|Destruction of the ozone layer, pollution of the environment, reduction of biodiversity: while these ominous processes seem to continue, the number of human beings keeps growing. Are we indeed a cancer on the planet, an uncontrolled malignancy that destroys the “healthy tissue” around it (Hern 1993)?This gloomy image is quite misleading. Though human population is still growing, it is doing so at a slower rate. As industrialization spreads, children change, economically, from being valuable assets to being expensive liabilities; accordingly, people have fewer of them. The “population bomb” shrieked of in the 1960s is fizzling out (Ehrlich 1968). Meanwhile, many social problems have causes unrelated to so-called “overpopulation.” Some of the poorest people in the U.S. occupy some of the least populated areas, and some of the world’s poorest nations are among the least densely populated.
Well, some will answer, even if population growth is slowing, and even if it alone is not responsible for all social problems, wouldn’t things be better if there were fewer people? Won’t things be worse if, as United Nations demographers estimate, there are twice as many people, by the year 2050, as there are today (twelve billion rather than six)? “Our systems,” they declare, “simply cannot support that many people!”
They are forgetting a key fact: culture evolves. The population of the future will be supported not by our way of life but by theirs. Artifacts, customs, and beliefs will have changed; and for all we know, those twelve billion will be better off than the six billion of today (Simon 1981).
Actually, cultural evolutionists, in light of recent theories, have reason to suspect that a stable population, which sounds so good to most people, would deprive human culture of its greatest single source of dynamism–population growth itself. The origins of agriculture; agricultural intensification; political evolution; industrialization: all appear indebted to population growth. Had the human population stabilized at five or ten million people some ten thousand years ago, we might all be hunting and gathering still–a drawback being that this would allow for only about one out of every thousand of us to exist!
Before we conclude that a stable population would put an end to cultural evolution, though, let’s consider two points. First, population growth’s role in a few major cultural transformations of the past does not mean that it is essential for all culture change. It scarcely seems likely that people would stop seeking better cures for disease, for example, simply because population had stabilized. Second, the absence of population growth does not necessarily mean the absence of population pressure. Indeed, Thomas Robert Malthus believed that populations, when they do stabilize, do so at a level too high to be easily supported by existing resources, creating constant pressure for culture change. If he was right, then, even a population stable numerically is inherently unstable culturally.
And before we assume that contraceptives are allowing us to begin “beating” Malthus by keeping population at a level that can be easily supported, we might pause to ask how “easy” it is for everyone to use contraceptives effectively, and how “easy” everyone finds it to accept having fewer children than they would have had if economic considerations (resource scarcity, in a way) had not been a consideration!
|Ehrlich, Paul R.
1968 The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hern, Warren M.
1993 Is Human Culture Carcinogenic for Uncontrolled Population Growth and Ecological Destruction? BioScience 43:768-773.
Malthus, Thomas Robert
1976 [orig. 1799] An Essay on the Principle of Population. Text, Sources, and Background Criticism. Philip Appleman, ed. New York: Norton.
1981 The Ultimate Resource. Princeton: Princeton University Press.