Climate Change, Migration and Inequality are not Problems: They are Symptoms

In the early days of homo-sapiens communities would remain in one place until the ability of the land to support them ran out. Then they would move on. We call them Nomads and it is a way of life still adopted by a few.

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A couple of centuries ago a man called Thomas Malthus pointed out that the population generally was rising faster than the ability of the land to sustain it. The catastrophe he forecast hasn’t happened for a number of reasons, principal among them migration. In the nineteenth century there was still plenty of undeveloped land available in North America and Australia. Europeans migrated there in significant numbers.

Meanwhile the productivity of agriculture was vastly increased thanks to herbicides, insecticides, plant breeding programmes and modern machinery.

But in Malthus’s time the population of the planet was well under a billion. Today it is approaching 8 billion. And whilst there are still areas of undeveloped land yet to be cultivated, to do so will have unacceptable consequences for the environment. Indeed, the destruction of areas of rain forest that has already occurred is widely recognised as having exacerbated such phenomena as rising sea levels. And the continuing use of agri-chemicals is known to be responsible for environmental hazards such as the pollution of water sources and the threatened demise of key pollinators.

Today it is the developed world that has more space available than the less well developed parts of the planet. Alongside the rapid increase in total population are variations that illustrate the problems that politicians in Europe and North America in particular are attempting to address.

  • India’s population density, for example, is twice that of most of Europe, and more than 11 times that of the USA.
  • Elsewhere, low population densities disguise the fact that the country contains large areas that are uninhabitable. This is true of Russia and China in particular.
  • Net inward migration is greatest in North America and Europe.
  • Throughout Africa the median age is under 20 yet annual population growth is relatively high (in excess of 2.5%.) Throughout Europe the median age is over 40 but growth is relatively low at less than 1%.

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The population increase is being driven, not by excess births so much as by increased longevity, especially in the developed world.

Addressing the symptoms — attempting to control migration, shutting down European and North American power stations whilst China and India continue to build new ones, addressing inequality by raising the incomes of the majority of people in the developed world — can have only a limited impact.

It is one thing to identify the underlying cause of the symptoms, quite another to offer solutions. China tried limiting the number of children couples were permitted to have and that did not work, largely because, as we have seen, growth is driven by increased longevity, not by birthrate. In my 78th year I am not about to suggest a cull of the elderly. But there are things we could stop doing. Where the quality of life is significantly diminished should we be more tolerant of voluntary euthenasia? And, at the beginning of life, we ought to be far more tolerant of birth control and abortion, less willing to offer fertility treatments.

But these will only scratch the surface. I don’t know the answer. I do know that Malthus’s prediction of a catastrophe is far closer today than it was when he first forecast it.

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Frank is a retired Engineer from England now living in Ireland. He is trying to learn and share the lessons of history.

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