On Population

From the relevant publications of Malthus in 1830, the threat of human population growth periodically raises its ugly head, for certainly we have had a dramatic increase in population since Malthus.  But after a period in the 1970s, following the publication of Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb, and its respondents, (1)  there has been little concentrated focus on the issue of human population dynamics—as if the critical respondents had won.

This year has seen a resurgence of concern over the threat.  The Center for Biological Diversity launched a campaign to address “an essential cause (of a worsening planetary extinction crisis):  unsustainable human population growth.” And the progressive journalist and commentator, Chris Hedges argues that human population growth is a critical problem in climate change, and that we must do something to try to stop the increase in order to save the world.  He builds upon Paul Erlich, E.O. Wilson, and James Lovelock, to argue that projected population growth is not only unsustainable, but disastrous.  He has been rebutted by several, mostly arguing (as in the 1970s) such notions were reactionary, for

1) population growth is slowing,

2) the focus on population masks poverty and inequality,

3) hunger is not a function of “too many mouths” to feed,

4) the driving force behind environmental degradation (and hence climate change)  is not population growth,

5) population pressure is not the fundamental cause of political insecurity and conflict,

6) population control programs target women’s fertility and restrict reproductive rights,

7) existing population control programs have negative effects on basic health care,

8) population alarmism encourages apocalyptic thinking that legitimize human rights abuses,

9) images of overpopulation scapegoat vulnerable communities and reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes,

10) focus on these overpopulation notions stand in the way of greater global understanding and solidarity. (2)

Rather than argue, however, along the same lines as the criticisms (however much I agree with them), I’d like to focus more on population history, human social change and development, to attempt to theorize human population change, and suggest a theory of our population dynamics.

First, we are unlike any other animals which have to control their populations because they cannot alter their food resources in significant ways.  They do this by a variety of means.  One is social control—that is, some members of the group are denied access to resources by means of territorial management and control, biologically-driven (or at least seldom challenged) hierarchical arrangements, birth control and infanticide.  Failing these mechanisms, the animal population faces extinction.  And this has happened repeatedly in history—indeed; the vast majority of species that ever have existed no longer exist.  Species extinction is nothing new.  And this is independent of humans, for we have only been around for a very small portion of time in relation to other animals.  It is not our fault dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, etc., are no longer extant.  Non human animals cannot change this because they cannot significantly change their environment, so are always subject to the brutal efficiency of natural selection.  We are different.  We can change our environment, and we can develop other ways to produce our consumption and our food.  This is the history of the human species.  We produce, they don’t.  Human hunters, gatherers, and foragers in history are not at all like non-human hunters, gatherers, and foragers.  We use (and have consistently evolved) a variety of productive techniques to increase the available food resources–traps, poisons, organization of personnel, and selective encouragement of plant and animal resources–that led to the development of husbandry in many cases.  Moreover, humans treat gathered and harvested food resources differently than other animals, so that the aged, the infirm, and other unproductive members of the group besides just the young are kept alive.  If you can no longer hunt or gather or forage in non-human society, you die.  Humans have kept alive the non-productive since the beginning—priests, poets, seniors, the infirm, and today, academics, artists, musicians, corporate heads, generals, congresses, and a variety of other non-productive members of society—some, one might argue, less necessary than others.

But the point is:  we produce.  We can make more food, breed more animals, plant more crops.  We can capture labor and knowledge in tools and techniques.   I am not suggesting the current way we (the capitalist West) do this (factory farms and feed lots) is a good idea, but the point remains.  At the present time, as many critics have argued, we don’t really need more food, we need different modes of distribution.

Now this ability to produce, uniquely human, is the ability to transform, to some extent, our environment.  It is also the ability to destroy our environment, but the latter is not necessarily implied by the former—it is simply the way the current capitalist system has enriched the few at the expense of the many, as well as the planet.  It overproduces and it destroys.  Climate change is real, and humans are certainly implicated.  The point here is we don’t have to produce our futures in the way we currently do; we could thrive without destruction to ourselves and to our surroundings.


Look at human population history.  We spend many thousands of years foraging, hunting and gathering.  Some folks still do (or did, until the penetration of capitalism and globalization all over the world).  There is nothing wrong with this, for as Marshall Sahlins once argued, it was “the original affluent society.”  Life could be good, especially during good times.  Amongst some, such as those who hunted and gathered in more temperate climes (i.e., not in the arctic), they may have encouraged plant resources, even planting certain seeds occasionally (probably done mostly by women, who were more familiar with plant resources from gathering).  In normal circumstances, these plantings could be left to mature, and in good times, they could be harvested.  They didn’t have to be tended, only collected when ripe.

These plantings didn’t yield a great deal, but what they did was welcomed, for no hard labor was involved.  When these casually-planted consumables didn’t grow, other gathering and hunting and foraging provided food.  Nobody spent very much time on these plantings, and thus any crop was a bonus.  But those casual planters knew that if they spent more time on the crop—hoeing, tilling, selecting seeds, and keeping animals and birds away, greater crops could result.  So long as regular hunting and gathering sufficed, there was no need to spend much more time on these casual crops.  Why spend 6 days each week cultivating, when hunting and gathering and foraging as usual required only 4 days?  When forced, however, in bad years, they had this alternative form of agriculture.  And eventually, some peoples left hunting and gathering, to become agriculturalists, working more, but also producing more.  No genius with the idea of agriculture was needed, people already knew.  The same is true of domesticated animals.  A wild goat kid or a wild sheep lamb or a fowl might be captured and kept—fed as necessary.  Everyone understood it could be done, but everyone also understood it required more time in herding, gathering fodder, etc., that was normally required to hunt and gather or forage subsistence.  And it is easy to see that when humans put more time into these domesticated endeavors, selective breeding of animals and plants was not far behind.

The population dynamics of classical hunters and gatherers and foragers was basically a no growth pattern.  That is, enough offspring were born to insure reproduction of the domestic units to cover needs for social reproduction (of work groups and the aged, etc.) and replacing children who didn’t survive.  It yielded sufficient personnel to keep alive the aged, the infirm, and the other non-productive members of these social forms.  Now if agriculture had been adopted as the prevailing productive enterprise, by necessity or choice, the only way for people to cut down on time spent in these new endeavors was to have more offspring and more personnel for the increased needs to achieve successful agriculture.  So they did.  Agriculture did not come into being to take care of increasing populations as in the traditional evolution paradigm; it required increasing populations to do the jobs of the new production.   (3)

These new requirements demanded more people—for both the tasks at hand, and to enable the modicum of leisure that is necessary to all human groups, and to keep alive the non-productive.  We probably began planting full time as animals and plants, on which we had traditionally counted, were no longer available in sufficient quantities due to environmental shifts and climate changes, or from other factors, such as plant or animal diseases striking the now-domesticated resources.  Contrary to some contemporary thought, I think it unlikely that human hunter/gatherers or foragers over-harvested resources, to any significant degree, and I do not believe this led to the advent of agriculture.  Hunters, gatherers and foragers are usually quite knowledgeable about the quality of their resources, and plan accordingly.

Once we became producers of a new type, requiring more people, we also had the capacity to have more surpluses (due in part to the constant technical innovations all humans have always come up with, and the increased efficiency and knowledge exhibited by all good producers).  With a surplus, there will be those who prefer to live on it rather than producing themselves, and we see the beginning of greater hierarchical arrangments, as the non-producers justify their consumption.  An early (or initial) hierarchy was probably men over women, elders over juniors, and so forth.  With the evolution of agricultural forms, with different population dynamics, innovations and technical developments yielding ever more differentiation, eventually there were chiefs, priests, professors, poets, armies.  And then kings, nobles, generals.  Population increase is thus in place, almost down to the modern era, or at least immediately prior to the industrial period, for the stress put on producers with some many more non-productive to support required more children.


Prior to the advent of industrialism agriculturally based social forms varied immensely—from near subsistence forms to highly stratified state organizations, complete with standing armies and class structures.  The specific type of production does not really matter.  After all, indigenous peoples on the Northwest coast of North America, produced class-organized hierarchies (including organized warfare and military specialization, and the capture of others who became slaves) based solely on hunting, gathering and foraging.  To be sure, this was a rich environment, with abundant marine life and plentiful gathering, but it is an excellent example of a system based on an economic foundation that in conventional wisdom is incapable of yielding such complexity.  Again, it is not the type of production, it is its organization.  So complex systems exclusively based on agriculture (as well as hunting/gathering/foraging) are well known in human history.  Indeed, classical Greece is one such example.  It produced such surplus that entire groups of scientists were enabled that sketched steam engines, etc.,  that required much later technical innovations to be realized.  People such as Leonardo da Vinci invented devices the social form had neither capacity nor technology to realize at the time (mortars, submarines, flying machines).  Necessity is seldom the mother of invention.  Bright, curious humans are common everywhere.  Innovative individuals and technologies are nearly always around, and there is in the ordinary undergraduate classroom enough intelligence, if used right, properly trained and enabled, to produce (or reproduce) all of Western civilization.  But with any hierarchy, greater exploitation of labor often results– and the consequent surpluses produced flow upwards.

Industrialization was not brought it into being by population increase, it was a matter of control—control of people (such as scientists and inventors), as well as resources and markets.  Embodied labor (or what has been called “yesterdays’ labor”) was captured in sophisticated tools, techniques, etc., and this continually changed with innovations.  By the late European Middle Ages, technology and bureaucracy was sufficiently developed that people were driven off the land or required (by taxation, for example) to have more children to be able to send some off the land into specialized production in organized form—that is, into what became factories, mines, and capitalist manufacture.  Since that time, population dynamics have served those interests, and they do to this day.  State organizations–always servants of the economic forms–make this possible in a variety of ways.

Take the U.S. for example.  Prior to the advent of fully industrialized factory organized capitalism (or at its dawn), our population dynamics required a steep growth curve and high birth rate to produce the agricultural surplus necessary to feed the non-agricultural as well as the incipient urban workers needed to staff the burgeoning factories (and the military and police forces to keep this system going and to secure markets and resources for this new production).  Medicine evolved to keep alive more children, immigration was encouraged, and by the end of the 19th century, we had a quite steeply rising population growth curve in this country.  It was not until the advent of social security and the spread of sufficient wealth throughout the population in the 20th centjury that we experienced our first decline in the population growth rate.  That is, the security of the aged (no longer requiring children to provide for them), development and spread of sufficient wealth (with accompanying medical innovations, etc.) meant it was no longer necessary to have such large families.  So we stopped having them.  In social systems still stressed by more severe exploitation, large families are a necessity.  With basic widespread development and security, populations will essentially reproduce themselves.

When populations are stressed through overwork or are insecure (financially or, otherwise, such as in times of war), they have more children.  As an instance of human populations under stress (in times of war and insecurity), we have the example of the Dutch wartime population statistical surveys from World War II, which charted the rise in population growth during the severe stress of the Nazi occupation of Holland and its subsequent leveling off after the war.

Today in regions where producers are still stressed and there is no social security for the aged or health care for the infirmed, population growth remains high.  Elsewhere, population growth curves essentially level off.  Developed industrial social forms, (Europe, Russia, China, North America, and industrial economies which provide social security and some freedom from productive stress) have very low or zero population growth curves.  In Africa, parts of Asia and the Americas, population growth curves are steeply upward.  And everywhere, significantly, the least secure segments and poor of the developed population areas have the steepest population growth curves.  In America, the steepest population growth curves are found in migrant populations, and those living under most economic and social stress.  China enforced a single child policy in the 1980s, but later, as it began to develop, there was no longer as much need for the coercive child restriction policy, and today the sanctions are less severe than they were at one time; moreover, provinces in China now have different policies.  The more widespread security and development become, the less need there will be for enforced restrictive policies.


In my view here, then, human population dynamics are a function of security, development, social stress, and exploitation.  The Third World is the most rapidly growing because it is the most exploited and the least secure.  The First World is growing the slowest (in some countries, below zero population growth) because it has the most development and security.  If it is considered that the world human population growth curve is too steep, then develop and provide security to the Third World and the least fortunate and least secure humans.  Various population ideologies (such as religion, or beliefs that greater numbers of children are better) have much less effect when people are not stressed.  France and Italy are Roman Catholic countries with low or zero population growth curves despite religion, as people are generally provided adequate security, health care, etc.

None of this is rocket science—we just have to examine population history, the history of exploitation, and the history of development and security.  The resources wasted on hierarchies, and today, capitalist production and consumption (and its constant warfare for resources and markets, overproduction, and wholly stupid consumption) make it clear that human population growth curves are not the problem—they are a symptom.   More than enough food is produced—it is simply badly distributed.  Fossil fuels would last much longer (and might be used more sparingly and more wisely) were it not for capitalist consumption.  And climate change, insofar as it is caused by humans, could be addressed as an issue of urgency, were it not for capitalism.

JAMES FARIS is a retired anthropologist in Santa Fe, NM.  He can be reached at jfaris@newmexico.com.

(1) This is not to underemphasize the response—indeed, many valuable programs were inaugurated to specifically challenge notions of the threat of human population dynamics.  Amongst these (just in the U.S.) are the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment.

(2) This list is taken from the Hampshire College Program in Population and Development website.

(3) In specific cases, however, this could very well have been the reverse.  I simply reject population pressure as a principal cause of the dynamics of human population growth in evolutionary history.