Malthus Was Right After All

Prompted by recent reports that England is now the second most crowded country in Europe (after Malta), I thought I would take a look at statistics produced by the United Nations’ Population Division. They make interesting reading. England is certainly a crowded place but if you add in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, UK’s population density reduces somewhat to 295 people per square kilometer. That is still crowded compared to say Australia, which thanks to its huge empty interior, has just 3 people per sq. km. But spare a thought for tiny Macau which is the most densely populated territory in the world with 18,500 souls per sq. km. and where every inch of available land has been covered with casinos. Tiny Vatican City (yes it is considered a country) is 4½ times more crowded than Britain. Some might consider this justice since the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control is a big contributor to the planet’s overcrowding. Look at the Philippines for example, Asia’s biggest majority Catholic nation. In 1970 their population stood at 36 million. Now, only 40 years later it is 93 million. In another 40 years, if fertility rates stay at current levels, they could have a whopping 182 million citizens. The Philippines is already the world’s largest rice importer, having been an exporter as recently as the 1970s.

Indeed, it is the UNDP’s population projections for 2050 which are the most alarming if you have any Malthusian tendencies. The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, you will recall, theorized that the world’s population would increase faster than the food supply and that by the mid 1800s the world would suffer famines, diseases and other tragic consequences. He was proved wrong due to the dramatic increases in food production over the past 200 years from intensive farming techniques, mechanization, availability of pesticides and insecticides, conversion of forest into grazing land, irrigation of arid areas and, more recently, use of growth hormones and GMO crops.

According to the UN FAO, the world’s food production needs to increase a further 70% by 2050 to feed its growing population. Many experts question whether this will be achievable. Water scarcity in particular is a major headache. Usage of water is growing even faster than population. As the world gets richer we shower more often, wash our clothes and flush our toilets more frequently. We have cars to wash and swimming pools to fill. And the distribution of the world’s usable water is so unfair.

Take Yemen for example. Even by the 1980s, when its population stood at around 8 million, its meager supply of fertile land and water was largely given over to the production of the mildly narcotic leafy plant, qat. In fact they could not grow enough and they had to fly in planeloads of the stuff from East Africa to satisfy their daily habit. Imagine the situation in 2050 when the Yemeni population could reach a mind-boggling 87 million (using UNDP’s worst-case projections).

Egypt’s population could double to 156 million by 2050. What are they all going to drink? The Nile has nowadays been reduced to a sluggish trickle by the time it reaches the sea. By 2050 there could be 108 million Sudanese, a staggering 287 million Ethiopians, 152 million Ugandans and 165 million Tanzanians all vying to draw water from the same river basin. Things are going to get tense.

The Jordan River, already a badly polluted dribble in places, will also witness intense water rivalry. (The word rival by the way stems from the Latin rivalis meaning one using the same stream). Both Syria and Jordan’s populations are set to double while the Palestinian territories, part of which were described recently by David Cameron as a prison camp, will suffer from an extreme case of prison overcrowding as their population soars to 16 million. Meanwhile Israel, in a futile attempt to outbreed the Arabs, will see their numbers zoom up to 12 million. Come on guys, better come to a peace agreement now – it will not be any easier in 2050 if you are gasping for water.

Another water flashpoint might be between India and Pakistan, both nuclear armed, who are already bickering over sharing the headwaters of the Indus. Imagine the arguments in 2050 by which time, Pakistan and India between them could have another billion mouths to feed.

China at least, thanks to its famous one child policy, is slowly bringing its population growth to a halt. Just in time as Beijing is expected to run out of water in 5–10 years,

If all this doom and gloom sounds a bit Al Gore-ish it is because it does seem possible that Malthus was not wrong after all, just that he was a couple of hundred years out on his timing. If it is not sustainable to continue growing food and water supplies at the rate we have been then the only solution is to reduce the world’s population. It would be helpful, but highly unlikely, if every country could adopt, as a policy objective, a target to reduce its population, or at least to stabilize it. Japan is one of the few countries experiencing an actual drop in population and they are scared to death about it because of the economic implications. Certainly there are huge problems to overcome in managing a falling population but they are better than the alternative, which is that we all starve to death. A less overcrowded world means a less stressed world. Ask any lab rat. Crowded England could take the lead by announcing a target to reduce its population to say 30 million over the course of this century. Financial incentives for small families (and disincentives for large ones) are probably the way to go.