Stellenbosch University: Growing global population brings unique challenges

On 11 July 1987, the world population reached 5 billion. In 2022, another milestone will be reached when there will be 8 billion on earth. In the context of 8 billion, 5 billion may not seem particularly large. But this belies the reality of exponential growth. In 1700, the global population was 600 million, in 1803 it was one billion, and as recently as 1960 there were only 2.5 billion people in the world.

In 1989, to mark the 5 billion milestone, the United Nations established World Population Day which is observed on July 11 annually. The theme for 2022 is ‘A world of 8 billion: Towards a resilient future for all – Harnessing opportunities and ensuring rights and choices for all’. This important, but somewhat benign theme, masks the extent to which debates and theories about ‘population’ have always been controversial, and in equal measure have attracted a rogue’s gallery of racists, eugenicists, catastrophists and also well-meaning demographers. In this piece I will endeavour to show how a healthy dose of scepticism is in order when anybody begins to talk about population – whether over- (or as I will show) under-population.

One marker of recent attempts to understand and control population growth dates to the 18th century when Thomas Malthus argued that it is inevitable that human populations will outgrow the available resources. In the early 20th century, demography and the burgeoning eugenics movement forged a union in order to study rates of population growth amongst different social groups. This culminated in the formation in London in 1928 of the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems. One of the consequences of the marriage between eugenics and demography/population studies, was the practice of forced sterilisation in the first half of the 20th century of thousands of women deemed to be ‘undesirable’. This took place largely in the USA and Canada but also in a few Nordic countries. The association between the eugenics movement and the Nazis during World War II put paid to any continuing influence that the eugenics movement may have wished to have on population studies or anything else.

But the ‘problem of population growth’ is a sticky concept and the rather crude racist eugenic focus on differing population growth, simply morphed into a more ‘acceptable’ focus on how to feed the world’s growing population. Of course, ensuring there is sufficient food is the most fundamental human question of all. But as always, this important question was hijacked in the service of fear. Perhaps the most widely known book about the ‘population problem’ is the 1968 bestseller ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul Ehrlich. This was the fear book – the one that warned of ongoing catastrophic worldwide famine.

Ironically, by the time Ehrlich published his book, the problem of how to feed 6 billion people had to a large extent been solved – by two German chemists and the American agronomist Norman Borlaugh. It was the work of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch who found a way to transform nitrogen in the air into fertiliser. Without fertiliser, feeding 5 billion people, let alone 8 billion people would simply be impossible. But as always, when it comes to population, controversy is baked. Haber was massively ambitious, and obsessed with being accepted as a ‘good German’, and so turned his chemical genius towards finding a way to help Germany be victorious in World War I. He invented mustard gas, and directed the poison gas attacks of the trenches of World War 1. And although he died in 1934, it was his chemistry that led to the development and use of Zyklon B gas during the Holocaust. The other significant contribution to the massive increase of agricultural output was that of Norman Borlaugh who was the ‘father of the Green Revolution’. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

As an aside, any act of writing about food and famine is always a political act. It is impossible to talk about the technology that exists to feed everybody, without being struck by the terrible reality of a world filled with hunger, malnutrition and famine when in fact this need not be the case. As Susan George so eloquently described in her 1976 book ‘How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger’, the problem is never simply about there not being enough food, but that half the world eats most of, and wastes a great deal of food.

The latest iteration of the ‘population problem’ is recent concerns about ageing and declining populations. Japan and many European countries have low fertility rates and as a consequence declining population. By some estimates China will reach peak population by 2030 and experts predict that by the end of the century it will only have 600 million people. Similar trends are likely throughout Europe, East Asia and North America. As always, however, some of the dire projections have not come to fruition with Japan for example adapting well to its declining population.

As expected, it is fascinating to see the latest iteration of the ‘population commentator’. In 2021 Elon Musk spoke about his fears about under-population, and the threat he believes it poses to civilisation. Of course, the juxtaposition of the word ‘civilization’ with ‘population’ in the same sentence should always raise alarm bells. Given that the world population is expected to reach 10.9 billion by 2100, and that the populations of more than half of Africa’s 54 nations are estimated to double or more by 2050, it is difficult not to interpret Musk’s statement being more about there being fewer of a ‘certain type of person’, than people themselves. He is of course talking about white North Americans and Europeans, and in his relentless pursuit of publicity, notoriety, and ‘mansplaining’ is utterly naïve (perhaps unjustifiably I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here) of how close he is to being the richest spokesperson for the far-right racist great replacement theory.

We need to remember the lesson that Fritz Haber offers us. A man blind with ambition, a German Jew obsessed with acceptance and being a ‘good German’. A man who saved billions from famine with his invention of fertiliser, but also the evilest of men whose experimentation with poison gas directly led to the invention of the unspeakable horror in the trenches of World War I and the eventual murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. How can one of the greatest and one of the worst inventions of the last 100 years, sit within the same man. What might the lesson be for us? My takeaway is a simple one. When politicians, academics, journalists and electric car engineers pontificate about their latest population concerns, make sure you read them with more than a healthy dose of scepticism – if not outright disdain. It is highly likely they come from an ideological and fearful place.

What we need are brave leaders who believe in equality, and who see the coming challenges of food insecurity, climate change and migration as something to fix for the benefit of all of humanity and not simply ignore. What we absolutely do not need is a billionaire intent on dominating the Twittersphere.