November 25, 2017

Already too many

A review of The Optimum Population for Britain: Symposium of the Institute of Biology No. 19. Edited by L. R. Taylor, Academic Press, London, 1970.


How many people can this small group of islands sustain? This is clearly a difficult question to answer, but it is essential that we do so soon.

As A.I.N. Houghton says, “Population increase in Britain is thought of as something to be provided for, not something to be stopped”.

This attitude is an archaic one. If we must plan our future—which is essential if we are to survive—then we must clearly be able to plan the number of people who will share it, and to do this we must know how many these should be.

The Conference on the Optimum Population for Britain organized by the Institute of Biology attempts to do this.

The Proceedings are edited by L. R. Taylor who writes an excellent introduction. He realizes that one of the most important factors affecting the optimum population of this country is the world-food situation. Even if world agriculture “is theoretically capable of doubling its production: there seems much doubt if it will do so in time to meet demand”, he writes. Symptomatic of this is India’s annual imports of cereals from North America which increased from 4 to 14 million tons between 1961-6.

The Agricultural Research Council accepts that we in Britain must be able to produce at least twice as much food by the year 2000. Taylor is, I am certain, very optimistic in suggesting that this can be achieved. Like many of the participants in this conference, he displays an almost child-like confidence in science and technology.

Nevertheless he admits the difficulty in increasing our standard of living any further. He is also worried by the ethical problems involved: factory farming, the flow of food from the poorer countries to the richer ones, the ever-increasing destruction of wild-life. He asks “Is the whole country going to become a mass-production factory for human life?”.

A number of interesting papers follow: G. W. Cooks of the Lawes Agricultural Trust tries to determine the “carrying capacity of the land” in the year 2000.

He seriously considers that we shall be able to feed our inflated population by further intensifying agriculture, and by introducing better strains of hybrid wheat. His optimism does not appear justified by the data that he furnishes. At Rothamsted, it has been possible to achieve wheat yields of more than 55 cwt/acre—nearly double present average yields. There is however, a big difference between what can be achieved experimentally and what can be obtained under normal conditions. After all it is chimeric to expect that human error, inefficiency and other factors limiting output, i.e. droughts, plagues etc., can be eliminated.

Yields which have increased from 20 cwt/ acre in 1948 to 33.5 cwt/acre in 1964 are now beginning to fall off. In 1968 for instance they were back to 29 cwt/acre. Also yield increases are achieved at considerable cost. Nitrogen fertilizer input has gone up for instance from 60 elements in 1939 to 748 in 1968.

Thus we are obtaining diminishing, if hot negative, returns for this particular input as we might well be for others; such as machinery and pesticides.

Besides the input of land will be falling: we have already lost 400,000 acres of the best agricultural land to urbanization in the last ten years, and this process is going on unimpeded.

Dr. Mellanby attempts to evaluate the costs of pollution-control. He is particularly concerned with pollution arising from modern agriculture and suggests that it would be “cheaper, in both money and amenity to continue to import much of our food, and to try to pay for this by industrial processes, the pollution from which may be easier to control”.

Quite apart from the ethical problem of foisting agricultural-pollution on other countries, Dr. Mellanby seems oblivious of the growing world-food shortage and of its inevitable effects on Britain’s economy. His conclusion illustrates the lack of communication between specialists in different disciplines.

G. P. Hawthorn of the University of Essex states that we have neither the need nor the capacity to calculate an optimum population, and leaves one to wonder why he accepted to take part in the conference.

A. J. Boreham of the Ministry of Technology thinks that population increase is on the whole a good thing as it contributes towards achieving what he regards as the objectives of society:

  • the highest possible level of income
  • the highest possible rate of growth
  • price stability
  • a balance of payments

There are all too many specialists who are seemingly oblivious of any consideration outside those which they have been specifically trained to take into account.

Today’s Japan answers almost perfectly to his description of an ideal worth striving for. It is a hell on earth; one hundred million people in a tiny island suffocating in their own waste products.

D. E. C. Eversley of the University of Sussex is another “tunnel-thinker”.

He considers that the only factors relevant to determining an optimum population are: population size, availability of natural resources, the state of technology and the direction and quantity of foreign trade.

He concludes that it is by no means proved that “high population growth always prevents economic growth”: thereby intimating that Britain is still underpopulated.

Up till now as Rattray-Taylor notes, everybody has avoided the “thorny problem of actually defining an optimum population for this country”.

Dr. M. R. Freeman of the Memorial University of Newfoundland remedies this deficiency. He says, “The concept refers to a human group within the size range required for the suitable expression of a nor-mative pattern of social organization and for the adequate realization of certain internalized cultural goals; such a population will normally become stabilized below the biological carrying capacity of the environment”.

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University proposes a definition of overpopulation as “the situation where numbers are pressing on human values”. Clearly we have reached this point. It is naive to count on technology to solve all the problems arising from overpopulation. “About the only thing that would do any good would be to repeal the laws of Thermodynamics.” “Perhaps”, he suggests “we should work very hard on Congress and Parliament to do that.”

Ehrlich’s approach is global and makes nearly everybody else appear parochial. He points to the increasing instability of the world we live in. For instance, large-scale wars are now very likely. We have increased deserts in the last sixty years from 10 to 25 per cent of the earth’s land surface. There will be a growing water shortage and wars will soon be fought over water supplies.

The World’s stock of minerals such as iron, chromium, copper, tin etc., is dwindling fast.

“The U.S. alone plans to use up virtually all of the non-Communist world reserves of these metals before 2000.”

How can Britain maintain her economy under these conditions? The answer is that she cannot.

“If current trends continue, by the year 2000 the U.K. will simply be a group of impoverished islands inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little concern to the other 5 to 7 billion people of a sick world.” It is difficult not to share the same conclusion.

The participants in the symposium set off from very different premises and could not really be expected to cooperate in a joint effort at working out a model of Britain permitting the calculation of its optimum population. It is not surprising that no such calculation is offered.

What the conference accomplished was to point out in Freeman’s words “the divergent and irreconcilable points of view [that] typify the alarmist biologists on the one hand, and the confident laissez-faire social scientists on the other”.

The latter still cherish a naive belief in man’s ability to control nature and bend it with the help of “omnipotent science” to suit his requirements.

As Taylor remarks, quoting Bansden: “Science can do much, but it cannot work miracles: it cannot produce something from nothing and cannot take out of the system more than it puts into it.” In other words it cannot repeal the laws of thermodynamics, and to discuss what is an optimum population for this country, or any other, with people who do not understand this basic fact can produce little of value.

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