overpopAlmost every problem the world faces today starts at one base point: there are far too many of us

I don’t want to get into atmospheric, carbon dioxide output or food viability wonkishness of global population growth in this piece. There are only two areas where I proffer contention, and I’d appreciate it if threaders stuck to those – without straying into the usual mud-slinging, trashing, yelling jamboree.

The two points are these:

1. The finite nature of water on Planet Earth in the context of accelerating population growth.

2. The stress put on our economic systems by the reality that every single day, 200,000 new mouths need to be fed, clothed, housed, and helped.


Let’s deal with the easy one first. According to the Population Reference Bureau’s “2010 World Population Data Sheet”, 4.45 people are born every second worldwide, and 1.8 people die during that same second. As a Dickens character might say, “Result: unhappiness”.

However, the amount of potable water is not growing. In fact, for drinking purposes, it was never that big in the first place.

Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface. It is vital for all known forms of life. All of us are largely composed of water.

However, 96.5% of the planet’s water is found in seas and oceans: so it’s saline – and, as the Ancient Mariner remarked, “Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”. You can desalinate and eventually use every drop of that 96.5%…of you want to kill every form of marine life, and thus blow a hole in the food chain that would make Fukushima look like a damp tinder box.

Of the mere 3.5% that’s left over for us and every other land-based species to drink, 98.8% of that water is either compromised, inaccessible, or not collectable. It might, for example, be in the mud I’ve been clearing off my entry drive since mid December. It might be poisonous, thanks to leaks of toxic things and fracking enthusiasm. Or very often its high up in glaciers where the atmosphere is, shall we say, on the thin side.

So, roughly 0.04% of the Earth’s water is either in reservoirs or falling from the skies. Privatised water utility companies are busy wasting the stuff that falls because the collection infrastructure sucks, and they prefer fat bonuses to repairing it. It’s the species, stoopid. The bottom line is, there’s not a lot to go round.

With every human being that’s born, there is less water per person, because births outstrip deaths by 2.4:1. This is because there is the same amount of water available on Planet Earth today as there was in 10,000 B.C., when there were only 5 million people on earth.

Todays global population (literally today’s) is 7.212 billion. So there are now 1,444 times more people on the Earth, but the exact same amount of water available to hydrate them.

So do me a favour naysayers, don’t try and tell me there is no problem here. But don’t take my word for it: listen to a futures trading banker I was at dinner with in Madrid some years ago:

“Early wars were fought for territory. Then they were fought for industrial resources. The next major war will be fought over water.”

This bloke was the catalyst for my enquiries into this issue. Blackmail by cutting off water supplies, by the way, is considerably easier than cutting off someone’s energy supplies…and much quicker as a form of persuasion. You can be cold and live without energy indefinitely if you have a plentiful supply of thermal clothing. After 3-8 days (depending on personal health and ambient temperature) without water, everyone dies. Everyone.

Now, of course it’s true that we could keep going for thousands of years, f**king each other stupid and reproducing with industrially incontinent efficiency, by desalinating just 1% of the oceans per year. Couldn’t we?

Well no actually, we couldn’t. There is a complex equation which involves necessity, motivation, money, censorship and incompetent governance which, when sewn together, points inexorably to one conclusion: by the time we got round to doing something, it would be too late. The only strategy left would be shooting every other person wearing glasses.

I’m not sure I can proffer an answer to this one, because humping comes naturally to us, but thinking about the consequences doesn’t. All I would say in conclusion is someone has to do something about it.

Systemic stress on economies

The population doves are fond of trotting out their argument about “as people get more money they have less children”, but as a theory this too is shot full of holes.

First, they might have fewer children, but research shows that nearly half the people who gained access to water between 1990 and 2010 live in India and China. And it also shows that, while the kiddie count goes down, the water usage goes shooting up. The only reason we don’t have a major problem already is that people in the Third World do not get anywhere near enough water: Around 700,000 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, and nearly half the people in the developing world are suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with dirty water and inadequate sanitation such as diarrhoea, guinea worm, trachoma and schistosomiasis.

Second, once they do get proper water supplies, far more of the world’s poor survive. Hygienic practices such as washing hands with soap can reduce the risk of early death by 50%; and diarrhoea is the second biggest killer of children under five years old worldwide.

Third, the ‘less children’ theory doesn’t take enough account of either cultural or economic variations. Muslims, for example, are a huge exception to the rule, although the reality of it is obfuscated by pc sensitivities and Islamic spin: countries with a Muslim majority have an average population growth rate of 1.8% per year.[1] This compares with a world population growth rate of 1.12% per year.[2]

Economic variation principally involves the vast differences in degree of improvement in material circumstances required to achieve material normality. It is in my view the biggest single hole in the better off/fewer kids theory…and China offers a frightening example of it.

Between 50 to 55% of Chinese live in rural areas. Such income as they get is mainly derived from rural activities including agriculture. The gap between urban and rural Chinese is widening, as urban incomes are now more than three times higher than rural incomes. So as time goes on, it appears, material improvement isn’t trickling down in anything like a smooth pattern: half the population of China is 700 million humans. They won’t be having fewer children for some time yet, one suspects: without social security, children for these people represent an investment in future income.

However, the plot thickens when you realise that, according to the World Bank, China reduced the poverty rate from 84% to 12% between 1981 and 2008. The country’s share of the world’s extreme poor has fallen from 43% in 1981 to 13% in 2010…and that progress has been accelerating since 2002. On top of that, China has of course applied a ‘one child per family’ diktat for many years. Now look what happens to the birthrate per 000 population between 2003 and 2009:

chinabirthsptnetVoila…the rate went up. Now I’m not trying to pull the wool over eyes here: it did go down the following year before flattening again, and in the period 2000 to 2013, the Chinese rate has dropped in total from 16.1 to 12.3%. My point is simple, however: population growth is clearly not universally and at all times inversely correlated with economic growth…despite the 1pf policy enacted by Beijing being a contributory factor in reduction. Demographers estimate that the policy averted 200 million births between 1979 and 2009, such that by 2007, 35.9% of China’s population was subject to a one-child restriction.

Observe, however, that in 2013 Beijing decided to relax the policy. What happens now is anyone’s guess.

Fourth, the theory itself is based on the huge assumption that economic growth, widespread rising incomes and social security will continue as before. Given the State of the US, the UK, and southern Europe at the moment – and falling real ‘squeezed middle’ income values hitting 30% over twelve years – this is looking like an increasingly flawed assumption to make.

It is in this last area, in fact, that the biggest single problem with population growth lies: it’s not just birthrates, it’s falling death rates. Even if child-rearing family social security needs fall (and why should they?) the longer survival of the old is causing massive welfare problems across the West.

“Ah but ah but,” say the neoliberal cadres, “don’t you see, you Leftie, that this is the very problem we’re tackling by freeing up regulation of economies and allowing more growth while cutting waste in the social security system?” Er no, I don’t see anything in that assertion beyond the usual level of brainless cognitive dissonance that accompanies most of the fantasies spouted by these clowns. Neoliberal economies across the west are failing to show any growth, and the more welfare is cut, the less disposable income the bottom 25% will have. And you can’t cut ‘waste’ in the geriatric care sector: even Ezak Hunt accepts that it’s an underfunded sector already.

For me, it’s time to start looking through the other end of the telescope most commonly used by neoliberals in order to support their largely sociopathic myopia. The fact is that the continuing explosion in human population – it has trebled since 1955 – dictates a never-ending need for growth, and the creation of yet more jobs already being eaten away by technology, alongside the building of yet more dwellings on land needed to feed the very population growth they deny. The construct of both population doves and neoliberal hawks is – as you’d expect – so internally flawed and contradictory, neither can be sustained in the context of such glaring facts.

So what is to be done? The answer is nothing, in the sense that nothing will be done: if you seek further evidence to support that hypothesis, then you need look no further than the comment threads that followed the recent Slogpost about sterilising women in care who already have two children. The mere suggestion of this very thin wedge-end brought horrified vitriol down on my head….and one excellent response from Rolf Norfolk.

I understand all these feelings, but none of them solve the reality: we are where we are whether we like it or not. That situation is not going to change by the throwing of arms upwards, or denial of the problem. Despite all the pacifist hopes of the opinion-leading classes during the 1930s, the invasion of Poland still arrived: mass conscientious objection at that stage by the British would have handed the world to Hitler, and been dishonourable in the extreme to the Poles.

It has been my view for over a decade now that almost every problem the world faces today starts at one base point: there are far too many of us. Of course we could keep going until the population reaches 20 billion, but the problems that policy would accrue along the way are difficult to overstate: wars about water and other dwindling resources, wars about access to energy dictated by the economic growth obsession, millions of starving Africans migrating north for jobs and social security that no longer exists, paving over one enclave of nature after another, killing more vital links in the food chain in our rush to develop, fracking the backside out of what little water we have….to brush all this aside with shallow assertions about one “not undertanding” the maths is to insult the intelligence of everyone who’s awake.

The arguments against neoliberal globalist mercantilism are inextricably linked to the urgent need to not just control population growth, but reverse it. We will never get rid of Friedmanism’s risible defences until we get the human population back to a manageable size. Yet again, this is a certainty the Left doesn’t want to face. And in the end, that cowardice will become a tragedy for all our children and grandchildren.