There’s a growing school of thought that, central to so many of the problems we are facing as a species on Planet Earth today is one simple equation: there are too many people and not enough resources. The principal resource is food and the question is: How many people are too many? Some would say that we are at the trouble point now, others that we are heading toward it at an alarming rate. Needless to say that some observers think we’ve already passed the safe carrying capacity of the planet and we’re continuing to exist by using our limited resources at an unsustainable rate. We’re living on borrowed time.
Of particular concern to people who investigate these issues is the knowledge that the other camp, comprising the majority of people alive today, either don’t recognise that there is a problem to be addressed or that the problem is so intractable and complicated, it’s best ignored. And there are those who think that we can sustain an even larger population, albeit through some radical rearrangements as to what we eat and how we distribute resources.
The core of the problem goes back to the works of Thomas Malthus when, in 1798, he wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. Here he recognised that populations will tend to grow geometrically while the food supply will grow arithmetically, so population numbers will increase at a much greater rate than increases in the food supply. Malthus proposed two checks for this system: ‘preventative’ measures such as moral restraints on population growth (abstinence or delayed marriage etc) and ‘positive’ checks (disease, starvation, war and so on). Thus, left unchecked, population growth would lead to a catastrophe of some description causing a collapse in the population to a more sustainable size. As an aside to this essay I find it compelling that it was while reading Malthus that Charles Darwin realised the principle of natural selection; that huge numbers of off-spring cannot be supported by the limited resources available, that a competition would arise and a struggle for existence would ensue.
The ideas of Malthus evolved into the school of Neo-Malthusianism where advocates argue for various measures to curb population growth, usually widespread family planning and better access to contraceptives. But critics have pointed to the failure of Malthusian predictions because of increased agricultural production and other technological advances that have tinkered with the food supply of the equation. This has been a recurring theme of the debate on population; we can support the geometric increase of the population if we also increase food production geometrically through artificial measures.
Two books published in 1948 kept the Malthusian nightmare alive. Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn and Road To Survival by William Vogt. Both carried dire warnings for the future of humanity based on Malthusian predictions of unchecked population growth and limited food resources. Although neither book was particularly popular they are credited with both reigniting the population debate after World War Two and inspiring Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb in 1968.
Ehrlich went out on a limb predicting massive starvation in the 1970s and 1980s caused by a growing population. But once again, the predictions were thwarted by the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s which saw many third world countries greatly increase their food production. There were famines in this period – the most widely known being the Ethiopian disasters of the 1980s that inspired Bob Geldof into organising Live Aid. But Ehrlich had predicted much greater disasters that did not happen in this period. Ever the pragmatist, Ehrlich still stands by his earlier predictions albeit modified into future calamities.
The game-changers on a global scale are the looming peaks in resource production and use. An abundance of phosphate for example has, until now, been instrumental in making the world’s food bowls more productive than ever. But now the supplies of cheap and easily accessible phosphate are disappearing. Ingenious methods of capturing phosphate from human urine are being seriously investigated in some countries to try and replace the millions of tons that were quarried out of the ground over the last half century. Peak oil, the point at which consumption of oil outstrips the supply, is either here now, will be here soon or may have already been passed, depending on who you speak to. Any way you see it, the prognosis is that the days of cheap fuels for the tractors and agricultural machinery that helped make farmland more productive, are a thing of the past. Even peak arable land is talked about in some circles as we exhaust what areas are available to grow crops.
Add to the peak problems, global changes in climate and ecology, and it appears that the anti-Malthusian escape clause of simply producing more food for an ever-growing population has now been closed off. We’ve used our only get-out-of-jail-free card.
Only last week Jeremy Grantham, the British investor, Co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist of the asset management firm Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), was quoted at length expressing concerns for the future of food production across the planet. GMO is one of the largest fund managers in the world, with more than US $97 billion in assets under management. It’s one thing for scientists to pronounce on any subject but the world listens when someone in charge of so much money has something to say – and his global assessment is not good.
Here at RiAus we had an interesting discussion about population growth last year when the global population passed 7 million. Closer to home, the question of population for Australia has been polarised between the Neo-Malthusians and the unrestricted population growth advocates. An Australian Population Policy research paper, published in 1997, found that estimates for a sustainable population size varied from 5 to 150 million people but that there ought to be a natural levelling off at around 23 million people. Our population in 2011 was 22,620,600.
There has been a push from people such as Dick Smith, to take population policy seriously as a national issue and set discussions on what is an appropriate population for Australia within the machinations of Federal Government. To date, of the four major political parties in Federal politics, only the Greens have a policy on population. (The others – Labor, Liberal and the Nationals don’t appear to have a specific population policy, but do have other policies that contribute to issues surrounding a sustainable population.) The Greens’ policy does not set numbers of people but urges for population pressures on natural resources to be lightened to a sustainable level. Most importantly, it advocates for population issues to be determined by environmental parameters and not economic pressures. Clearly a more widespread and detailed discussion concerning population issues needs to happen both within the halls of power as well as across the broader Australian community.
Last week the Australian Academy of Science bought together many of Australia’s brightest minds on population matters for the 2012 Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank here in Adelaide. Their topic of conversation was Australia’s Population: Shaping a vision for our future. These were top young scientists from across disciplines and around Australia. They met over two days to discuss questions such as Who will we be? How will we share activities and resources? What will we do? And How shall we live in our habitat? The proceedings from previous think tanks have gone on to influence national policy and government. Let’s hope their wise words on matters of population find an equally forceful voice.
By Paul Willis, @FossilCrox
 This was the son of the famous palaeontologist, Henry Fairfield Osborn snr, who named Tyrannosaurus in 1906 and Velociraptor in 1924 and who was the first curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History.