Intended for healthcare professionals

Research Article

Overpopulation and overconsumption.

BMJ 1993; 306 doi: (Published 15 May 1993) Cite this as: BMJ 1993;306:1285

Re: Overpopulation and overconsumption.

From the obscurities of ancient time the year 1850 was reached and saw one billion humans scurrying on the planetary surface. Such an aggregation of living humans had not formed in any previous epoch. Against a nidus of seven billion in 2011, the one billion of the 1800s seems trifling. Relatively, so does the five billion of 1993 cited in this editorial from only twenty years ago. Charles Darwin was alive in 1850 and figured amongst the billion human apes. During walks in the drizzle or dappled shade, the coruscating mind of Darwin in 1850 was morphing ‘The Theory of Evolution.’

Nine years later, in 1859, at the age of fifty, Darwin cast his magnum opus into print. This work was the monumental ‘On The Origin of Species,’ a treatise at the time construed as the highest heresy by the church of Victorian Britain. But the edifices of tradition were superseded, to some degree, by a construct of value. Set into the greater tract of history, and past the lampooning of forgotten satirists, ‘The Origin’ crowns the scientific accomplishments of the Victorian age, and its publication is one of the giant strides in the whole of science. For such a man in 1850, of extraordinary sensibility, the alluring ponderables were the diversity of animals and the metamorphosis of the lesser ape into Homo sapiens. Had he been alive today, the Victorian titan would doubtless have moved the magnifying optic of his intellect onto population density and expansion. Mr Darwin would also have mused that resource conservation is singularly apt within the overarching historical trends of our time.

Population dynamics spawned a generation of conservationists during the late twentieth century, as global growth hastened during the 1950s to 1970s. Environmental change comprised a shortage of materials such as crude oil. Paralleling the population mushroom was the demand for food. Transglobal partnerships, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, improved the life of millions across the planet, as agriculture was optimised and granaries that had lain barren were again filled. One beneficiary of this melding of agrarian expertise was the Punjab in north India, a strong region celebrated for its farming prowess. This small but fecund region supplied lorry after lorry of wheat and rice for the growing millions of India that lay beneath its southern border. The 'green revolution' in agriculture epitomised the synthesis of multinational talent of varying type – from a fertiliser chemist in the laboratory down to a visceral peasant tearing through the earth with a pair of sturdy oxen.

In this new century, with its hybridised atmosphere, there may be a relative bankruptcy of fresh ideas since the last two centuries have been such a ‘tour de innovation.’ Aside from the cynicism, much constructivism is achievable. Today, in a city quoted as the third most livable place in the world, Adelaide of South Australia, home of cricketing legend Sir Don Bradman, there is a fifteen cent reward for every bottle that is recycled. Such a spirit of conservation engages with the nascent generations for whom pocket-money is perennially important. The toilets are irrigated via a collection of rain water even though this belt of Australia has an arid climate. Australians catch the rain-fall and use this commodity to maintain their gardens. The plastic bag of the supermarket has been supplanted by the former standard of a re-usable fabric sack. Within the enfeebled economies of today, the wheel of insufficiency has returned full circle, but with more resource-hungry humans than either 1850 or 1993. There is much that one area of the world can learn from another whilst sidestepping old mutual prejudices.

Redesigning a population through the elephantine bureaucracies of public health – on sprawling subcontinents - is less easily realisable than endeavours such as excellence in agriculture. However, this is where investment will pay dividends in a future of longer-living populations. Strategies, such as free contraception, have been promulgated with varying sustainability in varying geographies. Simpler ideas may prove remarkably worthwhile : for instance, the reality of overcrowding and limited resources should feature prominently on the syllabus of secondary education. Introducing family planning early into the consciousness of new generations would mean that women, those guardians of the human race, would be more circumspect about the number of children they produce and can support. Such education would be a cost-effective upstream effort that can be made by the State machineries of populous subcontinents.

Developed countries are also beset by the inconveniences of population – from the viewpoints of density and mobility. Within the Darwinian theme, a high density of animals per unit of space straightforwardly increases conflict in multifarious ways. Such a potential, one might whimsically say, is greater for Homo sapiens than for creatures of lesser capacity. Halving a population may not assuredly enhance the life of each person, but living conditions would improve simply through less crowdedness and less instinctual aggression especially around resources.

Unusually high densities of population are today exampled by the islands of Malta and Britain. Presently, at a biomass of over 400 persons per square kilometre, the population density of England is the highest across Europe. Running swathes of countryside between the English cities and towns suggest a plenitude of residual landscape. But even in rural areas the imprint of a population and its restlessness are everpresent owing to the oppressive ubiquity of the oil-burning engine. Constraints in the access to housing also show a population dynamic without commensurate growth in other sectors. The pastoral idylls once painted by John Constable belong to the abyss of time and, in a nostalgic haze, persons past the midpoint of life remember a very different country. Scouring through the literature, one sees that there are numerous issues connected to the population dynamics of contemporary England. Undoubtedly, though, 'the population factor' is affecting the quality of life in the British Isles, and will do so increasingly on the basis of expected expansions over the impending years. Such scales of sociotechnological transformation are also seen five thousand miles away in the Punjab of north India, where a wild-fire urbanisation, economic migration, and a mass arrival of vehicles have swiftly changed the material and psychological milieu of the province in the past twenty years.

A view of two disparate global locations confirms that accelerating human activity is planet-wide and there is a commonality in the travails and tribulations of people despite differences of culture and geography. More collaboration between nations – regarding the shared exigencies of food, energy and population – will benefit a world that has become irrevocably interdependent. Ongoing debate and effort on such projects into this new century will assist those generations who will be the inheritors of a faster, interwoven, postmodern planet.

Competing interests: The writer is a citizen of the world and a blend of several cultures.

15 June 2013
Jagdeep Singh Gandhi
Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon
Worcester Royal Eye Unit, Worcestershire Royal Hospital
Worcester, UK