"The power of population," wrote Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus over two hundred years ago, "is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." Those words from "Essay on Population" summarize a bleak, apocalyptic vision of the future of mankind that has influenced generations of scientists. It was a compelling, if controversial, vision.
The debate that Malthus addressed himself to is an age-old and ongoing one. Population sets off furious intellectual battles. The antagonists are rarely even on speaking terms. On one side are the pessimists -- usually biologists -- who believe that population growth at our current rate is leading us inevitably to catastrophe. On the other are the optimists -- usually economists -- who don't overlook the problems we face, but believe that humanity stands a good chance of solving them.
Biologists see each newborn baby as one more hungry mouth to fill. Economists say that along with that mouth come a pair of hands that can contribute to economic growth.
Pessimists worry about exceeding the capacity of the earth to support all of us. Aware of sudden collapses that happen when populations of other species grow too large to be sustained, they worry that the same fate awaits mankind. Optimists remind them that no such collapse has ever happened to us. Continued economic growth, they say, can both feed billions of humans as well as end the population explosion -- witness the trend in families in prosperous societies toward fewer children. But no, cry the pessimists, growth itself is the problem! We can't keep growing at 120 million people a year, as we are today, forever!
And so the debate rages, back and forth.
Which view is right? Economist or biologist? Optimist or pessimist? "It is hard to think of a question more fundamental to our crowded world", wrote Charles Mann a decade ago in The Atlantic Monthly.
Yet where does that leave us? Is the good always to be tempered with the bad; the optimism with the pessimism?
Whatever the answer, there may be a third view. Continued population growth will have unpleasant consequences, no doubt. But those may not be the result of the environmental disaster Malthus predicted. The worse problem, Mann also wrote, is likely "the human race's perennial inability to run its political affairs wisely."
Take sub-Saharan Africa. Much like Bihar in India, this is often thought of as the world's basket case, and with reason. Long periods of drought have caused overgrazing, erosion and deforestation; per capita food production has been falling for years; the Sahara is moving southwards at about six miles a year.
Africa's population dilemma is nowhere as acute as here. Right?
But Michael Mortimore of Cambridge University, after studying soil samples in Nigeria for years, offers some interesting ideas. That country's increasing population has, he thinks, actually raised the productivity of the land. Why? For generations, farmers would move on when their land's resources were used up. But as a greater population makes land more expensive, farmers must better care for what they own. In 1992, Nigeria reaped its biggest harvest in twenty years.
There's more. One study showed that the Sahara's southern border is about where it was ninety years ago. So perhaps the desert expands and contracts without paying attention to humans.
So really, what is the reason for the suffering and desperate conditions endemic to the region?
The land gets overused, causing environmental problems. Population adds to the problem, yes, by making everyone's share of common land that much smaller. Drought worsens matters.
But to that mix, you add the ethnic conflict also endemic in the region, and catastrophe is inevitable.
Yet governments have never tackled civil strife here; in fact, they have often been part of it. The result is that millions have been driven from their homes and into starvation. That may say more about corruption and inefficiency, about weak political structures, about the continuous bloodshed, than about an expanding population.
Governance is never the whole answer. But that cannot mean we must let it wither into chaos.
Writing in Granta in 1997, William Dalrymple made an interesting point about Bihar. The press always refers to its "backward" condition -- the poverty, crime, sloth and yes, the booming population. But in many ways, wrote Dalrymple, Bihar is not backward so much as ahead of the country, something of a trendsetter. What Bihar does today, the rest of us scramble to do tomorrow. Fake elections, for example. Elections were first rigged in India in Bihar, in 1962. Then they became commonly rigged everywhere. Criminals first were elected in numbers in this state. Today, every state, every party, has elected leaders with crimes in their pasts.
Sub-Saharan Africa. Bihar. Signs of our future? Expanding populations cause problems, sure. But what will we do about our "perennial inability to run our political affairs wisely"?