Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000

It’s heartbreaking being an older person during a population explosion, witnessing the effects of catastrophic progress, while remembering the lost goodness.  William Stanton (1930-2010) grew up on a lovely English countryside.  He became a geologist and wandered the world in search of metal-bearing ores.  When he returned to Somerset in 1970, the healthy land of his childhood was in ecological ruins.  England was suffering from a baby boom, growing by 300,000 each year.  This inspired Stanton to embark on a voyage of learning, and in 2003 he published The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000. 
Explosive population growth was new to history, beginning roughly around 1750, driven by new advances in “death control.”  While birth rates remained very high, death rates were dramatically driven down by the introduction of sanitary sewers, municipal water, vaccines, and a sharp increase in the food supply, lubricated by the emergence of cheap and abundant fossil energy.
Prior to 1750, England was at carrying capacity, with five million people.  The birth rate matched the death rate, and the lack of extra food made further growth impossible.  Many lived on the edge of starvation, and were expected to die whenever harvests were below average, as they often were.
Then, extra food became available, first a trickle, and then a torrent.  Colonial forests were being converted to cropland.  European farmers began planting highly productive maize and potatoes from the New World.  Soil fertility was sharply boosted by potent new fertilizers.  New technology made farmers more productive.  By decreasing the risks of starvation, the flood of additional food provided a huge advance in death control.  This was not balanced by similar advances in birth control, so the population shot upward.
Prior to 1750, there were strong restraints on population growth: disease, war, starvation.  But then we entered the WROG era (weak restraints on growth), which is almost over now.  As the era of cheap and abundant energy concludes, we can expect sharp declines in agricultural productivity, and sharp increases in food prices — presenting a terminal restraint on growth.  Climate change is a wild card that is likely to create additional restraints. 
Population missionaries are pariahs who are shunned by most, because ignoring them has no immediate consequences, and ignoring them avoids the need for uncomfortable contemplation.  They have a depressing occupation — delivering one of the most important stories of our era to an auditorium of empty chairs.  Who cares?
Religions don’t care, babies are divine gifts.  The business community doesn’t care, because a growing herd keeps wages low and profits high.  Governments don’t care, because overpopulation is only a problem for other countries, and taking it seriously is a fast path to early retirement.  Even environmentalists don’t care, because population is an issue that rapidly drives away large numbers of contributors.  So, the herd in prosperous regions pretends that their comfortable way of life is not directly threatened.
Prior to WROG, life was cheap.  Human rights were unknown.  There were few prisons, because criminals were not rewarded with free room and board — most were hung or brutally flogged.  Imbeciles, heretics, rabble-rousers, cripples, and the mentally ill were not carefully protected by the ruling nobility.  Many died on the streets.  Infanticide was common, and the church looked the other way — there was no extra food, and there were many, many unwanted newborns.
Much to Stanton’s intense dismay, the WROG era ushered in a new mindset of sentimentality — the nanny state.  Since food was now cheap and abundant, it became possible to rescue the unwanted children, feed the poor, and care for the dregs of society.  A “politically correct” value system emerged, which advocated for human rights, but failed to balance these human rights with equal levels of human responsibilities, a fatal defect.
Decade after decade, we’ve spent millions and millions on food aid, and sent it to regions with high birth rates, having populations far in excess of the local carrying capacity — Ethiopia, for example.  As long as their birth rate remains high, they can never be rescued from poverty by any amount of food aid.  Political correctness insists that family planning decisions are a private matter.  Reproductive rights, without reproductive responsibilities, lead to an ever-increasing population of poor and hungry people.  Yet few charities promote family planning, so the problem proceeds briskly toward the cliff.
PC strategists argue that we don’t need to stop growth, the smart solution is to simply end poverty.  If we rape the Earth more, expand the economy more, and make everyone prosperous, then the whole world will be happy well-fed car owners — but this will destroy the planet (and it’s impossible, too).  Stanton shouts the obvious: sustainable development is an oxymoron.
He insisted that there was absolutely nothing immoral about Draconian birth control, like China’s one child policy.  Yes, it ruffled some feathers, but it was a dramatic success — between 300 and 400 million births were prevented.  Consequently, over the long run, the Chinese people, and their ecosystem will suffer far less.  The choices were intense birth control, or intense social misery, or aggression and conquest.  The PC faith absolutely opposes the notion of intense birth control, in every country, starting yesterday.  By default, collective inaction is a unanimous vote for catastrophe.
Stanton had no kind words for the PC faith.  Despite their good intentions, he believed that over the long run they were inadvertently increasing human misery and ecological destruction.  He was sure that PC was bound for extinction as the collapse proceeds, prosperity withers, and life once again becomes cheap.  PC believers denounced his book with great vigor (cruel, evil, racist, xenophobic infidel!). 
Here’s the bottom line: every genuinely sustainable culture that I have studied deliberately and actively practiced population management, in a wide variety of forms, many of which were extremely non-PC.  This was not cruel or immoral.  It was necessary to maintain the harmony of the community, the continuity of the culture, and the vitality of the ecosystem.  They had a different value system, and it worked well (unlike ours).  This was the norm for most of human history.
In our society, the values of political correctness are widely regarded as being normal.  But blind faith in any belief system is risky.  In an insane world, every core belief must be questioned, every right must be balanced by responsibilities, and every population must shift into reverse.
Stanton, William, The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000, Multi-Science Publishing Company, Brentwood, United Kingdom, 2003.

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