain leads at a 4.9 percent annual growth.

What these latter figures mean is that as mobility has increased, along with awareness that other places are more attractive or safer, people from countries that are poor, or terrorized by criminal activity, as in Central America, or starving, as in Yemen, where 20 million people are malnourished, or Chad or Afghanistan, or terrorized, as in Syria, 17 percent of whose population has fled they will want to go somewhere else. According to an Asia Sentinel report on November 28, “almost 272 million migrants globally are on the move, nearly two-thirds of the labor migrants. That is 3.5 percent of the world’s population. The number of international migrants thus already is surpassing some projections made for the year 2050, expected at 230 million.”

That somewhere else, of course, is the European Union – particularly Germany -- the United States and other prosperous nations. More than half of all international migrants – 141 million – live in Europe and North America. It is no coincidence that jingoistic leaders like US President Donald Trump are popular. In recent years, European governments and the EU have tried unsuccessfully to persuade African countries and the African Union (AU) to take back migrants, with a marked lack of success. Donald Trump’s immigration forces have been expelling thousands of migrants.

As with the European Union, the Trump administration, the Myanmar government and various other ones, their answer is to either send them back or expel them, which is counterintuitive. Sending poor people back to poor countries only exacerbates the poor countries’ problems. The Trump administration, bowing to the demands of religious conservatives, has also ceased all efforts to provide resources to other countries to control population increase although Thailand and China (in draconian fashion) have shown that population control is feasible.

But given the current political climate, there is no hope of reaching the right answer, which is to develop the poor countries so that their populations stabilize. The bomb has dropped.

In 1976, the trenchant American author Gore Vidal published a dystopian novel called Kalki about a purported Nepalese guru who sets out to distribute a lotus flower to every person on the globe. His disciples crisscross the entire world, handing out lotus blossoms that on a given day will open. They do, releasing a poison that kills off the entire race except Kalki and his wife and three others, teachers called Perfect Masters, who move into the White House in Washington, DC as Adam and Eve to a new human race that will set out to get it right this time.

The plan is to have them give birth to three sons and six daughters, who would intermarry. Unfortunately, it turns out that the women are sterile. There will be no more human race. Presumably one of the advanced simian races will take over.