How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Population Bomb

Joseph Nightingale
Dec 15, 2020 · 9 min read

Peter Sellers, in the 1964 film, plays the eponymous Dr Strangelove, a mad nuclear scientist and former Nazi. The film parodies the absurdities of the Cold War and the unfolding world order. Nuclear Armageddon loomed on the horizon, and the outbreak of a Third World War was a real possibility.

They were simpler times.

At one point, facing imminent destruction, Strangelove proposes starting a breeding program once the nuclear fallout subsides down a mineshaft, in the bowels of the Earth. Now that’s sticking your head in the sand. Today, Strangelovian absurdity reigns as we battle to contain the ravenousness of too many people, not the risks of having too few. Such talk focuses upon the dangers to the environment.

But overpopulation also has far-reaching effects upon our culture and society.

People don’t like to admit this uncomfortable truth. If there’s a problem, we look for someone to blame. Newspapers fill their pages blaming politicians and bureaucrats, businessmen and corporations: the Strangeloves of our world. All the problems of the world fall upon their shoulders. If they fail, we demand their heads.

If a flood occurs, it’s the fault of the engineers or the mayor or someone in power. They should have done something! If our prosperity declines or our freedoms erode, the cause is evil politicians scheming to increase their control.

To blame overpopulation is to admit our freedom is chained to circumstance. That forces beyond our control govern our lives. We’d have to admit we’re just an animal in an ecosystem.

Yet there are people alive today who have seen the global population quadruple: from two to almost eight billion people. That dwarfs the entirety of human history. Lone countries now contain the population of the planet at the turn of the last century.

Like fish in water, we don’t notice the tidal wave in which we swim.

Aren’t you through yet?

Overpopulation, as I explained in ‘Is Planet Earth Full?’, is intrinsically linked to resource use. The two go hand in hand like heavy drinking and a heinous hangover. But overpopulation also has calamitous effects upon democracy. The erudite and visionary scientist and science writer Isaac Asimov perfectly encapsulated this Bonnie and Clyde nature of resource use and failing democracy. Here’s an interview he conducted with journalist Bill Moyers:

Bill Moyers: What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?

Isaac Asimov: It will be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. And everyone believes in Freedom of the Bathroom; it should be right there in the Constitution.

But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in Freedom of the Bathroom, there’s no such thing.

You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door: ‘Aren’t you through yet?’. And so on.

The more people there are, the more we have to share. But sharing doesn’t come naturally. Anyone who’s dealt with a pair of squabbling siblings understands. Try dealing with squabbling nations! Diminishing resources breeds conflict, but it also breeds regulation. The less there is to go around, the more rules are needed to govern its distribution.

Such observations should seem obvious. Rapidly increasing populations will naturally have fewer resources per person, less infrastructure, more dependents and more need to build. Theoretically, economists tell us that more people are good. It means more taxpayers, more geniuses, more innovation, more growth. Who doesn’t want more?

Is this true?

A piece of the pie

Contrary to the argument that increasing population boosts prosperity, the evidence points in the opposite direction. The most glaring example is the Black Death. According to advocates of population growth, the evisceration of one-third of the European populace should have been a death-knell for the continent. Instead, it sparked its rebirth. From the ashes of plague, Europe enjoyed centuries of renaissance and innovation.

Peasants who had previously been paid a pittance suddenly found their labour in high demand. The upper class struggled and failed to hold onto the reins of power. The once obstinate hierarchical structure gave way to social mobility. Then, as populations again began to rise, society solidified once more, like cement.

This is the rule, not the exception.

Countries, at present, with stable or declining populations have greater workforce participation and decreasing income inequality. In the UK, the recent dip in immigration due to Brexit may surprisingly have led to an uptick in wages. Statisticians have made similar observations in the US relating to the decline in illegal immigration.

Freed from the whip of population pressure people regain control of their lives and society. The ever-turning wheel of building for tomorrow gives way to building for today. There is no rat race of competition. Without resource pressure, without too many players in the game, we can finally start to cooperate.

The race to the bottom

Economists argue that by boosting the population, we create more opportunities. Employers will use additional profits to invest in more jobs and higher productivity. Wages may drop at first but in the long-term its win-win. Not so. As Dr Jane N. O’Sullivan notes, ‘the higher the population growth rate, the more likely that profits chase speculative gains, inflating prices of existing assets, particularly those made more valuable by the population influx.

Anyone who’s tried to buy or rent a property in a major city understands intrinsically. Such factors create a rentier economy, where a wealthy elite provide monopoly services to the rest of us at inordinate prices.

Meanwhile, the price of consumables, like phones and TVs, washing machines and furniture, plummets. But quality declines as well. In the developing world, where such products are made, expanding populations demand more and more jobs. Manufacturers must devise new products that break sooner to accelerate the consumption cycle. This culture of planned obsolescence is at the heart of consumerism, as Westerners race to buy the latest gadgets and gizmos fooled by glitzy advertisements. But with relative pay in decline, they increasingly rely upon debt to fuel their obsession.

Leopold Kohr observed this phenomenon as early as the 1950s. In his seminal book — A Breakdown of Nations — the Professor from Salzburg argued against a ‘crisis of Bigness’. From this well sprung all the miseries of mankind.

‘[This is] the case of large powers whose enormous social demands are such that they consume practically all the available energy … in the mere task of keeping their immobile, clumsy societies going, and preventing their social services from collapsing. Forever afraid of breaking underneath their own weight, they can never release their populations from the servitude of pressing the collective shoulders to the wheels of their stupendous enterprise.’

Nor can the production of more necessarily be considered a sign of progress. With two observations, Kohr deftly slices these arguments apart. First, if in your life you have the choice between ten poorly made mass-produced belts that last two years or one hand-crafted artisan belt that lasted a lifetime, which is more efficient. The answer is obvious. Production does not equal quality. Second, in a small town, a public utility director would be considered a menial position. In a large state, they rise to supreme prominence supplying the needs of millions.

As once aptly said, quantity has a quality all of its own.

Wider or Deeper

The example of the public utility director gives an insight into the problem of infrastructure. To fuel future population growth, society must continually expand the quantity of infrastructure in a process known as capital widening. These costs are enormous. For the UK with a 1% annual population growth rate, around 6.5 -7% of GDP must be devoted to capital widening. In Australia, with a population growth rate of 1.44%, this rises to a painful 9.3%.

Growth is a costly business. Nor do we have these future taxpayers available to chip in. The burden of paying for the future lies on the shoulders of today. But while we’re building for the future, we aren’t improving the quality of services. This is known as capital deepening. Without this investment, our hospitals get shabbier; schools and roads become crowded; educational and health outcomes stagnate.

Think of any occasion when you’ve sat in a traffic jam and imagined half the people vanishing. Dealing with such stupendous numbers of people is anxiety and stress-inducing. You’re not alone. Here’s Bill Burr with one of his hilarious rants.

One man, one vote

These exhausting stresses and burdens strain our democracy. Professor Herman Daly, a former Senior Economist in the World Bank’s Environmental Department, noted the link between resource and infrastructure scarcity and autocracy. Living on a spaceship or submarine is as close to overpopulation as humans come. Resources are tight. Everyone must toe the line and follow the absolute authority of the captain. You don’t get to argue.

Professor Daly sums up his thoughts, ‘Excess capacity is a necessary condition for freedom and democracy.’ In doing so, he echoes the wise words of Isaac Asimov in the same interview with Bill Moyers:

‘In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation; human dignity cannot survive; convenience and decency cannot survive. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines; it disappears.

It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters.’

Professor Albert Bartlett cited those words in his powerful essay ‘Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation’, in which he witheringly argued that overpopulation is the knife in democracy’s back: Caesar to the Republic. After all, it was from the hodgepodge of small Greek city-states that democracy thrived and in the maw of Roman growth that it met its death.

Describing the damage done to democracy, Bartlett noted the issue was direct dilution. Considering the thriving population growth in the US, he laid out its incompatibility with a functioning democracy.

The Census of 1790 recorded the population of the US as approximately 3.93 million. In early 2000 the population was estimated to be about 274 million. Article I of the Constitution of the United States (1790), describes the House of Representatives and requires that “The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand” (In 1790 there were considerably fewer than 30,000 persons per representative.) Because of population growth, in the year 2000, there are approximately 630,000 persons for each of the 435 members of the US House of Representatives. In 210 years, we have seen democracy at the national level diluted by a factor of approximately 630,000 / 30,000 = 21.

From this example, one can set forth a general proposition: If the size of a population grows while the size of its representative governing body remains constant, the annual rate of decline of democracy is at least equal to the annual rate of the growth of the population.

As the population grows, the elected representatives grow ever more distant from the people they represent. In Iceland — the world’s oldest democracy — with only 340,000 people, you’re likely to bump into a politician in the local bar. In tiny Liechtenstein, citizens numbering in the tens of thousands can ring the bell of His Serene Highness the Prince and Sovereign, Bearer of many exalted orders and Defender of many exalted things. But no one elected him!

Meanwhile, in the United States, supposedly the greatest democracy on Earth, politicians are flanked by men in black suits or shielded by bulletproof glass. It’s little wonder they’re out of touch.

A tight squeeze

British author J. G. Ballard published Billenium in 1962. The short story describes the inevitability of life if population growth continues forever. It describes a world of 20 billion people where space is tight. The maximum size room a person can legally occupy is 38 sq. ft (3.5 sq. metres). Renters charge by the ceiling space. Streets are cramped, as life plods along the congested highways.

Discovering a secret larger-than-average apartment John Ward and Henry Rossiter are amazed. For once, life seems luxurious as they bask in their newfound plenitude. But upon sharing the space with friends and family, it begins to fill, till it is like the other crowded cubicles from which they tried to escape. What’s more, Ward who hated landlords for their greed, now finds himself a rentier. He had become what he hated.

If we are to learn the lessons of Ballard and Kohr and Bartlett and Asimov and all those who warn of population growth, we need to get a grip. No longer can we play the age-old blame game. Shirking our responsibilities and lampooning helpless politicians. Population is the problem. Until it slows or stops, the demands of tomorrow will forever trap us — like a ravenous beast that never gets full. After millennia cramped in the cycle of growth, isn’t it finally time to stretch our legs?

Follow me on twitter: @big_picturenews

Big Picture

Beyond the rolling news, clickbait articles and…

Joseph Nightingale

Written by

Big Picture

Beyond the rolling news, clickbait articles and sensationalism a real-world still exists. We aim to explore the “how, what and why” behind the latest stories, trends and global events — and present you with THE BIG PICTURE.

Joseph Nightingale

Written by

Big Picture

Beyond the rolling news, clickbait articles and sensationalism a real-world still exists. We aim to explore the “how, what and why” behind the latest stories, trends and global events — and present you with THE BIG PICTURE.

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