The Important Difference between Success and Longevity: The True Malthusian Catastrophe

At the present time, there is, among much of the world’s human population, a dangerous tendency to confound human success with longevity. What I mean by this is that our species’ recent spectacular cultural, evolutionary, and demographic success, which is indubitable, is not at all the same as our species’ longevity, for this is an entirely different matter. Moreover, there is a false sense of security that comes from living among a large group of people, which observation also applies to the global human population at the present time. We have become so numerous that many of us believe it is impossible, or at least highly unlikely, that our species will become extinct, whether in the near or distant future. However, it is wrong to assume that our scientific and technological advances, which are the primary reasons for our species’ success over all other living creatures, also imply that we are improving our long-term chances of survival. In fact, I declare that these two things are diametrically opposed to each other.

One of the effects of scientific advances in medicine and the study of diseases has been an alarming increase in the global human population, to the point that we are seriously altering, depleting, burdening, upsetting, and destroying both natural and physical systems all over the world. Moreover, because of all the many technological “improvements” in our lives, human beings are consuming far more of everything – food, water, trees, land, fish, plants, animals, minerals, metals, energy, living space, and so on – than our ancestors did, while we have correspondingly increased the amount of garbage, waste, pollutants, carbon dioxide, and toxic and radioactive substances that we are producing.

Because we foolish humans believe that we have outwitted Nature by freeing ourselves from the ravages of famine, disease, war, and predation, all of which served to check the human population in the past, and because we are not willing to let our children die of famine, war, or disease, or let them be eaten by predators, then it logically follows that the only way we can reduce the total human population to a more sane and sustainable level is if as many people as possible make the decision not to have any children.

By caring only about the survival of our human progeny, we are making it increasingly difficult, and in many cases impossible, for the progeny of other species, both plant and animal, to survive. For, although human babies may look sweet, adorable, and innocent, every human child that is born, especially if that child is born in a wealthy industrialized country, is another voracious, oil-guzzling, and mass-consuming monster which will contribute to our accelerating devastation of the planet. During the past decades and centuries, it has always been the case that each generation has consumed and polluted more, while taking up more space, than the preceding generation, due to our numbers multiplying like a deadly infestation. Another reason for this increased consumption is the simple fact that people are living longer and longer, which means that they have many more years in which to consume things and pollute the planet.[1] Hence, even if one drives a car, eats meat, lives in a big house, flies in a plane to different parts of the world, and buys many artificial things one doesn’t need, if one has no children, then there will be no one to copy and perpetuate one’s bad habits of consuming and polluting which are causing so much harm all over the world.

But, you will say, even if I don’t have any children, there will be other people who will have children, and surely one small, single child will not make any difference in the grand scheme of things. However, it is precisely this attitude – that one more child does not matter – that has led us to the present alarming situation. For there are many millions and billions of people who, when they debate whether or not to have a child, or how many children they want to have, think only of themselves and how their decision will affect them, while they think nothing at all of how their selfish decisions will affect all the other creatures that live on the Earth. In the recent past, although it has taken as little as 12 years for the human population to increase by 1 billion – for instance, from 5 to 6 billion and from 6 to 7 billion – it only takes about 8 years or less for a billion new human beings to be born into the world. This is because the increase in the total population is the difference between total births and total deaths. Clearly, this huge number of human births in such a short period of time is the result of the actions of many hundreds of millions of breeding human couples. In this age of mass hyper-consumption and planetary-wide environmental degradation, not having children is the greatest, most generous gift that a human being can give to all the many other organisms with whom we share the planet, and, indirectly, to our own species.

Although it may seem paradoxical or counterintuitive, the only way we can ensure the long-term survival of our species is by reducing the global human population. By how much? The answer is, by as much as possible. The Earth most certainly does not need 7 or 8 billion people. It does not need 6, 5, 4, 3, or even 2 billion people. These were milestones that were only surpassed for the very first time in the Earth’s extremely long history during the past hundred years.

In 1800, world population stood at about one billion; by 1930 it had doubled to two billion. Only 30 years later (in 1960) it had doubled again to four billion; currently we are on track to achieve a third doubling, to eight billion humans, around 2025.[2]

Prior to the last several millennia, for the millions of years that human beings or their ancestors have been around, they numbered significantly less than 100 million people, or less than 1% of the present human population. During that time, it is erroneously believed that our species’ existence was precarious; and yet, the fact that our human ancestors were able to survive for such a long period of time disproves this common belief.[3]

At the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic [about 50,000 years ago], when our modern subspecies emerged by fair means or foul as the earth’s inheritors, we numbered perhaps a third of a million all told. By 10,000 years ago, on the eve of agriculture and after settling all habitable continents, we had increased to about 3 million; and by 5,000 years ago, when farming was established in all the founding regions and full civilization had begun in Sumer and Egypt, we may have reached between 15 and 20 million worldwide.[4]

The alarming increase in the global human population has taken place over such a short period of time, measuring just a few centuries, that our limited human understandings have not yet been able to comprehend what needs to be done. There are many places in the world where it is considered perfectly fine for a breeding human pair to beget three, four, five, six, or more children.[5] And yet, any number of children per breeding pair that exceeds two – assuming that most or all of those children will survive and breed in their turn, an assumption that is increasingly becoming the global norm – will mean that the global human population will continue to increase.

Even though the math is exceedingly simple, it is not understood by most people around the world at the present time. Assuming that the children will have the same number of offspring as their parents did, if, on average, each breeding human couple begets 6 children, then in one generation,[6] 2 will beget 6, those 6 will beget 18 (2 generations), those 18 will beget 54 (three generations), and those 54 will beget 162 (four generations). With an average of 5 children per couple, 2 will beget 5 (one generation), 5 will beget 12.5 (two generations), 12.5 will beget 31.25 (three generations), and 31.25 will beget 78.125 (four generations). If the average is 4 children per couple, then 2 will beget 4 (one generation), 4 will beget 8 (two generations), 8 will beget 16 (three generations), and 16 will beget 32 (four generations). And even if the average is only 3 children per couple, then 2 will beget 3 (one generation), 3 will beget 4.5 (two generations), 4.5 will beget 6.75 (three generations), and 6.75 will beget 10.125 (four generations). On the other hand, if the average is 2 children per couple, then 2 will beget 2 children (one generation), those 2 children will beget 2 grandchildren (two generations), those 2 grandchildren will beget 2 great-grandchildren (three generations), and so on. In other words, with an average reproductive rate of 2 children per couple, the population will remain stable, neither increasing nor decreasing.

An important feature of this increase is that, with any number of children greater than two per couple, the absolute increases increase with every succeeding generation. With six children per couple, the increase from the first to the second generation is 4, then 12 between the second and third generation, then 36 between the third and fourth, giving the progression 4, 12, 36, 108, 324, 972, 2916, … In the case of five children per couple, we get successive generational increases of 3, 7.5, 18.75, 46.875, 117, 293, 732, … With four children per couple, the successive increases are 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, … And with three children per couple, they are 1, 1.5, 2.25, 3.375, 5, 7.6, 11.4, …

When we scale these numbers up to millions and billions, and assuming a 100% maturity rate, which is the goal that is being aimed at in all countries around the world, then we can see how truly alarming and catastrophic these human population increases can be. For with an average of six children per couple, it will mean an increase from 2 million to 162 million in just four generations. With an average of five children per couple, the increase will be from 2 million to 78.125 million in four generations. With an average of four children, from 2 million to 32 million. And with only 3 children per couple, the increase is still significant, from 2 million to 10.125 million – in other words, even if the average number of children per couple is only three, which many people would consider to be a moderate number of children to have, there will still be a five-fold increase in the total population in the brief span of just four human generations.[7] Clearly, given the present human population, which exceeds 7 billion and is rapidly approaching 8 billion, these increases are not at all sustainable.

It is clear what must be done: apart from making birth control available to all breeding couples around the world, all people who are sexually active or have reached sexual maturity must be made to understand the effects of having more than two children per couple – that, given the present human overpopulation in pretty nearly all places around the world, it is imperative that we reduce, as much as possible, the number of babies that continue to be born, year after year, in a continual stream of global human demographic irresponsibility.

The true Malthusian catastrophe is that Malthus was wrong about his dire predictions regarding food production and the total human population, at least in the short term. For if he had been right, then humanity would have been humbled and learned the hard but essential lesson about the need to keep our human population within sustainable limits. Instead, what has resulted from the negation of his prediction is a constantly increasing human population that is the greatest threat both to the long-term survival of humanity, as well as the survival of countless other species on the Earth. In the less than two centuries since Malthus’ death, the human population has reached figures that neither he nor any of his contemporaries would have believed were possible. But though the great majority of human beings would regard the failure of Malthus’ prediction as an indubitable and glorious success, as well as being a testament to our extraordinary intelligence and ingenuity in finding ways to thwart Nature’s methods of population control – namely, famine, disease, war, and predation – for the vast majority of the Earth’s other living creatures, this human success has been nothing less than an unmitigated catastrophe.

Now that we have solved the perennial problems of having enough to eat and defending ourselves from predators and disease, we now face the even greater problems caused by our too-great demographic success. As paradoxical as it may sound, our species has never been in greater peril of extinction – of disappearing forever from the face of the Earth – than it is at the present time, when our numbers and, just as importantly, our voracious consumption and destruction of the natural world have reached a truly frenzied and unsustainable apex from which the only way we can go is down, down, down.

For several centuries and millennia, we humans have wallowed in the narcissistic belief that we are a special race, favoured by God and created in His image, and that we are destined to do great things in the world. Moreover, many of us believe that this fertile planet, along with all the many different creatures that exist on it, were created solely for our use, to do with as we please. But now, when the extremely destructive effects of our diabolical scientific and technological wizardry are becoming more and more visible all over the world, it should be clear that the only thing we will accomplish by continuing on this suicidal path is our extinction – both because we were not wise enough to change course while there was still time, and because we selfishly and thoughtlessly caused the wanton destruction of so many of the Earth’s living creatures, on whom we depend for our survival, so that we no longer deserved to exist, having become the greatest living menace that this ancient and nurturing planet has ever known.

If we are truly wise, as we flatter ourselves to be, then we will voluntarily reduce our population by as much as possible, in order to give the Earth’s many non-human inhabitants the chance to recover from their depleted numbers and multiply, as they formerly did before our recent catastrophic demographic success. For if we do not make this reduction voluntarily, it is my belief that it will be done for us, as a necessary purge to restore the balance that we have so greatly upset. By doing so, we will reduce our destructive impact on the land, water, and air, which together form the hospitable substrates in which this truly incredible and mysterious thing called Life is able to flourish in this otherwise barren Universe.

[1] During the course of the twentieth century, the average life expectancy in the most developed countries rose from a little over forty years to more than seventy years, and close to eighty years in some countries. In a hypothetical country with a reproduction rate that remains fixed at 2.1 children per woman, which is roughly the rate that is needed to maintain the population at a steady figure, if the life expectancy were to double, for example, from forty to eighty years of age, then the population would also roughly double, even though there is no increase in the number of children being born. This is because there would be many people still alive who, in past ages, would have died at a younger age.

There is also an imitative effect that makes people want to live as long as possible, an effect that is unique to human beings. In the past, prior to the inventions of photography, cinema, television, and the internet, generally speaking, people died more readily than many people die today. This strengthened desire to live as long as possible results from the constant observation of living people in movies, television programs, and on the internet. Inversely, the fact that many children are shielded from seeing dying people, and, at least in wealthier countries, dying is often done in hospitals and specialized facilities rather than at home, as was formerly the case, has increased many people’s fear of dying, which also strengthens their desire to prolong their lives as long as possible.

[2] The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg, Introduction. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, 2011.

[3] People who make this assumption are mistaking our species’ lack of dominance with precariousness, which are two seemingly related but in reality very different things. To us, bacteria and microbes seem fragile and precarious organisms because of their microscopic size, their very short individual existence, and the ease with which any one of them can be killed. Moreover, because they are invisible to the naked human eye, most people would declare that they cannot possibly be said to dominate the world. But the fact that bacteria have existed continuously for billions of years shows that these beliefs are completely mistaken. We judge and interpret the world according to a very narrow human standard, a tendency that often leads us astray, so that we are prone to making false judgments about the world.

[4] A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, lecture two. The Massey Lectures. Anansi Press, Toronto, 2004.

[5] In the past, prior to agriculture, modern medicine, and recent scientific discoveries and technological advances, the majority of babies and children died at an early age, long before they themselves were able to reproduce. Furthermore, it was also common for mothers to die while giving birth, meaning that they could not give birth to any more children. Without any form of birth control, as soon as women reached puberty, they would probably have been impregnated repeatedly during their precarious and frequently short lives; but comparatively few of these fertilizations would have produced a child that grew to become sexually mature. In other words, there was a high incidence of infant and child mortality that kept the human population within sustainable limits.

[6] The length of a generation in this context depends on when couples begin having children and when they stop having children. Obviously, this depends on cultural norms as well as on female reproductive biology. But there are many societies around the world where women start having children in their teenage years, and they already have two or more children before they reach the age of twenty. In such societies, then, a period of four generations can total a mere hundred years or less.

[7] Scaled up to the global population of roughly 2 billion around the year 1930, this is the projected increase from that time to the present, assuming an average of three children per couple and that women will finish having children in their twenties. If the total human population has yet to attain 10 billion, it is because the overall maturity rate has been less than 100% worldwide, and in many places, significantly lower than this idealistic figure. Moreover, there is always a small but significant portion of the human population that, for various reasons, doesn’t have any children, as well as many couples that have only one child, which has the effect of reducing the rate of increase in the population. Had the global population during the past century been freed entirely from the demographic checks of famine, war, disease, and predation, as we are earnestly and idealistically trying to do for all human beings everywhere, then the present human population would be significantly larger than it is.