Environment and Population -- Persepctives

By Jack Parsons
Volume 11, Number 3 (Spring 2001)
Issue theme: "George W. Bush, last Republican president? And does it matter?"

My brief is to address the question of perspectives on population and environmental issues. That is to say, ways of looking at these problems. I view this as a considerable honor and address the task in all humility, what I have to say being largely a personal gloss on illuminating ideas about related aspects of human affairs put forward by some of our illustrious European forebears. These range from the Norwegian, Ibsen, the Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Scot, David Hume, in the North, down to Plato and Aristotle in the South by way of the Frenchmen Voltaire and Durkheim, the Italian economist Ferdinando Galiani, the American/naturalized-British poet T. S. Eliot, and yet others.

My brief does not encompass the population/environmental issues themselves, merely ways of viewing them, so I offer no further documentation on the enormous explosion in human numbers, widespread poverty, hunger, unemployment, and illiteracy, low life-expectancy, conflict over scarce resources (increasingly over fresh water supplies), pollution, over-exploitation of fish stocks, the imminent peaking of oil production, mass migration, implosive urbanization, the ozone hole, CO2 emissions and global warming, natural catastrophes - including the risk of major asteroid strikes - and so forth, ad nauseam.

Perspectives Functional and Dysfunctional

A fundamental component of the perspective that most of us adopt vis--vis our own little lives here on Planet Earth is that the latter is a very solid and enduring entity. We are all familiar with the Latin phrase 'terra firma,' but in English we have many words and phrases that emphasize this theme. To show that some person, or thing, is strong, reliable, or permanent we say that she/he or it is 'down to earth,' on 'firm ground,' or 'rock-solid.' The ultimate assertion (with apologies to our Spanish friends) is that an entity is 'like the Rock of Gibraltar.' The Germans have 'felsenfest,' and similar expressions can be found in other languages.

Of course, compared with many of the rapidly shifting phenomena we see about us, some earth-properties do have notably greater stability and permanence. Nevertheless, I insist that, vis-a-vis the more fundamental and longer-term management aspects of human social systems and their environments, the 'solid-as-a-rock' perspective is fatally flawed.

At the beginning of the Christian era, Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses 'What was solid earth has become sea, and solid ground has issued from the bosom of the waters.' In 1742, that great Scotsman, the hardheaded empiricist, David Hume, opened his essay, 'Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,' with the words

There is very little ground, either from reason or observation, to conclude the world eternal or incorruptible. The continual and rapid motion of matter, the violent revolutions with which every part is agitated, the changes marked in the heavens, the plain traces...of a universal deluge, or general convulsion of the elements;...prove strongly the mortality of this fabric of the world; and its passage, by corruption or dissolution, from one state...to another.

Surely it is a total absurdity for us to assume, and to plan for, a more or less fixed and unchanging natural world.

Perspectives on Problem-Solving

Another key element in the perspective we bring to bear on human affairs is the way we perceive problems. We generally believe that problems are there to be solved. They develop, we perceive and analyze them, propose and apply solutions, and they disappear, we hope, only to be supplanted by fresh problems to be solved in their turn. This principle does apply well in some fields - in mathematics, for instance - but by no means in all; assuredly not in socioeconomic systems.

My favorite quotation in the population field, from the writings of the distinguished American anthropologist Margaret Mead, goes as follows

Every human society is faced with not one population problem, but with two how to beget and rear enough children, and how not to beget and rear too many (1962, Male &Female, p.210).

Mead's observation underlines the hard fact that the population problem has no ultimate solution. Unless we extinguish ourselves - or Nature does it for us - it cannot, ever, be finally resolved, and this outcome may seem to set a distinctly dismal tone for the rest of my talk. But that impression is neither intended nor inescapable. What is inescapable is the fact that the population problem is, and must remain, an ongoing problem. Both the writings of the ancients (notably Plato and Aristotle, especially the latter) and the elders of traditional societies tell us that it always has been with us, while common sense continually reminds us (if we allow it to) that it always will be with us.

In everyday parlance, addressing the population problem involves a balancing act; in cybernetic terms, a tracking-task; one that we must continue to solve as long as our species survives. This is the first property that an appropriate 'perspective' must possess.

Various Mental Perspectives

The next requisite is a sensible mental attitude, and the three main choices open to us are optimism, pessimism, and realism. Let us examine each of these, the optimistic school first.

The Optimistic School

Optimists look about themselves and see many good things - some manifestly better than they were in the recent past, much more so vis-a-vis the distant past. They ignore or play down the not-so-good things and often go on to outdo even Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss. His philosophy - 'everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,' implies that since everything is already 'for the best,' i.e., is perfect, there is no room for improvement and therefore no need for change.

The truly intoxicated optimist, however, proclaims that since nearly everything is so wonderful, we must have more and more of it. Ever more people living ever-longer lives, ever- wealthier, consuming ever-more goods and services and becoming ever-happier in the process.

This may at first sound like a travesty, but many powerful individuals and institutions openly proclaim such a philosophy, or tacitly subsume it in their thoughts, speeches, and actions. Among these are (or were; some are no longer with us) the eminent British economist, Colin Clark, who advocated an increase in the world population to 346 billions - nearly 60 times its present size - before we began to ship off the ever-increasing surplus to live on space-satellites or other planets (1958 and 1969). Clark was a Roman Catholic of the old school, and a right-wing opponent of birth control, but super-optimism is by no means confined to that side.

The atheistic Left has often been even more optimistic. At the 1965 World Population Conference, the Soviet demographer, Malin, argued that, properly managed (i.e., under communism), the world could support a population up to 4,000 millions, getting on for 700 times its present size. Even these heroic extrapolations imply, however remotely, that there are eventual limits to resources and population growth on earth; but today's standard-bearers for the optimistic school, however, don't believe in limits at all.

In his 1991 report to the World Bank, the Chief Economist, Lawrence Summers, claimed

There are no...limits to the carrying capacity of the earth...in the foreseeable future...the idea that we should put limits on growth...is profoundly wrong.

This does contain a hint that in the unforeseeable future limits might materialize, but the American patron saint of the Cornucopian school, the late professor Julian Simon, went beyond even this, taking many influential people and a large segment of public opinion with him. He claimed not merely that there are no limits, but that the very concept of limits is devoid of meaning

There is no...physical limit...even the com-monly mentioned weight of the earth...to our capacity to keep growing forever...(1981, p. 346).

...the assumption of finitude.. not only is not self-evident, but...vacuous (1986, p. 203). For Simon, we human beings ourselves constitute the main resource, so that, by definition, the more of us there are, the greater must be the supply of resources and the wealthier and happier we all must be. It is tempting to conclude that opinions like these are so grotesquely exaggerated that they should be ignored, but the sad fact is that in various forms they are both widespread and influential.

Sadly, most of us, most of the time, want to hear not awkward facts and discouraging trends but good news, what the optimists indefatigably purvey. As the American/British poet T. S. Eliot drily observed, 'Humankind cannot bear very much reality.' President Reagan's population guru was none other than Professor Simon, whose unbridled optimism may have been a key factor in the serious undermining of U.S. support for world voluntary family planning.

The Pessimistic School

The logical opposite of unbridled optimism seems to be an equally unbridled pessimism, sometimes called 'doomwatching.' As far as I am aware there is no comparable 'mirror-image' school of pessimists that postulates a headlong rush towards some great, '...today's standard bearers of the optimistic school don't believe in limits at all.'inevitable, and more or less universal catastrophe, possibly spelling the end of civilization - even the extinction of Homo sapiens. The best-known 'pessimist,' so-called, is probably Malthus. In a good part of Europe a derivative of his name (Malthusien in French) is now a label for any unpleasant and dysfunctional form of negativity, and not merely in the population sphere. In the English version of his major work, General Theory of Population, the doyen of French demography Alfred Sauvy claimed that 'Malthusianism is a kind of atrophy of the creative spirit' (1969, p. 232).

This was a travesty of Malthus' character and theory, but his detractors generally pay very little heed to what he actually thought and wrote. In fact, he was a radical social reformer - that is to say, his perspective was much more optimistic than pessimistic. He was a powerful advocate of universal education and of civil and political liberty, for instance. He thought that things had, and could well continue, to get better, and he strongly favored nonstop social and economic development, coupled with substantial population growth - always provided that this was not accompanied by increasing poverty and suffering (see Parsons, 2000).

A school of 'pessimists,' if it existed, would probably include Professor Paul Ehrlich, also - author of the influential book The Population Bomb, published in 1968 - and the MIT research group, headed by Meadows, which published the outcome of its 'Limits to Growth' studies in 1972. While it is true that these and other authorities forecast dire consequences if the trends continued they would be more accurately classified under my third heading, that of the realists, because they argue - along with Malthus - that destructive trends are neither 'George Orwell

[suggested there are] changes over time in the nature and power of the opinion-forming groups that are mostly appeased when they should be opposed.'inevitable nor acceptable but that it is our bounden duty to recognize and change them.

The Realistic School -

The Three Key Variables

Realists try to deal with reality, and it is obvious that most efforts should be concentrated on the most important aspects of reality. In the order in which they trip most readily off the tongue (at least in English), the three key variables in this field are population, resources, and the quality of human life. From our parochial human perspective the most important of these is the latter, but this cannot be dissociated from the other two, population and resources, and it is most realistically appreciated when sandwiched firmly between them.

Most of the concerns expressed nominally about human numbers stem directly from a deeper concern for human quality of life. In any given ecosystem there is a quantity of population and of resources - both of various kinds - and the interaction of these two sets of variables determines the quality of life of the people comprising that population at that time.

Most of the commentators who are labeled 'pessimists' by the 'optimists' really belong under this 'realist' heading. While emphasizing the obvious impossibility for some of the trends to continue for long - notably rapid growth in both population and individual consumption - realists argue that most trends, good and bad alike, are potentially controllable. They further advocate policies to reinforce the good trends and to correct those that are damaging.

One of the oft-adopted refuges of the enemies of realism is 'complexity.' We are told, in and out of season, that population, social, and economic interactions are so complex that no clear inferences may be made, certainly not that excess population pressure causes poverty.

Alfred Sauvy demolished this feeble rationalization when he wrote the following,

As well as...fearful mysteries...demography includes...fearfully certain areas of knowledge (1961, p.9.)

Nearly everyone knows that these 'fearful certainties' include massive population growth accompanied by mass poverty, ill-health, unemployment, and environmental damage. Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Emperor's New Clothes, portrays the essence of realism, the crystal-clear view of a child of a situation as it is, rather than the politic adult view of what it ought to be. The adult majority 'knew' it was impossible for their emperor to be clad in anything but the greatest finery whereas the child simply saw and proclaimed the emporer's nakedness. Ibsen explosively set forth the reason why the truths perceived by the few who do not wear blinkers are sidelined by those who do.

The worst enemy of truth and freedom...is the compact majority. Yes, the damned, compact, liberal majority.

George Orwell made a comparable point in his powerful essay 'The Prevention of Literature,' in this case delineating the changes over time in the nature and power of the opinion-forming groups that are mostly appeased when they should be opposed.

During his researches on the Continent, Malthus was truly delighted to come across - near the Lac de Joux in the Jura, as it happened - not a perceptive child in this case but an unlettered peasant who nevertheless saw the essence of the population issue with startling clarity.

Malthus conversed with him earnestly and at length, and later noted that he (the peasant)

Entered more fully into the subject, and appeared to understand the principle of population almost as well as any man I ever met (Fogarty, 1958, Vol. 1, p. 2ll-12).

'...we should ... stop referring to shortages of such basic resources as fresh water and land. Instead, we should refer to the ever-increasing longages of our demands.'

- Garrett HardinThe Role of Intellectuals

Our intellectuals surely ought to be pre-eminent in bringing firmly to our attention all important matters that parties, governments, and the masses somehow fail to appreciate. They should see even more clearly than Anderson's child, understand much more comprehensively, communicate speedily and effectively, and thereby foster the realistic perspective advocated here.

A few have risen honorably to this challenge. Albert Einstein was convinced that population was one of our greatest problems. He believed that applied science had destroyed the uneasy pre-existing equilibrium between numbers and resources, the restoration of which should - next to the prevention of nuclear war - be our highest priority.

Nearly fifty years ago, when world population was much less than half of what it is today and per capita consumption of scarce resources very much smaller again, he replied to Margaret Sanger's invitation to support the 1952 World Conference on Planned Parenthood in Bombay as follows

I am gladly willing to become a sponsor... Progress of hygiene and medicine has completely altered the earlier precarious equilibrium of the quantitative stability of the human race...I am...firmly convinced that a powerful attempt to solve this tremendous problem...is of urgent necessity (Suitters, 1973, p. 49-50).

In another context he also raised the question of appropriate levels of thinking about weighty issues facing humankind, expressing the opinion that

The world we have made...creates problems we cannot solve at the level at which we created them (Carey, 1992, p. 2).

The Polish-born sociologist Stanislav Andrzejewski - now naturalized British - went as far as to claim that

The theory of Malthus has the privilege of being one of the very few sociological generalizations which possess the degree of certainty equal to that of the laws of physics...The central idea is irrefutable either births are prevented or deaths must be more frequent than is biologically unavoidable (1954, p. 15-16).

As the French author Julien Benda argued in his neglected work La Trahison des Clercs, it seems doubtful today how many scientists and other intellectuals can be trusted to discharge this vital warning function. This book, translated into English as The Great Betrayal, rails against the intellectuals, who - after two thousand years of disinterested dedication to the search for truth - began to betray their calling and prostitute their talents in the service of sectarian parties, causes, and politics (Aldington, 1928, p. 31-2).

Einstein's implied quantum leap in awareness and organization may well be needed. Nonetheless, I am sure that at least some of the necessary elements of functional thought and action are already present - at least in embryo. It may be more of a problem of disseminating these further and putting them into effective use rather than of breaking entirely new ground.

I am encouraged in suggesting this by the undoubted fact that virtually all known traditional societies have had - and still have, those that remain - a sound ecological awareness and effective social mechanisms for balancing numbers and resources against each other at an acceptable quality of life. I like to think of this as 'demosophia' (a neologism), wisdom about population, and - if Einstein's quantum-leap really is necessary - it seems vital to me that the ecological wisdom of our forebears should not only not be lost, it should be fully recognized, revivified, nurtured, and sturdily applied.

Of course it is desirable that all human beings should be enabled to live at a level that is both 'Durkheim argued that the pursuit of never-ending growth either of numbers or of economic throughput per capita must surely be a sign of actual mental unbalance.'comfortable and sustainable, but if economists had the uncluttered vision of Andersen's child, they would stop conflating the concepts of 'development' and 'growth.' They would surely be appalled at the allied idea - almost invariably brought in by the back door - that 'growth' - when disguised as 'development' - is itself 'sustainable,' i.e., a process that can go on more or less forever. This, surely, is hubris on the grand scale. Professor Garrett Hardin, perhaps the most original thinker in this field, has cogently argued that we should decouple our analysis of apparent population-resource mismatches from its present egocentric reference point and stop referring to 'shortages' of such basic resources as fresh water and land. Instead, we should refer to the ever-increasing 'longages' of our demands. It is we who are at fault, who can and must change, not the bounty of Mother Nature (Hardin, 1999, p. 31, 38, and 159).

A final consideration that must at least be touched on under the heading of 'mental perspectives' is that of mental balance, even sanity. In a finite environment, all expanding material processes must come up against limits to growth. Durkheim argued that the pursuit of never-ending growth either of numbers or of economic throughput per capita must surely be a sign of actual mental unbalance

Nothing appears in man's...constitution which sets limits to such tendencies...[yet]...unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatia-bility is rightly considered a sign of morbidity (1951, p. 247).

The distinguished British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle has taken a great interest in the population problem, thinking - with Einstein - that it is very serious, and has come to a comparable conclusion. He takes issue with Malthus, arguing that the operative limit to the population explosion would turn out not to be food shortage but organizational complexity. Somehow or other we would manage to supply our burgeoning numbers at least with basic necessities until the organizational task itself became so colossal that it must fail and cause a huge population crash. This cycle would probably be repeated a number of times, on each occasion generating intensive evolutionary pressures toward higher intelligence. These, in turn, might eventually enable our distant descendants - if any survive - finally to take a grip on reality and to smooth out the sawtooth population graph into a stage of development which truly is sustainable (Hoyle, 1963).

Could either of these two - i.e., the physical limits or the organizational limits - conceivably present the optimal strategy? As a possible alternative to these dramatic scenarios may I note that in the last lecture I delivered in Bucharest, to the World Population Conference a quarter of a century ago, I challenged my fellow delegates to think the really unthinkable not merely to absorb into their perspective the already obvious need for population control, but the possible future need for agreed and policed national and subgroup population quotas, starting with my own country

Both people and government [of Britain] should not only accept but welcome, first a demographic steady-state, and then a reduction in numbers towards a population optimised in the light of the needs of other countries and the total carrying-capacity of the world.

At present there is a great deal of 'competitive breeding'...and, sooner or later, a solution to the population problem may well entail internationally agreed population quotas for national and sub-national groups...I would welcome this [and] a just quota for my own country might well lie within the region of one-quarter to one-half of its present size... (Parsons, 1974, mimeo, unpub. and 1978, p .7).

Ethical Components of a Sound Perspective

Another vital aspect of a healthy perspective on these issues is its ethical basis. Most of us hope, no doubt, that both national and international policies will progressively become less selfish, less destructive, and generally more moral and enlightened, but here we face two almost insuperable difficulties. The first concerns the fact that virtually all human action is based upon self-interest, actual or perceived. In a simple preliminary attempt to measure one aspect of this, I recently made a small study of charitable donations for foreign aid by my fellow British citizens. This showed that the almost completely voluntary allocation of our disposable income steers 1,499 fifteen-hundredths of it to ourselves, and only one fifteen-hundredth to overseas aid. (Parsons, 1998, Vol. 2, p. 634-38). The second refers to the hard truth that, in any case, there is no universally agreed moral standard against which policies can be assessed.

In his 'Dialogues on the Corn Trade,' the Italian Galiani - described by Nietzsche as 'the profoundest [and] most sharp-sighted...man of his century' - has one of his characters, Zanobi, scornfully debunking the teachings of the Physiocrats, because

They are the work of men of good will...Believe me do not fear the rascally or the wicked sooner or later they are unmasked. Fear the deluded man of good will; he is on good terms with his conscience, he desires the good, and everyone trusts him...But, unfortunately he is mistaken as to the means of procuring it for us.

The character he is addressing, the President, challenges him by demanding

So...you would rather have us governed by wicked men than by good ones.

To which Zanobi replies

I don't say that but I insist how hard it is to find a great man [who]...has to combine extreme and opposite qualities, almost impossible to reconcile; he must have the ardent will of the man of virtue for the good, together with the calm, and - as you might say - the indifference, of the wicked (Furbank, 1992, p. 17).

In the face of these stark realities it is tempting to take off vertically into an ethical cloud cuckoo land and call for policies based on a moral 'Great Leap Forward' into impossibly high ethical standards involving massive self-sacrifice by the better-off; equal sharing of what are misleadingly called 'the world's' resources, and so forth.

It is by no means certain that this would work out in the long run even if the moral miracle were to occur, but in any case it seems unlikely that we shall ever find out.

Hard decisions are called for. A recent book claims that it is already too late to strike a reasonable balance between human numbers and resources. We are already too many and will soon be far too many for sustainability. Allowing numbers to peak and then be followed by a massive die-off would, the author feels, do less long-term damage to the earth's support-systems than an all-out effort to maintain for as long as possible a population size far above the sustainable level (Morrison, R. 1999).

The Rules of the Game

Our relationship with the environment is no game. It is in deadly earnest. But for the purposes of argument regarding it as one, I must underline that the final and perhaps most fundamental aspect of a functional perspective on environmental issues is that there is no room for bending the rules of this game, however slightly, let alone outright cheating. The pigeons always come home to roost. T. H. Huxley (known in his day as 'Darwin's Bulldog') pointed out - vis--vis the human 'game of chess' with the environment - that our opponent, Nature, is 'always fair, just and patient' but 'never overlooks a mistake or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance...' If we play the game well 'the highest stakes are paid,' but if we play ill, we are 'checkmated - without haste but without remorse' (Vogt, 1949, p. 274).

Concluding Remarks

I began by listing some of the 'earthy' phrases and 'rock' similes and metaphors used to give us comfort by propping up our ideas of solidity, reliability, and permanence. I then argued that - except on absurdly short time spans - these cannot possibly be valid. A moment's reflection on the derivation of the geologist's labels for the three main types of rock, the 'igneous' (from the molten state), the 'sedimentary' (from myriad layers of dust-like deposits), and the 'metamorphic' (from more or less violent modifications of the first two basic states), makes nonsense of this attitude.

The implication is that we really must learn to think very much further ahead and organize ourselves accordingly, requisites which present the most severe challenges to democratic control systems with their quite pathetically short time spans.

I end with a quotation from my 1971 book that stressed - among other things - the impermanence of our living-platform, the continent of Europe and its offshore islands. In geological terms it was only yesterday when the river Thames was a tributary of the Rhine, which in turn was a tributary of the Elbe. The sea level in the region has risen and fallen by hundreds of meters and numerous ice-ages have come and gone. In the same geological terms it was only the day before that when all the world's present continents formed part of a single mega-continent, Pangaea.

Having noted that the British Isles are slowly tilting, that London is sinking, and our east coast is rapidly eroding, I concluded

A prudent nation will not permit its numbers to increase up to the maximum permitted by its present environment, the carrying capacity of which - despite improving technology and conservation - may diminish because of the simple fact of a diminution in its size.

Instead of thinking in terms of terra firma we might do better to try to see ourselves as passengers packed rather too tightly on a flimsy surfboard with an overstocked bar but little food, without a pilot or a certificate of seaworthiness, and act accordingly (Parsons 1971, p. 213).

In my view, that should be the essence of the perspective adopted by all societies toward their populations, their environments, and their quality of life. There is room for neither flatulent optimism nor destructive pessimism. The essence of any sane perspective on the population/environment problem surely must be hardheaded realism, based on accurate perception and long-term thinking, planning, and action, coupled with efficient monitoring and rapid correction of deviation from the desired goal/state. This is dynamic optimization. We can never finally solve this problem, or win the population/resources war. We can only try to keep our end up in the endless succession of battles.

This conclusion need not, and should not, be disheartening; it represents a truly great and potentially rewarding challenge. Once we have firmly grasped this fundamental perspective we can set out to achieve, and then maintain, a suitable balance between numbers and resources at a reasonably acceptable quality of life. So-called primitive societies have managed this balancing act throughout the ages and those that remain continue to achieve it today. If they can keep it up as the centuries roll by, then surely - with all our extra knowledge and sophistication - we can start doing it too.

[References available with pdf file or by contacting The Social Contract at 1.800.352.4843.

About the author

Jack Parsons is former deputy director at the Sir David Owen Population Centre, Cardiff University. He is now working as an independent researcher, consultant, and writer. This paper is an abridgement of a presentation made to the Interparliamentary Conference on Demographic Change & Sustainable Development under the aegis of the Council of Europe Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography given at the Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania, on 21-23 October 1999. It was published in both English and French as a proceeding of the conference by the Council of Europe, Strasbourg. AS/Mig (2000) 24, p. 58-68.