Michael Greening

  • In 1798 the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, an English clergyman disturbed by the correlation between overpopulation and poverty, published his “Essay on the Principle of Population”. This he updated over the following 28 years as new ideas came to him, some in answer to his critics. In his delightful way of expressing himself, he wrote that 'Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second'.

    He also stated 'The prodigious waste of human life occasioned by this perpetual struggle for room and food, was more than supplied by the mighty power of population, acting, in some degree, unshackled, from the constant habit of emigration'.

    I'm sure that the Reverend's observations are as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago. However he was not correct in believing that individual people could wilfully make alterations to their lifestyle, that might alleviate the rather pessimistic future he foresaw for mankind. Yet, manifestly, the required changes have occurred. The human race has survived and is likely to continue to do so. Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace were influenced by Malthus. Their theory of physical evolution, combined with non-biological social change, has ensured that our species are not only still here but appear to continue to be winning.

    At the time when the parson was adjusting his conclusions in 1804, the World population had reached one billion. Although earlier statistics can only be estimated, it seems likely that it had taken about four hundred years for our numbers to double from half that. One hundred and twenty-three years later there were two billion. And now, between 1927 and a projected 2024 (within some individuals' lifetime) this will have increased fourfold to eight billion.

    I recently watched and listened to a lecture, by Swedish Professor Hans Rosling titled 'Don't Panic', on World population growth (I'm sure available on U tube). Professor Rosling, a medical doctor and statistician, explained that for an assortment of reasons the extraordinary period of the expansion in our species is now coming to an end. Numbers, in both Europe and the two Americas, will remain stable and there will only be a limited rise in Asia. However, population in Africa will continue to explode. The current figure of around one billion people in that continent is likely to quadruple by the end of the current century.

    If this takes place the two big ills of the world, that our politicians are continually going on about, the current conflict between Islamic extremists and the rest of us and the negative effects of global warming, will be completely dwarfed by the same ogre as the one seen by the Reverend Malthus. Also all three of these disastrous causes, that generate the movement of people, will be intertwined, operating at the same time, with each one stoking up the boilers of the other two.

    I'm sure all this is widely known, but some of us may not have had time to digest the numbers. If only ten percent of the population of Africa wish, or are forced by circumstance, to move north, Europe will have four hundred million refugees on its doorstep within the next eighty years. On top of this there will be others arriving from Asia.


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