Exploding Population Myths
[A paper delivered at the Annual Monash Memorial
Lecture, Monash University, Melbourne, Ocober 1977. Reprinted from
Land & Liberty, March-April, 1978]
The simple method of judging the trend of population by comparing
current births with current deaths is open to an objection so obvious
that many people fail to see it, namely, that while current births
relate to the present generation of parental age, current deaths
relate on the average to the much smaller generation born some seventy
years ago. If current deaths are equal to current births, therefore,
this must mean that population in the future is certain to decline.
Now we are facing depopulation.
World power depends, even more than it did in the past, on having a
large population, not primarily in having large numbers of recruits to
the armed forces; but principally in having sufficient taxpayers to
pay for the enormously costly equipment which modern armed forces
The cause of our infertility must be sought, it seems, in our social
psychology, in a profound disillusion with the civilisation in which
we live. People will undertake the undoubted hardships and
difficulties of bringing up children if they have firmly fixed in the
backs of their minds the belief that there is something good in the
civilisation in which they live, that they live in a world worth
bringing children into.
All previous civilisations have had a faith by which they lived. We
have almost entirely lost ours, and are becoming totally disillusioned
with our civilisation.
When I said at a public session of the ANZAAS 1976 Conference in
Hobart that these declines in reproductivity, if not checked, would
bring our civilisation to an end, a substantial part of the audience
indicated by their applause that they thought that this was a
Another observation to be made of civilisations in decline is that
they are becoming increasingly bureaucratic and overtaxed.
Governments, even more than businesses, tend to have high overhead
costs, i.e., those which show little or no alteration with the size of
the population which they have to serve. A stationary or declining
population thus increases the comparative burden of government
expenditure. It also increases The temptation on governments, faced
with difficulties in raising money by taxation or borrowing, to try to
get out of them by inflation.
It is significant that France, which for a long period has had an
almost stationary p6pulation, since the nineteenth century should have
suffered more persistent devaluations than most Western countries.
It can only be some irrational force of social psychology at work
which led such large numbers of supposedly rational people to accept
with enthusiasm the obvious nonsense about the prospect of the
immediate extinction of our industrial civilisation through the
exhaustion of mineral and agricultural resources; while at the same
time being overwhelmed by pollution. If such people really believed
what they were saying, they would have bought agricultural land and
mining shares, both of which would obviously be rising rapidly in
value if the world really were on the point of exhausting its
Estimates have now been made for several countries which show that
pollution could be almost completely cured by the expenditure of
between one and two per cent of Gross National Product When it comes
to the point, however, we are unwilling to face this expenditure.
In 1925, when I was a first-year student of chemistry, our lecturers
assured us that world supplies of oil would run out in about 1940; as
1940 approached, I was told that supplies would run out in 1955; and
so on. Most mining companies conduct their exploration so as to have
only about fifteen or twenty years supplies in reserve. They have to
earn dividends for their shareholders, or pay high rates of interest
on borrowed money, and must therefore apply a high rate of discount
when valuing possible returns fifteen or twenty years in the future
against present (high) costs of exploration.
Quantities of metals estimated to exist within reach of the earth's
surface exceed by factors of hundreds or more the mining companies'
estimates of current reserves. Chemical processes are known for
extracting aluminum from common clay, but they are substantially more
costly than obtaining it from bauxite.
If, in fact, we were approaching the exhaustion of our reserves of
metals, their prices would be steadily rising relative to those of
other commodities. This is not the case. Prices of metals are not
changing significantly relative to the general price level, except for
aluminum, which is becoming cheaper.
Economies in the use of iron and steel are particularly remarkable.
Those of us who are not professional engineers may fail to realise how
much material can be saved by improvements in design.
It is likewise a serious mistake to assume that the demand for energy
must advance in proportion to national product. Countries such as
Japan, France and Italy, where fuel is mostly imported and costly,
have developed advanced industrial economies with comparatively low
Our fears about energy shortage should be dispelled when we consider
the beneficial consequences of rising fuel prices, our still abundant
reserves of coal, or uranium and also thorium, of the virtually
limitless inflow (though at present costly to harness) of solar
energy, and finally the prospects, which may be quite near, of being
able to exploit nuclear fusion (of hydrogen) rather than nuclear
I hope that nobody still believes that two-thirds of the world is
hungry (this mis-statement turned out to have been based on a simple
statistical error) or even that half the world is malnourished. (FAO
eventually had to admit that the only evidence that they could produce
for this statement was that half the world did not eat as much as the
inhabitants of Britain and France, many of whom are suffering from
liver complaints and other obvious diseases of overeating).
The reason for these antics on FAO's part is that it is an
organisation run (at our expense) by agricultural politicians and
public relations men, whose principal concern is to get their
reluctant governments to go on subsidising the production of food
surpluses. Their task is facilitated if they can spread stories about
a starving world waiting hungrily to consume any agricultural surplus
that the advanced countries may produce.
It is of course wrong to give the opposite impression that there is
no hunger in the world. I have published an estimate in India, that
about 25 per cent of the population is below the hunger line; a
serious matter, but very different from talk about half the world.
While many sufferers show clear clinical symptoms of protein
deficiency, scientists, particularly in India, have found that in most
cases they have adequate protein in their diet, but cannot assimilate
it if they are in calorie deficiency. What India and other poor
countries need, therefore, is not protein supplements but more
abundant supplies of their staple foods.
The greater part of the world's potential cultivable land is unused,
and most of what is used is cultivated extremely badly. Using not
experimental farm methods, but only those which are already being
applied by good farmers, the amount of land required to produce the
food and other agricultural (including forest) products required by
the average Australian is about a quarter of a hectare. Using only the
available good-rainfall land throughout the world, without any
extension of irrigation, we could produce an Australian type diet for
many times the world's present population.
Another widely circulated piece of mis-information is that, in the
developing countries, food supplies are not keeping pace with
population. The developing countries are gaining, but the principal
feature is the great increase in the advanced countries, which
threatens world agricultural surplus, not shortage. The sudden rise in
food prices in 1973 and 1974 was due to bad harvests, principally in
Russia, China and India. But it has to be temporary.
In the long run world agricultural supplies have about kept pace with
demand, with periods favourable to agriculture in the 1920's and the
early 1950's. Agriculture is always seriously affected by general
world recessions, such as those of the 1890's and 1930's.
The methods of giving farm support in all advanced countries are not
confined to helping poor farmers (for which there might be some
justification) but subsidise the rich and poor farmers alike to
increase their output. One might almost think that it had been
designed deliberately to worsen the world terms of trade for
The economic benefits from farm subsidies and tariffs quickly become "crystallised"
in high land values, thus creating a very powerful vested interest.