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Contrasting views on human population growth

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 09 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:931

One wisdom justifies complacency: the other demands action now

  1. A J McMichael, professor (,
  2. J Guillebaud, medical director (,
  3. Maurice King, honorary research fellow
  1. Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London WC1E 7HT
  2. Margaret Pyke Family Planning Centre, London W1P 1LB
  3. University of Leeds, Leeds LS7 9JT

    World population reaches 6 billion on 12 October, according to the best guess of demographers. It has tripled in a single lifetime, is projected to increase by half as much again next century, and, if current declines in fertility falter, could yet double. We have heard such statistics before, to the point of population crisis fatigue Yet we are living through a spectacular phenomenon in demographic history. Three quarters of the 1000-fold increase in human numbers since agriculture emerged 10 000 years ago has occurred during this past century—75% of the absolute increase in 1% of the time.

    The size of the human population is an important determinant of its condition. It is increasingly the combination of human numbers with levels of consumption and types of technology that determines the impact on the environment—and whether that impact exceeds the local or global carrying capacity. Humanity's response to this population surge is one crucial test of its wisdom. Put simply, there are two “wisdoms.”

    The first wisdom denies that population increase is a cause for alarm. This view is common on the neoliberal right: complacent, consumerist, and laissez faire. Although population has been increasing a …

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