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Ask Dr. Weld 4 — Malthus King’s Demographic Men (and Some Women)

June 6, 2019










Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Interviewees: Dr. Madeline Weld

Numbering: Issue 3: Mathematics, Counselling Psychology, and More

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: Question Time

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: June 6, 2019

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 5,896

Keywords: Madeline Weld, Malthus, Scott Douglas Jacobsen.

Madeline Weld, B.Sc., M.S., Ph.D., is the President of the Population Institute Canada. She worked for and has retired from Health Canada. She is a Director of Canadian Humanist Publications and an editor of Humanist Perspectives.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Who else was important alongside Malthus in the history of provoking thought about demographics?

Dr. Madeline Weld: In answering this question, I’m going to list some of the better known people that someone who delves into the population field is likely to encounter. In fact, some of the names (e.g., Paul Ehrlich, Club of Rome) are likely to be familiar to people who don’t know much about the subject.

But I want to give a shout out to those whose names are unknown who are helping people and doing something about population growth. These are the front line workers such as teachers, health care workers, and non-governmental organizations who provide family planning services where they are needed and might otherwise not be available. The International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International are two organizations that come to mind (and we owe a lot to Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, and Marie Stopes, after whom MSI is named). Another organization that also deserves special mention is the Vermont-based Population Media Center. Headed by Bill Ryerson, the PMC creates “stories that change the world” in the form of radio and TV dramas that weave issues such as women’s rights, reproductive health, and girls’ education into the storyline and motivate audiences to adopt new behaviours. In discussing the dramas (as people will) they are inevitably compelled to think about their own assumptions and beliefs. PMC develops its dramas with the collaboration of local people familiar with culture and social norms.

As for those “better known” people: most are from the 20th century, but that is the century when the global population went on its meteoric rise. It took over 200,000 years of human history for the human population to reach one billion (1804) and under 200 to reach 7 billion (2011). I can’t possibly include every person who had something important to say about population in my discussion, so some readers may ask: “Why did you leave out So-and-So?” So I’ll just apologize in advance that my list is incomplete — and the more that readers are aware of this, the happier I am. It means they’re aware of population matters.

I’ll also note that I’m including a few “population villains,” people — and ideas — that have influenced the general public and political and economic leaders into believing that population growth is not a problem, or one that will take care of itself, or will be solved by technology and human ingenuity.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882):

Most people probably don’t think of Darwin as provoking thought on demographics. But in fact in developing his theory of evolution, Darwin was strongly influenced by Malthus, who thought that starvation would always be a part of human life (unless humans controlled their population growth). Darwin recognized that more organisms are born than can survive and that evolution occurs in the context of this “struggle for existence.” Darwin’s theory was also influenced by Charles Lyell, who noted that the changes that the Earth undergoes (i.e., the environment is not constant).

Paul Ehrlich (born 1932):

Many people will recognize the name Paul Ehrlich as the author of the 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb. (In fact, the book was co-written with Ehrlich’s wife Anne Ehrlich, but the publisher insisted on one author, and also changed the original title, Population, Resources, and Environment to the more emotive The Population Bomb.) The book’s prologue began with “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Little did Ehrlich know that the “Green Revolution,” which would massively increase agricultural production, was already in progress and would prove his prediction wrong. While some people dismissed Ehrlich as a doomsayer, others pointed out that his book caused governments to change policies to avert disaster.

In 1980, Ehrlich made a bet with cornucopian economist Julian Simon on whether the prices of five metals would increase (Ehrlich) or decrease (Simon) during the next 10-year period. All five commodities had declined in price by 1990. Asset manager Jeremy Grantham pointed out that Ehrlich would have won had a different period been selected (1980–2011) and that if the bet had been expanded to include “all the most important commodities” rather than just five metals over that longer period, Simon would have lost “by a lot.” Simon declined to bet with Ehrlich and climatologist Stephen Schneider on environmental trends over a ten-year period.

Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist, is the Bing Professor of Population Studies at the Department of Biology at Stanford University (Stanford, California) and president of its Center for Conservation Biology. He has co-authored over ten books and, together with Anne, continues to research and educate on population, environmental and resource issues.

Norman Borlaug (1914–2009):

Norman Borlaug was an American agronomist and is known as “the father of the Green Revolution,” which refers to the tremendous increases in agricultural production that resulted from the semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties he developed in Mexico, combined with modern agricultural techniques including fossil fuel-derived fertilizer. Borlaug led the introductions of these new wheat varieties and modern agricultural technology to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat in 1963 and wheat yields in India and Pakistan nearly doubled between 1965 and 1970, greatly increasing their food security (and averting the starvation predicted in The Population Bomb). Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contribution to world peace by increasing the food supply.

However, Borlaug did not think that he had solved humanity’s problems with hunger. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, he said: “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.”

In a 1972 article (The Green Revolution, Peace and Humanity), he said: “The Green Revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the Revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the Green Revolution will be ephemeral only.” The frightening power of human reproduction (words Malthus would surely have approved of) has since then increased the world population by 4 billion, from 3.84 billion to 7.7 billion. In his later years, Borlaug held out hope that genetically modified foods would prevent mass starvation as the world runs out of unused arable land.

Garrett Hardin (1915–2003):

Garrett Hardin was an American ecologist, philosopher and writer who was concerned about the dangers of overpopulation. His most famous piece is probably The Tragedy of the Commons, published in the prestigious journal Science in 1968. In it, he argued that a resource that no individual has a claim to (and therefore has no special incentive to protect) but that many people use (i.e., the commons), will be depleted as each individual maximizes his use of that resource without considering long-term consequences. In his 1974 article Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor, he argued that “a nation’s land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land.” In Hardin’s analogy, a lifeboat with 50 people that only has the capacity for 10 more is in a sea of 100 swimmers. The ethics of the situation pertain to the dilemma of whether to take more people on the boat and which ones. In a 1971 article about the cyclone that devastated Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) in November of 1970 (Nobody Ever Dies of Overpopulation), he argued that people would not have been living on a flood plain were it not for population pressure. His belief that many of the things we do to help people actually cause harm by increasing the population is encapsulated in the quote, “There is nothing more dangerous than a shallow thinking compassionate person.”

William R. Catton Jr. (1926–2015):

Catton was an American sociologist known primarily for his 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Some population activists have argued that Catton makes Malthus seem like an optimist. While Malthus described a human population that continually bumped against the limits of its food supply, resulting in misery and starvation for many (after which the cycle repeats itself), Catton described a human population that had vastly exceeded its long-term capacity to provide food all, resulting in a population crash when the temporary enabler of the previously growing food supply is exhausted. In Catton’s scenario, it is oil that provided the tremendous increase in energy that made possible the spectacular growth of the human population and the global economy and sent the human population into overshoot. Catton argued that the human population was “drawing down” many of the resources on which it depends (not just food resources) and that ceasing the flow of any of them could have devastating consequences. The “exuberance” (his word) permitted by the age of oil would inevitably come to an end as fossil fuels became economically unviable (when extracting a unit of fossil fuel cost more energy than that unit provided). Malthus, Catton said, was right that human populations would exceed the capacity of their food supply to sustain them. What Malthus did not understand from his 18th century perspective on technology, said Catton, was that the population could actually grow significantly beyond a key resource limit. Malthus did not foresee how industrial societies would make prodigal use of fossil energy and other non-renewable resources, which greatly lengthened the “feedback loops” that would normally keep a human population in check.

M. King Hubbert (1903–1989):

M. King Hubbert was a Shell Oil geologist who in 1956 first articulated the concept of “peak oil,” that is, that there would come a time when the oil on which our civilization depends would become economically unviable. Hubbert predicted that the total production of several oil sources would form a curve resembling a bell (Hubbert curve) and the top of the bell curve would be peak oil. In general, the time when the production of a single oil field or an entire oil-producing region has reached its maximum is when about 50% of the recoverable oil has been extracted. Hubbert became famous when his prediction that US oil production would peak in 1970 and then began to decline came to pass.

In recent years, advances in extraction technology, especially those leading to the extraction of oil from shale, have resulted in an increase in US oil production, such that in November, 2017, the US again surpassed the 10 million barrel per day mark for the first time since 1970. Nevertheless, the demand for oil has resulted in efforts to extract it from ever more inaccessible places (e.g., deep water, Arctic) and with considerable environmental costs. Humanity can’t get around the fact that oil, and the rest of our non-renewable resources, are finite. In a 1976 article, Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History, Hubbert said:

“During the last two centuries we have known nothing but exponential growth and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of non growth.”

Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome, published in 1972. Authors: Donella H. Meadows (1941–2001)Dennis L. Meadows (b. 1942)Jørgen Randers (b. 1945), and William W. Behrens III:

Limits to Growth (LTG) was published by a systems analysis group at MIT, representing a team of 17 international workers, and was a report on the results of computer simulations of the global economy. The simulations were based on data obtained for five parameters (population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production, and pollution) between 1900 and 1970; projections were then made using computer-generated values for these parameters for the period 1970 to 2100. The authors made a wide range of input assumptions, but regardless of the assumptions, the projections predicted a major collapse of the world population in the mid 21st century.

LTG created a sensation. It sold 30 million copies and was translated into 30 languages. It was praised by scientists and environmentalists, but attacked by much of the global economic community, which argued that human ingenuity could overcome all shortages — in other words that there were no limits. The most famous of the limit deniers was Julian Simon, who wrote The Ultimate Resource, that of course being humans themselves. The book’s message was sidelined by economic and political decision-makers. Those who dismissed LTG noted all the progress humanity has made in science, technology and medicine, and argued that substitutes could be found for scarce resources, all of which, they insisted, proved that its “prophesies of doom” were wrong. Those who supported LTG argued that the constraints that the book predicted were becoming increasingly evident and that humanity was using its ingenuity to increase the drawdown of resources and would indeed experience limits to growth.

LTG played a big role in launching the discussion about the concept of sustainability. Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update was published in 2004 by Donella Meadows (posthumously), Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. The authors asserted that the symptoms of a world in overshoot were evident; these symptoms included the impact of human activities on climate, a widening gap between the rich and poor, overfishing, soil loss, degradation of agricultural land, and the general drawdown of resources. The authors concluded that humanity had squandered the opportunity to correct course since 1972.

Aurelio Peccei (1908–1984):

Possibly unknown to most people, Peccei was an Italian industrialist and scholar who founded and served as first president of the Club of Rome, made famous by Limits to Growth. The Club was launched when, through a series of coincidences, a transcript of a keynote speech by Peccei to an investment company about global problems landed on the desk of Scottish scientist Alexander King in 1967. King contacted Peccei and suggested a meeting, and at their invitation, about 30 scientists, economists and industrialists gathered in Rome in 1968. The Club was initially run as a “non-organization,” an informal group of individuals who met frequently to discuss global problems (the global problematique). But as the Club grew bigger, it was decided to create a legal structure and appoint Peccei as the first president. At the invitation of the Swiss government, the Club held its first official meeting in Bern, where there was discussion of a model to study humanity’s predicament. One of the attendees, MIT professor Jay Forrester, proposed computer models, and the Club decided to commission a group of MIT researches to develop the World3Model to produce the first Report to the Club of Rome. This report was Limits to Growth.

Al Bartlett (1923–2013):

Al Bartlett was a University of Colorado (Boulder) physics professor with a strong interest in population. His most famous lecture is “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy: the Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis” (later renamed “Sustainability 101”). He started giving this lecture, which warned of the unsustainability of exponential growth in population and aggregate consumption of natural resources, in 1969. It is still relevant because the exponential function hasn’t changed. He gave the lecture 1,742 times.

Bartlett lamented that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

Al Bartlett also asked the famous “Great Challenge” question that no one has yet been able to answer in the affirmative: “Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?”

Bartlett’s collected writings have been published in the book The Essential Exponential! For the Future of Our Planet.

Dr. William Rees (b. 1943) and Mathis Wackernagel (b. 1962):

Rees and Wackernagel developed the concept of the Ecological Footprint (EF). The EF concept and calculation method was developed by the Swiss-born Wackernagel as his Ph.D. dissertation under the supervision of Rees at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, from 1990–1994. The EF was originally called the “appropriated carrying capacity.” In 1996, Wackernagel and Rees published the book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth.

The EF measures human demand for nature, that is, the quantity of nature required to support people or an economy. It tracks this demand through an ecological accounting system. On the demand side, the EF measures the ecological assets that a given population requires to produce the natural resources it consumes (plant-based food and fibre products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, space for urban infrastructure) and to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions. The EF tracks the six categories of productive surface area: cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest land, and carbon demand on land. On the supply side, a city, state, or nation’s biocapacity represents the productivity of its ecological assets (including cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest area, and carbon demand on land). These areas, if left unharvested, can absorb much of the waste humans generate.

The Global Footprint Network, founded in 2003 by Wackernagel, who serves as its president, is an international sustainability think tank that tracks the ecological footprint of countries and allows individuals to assess their own ecological footprint. It has offices in Oakland, California; Brussels, Belgium; and Geneva, Switzerland.

Lester R. Brown (b. 1934):

Brown is an American agronomist and environmentalist, who in 1974 founded the Worldwatch Institute with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Worldwatch Institute was the first research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues. It produced an annual series of reports called State of the World, and later a second series called Vital Signs: the Trends that are Shaping our Future, among much other literature. In 1986, Brown received a $250,000 “genius award” from the MacArthur Foundation. In 1991, in his acceptance speech for Humanist of the Year Award by the American Humanist Foundation, Brown spoke about the challenges of population growth and global environmental decline. In 2001, Brown left the Worldwatch Institute to found the Earth Policy Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Washington, DC, dedicated to finding a plan to save civilization. The Earth Policy Institute published several books as well as the Plan B series of reports. On June 30, 2015, Brown officially retired and closed the Earth Policy Institute. Brown is the author or co-author of over 50 books. Much of his work focussed on the geopolitical effects of fast-rising grain prices and how the “geopolitics of food” could contribute to upheaval and revolutions in various countries.

E.F. Schumacher (1911–1977):

Schumacher was a German statistician and economist who advocated human-scale, decentralized, and appropriate technologies. He studied in Bonn and Berlin, and from 1930 in England as a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford, and later at Columbia University in New York City. He moved back to England before World War II, not wanting to live under the Nazis, and was interned on an isolated English farm as an “enemy alien.” Between sessions of working in the field, Schumacher wrote a paper called “Multilateral Clearing” that captured the attention of John Maynard Keynes, who was able to have Schumacher released from internment. Schumacher helped the British government mobilize economically and financially during World War II and Keynes found him a position at Oxford University. After the war, Schumacher worked for the British Control Commission, charged with rebuilding the German economy, and became its Chief Statistician, and from 1950 to 1970 was Chief Economic Adviser to the National Coal Board. In 1955, he travelled to Burma as an economic consultant and while there, helped develop the principles known as Bhuddist economics, based on the belief that individuals need good work for proper human development. He also advocated for production from local resources for local needs and encouraged third world governments to create self-reliant economies. In 1966, he founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group. Schumacher is probably best known for his 1973 book Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered. One of its main arguments is that we cannot consider the problem of technological production solved if it requires the reckless erosion of finite natural capital that will deprive future generations of its benefits.

Herman Daly (b. 1938):

Herman Daly is an emeritus professor at the School of Public Policy of University of Maryland, College Park. He is an “ecological economist” and one of the world’s leading proponents of a steady-state economy. Current economic models are based on the idea of perpetual growth, which cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world. Daly helped to found the Center for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy (CASSE). The premise underlying the concept of the steady-state economy is that the economy is an open subsystem of a finite and non-growing ecosystem (Earth’s natural environment).

In a 2008 article in the Ecologist, Daly wrote:

“We have lived for 200 years in a growth economy. In this time we have come to believe that all our major economic ills — from unemployment and poverty to overpopulation and even environmental degradation — can be solved by more growth. And if the global economy existed in a void perhaps that would be true. But it does not.

“Instead the economy is a subsystem of the finite biosphere that supports it. When the economy’s expansion encroaches too much on the surrounding biosphere, we begin to sacrifice natural capital (animals, plants, minerals, and fossil fuels) that is worth more than the manmade capital (roads, factories, appliances) added by ‘growth.’…

“In the last 60 years the global population has tripled and the amount of things our population has produced has increased by many times more, increasing our draw on natural capital, as well as on the earth’s capacity to deal with the waste produced by all that we produce.

“This huge shift from an empty to a full world is truly ‘something new under the sun’ as historian JR McNeil calls it. But the facts are plain and incontestable: the biosphere that supports us is finite, non-growing, closed and constrained by the laws of thermodynamics. Any subsystem, such as the economy, must at some point cease growing and adapt itself to the dynamic equilibrium — the steady state — of the planet….”

Jane O’Sullivan:

Dr. Jane O’Sullivan is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. O’Sullivan has looked for, and found wanting, the evidence that greater economic development leads to better education which in turn leads to lower fertility as a fail-safe formula for slowing population growth in developing countries (i.e, she challenged the “demographic transition theory”). The belief in the demographic transition theory has led to placing emphasis on promoting ‘development’ to take care of population growth. At the 21st IUSSP (International Union for the Scientific Study of Population) International Population Conference in Busan, South Korea, in 2013, O’Sullivan presented a paper titled Revisiting the demographic transition: correlation and causation in the rate of development and fertility decline.” She used data from the UN Population Division, World Bank and Population Reference Bureau on total fertility rates (TFRs), per capita GDP, and GNI (gross national income) per capita (dollar value of a country’s final income in a year divided by population), and girls’ primary school enrolment and completion to look at TFRs and per capita GDPs in several countries over the period of 1950 to 2010. She contrasted countries with strong family planning programs with a similar country (about the same TFR and per capita GDP in 1950) in the same region which did not explicitly or consistently promote family planning and smaller family norms.

O’Sullivan found that countries that implemented strong population-focussed voluntary family planning programs showed an abrupt decrease in the TFR following the introduction of the program. This rapid decline was in contrast to the slow and sometimes stalling decline in less developed and least developed countries in aggregate. When she compared pairs of similar countries, with and without explicit family planning programs, she found a more rapid increase in wealth in the country with family planning programs. Economic development was substantially accelerated when the TFR fell below 3 children per woman. The countries she compared over the period 1950 to 2010, were (richer country listed first) Tunisia and Syria, Thailand and the Philippines, Costa Rica and Guatemala, and China and India. (Regarding China, O’Sullivan noted that the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979 did nothing to accelerate the rate of fertility decline that had begun some ten years earlier and was neither a necessary nor successful contributor to China’s fertility decline.)

O’Sullivan data showed that improvements in girls’ education were inconsistent in terms of leading to a lower TFR. While closely correlated in some cases, in others, high or rising female participation in schooling did not lead to concomitant declines in fertility (e.g., Philippines and Malaysia, some countries in sub-Saharan Africa with improving female education), whereas fertility reductions could occur even if countries (initially) had low levels of female education (e.g., Thailand, Indonesia, Morocco). Furthermore, a rapid improvement in female education was not always followed by an immediate (e.g., Libya) or consistent (e.g., Laos, Cambodia) decline in fertility.

O’Sullivan concluded that the mantra “Development is the best contraceptive” should be replaced with “Contraception is the best economic stimulus.”

O’Sullivan has also pointed out that immigration-driven population growth in developed countries like Australia (and one might add Canada, the US and the UK) decreases the lifespan of infrastructure such as roads and buildings by increasing the use of and stress placed on these facilities. She cites economist Lester Thurow of MIT, who used US data to estimate that it requires 12.5% of GDP to expand capacity at 1% annually, which for the developed world was over $200,000 per person of net population growth. The cost of population growth on infrastructure is yet another reason to challenge the “growth brings prosperity” dogma.

And there are many more:

Many authors have written on the population and resource crisis, including Marq de Villiers (Water, 1999), Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over, 2003), John Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency, 2005), and Ronald Wright (A Short History of Progress, 2005), Jared Diamond (Collapse, 2005), Chris Clugston (Scarcity: Humanity’s Final Chapter?, 2012 ), Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist (editors of Life on the Brink, 2012), Peter Goodchild (Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum and Systemic Collapse, 2013) and Dave Foreman (Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World, 2014).

Howard T. and Elizabeth C. Odum, in their 2001 book A Prosperous Way Down, consider ways in which a future with less fossil fuel can be peaceful and prosperous. This would require the population t shrink more quickly than available energy and other resources.

Patrick Curry’s book Ecological Ethics (2006) argues that ethical questions can no longer be restricted to how to treat other human beings, or even animals, but must embrace the entire natural world.

Filmmakers, broadcasters, researchers, and educators, such as Sir David Attenborough, Dr. David Suzuki, and Dr. Jane Goodall have also been speaking out about population.

The above list is by no means to be considered exhaustive on the subject of people who have provoked thought about population.

And now it’s time to mention the population villains!

The Vatican:

Many religions are pronatalist, but the Vatican is the only religious organization that has “Observer” status at the United Nations. It was through the efforts of the Vatican that family planning was expunged from the accepted agenda of the World Health Organization when it was created after World War II. (The failure of the WHO to provide family planning in the 1960s led to the creation of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities — UNFPA, now known as the UN Population Fund.) The Vatican has also kept population growth off the agenda at UN meetings on biodiversity and the environment and opposed family planning at all UN population conferences.

Julian Simon (1932–1998):

Julian Simon was a professor in economics and business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, later a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland, and was a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute at the time of his death. He wrote many books and articles on economic subjects. Simon was a cornucopian and is most famous for his book The Ultimate Resource (1981), which unfortunately was very influential. He rejected concerns about resource scarcity and argued that increasing wealth and technology would make more resources available. Even though supplies may be limited, they may be regarded as economically indefinite as old resources are recycled and new alternatives developed by the market. Simon argued that population is the solution to resource scarcity and environmental problems, since people and markets innovate. Every mouth to feed comes with a pair of hands to work and a brain to solve problems, he said. Al Bartlett dismissed Simon’s cornucopian school of thought as “The New Flat Earth Society.”

Hans Rosling (1948–2017):

Hans Rosling was a Swedish physician, academic, statistician and public speaker. His son Ola built the Trendalyzer software to animate data compiled by the UN and the World Bank . Together with his son and daughter-in-law Anna he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation to develop Trendalyzer to convert international statistics into moving interactive graphics. Presentations using these graphics to visualize world development were very popular and won awards.

Rosling was a charming gentleman and entertaining speaker (who gave many TED talks), and did good things in the health field (studied disease in Africa, was one of the initiators of Médecins Sans Frontiers in Sweden), so one hates to say bad things about him. But he downplayed the urgency of the population issue, as in his 2014 documentary Don’t Panic — The Truth about Population. Rosling relied heavily on the demographic transition taking care of the population problem, and seemed to ignore the fact that that scenario was not occurring in some countries — most notably in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Demographic Transition Theory

The DTT describes the fall in fertility as it occurred in the West during the industrial revolution. Such fertility declines later also occurred in many developing countries. The DTT is generally described as having four stages. In the first stage, the population is relatively stable because, although birth rates are high, so are death rates, through infant and child mortality, disease, famine and war (the “Malthusian” situation). In the second stage, the population grows rapidly, as birth rates remain high but death rates fall through better sanitation and medicine, higher child survival rates and longer lives. In the third stage, birth rates also start to fall with better education, more urbanization, and greater participation of women in the work force. Consequently, population growth slows down. In the fourth stage, birth rates are similar to or even below death rates, and the population becomes stable or even declines (in the absence of immigration) as is currently happening in Japan and some European countries.

The DTT fairly accurately explains what happened in the West as it went through the industrial revolution. The problem occurs when the demographic transition theory is treated as a “law of physics” — as something that will inevitably occur and which therefore eliminates the need to actively promote a reduction in population growth. The DTT actively promoted the idea that “development is the best contraceptive” and that wealth and education would take care of the population problem. But as it happens, the DTT did not go according to script in many cultures and societies, and lack of action on population growth even resulted in backsliding and increases in birth rates in some cases. As reported by the Population Media Center, the desired family size remains far above replacement in many countries.

Any number of Marxists, feminists and social justice warriors:

Marxists or cultural Marxists, who are very influential in our society, place the fault for all of society’s ills on capitalism. Marxism has also permeated many of the movements of our age, such as feminism, the civil rights movement, and even the environmental movement (and thus we hear terms like “climate justice”). Capitalism is therefore also blamed for the problems of overpopulation and rapid population growth in developing countries is not recognized as a problem. It seems irrelevant to the Marxists that many pre-capitalist societies suffered decline and collapse when their populations exceeded the ability of the resource base to sustain them. It is Marxist feminists who, working together with the Vatican and also some Muslim countries, kept any government or international (e.g., UN-led) initiatives on population control off the agenda at the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo conference) in 1994. A by no means exhaustive list of prominent proponents of the idea that capitalism is the cause of all overpopulation problems would include Betsy HartmannJohn Bellamy FosterIan Angus and Simon Butler.

Capitalism and the theory of perpetual growth:

It is true that capitalism has succeeded in delivering more goods to more people than any other system. It is also true that capitalism is predicated on perpetual growth and places no value on any environmental destruction that occurs in the harvesting of raw material for human consumption. (For that matter, in practice, communism, socialism, or any other forms of government do not do so either.) The giant corporations that control much of the global economy want open borders and the free flow of labour and goods. Ironically, with regard to open borders, the Marxists are in line with the capitalists whom they allegedly despise.

But clearly, Julian Simon notwithstanding, there cannot be perpetual growth on a finite planet. Communism offers no solution, inasmuch as it has proven itself in practice to be every bit as environmentally destructive as capitalism while operating under politically repressive regimes that have resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people and that tend to send environmental activists to gulags or re-education camps.

Let us hope that capitalism can evolve into a no-growth or de-growth system that values the natural world on which we depend for our survival. Whatever science fiction writers or cornucopians may say, other planets do not, in the foreseeable future, provide a safety valve for a humanity that has overrun its one and only home, Planet Earth.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Weld.

Image Credit: Madeline Weld.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

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© Scott Douglas Jacobsen, and In-Sight Publishing and Question Time 2012-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen, and In-Sight Publishing and Question Time with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All interviewees co-copyright their interview material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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