September 19, 2017

Already too many (alternative version)

Review of The Optimum Population For Britain, Symposium of the Institute of Biology No. 19. Edited by L. R. Taylor. Academic Press

[See another review of this volume here]

In one of the papers printed in this book the Rt. Hon. Douglas Houghton, M.P., says ‘Population increase in Britain is thought to be something to be provided for, not something to be stopped.’ As he rightly implies, this attitude is clearly an archaic one. To plan our future we must be able to plan the number of people who will share it, and to do this we must know how many of these there ought to be.

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

The proceedings are edited by L. R. Taylor of Rothamsted who writes an excellent introduction. He realises 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. Indication of this is India’s annual import of cereals from North America which increased from 4 to 14 million tons between 1961-66. No wonder the Agriculture Research Council estimates that we must be able to produce at least twice as much food by the year 2,000. Taylor optimistically suggests that this can be achieved. Like many of the participants in this conference I feel he often displays an almost childlike confidence in science and technology. Nevertheless he does admit the difficulties 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: E. W. Cooke, the Lawes Agricultural Trust, tries to determine the ‘carrying capacity of the land’ in the year 2000. He 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 per acre, nearly double present average yields. There is a big difference between what can be achieved experimentally and what can be attained outside. After all it is chimeric to expect that human error, inefficiency and other factors limiting output, droughts, plagues, etc., can be eliminated.

Yields which have increased from 20 cwt per acre in 1948 to 33.5 cwt per acre in 1964 are now beginning to fall off. In 1968 for instance they were back to 29 cwt per acre. Also yield increases are achieved at considerable cost. Nitrogen fertiliser input went up for instance more than 12 times between 1939 and 1968. Thus we are obtaining diminishing if not 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 urbanisation in the last ten years, and this process is going on unimpaired.

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, 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 took part in the conference.

A. J. Boreham, 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. We have here a caricature of the blinkered specialist who is oblivious of any considerations outside those that he has been specifically trained to quantify. Japan answers almost perfectly to his description of the ideal to strive 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, 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 quality of foreign trade. He concludes that it is by no means proved that ‘high population growth always prevents economic growth’—thereby intimating—since this appears to be the final goal of society—that Britain is still underpopulated. Up until now as Rattray Taylor notes, everybody had avoided the ‘thorny problem of actually defining an optimum population for this country’.

Dr. M. R. Freeman, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, remedies this. He observes that optimum population has been described according to the goals which the population seeks to realise to the full. Every human group will tend to choose a size that is the suitable expression of its cultural goals, that is to say it will order the pattern of its social organisation so as to make these goals most easily obtainable.

‘Such a population will normally become stabilised below the biological carrying capacity of its environment’. This stability which can be compared to homeostasis in cell life operates almost invariably by positive checks on the birthrate—which in turn can be compared to checks on positive feedback in cybernetic systems. These checks therefore do not simply consist of limiting population, but of ensuring that the composition of the population remains constant so as to be able to fulfill the demands of the culture. ‘This emphasis on quality, or composition, of population is probably ecologically important also and I have suggested that a demographic shift from a youthful to a more mature population may increase stability under certain ecological conditions.’

Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University, proposes another definition: ‘the situation where numbers are pressing on human values’. Clearly we have passed 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 to be 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 % of the earth’s surface. There will be a growing water shortage and wars may be fought over water supplies.

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

‘The U.S. alone plans to use up virtually all of the non-Communist world reserves of these metals before 2000. Can Britain maintain her economy under these conditions? The answer is that she cannot.

‘If current trends continue, by the year 2000 the UK 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 draw the same conclusion.

To sum up: The participants set off from very different premises and could not conceivably 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 was 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 demands.

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 be but of little value. Do we simply have to wait for these people, so many of whom are in key positions, to die before another generation, which has listened to biological wisdom, can get something done? For there was an encouraging end. The audience was mainly one of professional biologists and 90 % registered their opinion that:

‘The optimum population for Britain has already been exceeded.’

Their opinion is not lightly to be dismissed, says Mr. Taylor. And after all, biologists are supposed to be scientists too.


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