Cleaveland: How many people can Earth support?

Cleaveland: How many people can Earth support?

September 1st, 2019 by Clif Cleaveland in Opinion Columns

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, an English cleric and scholar, published anonymously a pamphlet, "An Essay on the Principle of Population," in which he predicted a perpetual clash between a growing worldwide population and limited food supplies. In subsequent, book-length editions, in which he acknowledged authorship, he elaborated his ideas. He foresaw a linear rise in food production and a progressively steeper rise in population. Wars and famines might curtail population growth for short intervals. Without limits on human reproduction, mankind faced a bleak future.

In 1968, American biologist Paul Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb," a best-selling narrative which used the resources of science to analyze and to extend Malthus' theory. The message was urgent. Overpopulation would lead to calamity. Ehrlich predicted widespread famine in coming decades. Short-term increases in food production might forestall the crisis and buy time for national and international policies to bring population growth under control. Absent dramatic action, however, mankind faced deteriorating prospects.

In 1998, Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, published "Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future" to highlight the effects of environmental degradation upon our futures. Ignorance, political opportunism, and greed undermine the resources upon which a growing population depends.

Are Malthus and Ehrlich prophets or alarmists?

In 1900, worldwide population was estimated at 1.6 billion. Fifty years later, that figure had risen to 2.56 billion, despite the carnage of two World Wars. By 2018, the estimated population had reached 7.7 billion. At current rates of growth, that number is predicted to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

Clif Cleaveland

Clif Cleaveland

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Rapid growth in population since 1950 depends upon multiple factors. Improved agricultural yields and advances in medical science, especially in the development and dispersal of vaccines against infectious diseases, have led to doubling of average life-expectancies in many countries. Once untreatable illnesses can now be cured or suppressed by a broad range of medications.

There is a less publicized downside to population growth. An estimated 11% of the world's population suffers chronic malnutrition. The World Health Organization estimates that more than three-quarters of a billion people do not have access to drinking water within a roundtrip of 30 miles. Two billion people rely upon drinking water that is contaminated with feces.

The "replacement rate of fertility" is the average number of children per female member of that society or nation that allows a population over time to remain stable. For developed countries, the replacement rate is 2.1 children per female.

The world's three most populated nations, China (1.43 billion residents), India (1.37 billion), and the U.S. (329 million) have shown steadily decreasing fertility rates — births per woman — for decades. China's annual birthrate per woman is 1.6, slightly below the U.S. rate of 1.8.

Some of the poorest nations have fertility ranging from four to eight children per woman.

For decades, U.S. foreign aid has included assistance in family planning, employing both education and technology, for those nations that desire this aid. Private foundations are active in this effort. Among the countries that have received technical assistance are Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Pakistan, Kenya, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In early August, the Trump Administration announced plans to slash billions of dollars from foreign aid programs, including those directed at humanitarian causes. Such a move would bypass congressional authority in determining foreign assistance. These proposed cuts would disrupt assistance for family planning.

"An Essay on the Principle of Population" can be viewed either as a forecast of inevitable collapse of global civilization or a wake-up call to challenges that we must address to assure a humane future for all.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at ccleaveland@timesfreepress.com.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com