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Newsletter 22nd February 2008

- The "overpopulation" of the UK - Is peak oil really close?

The "overpopulation" of the UK

Readers of the Telegraph will have seen this week a report that the United Kingdom is actually only capable of supporting 17 million people rather than the nearly 61 million currently living here. This rather worrying conclusion comes from a report published by the Optimum Population Trust, a think tank which, in its own words, " campaigns for stabilisation and gradual population decrease globally and in the UK.".

The majority of people (assuming they are not already OPT members) will probably simply ignore this, but it is worth digging a bit deeper to see what lays behind this. The feeling that the Earth is overpopulated (with human beings, at least) is widespread, particularly in the mainstream environmentalist movement. In their view, reducing the number of people would be beneficial for the planet. At the extreme, there are those who would prefer to see the extinction of human life.

Such views are not new. Perhaps their best known exponent was Mathus, who put forward his influential arguments at the turn of the 19th Century, when the world's population was still less than one billion. His thesis was essentially that populations increase geometrically, while food production can only increase arithmetically. The result would be inevitable mass famine and an automatic cap on population, similar to that for other species.

Paul Ehrlich wrote "The Population Bomb" in 1968, when the population was 3.5 billion. This expanded on an article published a year earlier, from which this often-used quote is taken "the battle to feed all of humanity is over ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." More recently, Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" argued that a number of civilizations had failed because they had simply used up all their natural resources.

Malthus was wrong, Ehrlich was wrong, and there is considerable evidence that Diamond was wrong, but their views remain influential. What the Optimum Population Trust and other neo-Malthusians forget or ignore is that nothing is static. They make the mistake of assuming that because food production (or any other variable you care to mention) was X at a certain point and Y in the present, it will continue to evolve smoothly along the same path (or meet an upper limit because of a known constraint). This view takes no account of innovation and progress.

Ehrich also wrote "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980." When he wrote that, India's population was about 0.5 billion. Now it is over 1.1 billion. By most measures, food security has increased markedly over that period. Average energy intake per capita continues to increase, and the proportion of undernourished (though still unacceptably high) is falling slowly.

The remaining problems are socio-economic rather than an inability to produce enough food. One of the key reasons for a situation which Ehrlich found inconceivable 40 years ago was the use of modern plant breeding to bring high-yielding dwarf cereal varieties to India and many other developing countries. The Green Revolution, despite its critics, has given the wherewithal to prove the Malthusians wrong. As Indian farmers are now increasingly adopting GM cotton to give a reliable income from an important cash crop, we can expect to see a further step-change in agricultural productivity in the next few decades.

Being British, the OPT does not advocate drastic solutions to what it sees as the people problem. Rather than advocating mass slaughter or starvation, its most radical proposition is for couples to remain childless or have a maximum of two children. What they take no account of is the tendency of populations to stabilise and fall as societies get richer. In a world of no migration, most European countries would already have shrinking populations, and our attention would be focussed on the people problem from a different perspective. Adapting to a falling population would present real challenges.

The experience in mid-income countries is similar. As life expectancy increases and infant mortality declines, there is an initial population bulge before fertility rates decrease. The Chinese and Indian populations are still increasing quite fast, but they too will doubtless show the same pattern. By mid-century, we may well be in the situation the OPT  is promoting, with steadily declining populations in most countries. This will please some people and worry others. One factor which never seems to change is the human capacity for dissatisfaction.

Is peak oil really close?

While the argument is made about the number of planets we may or may not need to support us in the style to which we have become accustomed, there is a much more specific debate which seems to run and run: is the concept of peak oil valid and if so, are we now reaching it? The debate is to some extent philosophically based. On one side are those who say that reserves are finite and that our capacity to exploit them is nearing its limit (the pessimists), while their critics (the optimists) insist that hydrocarbons are essentially inexhaustible and that we will merely extract more as the price goes up.

Currently, the peak oil enthusiasts seem to have the upper hand, as oil production has failed to surge despite the sustained high prices. But this could also reflect the nature of the business: oil companies need to be sure that prices will indeed remain high before they will make the huge investments needed for exploration and exploitation of new or previously uneconomic fields. Now the price signals are there, more exploration can be expected, but the effort cannot be simply turned on like a tap, and new fields will take some time to be brought into production.

In the meantime, like it or not, the vast deposits of Canadian tar sands will be exploited at an increasing rate, and more focus will be put onto conversion of coal to liquid fuel. Conventional oil supplies may or may not have peaked, but alternatives will take their place. And, in turn, the high price of oil will drive innovation in alternative fuels and energy sources. In reality, there will still be plenty of oil in the ground by the time we no longer want to extract it. As sheikh Yamani said "the Stone Age did not end for lack of stone".