People at present think that five sons are not too many and each son can have five sons also and, before the death of the grandfather, there are already 25 descendants. Therefore people are more and wealth is less: they work hard and receive little
– Han Fei Tza.
Han wrote 500 years before Christ. He clearly understood the practical effects of exponential growth. The meaning of exponential growth is beautifully illustrated by the ancient Persian story about a courtier who came to the great king and presented him with a most magnificent chess board. On being asked what he desired in return, the courtier said he would be content with one grain of rice on the first chess board square, two on the second, four on the third and so on.
The king readily and greedily agreed. By the 40th square, the king's rice store was empty and the king was in the situation of owing his courtier a massive debt – a debt that never could be repaid. With 24 squares still to come, the now impoverished king owes over one million-million grains.
Humanity's problem is that the world's population has been growing exponentially from around the middle of the 17th century and continues to do so now. Back in hunter-gatherer days the food supply was limited – nuts, berries, fruit, fish and meat when caught – and this all kept the world population to around 15 million, if that. The introduction of agriculture allowed for the building of settlements and the peaceful expansion of family life; by the start of the Bronze Age about 25 million souls were in the world, and by the Iron Age possibly as many as 60 million.
When the Roman Empire was at its peak, more meaningful estimates can be arrived at, with an estimated 150 million people filling our planet: by 1650 that figure had reached around 800 million. It took a further 150 years for the population to top one billion but then only another 100 to make two billion. Some 50 years later it was over three billion, and today we are not far short of eight billion (some estimates make this higher). If the present rate of growth maintains, we will have a population of over 11 billion by this century's end.
It will not come to that: the 14th century provides the reason why. Over-population can be defined in a number of ways, but having enough food of a good enough quality to eat is one part of the definition; having access to all energy requirements is another and, finally, being able to adequately cope with your waste is an essential. When the Rand Corporation in America were asked to outline the consequences of a nuclear war, they did so by writing a report on the Black Death that swept the world mid-14th century.
Europeans first met the bubonic plague in 1346 in the Crimea. With an exceedingly limited diet and with towns and villages simply swimming in pollution, European men and women died in their millions. That it was due to these factors is simply proven by the fact that, although possibly half the population died, it was a distorted half. It was said that the disease had no respect for or of persons but that was not true: the better fed you were, the more often you bathed, the more often you changed your clothes, the cleaner your local environment, the less chance you had of catching the condition. In other words, the richer you were the greater your survival chances. Out of the 120 heads of the European states at the time, only one died of the Black Death: the unfortunate King Alfonso of Castile nobly refused to flee from his own troops when the Black Death broke out in his war camp and he paid the highest price.
But at least half the people alive at the time of the Black Death survived – and, indeed, entered a better world; a less polluted world, a world where healthcare became more of a concern; a world of greater equality; a world of greater availability of agricultural land; a world where knowledge of Latin became less important as local languages took over the pulpit and learning spread.
It will not be like that this time. The potential for global warming was first considered in the 19th century when John Tyndall, an Irish scientist, first suggested such an effect. He did so purely on the increasing amount of coal being used then but, today, our over-populated world also needs oil and gas. And, make certain, the root cause of global warming is over-population.
The global warming crisis is not without hope – but for hope to flourish it has to be on the back of action. And that action cannot be limited to simply reducing our greenhouse gas emissions; with over 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere controlling effluent is simply not enough; we have to clean the atmosphere.
Otherwise we are, quite simply, doomed. Even in the short-term, Scotland will experience horrors. By 2050 summer temperatures in the Central Belt could reach 40 degrees and the rising tides will destroy many of our coastal transport ways. Agriculture will be seriously affected and food scarcities will rise – bringing in added health issues. And Scotland will not suffer as much as elsewhere.
By the year 2100, climate scientists have predicted that, on present trends, the average global temperature will have risen by three degrees Celsius. That does not seem much, but the average difference between the mid-20th century temperature and the Ice Age was only five degrees; so three is a lot and will bring horrors in its wake.
Back to hope: Iceland has developed a successful method of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and turning it into stone. It can already process an estimated 10,000 tonnes of CO2 a year by this way: but there is a problem. The process costs money but does not make any. In a world where investment rules, this means that only governments will put money into such schemes – apart from a few charitable sources. Bill Gates has financially supported the British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering Company that is actively trialling removing CO2 from the atmosphere and turning it into fuel. A similar company exists in Switzerland.
So there is hope – but we did release over 35 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere last year and, therefore, we still need to control our population numbers as well as cutting our emissions and developing ways to clean the atmosphere.
Bringing down population numbers will not be easy although, if we do not do anything, nature will do that dramatically anyway. There are those who argue that, properly run, establishing world peace and allowing for the advances of science, our world could hold more individuals than it does (there are approximately 3.2 billion hectares of arable land on this planet and, technically, this would allow for over 20 billion people). But we are not going to properly run our planet. Bernie Sanders is one of the few major politicians talking of providing free access to contraceptives to the poorer countries of this world (and was much criticised for doing so) when he linked population growth to climate change.
This is only part of the solution though as one person in an advanced country will use more than t10 times the resources that a person in a poorer country will go through in their lifetime. Taxation is another part; we have to structure our tax system to discourage large families. At first sight this move may seem to favour the richer members of society, but that situation only points up the need for a thorough overhaul of our taxation system – including monetary incentives for couples to restrict themselves to two children.
As a side-light to all this, an important one though, England is grossly over-populated by any standard and that, ultimately, will have adverse effects on the British economy and will fuel separation thoughts in the other nations making up the United Kingdom. In fact, the overcrowding in some parts of England has led to more retirees settling north of the border (and bringing their lovely pensions with them).
Solving the problem of global warming is immensely difficult but we hold the Earth in stewardship for the next generation. So we have to heed Hans' warning and do something.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow