Too many people

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 07 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1490

    When I look back on my time as a student in the 1950s one feature that stands out is the lack of crowds. Of course people were packed in together at football matches (where the stands were jammed with spectators who actually stood), but my memories of city centres in Britain and Europe are of plenty of room to get around; and when I recall walking in Yorkshire or camping in France the images are of vast open landscapes which looked empty. Roads had far fewer cars and lorries, especially back roads along which a cyclist could expect to meet only a handful of vehicles in an hour.

    This impression of emptiness is linked in my mind—quite falsely—with population numbers. In 1950 the world had a total of less than three billion people; it is now 5.8 billion, having quadrupled in the past 80 years. At last, however, if we are to believe the demographers, the end of the period of exponential growth is now in sight. New projections from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis have been published in The Future Population of the World: What Can We Assume Today? (London, Earthscan Publications, 1996). Using 1995 data the mathematicians predict with 66% certainty that the world's population will never reach 11.5 billion, twice the current figure. The best bet for a final, stable world population is around 10.5 billion, a ceiling that will be reached by the year 2100. By the middle of the next century populations will be in actual decline not only in Europe but also in many countries around the Pacific rim, and world wide the proportion of people over the age of 60 will rise from the current 10% to 25%. And with a bit of luck, say the agricultural technocrats, the 10 billion can be provided with food and water.

    Could we have done better? Campaigners who tried to warn about population growth had little support in the 1960s. Instead they had to deal with criticism from substantial lobbies who opposed contraception and abortion for religious reasons, while leaders of countries in Africa and Asia produced reasoned arguments for encouraging their populations to grow. Europe is the most densely populated continent and its nations have the most developed economies: for most countries outside Europe economic and political influence is perceived as depending on the size of the population, and advice from the affluent West to restrict population growth was resented and still is.

    So I feel sad that the final total will be 10 billion rather than 5 billion, but I cannot blame the quadrupling of the total this century for the crowds that I dislike, for the congestion on the roads and at airports, and for the weight of numbers that on some summer weekends leads to the authorities closing Venice to further tourists. The visible signs of overcrowding in Europe have their origins in economic growth, not demographic change, and those of us who look back with nostalgia to the empty spaces of our youth are mourning an era of economic elitism that has gone for ever.—TONY SMITH, associate editor, BMJ

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