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Malthusian merriment

Written By: - Date published: 10:37 am, August 14th, 2009 - 74 comments
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In the wake of a rather nasty piece of ‘satire’ on another blog earlier this week, I’ve been thinking about over-population. It’s a pretty sensitive topic, and one that is easily derailed by the kind of ‘forced abortion’ scaremongering that Farrar practices so well.

I’m intending to write a more substantive piece later today on the issue but for now I’ll leave you with this cartoon and ask you – do you think the world can sustainably handle the human population as it stands even as we continue to destroy the environment’s carrying capacity? Will our technological prowess make us able to continue to support ourselves as the population grows to 9 billion by mid-century, without destroying the environment that supports us? And, if not, then population decrease is inevitable, so how can it be achieved humanely?

malthusian merriment

74 comments on “Malthusian merriment ”

  1. Ianmac 1

    If the World population was half of the 6 Billion (say about 1930) then the strain on energy and food and resources would be minimal. Obvious eh!
    I cannot understand the drive to keep NZ population increasing. It is apparently an economic necessity???? How many people is enough? 4 million now. 8 million? 16 million? 32 million? 64 million? Why doesn’t some clever person declare NZ optimum population?
    Perhaps in order to keep the need for Superannuation at nil and the population under control, we should all check out at say 60 years. “Birthday tomorrow Dave? Well. Been nice knowing you Dad. Bye.”

    • Bright Red 1.1

      Ah, the Logan’s Run solution. Probably don’t need to go that far 🙂

      I think there was a report out from MFE that gave NZ a carrying capacity of 5.4 million or something around there.

      • Noko 1.1.1

        Only that? Considering we’re 201 on the list of countries by density, that sounds like a mighty small number, even for a self-sufficent country (i.e. not the Vatican, since it has to bring everything in from outside).

        • Bright Red

          Tha’ts because a hell of a lot of other countries are way over their carrying capacity – the UK hasn’t been able to feed itself for a hundred years, it’s dependent on land in other countries to maintian its population.

          Alos look up ‘over-shoot’ you can exceed carrying capacity for some time, whether it’s a country of a herd of cows in a paddock but to do that you have to take ‘natural capital’ out of the environment as well as ‘natural services’. Eventually, even that overcharging is unsustainable, and the bill has to be paid.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.2

      It is apparently an economic necessity???? How many people is enough? 4 million now. 8 million? 16 million? 32 million? 64 million?

      Increasing population is needed because the capitalist system of charging interest and increasing productivity requires an ever expanding market. The market is people. If the market (population) doesn’t expand then production would need to decrease as there wouldn’t be anyone to sell the stuff to. As almost all productivity is based upon interest bearing debt then decreasing production would force a default upon that debt as there wouldn’t be enough income to pay for the interest.

      Increased productivity with everything else remaining the same must result in deflation.

      Why doesn’t some clever person declare NZ optimum population?

      I’m pretty sure you know the answer to this question as well now.

    • The fiat currency system requires more money as debt to be produced in order to sustain the value of the dollar. What does this mean in real word terms? It means that consumption needs to occur in massive and increasing amounts in order to keep afloat. In addition, more and more goods need to go from new to the trash heap every year to keep up with the 3% of growth from the previous years total.

      If you want sustainable you need to change this institution along with all others. Failure to do so will seal the fate of humanity to just another evolutionary cul-de-sac. I argue the planet is fine it’s life that is doomed through unsustainable practice.

  2. r0b 2

    Passing by in haste – interesting post!

    My 2c – in contexts where women have access to education and contraception we have at (or slightly below) replacement birth rates (stable populations). This problem is very fixable, and the solution isn’t difficult. No eugenics, no Farrar style solutions, just give women the resources that they need to make the choice.

    • BLiP 2.1

      So, after women have held up half the sky, they’re also now responsible for the future of the planet? Sounds like another male cop-out if you ask me.

      • Bright Red 2.1.1

        they’re working on a male pill, I understand but the experience shows it’s giving women access to contraceptives that works best for family planning – they’re just more responsible than men, not least of all because they’re the ones literally left holding the baby

        • Ari

          I dunno, the condom has been a decent success as well, and that one is a result of male agency even if women are sometimes the ones responsible for it being used. 😉

          Personally I think birth control is the responsibility of either or both partner(s) who don’t want (more) children.

          edit: That isn’t to say you’re wrong about the benefits of education or demographic trends. Far from it. I’m just being ideological. 🙂

    • wtl 2.2

      r0b is right, there is a very clear link between increased education of women and decreased birth rates. I wouldn’t say it is a male ‘cop-out’, rather it is a good thing – it empowers women and alters the power relationships between males and females, ultimately forcing both sexes to re-evaluate when and how many children they want, and ensure family planning is the norm. This is something that is much less likely to occur in societies where women (and men, to an extent) are uneducated and not in any position to make real choices about reproduction.

    • Rex Widerstrom 2.3

      I add my voice to those saying r0b is right. But I wonder if he knows my applause for his common sense was echoed some years back when none other than Jenny Shipley said the exact same thing, thus breaking a perfect record of my not agreeing with a word she said.

      Albeit her comment was in the context of answering those who were demanding a reduction in the rate of abortion, and having talked to the woman at length I suspect there was a secret hope in the back of her mind that the birthrate of the lower classes would drop to match that of Parnell matrons so NZ wouldn’t be over-run with the hoi-polloi.

      But still…

      • r0b 2.3.1

        Jenny Shipley said the exact same thing, thus breaking a perfect record of my not agreeing with a word she said.

        Ouch – you and me both Rex!

    • Strathen 2.4

      Hi Rob,

      Emmanuel Todd touches on this in his book ‘After the Empire’ (about p27). There is a definite correlation between literacy rates and birth rates. As literacy rates increase, birth rates drop. From memory there was no mention of this being specific to women, but literacy rates across the board.

      In 1981 the global birthrate was 3.7 children per woman. In 2001 it had decreased to 2.8 children per woman. On current trends and maintaining status quo in our approach, we will hit the level of zero population growth about 2050. Zero population growth is 2.1 children per woman.

      To address the cartoon, if we increase literacy rates around the world, most of the issues will resolve themselves. I know this is a bit basic and many will say it’s more complex than that. However, as a broad rule of thumb, and given the exposure of how much charity money given for food actually gets spent on food (very little), it could be a good area to focus on.

      IMO – The demographic trends appear to signal in the next 50 years birthrates will drop and then we will have a shrinking population. The good thing is between now and then technology will improve to a point that we will be uber-efficient in producing and therefore we will be able to scale back industry and environmentally damaging mechanisms. In about 200- 400 years the world will be hit with a crisis as the population shrinks too much. The world’s blogs will be discussing ways to make people have babies, even if they don’t want to. We will have baby farms. From there, a hop skip and a jump, and they’ll be in 1984. Perhaps we should rename that novel – 2284. 😉

  3. Boris Klarkov 3

    And, if not, then population decrease is inevitable, so how can it be achieved humanely?

    Remove the welfare state – discourage the beneficiarycriminals from breeding more beneficarycriminals.

    Allow the poor to die.

    • Bright Red 3.1

      I think Boris Klarkov might use a different definition of ‘humane’ than the rest of us.

      Also ignores the fact that the poor don’t die off in societies without welfare states, in fact people in poverty have more children on average than those on better incomes.

      • jcuknz 3.1.1

        For years I have appreciated that if the world had universal social security that would remove the need to have an abundance of children to look after you when you were old.

        • nic


          You’re right in the sense that there is no pressure on every individual to each have sufficient children to support them in retirement.

          But of course someone needs to pay tax to fund social security. So on aggregate we still need sufficient children in our society. Maybe not a Biblical “abundance”, but enough at least.

    • blacksand 3.2

      oh yeah brilliant; history has clearly shown that poverty keeps birth rates low. Maybe we should set up special housing areas too, just so these decrepit poor don’t upset those who’ve got all the cream.

      You’re a sick fuck.

      Isn’t it amazing how we’ve just lost a scheme where children of (some) beneficiaries could grow up in a household where they could watch their parents working hard to learn skills that enable them to earn their own living & contribute to society, rather than grow up thinking that they’re poor and that there’s not point in even trying.

      • Boris Klarkov 3.2.1

        rather than grow up thinking that they’re poor and that there’s not point in even trying.

        They think that now, due to the expectation of entitlement engendered by nine long cold years of Labour’s social engineering.

        New Zealand has 1.4 workers for every beneficiary. We have several generations of Labour voters who believe that the rest of us have to work to support their lifestyles.

        It’s unsustainable. New Zealand can no longer afford to support the lifestyle choices of the Labour beneficarycriminals and it’s unreasonable to expect decent New Zealand to pay crippling levels of taxation that is flushed entirely down the welfare toilet.

        It’s our country. We built it, we contribute to it, we obey it’s laws. There’s no longer a place in it for those of you who don’t.

        • Maynard J

          There are fewer that 6000 people who have been on the DPB longer than five years – you are just plain full of piss ‘n vinegar, and no brains to boot sonny.

          “New Zealand has 1.4 workers for every beneficiary.”

          Rubbish. Utter rubbish. Or are you talking about WFF and National’s benefit to independent earners?

          • Boris Klarkov

            Rubbish. Utter rubbish. Or are you talking about WFF and National’s benefit to independent earners?

            Like a good little Labour apparatchik, don’t let facts get in the way of your ideology. If it wasn’t mentioned in Capital it doesn’t exist!;


            Look at the graph you Communist imbecile.

            • Maynard J

              Oh, so you are talking about WFF. Does it include National’s independent earners rebate, because that is just a measure to fill the gaps in welfare that Labour (deliberately) left, if you want to face reality.

              Oh, does it inclued people getting state pensions, education, healthcare and people who use roads? Well fuck me Boris, but there is not one worker left and we are all beneficaries. How do you feel you bludger?

              BTW how about some stats instead of pretty pictures? Although it makes sense for you, the Rand is strong in this one and someone who prefers a fantasy novel over real work would probably prefer pretty pictures so they do not have to think too much.

            • Ari

              WFF isn’t welfare, it’s the government subsidising employers that are too stinking cheap to pay decent wages.

          • Bill

            “It’s our country. We built it, we contribute to it, we obey it’s laws. There’s no longer a place in it for those of you who don’t.”

            And here was me thinking he was calling for Air NZ to get the boot for demanding that Dunedin should underwrite any losses Air NZ incurred by servicing the city.

            Oh well.

        • Maynard J

          While you are showing the numbers of beneficaries, please explain the following stats:

          Mar 09 Employed 2,173,000 Unemployed 128,800 Total Labour Force 2,301,800 Not in the Labour Force 1,058,900 Working-age Population 3,360,800 Labour Force Participation Rate 68.5% Unemployment Rate 5.6%

          from here

        • Clarke

          It’s our country. We built it, we contribute to it, we obey it’s laws. There’s no longer a place in it for those of you who don’t.

          Hello Sir Roger, nice to see you back.

    • Rex Widerstrom 3.3

      You know the “Hello Dad” game?…

      Hello, The Garrotte…

  4. yeah, pretty big can of worms that one.

    There was a spate of newspaper article/ editorials a couple of years ago, usually about India and China’s population & their increasing affluence. The general message was that to satisfy their demand for resources, we’d need another two earths. Of course, what this means is that demands on available resources will increase and obviously prices increase; copper and oil in the last few years as just two of the examples. What we’ve never really grappled with, is that the extent of global poverty is what has allowed the ‘free world’ (I think that’s what it’s called?) to have these resources in abundance – the failure of prescibed methods to lift the so called third world out of poverty has maintained this cheap access, irrespective of whether this was intentional or just a byproduct of something else going on.

    But what we’re dealing with above, isn’t so much a function of population per se, but of the resource demands of that population. When we look at the problem of food production & distribution, this is only ever dealt with on a crisis mode basis, with the underlying problems left untouched. For all the advances in agriculture that are touted as miraculously increasing the quantity of food produced, a great many of these only do that if you look at it through tricky accounting. Often, the amount of food produced with industrial methods will actually be less (on a per hectare basis) but be counted as more. Reason being is that in a very different sense it is more, that is on a per labour input basis.

    Now that sounds great; less work producing more food, but less work doesn’t mean easier lives for all, it means less jobs for the already low paid. Now the economically rational thing for people to do would be to evaporate, but they don’t. What we see in the ‘third world’ (or whatever it’s best called thesedays) is what happened in our cultural history a couple of hundred years ago (hiogland clearances, enclosures etc). In our case (and I speak as a descendant of the UK situation) this was alleviated by the inflow of wealth from empire & a whole lot of protectionism eventually enabling the way of life our last few generations have enjoyed. The only problem for those in that situation now, is that at the bottom of the heap, there’s no-one left to strip wealth from. The only options available when you’re pushed off your land is to migrate to the slums or move further into undeveloped land (y’know, previously unlogged forest, malaria ridden areas etc etc).

    The bulk of development aid that has flowed to the impoverished countries has had very little to do with this. Roading/ rail infrastructure has been a priority, ‘cos that’s what you need to extract resources, and the extraction of these resources does not eventuate in the wealth these countries export flowing back into these countries. That’s not to deny the impact food aid has in short term alleviation, but it’s purely a crisis measure that can’t in itself go any distance to addressing the underlying causes. And ironically enough, much of the food aid has been in the form of loans with very strict conditions for eg. Country X loans Y dollars, which can only be used to purchase grain from the farmers of Country X. This is effectively a subsidy to the farmers of the loaning country, and undermines the food producers of the country ‘needing’ the aid.

    Worth a look is ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ by Mike Davis. It deals largely with the famines in India in the late 19th century & shows all too clearly that these famines were not a crisis of food production, but a result of the economic systems imposed because of the idealologies prevailing in the British Empire at that time. The most powerful thing about the book, is that the thinking that caused these famines, right down to the arguements used to justify what was happening still prevail. It was a repeat of the exact same circumstances of the Irish potato famine (where wheat was being exported from Ireland the whole time), and the pattern is still with us today.

    anti-spam word: scientific (rather embarrassed that I don’t have the time do adequately footnote & reference this rant!)

    • Bill 4.1

      Seems to me that your comment is an indictment of “the economic systems imposed because of the idealologies prevailing in the British Empire at that time”, ie the market economy. As you say, that market economy persists and “the thinking that caused these famines, right down to the arguements used to justify what was happening still prevail”

      I don’t think there is anything controversial in what you said in your post.

      Which leaves me at a loss to explain why so few people call for the abolition of the market economy simply and solely on the grounds that you signpost/highlight …ie, allowing for and even leaving aside the plethora of other equally obvious dire issues and matters connected with market economism that you haven’t mentioned.

      • Classical Liberal 4.1.1

        Sorry Bill, the lack of clamour for the abolition of free markets could have something to do with the dire consequences observed when they are done away with.
        The imperial British impact on India arose from ill conceived government [i.e. state] interventions not the operation of markets as such. The Third World in general and sub saharan Africa in particular is underdeveloped, not because of the ‘big bad’ market but because of government and corporate interventions that have everything to do with ideology and screwing the public but nothing to do with free markets.

        • Bill

          The market determines what will be produced and how it will be distributed. It’s an abysmal failure on those counts whether it is ‘free’ or whether governments intervene.

          Blacksand’s comment covered some of it.

          Calling for the abolition of the market should not be seen merely as calling for the abolition of the so-called free market.

        • blacksand

          The Third World in general and sub saharan Africa in particular is underdeveloped, not because of the ‘big bad’ market but because of government and corporate interventions that have everything to do with ideology and screwing the public but nothing to do with free markets.

          Well, yup, I completely agree. The thing is though, that most of these interventions have been by those who use the rhetoric of the free market to justify them; ie undermining ‘difficult’ african governments in the name of freedom/ anti-communism & proping up the Mobutus and Saddams of this world because when it came down to it, they were allowing the spice to flow. What was going on inside their borders was not our place to meddle with. Now the same abhorent practices are done by China, and the editors of the world cry foul…

          It didn’t have much to do with a free market then and it doesn’t now. Leaving aside the question of imbalance between participants in any ‘free’ exchange. To my mind the reason ‘free trade’ & ‘free market solutions’ have such a bad name is due to the context in which they’ve been rolled out as a justification for things that are anything but. Not to mention the outcomes having been pretty shoddy…

          If anyone has access to online journals this paper is worth a look:
          Rethinking Wages and Competitiveness in the Eighteenth Century – Britain and South India

          It contrasts the relationships between weavers, merchants and food production in both India and England in the late 18th Century, a time where British cloth producers where argueing very successfully for tariffs on the basis that the Indian model of production was exploitative and that the british could not compete. What the author shows is that the economic relationships in India gave more power to the weavers in a way that benefited all & produced superior quality goods. It is a good example of a exploitative relationships producing poor outcomes for everyone (particularly English weavers), but nonetheless succeeding, due to the disproportionate influence of wealthy cloth barons.

          That’s actually only half of the story; rice production and distribution in India was producing a higher qty of food per labour input, which in this instance actually was giving rise to higher standard of living, funnily enough. I guess what I take from all of this is that there have actually been economic systems in place where wealth has been shared a lot more evenly, and that this in turn allows a lot more wealth to flourish.

          As a reader of ecology this makes perfect sense; the more effectively wealth circulates through the system, the more the benefits are shared and well being across the board is lifted. Why don’t we ever hear of the ‘trickle up’ fairy? Is there another (less reactionary?) term for this effect?

        • Draco T Bastard

          The imperial British impact on India arose from ill conceived government [i.e. state] interventions not the operation of markets as such.

          And done at the behest of the capitalists. Even today all the”free-market” reforms are done at the behest of capitalists. Why? Because the capitalists are the ones with the money and, therefore, power. It’s not surprising really that the capitalists are the ones that benefit and not anyone else.

    • Draco T Bastard 4.2

      The bulk of development aid that has flowed to the impoverished countries has had very little to do with this. Roading/ rail infrastructure has been a priority, ‘cos that’s what you need to extract resources, and the extraction of these resources does not eventuate in the wealth these countries export flowing back into these countries.

      Of course not, the whole point of capitalism is to funnel wealth from the poor to the rich not to help the poor become self-sufficient. If that ever happened then the capitalists wouldn’t be able to force people to work for them.

  5. Peter Johns - bigoted troll in jerkoff mode 5


    • Maynard J 5.1

      So did your mate Adolf. Why not just say you want to reopen the camps and gas the pricks? Hey it is not Godwins when someone is already spouting racist eugenics.

      That is a really sick comment. What is wrong with you?

  6. bill brown 6

    Putting the pope into the dock for crimes against humanity would be a good start

    • Ianmac 6.1

      Some of the poorest countries are overpopulated and yet the Pope insists on denying contraception. Criminal. In developed countries like NZ Catholics do practise contraception- except for those who have families of about 6 kids.

    • Rex Widerstrom 6.2

      Don’t be too harsh, bill. It’s seems the new “no tolerance” approach from the Vatican is working!!

      Altar boys the world over will be breathing a sigh of relief that priests have got the messages and are switching their attention to girls.

  7. That is why GE is important and should be allowed to go ahead.

    As has been stated before, GE crops have saved over a billion life’s.

    If it is stopped, billions could die, what a legacy for the members of the green party.

  8. lombeer 8

    According to Malthus we should be 6 deep by now. The Greeks started all this overpopulation BS and as their influence spread so did their paranoid fear of being over run by ‘others’ .
    Who decides who live and dies? John Key? the Queen? Prince Charles?! If you think the world is over populated don’t have kids. If you think we need to kill half (more like 80% if you believe Holdren) of the people on the planet, why not start with yourself.
    Ted Turner is always bleating on and on about over-population yet he has 5 kids, oh thats right, as always, the rules don’t apply to the rich.
    I did 3 years of environmental science and management and have been studying this intensely for years because I used to believe it. It boils down to this, the super rich consider us (yes all of us commoners, yes that means you and your children) to be useless eaters and they want us dead.

  9. ak 9

    It’s all very simple (and incontrovertibly proven). Life expectancy is the key factor – get this over about 60 and birth rates drop dramatically.

    And it’s as obscene as it is simple. Half the world starves while half the world gorges and wastes to ill-health and planetary peril.

    It’s Monty Python on a world scale. We’re eating our brothers’ and sisters’ dinner and watching them die – under the risible, threadbare banner of anglo-rationality.

  10. Brett 10

    All that needs to happen is all the men in the country join up to the Labour party, since once you join your dick falls off or is cut off. There you go problem solved.

    • Maynard J 10.1

      What is it with these topics that brings out all the whipped (and clearly chafing under his emasculation) munters like Brett?

  11. Brett 11

    Thanks for biting.
    One thing I really don’t understand about you guys is you get totally worked up about climate change and how if we don’t do anything most people will die,yet in the same breath talk about over population.?Can anyone see how one might actually cancel the other out

    • Maynard J 11.1

      “Thanks for biting.”

      That what she said…

      “yet in the same breath talk about over population”

      What do you mean, by talk about it? How so? Are ‘we’ for it? Against it? Treat it as a problem? Or refuse to look at it as an issue? I am genuinely not sure what you mean there.

      Reducing population growth to sustainable levels is a good idea if you ask me. One of ‘you guys’ above was castigating the pope for conservatism on contraception too.

      If you are intelligent enough to make a decent comment, why the stupid comments? Are you worried that there might be a stereotype you have in your mind not met by what you encounter if you try and engage people you do not agree with?

    • wtl 11.2

      So basically global warming is a good thing because it will kill lots of people and stop overpopulation? Well, good for you if that is your view, but I don’t see how it is hypocritical for others to want to reduce global warming to prevent people dying while at the same time wanting to reduce the population HUMANELY, for example, by reducing birth rates (via education and contraception etc.).

  12. Bright Red 12


    Saying ‘well climate change will solve your over-population problem’ isn’t true and would be inhumane if it were. All climate change will do is lower the Earth’s carrying capacity worsening the over-population problem, leading to an even larger population crash drievn by starvation.

    We want a world that can support a sustainable population of healthy, happy people. We don’t want it wracked by climate change or over-population or both. And we want to achieve that without a whole lot of people being killed.

  13. Brett 13

    How can you gently lower the worlds population when according to most environmentalists the earth is on the precipse of climate change catastrophe.
    Can we afford to wait 50-100 years or would it be easier for Mother Nature to do our dirty work

    • felix 13.1

      “Overpopulation” isn’t a number, Brett. I’m going to make this as simple as I can.

      (This next sentence is hypothetical – sometimes it’s a good idea to say that)

      If a planet can support 3 people, but 4 people have to live on it, it’s overpopulated.

      See why making the world less habitable is not the answer?

      • Brett 13.1.1

        I will make this as simple as possible.How do you get rid of 1.75 billion people?

        • Jeremy

          One of the reasons overpopulation is a problem is there isn’t enough food to go round.
          Enter global warming:
          Even less food -> problem of overpopulation gets worse even if population number stays the same
          See why it’s not a solution?
          I’ll say it another way just in case you’re as stupid as I think you are
          The number of people in the world is not the problem. The number of people in the world is one of the causes of the problem. If you worsen one of the other causes it will not make the problem any better.

          • Brett

            Jesus kid

            Some times its best to not say anything

          • lombear

            I thought ‘global warming’ was utterly discredited. Plus if we have more CO2 in the ‘air’ plants thrive in a CO2 rich environment… don’t they ? sure they may transpire less, but won’t that mean there is more water for us? Given that the vast majority of ‘greenhouse gas’ is water vapour are we going to declare war on water next? this carbon dioxide paranoia is a filthy lie. There are much greater threats to the environment. GE and waste plastic being a massive concern. Yet all we ever hear about is carbon effin’ dioxide.
            Polly want a cracker? “CO2 is an evil poison gas that is going to kill us all, squawk squawk give all your money to Al Gore, squawk, squawk.”

        • Spectator

          Natural attrition. Stop breeding.

    • Bright Red 13.2

      Why not avoid both catastrophes, Brett?

      And like Felix says, making the earth less habitable through climate change is a pretty sh*tty answer to over-population.

      It displays an utter lack of empathy or even humanity towards the billions of people you’re talking about needlessly starving to death.

  14. Sonny Blount 14

    This problem is already solving itself.

  15. Nice work BlackSands.
    Male fertility has been falling no? The Earth seems to have been on the job.

  16. Maynard J

    Okay cartoon, but I perfer Calvin and Hobbes myself.

    • Maynard J 16.1

      I was just pointing out the whole point of the cartoon is that ag research and such will not solve our problems, yet you were advocating just that!

      Agreed, though, Calvin & Hobbes is top quality.

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