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The Terrible Consequences of Believing There’s An Impending Overpopulation Catastrophe

endless montage of faces on screens sliding off into the distance

According to the UN, the global population currently stands at 7.7 billion and is predicted to rise to around 9 billion by 2050 with it likely peaking at around 11.2 billion in 2100, some 80 years from now. These numbers have fostered a widespread and to a large extent unchallenged belief that the world is facing an overpopulation catastrophe.

At the heart of this belief is the theory that the current rates of population growth are unsustainable because the growing population will exceed the ability of the world to feed it and the resources to satisfy its consumption needs.

However, what isn’t widely known is that the belief in the notion of an overpopulation crisis has a long and chequered history dating back to Malthus in the 18th Century and that the ideas it spawned put it at the heart of disgraced theories like eugenics and abusive policies like the forced sterilisation of millions of people across the world.

The Population Bomb

In more recent times the preoccupation with the notion that the world faces an overpopulation crisis that will surely ensure the return of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, stems from the publication of a book in the late 1960s.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” This was the stark warning at the heart of Robert’s Ehrlich’s 1968 best selling book, The Population Bomb. According to Ehrlich, humanity had lost the battle and he predicted that in the 1970s “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” To make matters worse, there wasn’t much that anyone could do about coming calamity. “Nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate,” Ehrlich wrote.

Published at a time of huge social upheavals and widespread global conflict, Ehrlich argued that all these alarming events had a single cause: too many people, packed into too-tight spaces, taking too much from the earth. Unless humanity cut down its numbers – and soon – all of us would face “mass starvation” on “a dying planet.”

He went further in a 1969 article, stating “most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born.” He doubled down in 1970 telling CBS News that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come and by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Later on, Ehrlich argued that the main impact of his book was to make the idea of population control “acceptable” as “a topic to debate.” But the impact of the dire warnings that he put forward went much further than that. The immediate impact of his book was to turbocharge an anti-population growth crusade that led to widespread human rights abuses around the world.

Credit BBC

The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Association for Voluntary Sterilization were just some of the organisations that were inspired to promote and fund programs to reduce fertility, mainly in the poorer parts of the world.

According to Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs “the results were horrific,” In her book, she lists some of the consequences of the drive to reduce birth rates, including health workers in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, being paid according to how many contraceptive devices they handed out.

More extreme reactions happened in places like in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia India and Bangladesh, where millions of poor people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions. In China, these arguments led to the adoption of the one-child policy, whose enforcement was riddled with abuses.

One of the commonalities shared by these population control policies is that they invariably targeted the poor and that wasn’t by accident. In fact, such policies were the natural heirs of social Darwinism and it’s successor, eugenics and this is so because the population bomb theory put forward by Ehrlich is itself the offspring of Malthus’ 1798 treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population, which laid the foundations for those later theories.

Thomas Robert Malthus (1989). “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, p.115, Cambridge University Press. Credit AZ Quotes

The Most Consequential of Ideas

Malthus’ work and has been described as one of the most consequential ideas in the history of science. At the time he published his work, Malthus’ father and the likes of Rousseau had an optimistic belief in the future improvement of society.

Yet Malthus was interested in why, throughout history, a segment of society always seemed to be consigned to poverty and his conclusion was that the consequences of population growth were to blame. The main argument Malthus put forward can be summed up by this (long) quote:

“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”

What made Malthus’ work so consequential was that he made the observation that populations tend to grow geometrically (2,4,8,16…) whilst food resources grow arithmetically (2,3,4,5…) For him, the only outcome of this disparity would be growing competition for scarce resources and differential reproductive success amongst competing populations. This idea of competition for resources resonated with thinkers like Darwin who noted that population growth would lead to a “struggle for existence” in which some favourable variations prevailed as others perished.

Charles Darwin

The Cruel Consequences

Malthus’s gloomy predictions of the impending collapse of society due to unchecked population growth, not only resonated with influential thinkers like Darwin, but it also resonated with policymakers of the time and it still has currency even in these supposedly more enlightened times.

In Malthus’s day, his theory directly led to a hardening of attitudes towards the poor as seen in the adoption of policies such as the curtailment of the English Poor Law in 1834. Initially brought in by Queen Elizabeth in 1601 as means of providing food to the poor, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, was based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and therefore exacerbates poverty.

Author and journalist Matt Ridley sums up the thinking behind the policy as: “Better to be cruel to be kind.” Ridley argues that the extent to which Malthusian ideas had become mainstream can be shown by the example of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which the Assistant Secretary to the UK Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, described as an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.”

According to Ridley, it wasn’t long before the likes of Francis Galton began to advocate that marriage between the fittest individuals should be encouraged. Galton argued “what nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providently, quickly and kindly” Before long these ideas were codified into the principles of the eugenics movement.

People normally associate eugenics and forced sterilisation with the Nazis but the truth is that such ideas were mainstream and popular long before national socialists seized power in 1930s Germany. In fact, well-known figures like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells, openly championed eugenics as a tool of social engineering.

The popularity of eugenics in the US can be seen in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, in which the justices legalized sterilization of “undesirable” citizens. The court included prominent progressives Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the latter of whom famously ruled, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The result: sterilization of some 70,000 Americans.

From the 1930s through the 1980s, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Iceland all enacted laws providing for the coerced or forced sterilization of mentally disabled persons, racial minorities, alcoholics, and people with specific illnesses. Even now the practice persists today.

Unique Times

Although the eugenics movement was widely debunked after the Second World War, some of its core ideas, the ones that had been drawn from Malthus, managed to survive and the particular context of the 1960s provided the opportunity for their revival.

That context was the unique demographic situation that faced the world. Professor David Lam, Director of the Institute for Social Research, argues that:

“World population increased from 3 billion to 6 billion between 1960 and 1999, a doubling time of 39 years. The previous doubling time—the time it took the world to grow from 1.5 billion to 3 billion—was about 70 years. The doubling before that took about 150 years, the one before that about 500 years, and the doubling before that about 1200 years. The sequence of doubling times from AD 1 to 1999, then, is something like 1,200 years, 500 years, 150 years, 70 years, and 39 years.”

The increasing speed of population doubling was alarming to many and seemed to herald a future of famine, war and pestilence. However, Lam points out that when you look at the data more closely, then the unique circumstances that produced that rapid rise become clear.

This due to a couple of factors: firstly the 20th Century saw a unique combination of falling death rates and rising numbers of women of childbearing age rather than rising fertility rates – more women were having children rather than women were having more children.

Even when Ehrlich published his book in 1968, the fertility rates for women (the number of children each woman had) was falling in most regions of the world apart from Africa. According to Lam, increasing rates of female education were strongly correlated with falling fertility rates.

Graph of number of children women have

When Lam examined how long it would take the population to double going forward he found that it’s very unlikely to ever happen again. In fact, the data showed that after reaching a peak in the late 21st Century the population was likely to start falling across the globe.

The Problem of Depopulation

Whilst Lam’s prediction that the global population would unlikely ever double and would in fact start to fall seems counterintuitive, the latest research from University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics, published in the Lancet, fully backs him up.

On looking at the latest data the researchers found that the global population is likely to peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling to 8.8 billion by the end of the century. The researchers found that the total fertility rate (based on the total number of children each woman has) in many countries has been falling since the 1960s. However, this fall was seemingly lost on the neo Malthusians like Ehrlich who had focused on the fact that there happened to be a large number of women of childbearing age at the time they were looking at the figures.

The truth is that many countries, especially those with the highest incomes, face a depopulation disaster. Japan’s population is projected to fall from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to less than 53 million by the end of the century. Italy is expected to see a dramatic population crash from 61 million to 28 million over the same timeframe. Countries like Spain, Portugal, Thailand and South Korea are expected to see their population more than halved. Even China will see it’s population peak at 1.4 billion in 2025 before falling to 732 million by 2100.

Countries will also age dramatically, with as many people turning 80 as there are being born. “That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline… I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies” says Professor Christopher Murray who was part of the study.

What are the Solutions?

Many countries are trying policies such as extra maternity and paternity leave, free or subsidised childcare, even direct financial payments for extra children, to boost their fertility rates. However, most have been met with modest success at best. Sweden has increased its fertility rate up from 1.7 to 1.9, but places like Singapore have barely seen any rise in fertility rates.

Prof Murray says: “I find people laugh it off; they can’t imagine it could be true, they think women will just decide to have more kids. If you can’t find a solution then eventually the species disappears, but that’s a few centuries away.”

Some countries like the UK have turned to migration as a solution to falling birth rath rates but when every country’s population is shrinking countries may well be forced into competing for the world’s migrants. According to Professor Ibrahim Abubakar, University College London (UCL), “if these predictions are even half accurate, migration will become a necessity for all nations and not an option”.

Yet current events have shown how divisive the issue immigration is. So where would all this migration come from?

Graph of population sizes

According to the study, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is likely to triple to more than three billion people by 2100 with Nigeria alone seeing its population grow to nearly 800 million people. Professor Murray puts his finger on the political ramifications of this.

“We will have many more people of African descent in many more countries as we go through this.”Global recognition of the challenges around racism is going to be all the more critical if there are large numbers of people of African descent in many countries.”


The fact that the global population has reached 7 billion is proof that Malthus and those who have followed him, like Ehrlich, were and are simply wrong.

The wealthiest nations on the planet have shrinking populations whilst the most troubled and food insecure have the highest birth rates. The solution to overpopulation is not to force the poorest people on the planet to have fewer children but rather to address poverty and provide education and encourage the economic empowerment of women.

Yes, there’s an issue regarding consumption, especially when put in the context of a world that is facing the consequences of climate change but that isn’t simply about the numbers.

Overconsumption is largely an affliction of the choices the wealthy make but as author Ronald Bailey put it succinctly in his book,  The End of Doom when he wrote of Malthus and neo Malthusians, “they cannot let go of the simple but clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction.” Humans are thinking, reasoning animals who find solutions.

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