The Third Revolution
Paul Harrison

I. One Part Wisdom: The Great Debate

Under totally favourable conditions the power of animals to multiply is spectacular. In 1937 two male and one female ring necked pheasants were released on Protecton Island, Washington. Within five years they had increased by 166 times, to 1325 - a annual growth rate of 180 per cent.

Within the space of a year field voles can multiply their numbers 24 times. Flour beetles can increase ten billion times. A pair of Daphnia water fleas can become 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. 1

The human capacity to reproduce is paltry in comparison. The most children a mother has had in modern times was 55, including five sets of triplets, born to Leontina Albina of Chile over a period of thirty eight years. Assuming no child deaths, we might in theory be able to double our numbers every three or four years. In practice the highest recorded rates of natural population growth sustained over a decade or more have rarely exceeded 4 per cent. 2


Shifting into higher gears


For most of human history they have been very much lower than that. Our early growth rates were almost imperceptibly slow, limited by disease, injury, predators, warfare, and the availability of food resources. Around 10,000 BC there may have been no more than four million of us.

Most hunter-gatherers number between 0.3 and five persons per square kilometre. The invention of agriculture placed us in control of our food supply. Higher densities - ten to thirty per km²- became possible. By the beginning of the present era world population totalled perhaps 170 millon. 3

Since 0 AD there have been five main phases of growth, like five gears of a car. Each has its own characteristic speed, ground covered, and specific driving cogwheel. In each successive phase up to 1980, the pace of growth increased by three to five times, while the annual addition in numbers multiplied tenfold.

We were in first gear between 0 and 800 AD. With economic stagnation, political chaos, and mass migrations, the growth rate was a crawl - 0.03 per cent a year. An average year brought only an extra 63,000 people on earth.

The engine shifted into second gear between 800 and 1700. Gradual agricultural improvements, mainly in Europe in China, were the motive force. The growth rate warmed to 0.11 per cent, adding an extra 677,000 people a year.

Third gear was engaged in the two and a half centuries between 1700 and 1950, powered by the industrial revolution. The growth rate now quickened to 0.57 per cent a year, the annual additions to 7,624,000 extra people. During this phase the human race passed its first billion, around 1820. The second billion, reached in 1930, took just over a century.

We moved into fourth gear around 1950. Two new driving forces brought down death rates in developing countries. One was the gradual introduction of modern preventive and curative medicine, including immunization, improved water and sanitation, and antibiotics. But these alone could not have increased survivals without the second: the agricultural revolution based on chemical fertilizers, irrigation, and improved seeds.

The annual growth rate reached an all time high of 2.05 per cent in the 1960s. An average year saw an extra 64 million people on earth. We reached our third billion was reached in 1960, only thirty years after the second. The fourth billion took only fourteen years.

Since 1980 we have been in fifth gear. The torque is not so high - the growth rate is down, to around 1.74 per cent a year. But we are still cruising along on the momentum of the fourth phase. Because the starting total is higher, the numbers added each year are much higher. Our fifth billion was passed in 1987. It took just thirteen years.

We have not yet reached full throttle. The decade of the 1990s will see the highest annual additions to world population in all history. The six billon mark will be passed around 1997, just ten years after the fifth. By 2000 AD the United Nations expects that no less than 969 million people will have been added. That equals the population of the whole world around 1810. 4

It is hard to comprehend numbers of this magnitude. The United Nations Population Fund give out a little pocket calculator that helps. Every sixty seconds it updates world population. Take your eye off the display for just one minute and look back: the figure has jumped another 180. Three extra people per second.

An invisible clock is ticking in every country of the world. Useless, these days, for children to learn populations of countries. By the time they're asked again, the answer will be different. The population of India, I learned as a schoolboy in 1960, was 440 million. As I write it is almost double that figure, and is increasing by 19 million a year. When I visited Bangladesh in 1978, the population was 83.5 million. When I went back in 1991, it was 119 million. Dhaka, the capital, had doubled in size.

The 1990s will see two whole Europes, East and West, added in just ten years. An extra United States every two and a half years. Two United Kingdoms every fourteen months. A Sweden or two New Zealands every month. A Birmingham every four days. Every twenty four hours a town the size of Walsall or Wolverhampton. A school class of thirty every ten seconds.

Such figures are apt to induce panic.

But is the panic justified? Do we need to worry? Is population growth a problem? Is it something we can handle? Or is it, as some would make out, a positive benefit?


Objections to Utopia


The Greeks, with a relatively static technology, took it for granted that a city state should balance its population with its resources. Sparta kept the number of her male citizens static by infanticide. Most Greek city states eased pressure on limited land at home by sending out colonists around the Mediterranean. Plato recommended zero population growth for his utopian Republic. For Aristotle a populous city was hard to govern well. The ideal size of state was one that could be taken in with a single view. Population should be limited by late marriage and exposure of deformed children. 5

But it was not till the late eighteenth century that the outlines of the modern debate were first traced. Curiously they emerged not from population pressures but from ideological struggles. The population question was just one of the grounds on which egalitarianism and conservatism battled it out. That battle has coloured and clouded the debate ever since.

The terms were set by Robert Wallace in 1761, in his Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature and Providence. Wallace recommended equality as a complete remedy for distress and selfishness. But he raised an apparently insuperable objection to his own utopia. It would eventually self-destruct through overpopulation. Children would be so well taken care of that infant mortality would fall and population increase. The earth would at last become overstocked, unable to support its inhabitants. Cruel and unnatural customs would have to be introduced to limit numbers. Women would be cloistered, males castrated at birth. People would be executed when they reached an appointed age. Disputes over these intolerable rules would bring violence and war. Deaths in battle would cull the population to manageable proportions.

Wallace's paradox seemed to rule out any and all egalitarian utopias. Thus the anarchist William Godwin, father of Frankenstein's creator, Mary Shelley, felt he had to to answer Wallace's objections. `The number of inhabitants in a country,' Godwin wrote in 1793, in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, `will perhaps never be found, in the ordinary course of affairs, greatly to increase beyond the facility of subsistence.' Even if it did, three quarters of the globe were still uncultivated, and the earth could support increasing populations for myriads of centuries. It would be foolish, then, `to conceive discouragement from so distant a contingency.'

In Godwin's paradise on earth, means would be found to extend human life indefinitely. But population increase would not bring this paradise to a close. Our `eagerness for the gratifications of the senses' would weaken. People would cease to propagate. `There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, . . no government. . . There will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all.' 6


Malthus: the baleful theorem


Godwin's farfetched dreams provoked a response in the most notorious tract ever written on the subject, Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798. 7

Malthus was reared on the libertarian principles of Rousseau's educational novel Émile. The boy developed more independence of mind than his father Daniel envisaged. Reacting against his father's principles, Thomas became a reactionary.

Malthus was as cynical as Godwin was idealistic. By nature human beings were `inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity.' The passion between the sexes was basic and would never change.

Because of this urge the human population, when unchecked, would always tend to increase in geometrical ratio (1, 2, 4, 8, 16 etc). But food production could increases only in arithmetical ratio (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc). Hence `the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.'

Since food was essential to survival, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal one way or another. Among the lower classes, the sheer difficulty of survival would exert a permanent check. Any excess numbers that were produced would simply die. The lower middle classes - marginal gentlefolk, tradesmen, servants, skilled labourers - might exercise foresight, and marry late or not at all. 8

Malthus' baleful theorem was devised not as a sociological or natural law - though it posed as one. Its main purpose was to prove the impossibility of all schemes to improve the lot of workers or to redistribute income. Malthus makes this quite explicit: the theorem was an `insurmountable difficulty' in the way of the perfectivility of society. It was, he said, `decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and their families.'

The context is significant. The French revolution exploded in 1789, awakening demands for radical reform in Britain. And reform was increasingly needed. Enclosures and the growth of the factory system deprived many of the rural poor of livelihoods from land or craft. At the same time war hoisted bread prices. In 1795, as an attempt to alleviate poverty, the Speenhamland system was introduced. This made up labourers' wages whenever they fell below the bare subsistence level, calculated according to the price of a gallon loaf and the size of the family. Its net effect was to allow employers to cut wages below subsistence level, leaving the poor no better off than before.

Thus Malthus, son of a landowner, wrote from an anxious position of threatened privilege. The first edition of the Essay, hastily compiled, poorly documented, loosely argued, was above all a political polemic. The French Revolution was condemned as a `fermentation of disgusting passions, of fear, cruelty, malice, revenge, ambition, madness and folly as would have disgraced the most savage nation in the most barbarous age.' The Speenhamland system was criticized as encouraging idleness, dissipation, and overproduction of children. Malthus advocated a return to the old punitive type of workhouse, so unpleasant that it would force idlers out to work. Inequality, he asserted, was inevitable: Every piece of matter `must have an upper and an under side, all the particles cannot be in the middle.'

A man of religious bent - he took holy orders in 1797 - Malthus refused to see in the inexorable workings of these `laws' the sign of a wrathful God. The constant pressure of distress, he wrote, was intended to direct our hopes to the future, and to self-improvement. Evil existed in the world not to create despair but activity. We were not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. Moreover, inequality `stimulates social sympathy . . and affords scope for the ample exercise of benevolence.' The poor must be poor or the rich will have no opportunity to practise charity.

Malthus went on to become one of the first anti-Malthusians. In 1803, only five years after the first edition of his Essay, he published a second, much expanded, much improved version, which so modified the original argument as to be almost its opposite. The second edition stressed the potential power of self-control among all classes. If this was exercised, population growth need not outrun the increase food supply. Indeed `an increase in population, when it follows in its natural order, is both a great positive good in itself, and absolutely necessary to a further increase in the annual produce of the land and labour of any country.'

His social model became much more liberal: government should establish national education systems, and involve the lower classes in framing laws. The aim would be to `approximate them in some degree, to the middle classes of society.'

However, it was the outrageous polemic of the first edition that was remembered. And like all oversimplifications, it fired its opponents and gave them ammunition to launch against it.

Later liberal economists built on his work. Ricardo formulated the `iron law of wages' - wages can never rise much above or below the minimum level required for the subsistence of workers and the children needed to replace them. 9


The socialists reply


The first edition of the Essay on Population was an onslaught against socialism. Not surprisingly later socialists took up arms against it. The essayist William Hazlitt condemned it as a work `in which the little, low, rankling malice of a parish beadle, or the overseer of a workhouse is disguised in the garb of philosophy.' 10

Marx slammed the Essay as a `sensational pamphlet', a `libel on the human race.' In Marx's view `overpopulation' was the outcome not of the laws of nature, but of the laws of capitalism. By investing more and more in machinery, capitalism created a surplus army of labourers who could not find employment. It was not true overpopulation, but overpopulation in relation to an economic system. `The pressure of population,' wrote Marx's patron Engels, `is not upon the means of subsistence but upon the means of employment: mankind could mutiply more rapidly than is compatible with modern bourgeois society.' 11

American land reformer Henry George brought the debate much closer to its modern terms in his Progress and Poverty, written in 1879 while he was a state gas inspector in San Francisco. George's American background gave a very different perspective. Crowded Europe was already shipping its huddled masses across the Atlantic by the million. America's huge increases in population had been accompanied by huge increases in wealth.

The real cause of poverty, according to George, was not overpopulation at all. It was rather to be sought out in unjust laws, warfare, excessive rents, lack of secure tenancies: all those `social maladjustments that in the midst of wealth condemn men to want.' Poverty caused population growth, not the other way round, since the poor usually had more children than the rich. India was plagued by famine not because of overpopulation, but because of oppressive government by the Moghuls and the British. The Great Famine of 1844 in Ireland - often cited by Malthusians as proof of their theories - was in reality the inevitable outcome of landlords' extortion.

These arguments foreshadowed later left wing views. But George was also a herald of anti-Mathusians on the radical right. Population growth was a catalyst of wealth. Wealth was greatest in those countries where population was densest. Population increase made the members of a society richer, not poorer. Labour was more productive where it worked together with others, through cooperation and specialization. And extra labour added to the productivity of land. `The increase of man results in the increase of his food.' The Malthusian nightmare would never come about.


The Boserup thesis


One of George's most influential successors is the Danish economist Ester Boserup. The Boserup thesis, as it has become known, is one of the most powerful theories in the history of technology. When it was first launched in 1965, in her seminal book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, the thesis related only to farming. Later it was applied to the industrial revolution. We shall examine the details in chapter two. 12

Malthus speculated how agriculture determined population levels. Boserup turned Malthus on his head. It was population growth that determined agricultural change, she said. And in explaining the exact mechanisms, she put flesh on the bones of George's assertions.

The first farmers were shifting cultivators, clearing forest, growing food for a year or two, then moving on. They might return to an old plot after fifteen to twenty years. As their numbers increased, they had to return more frequently to the same plot.

Then problems developed. The soil hardened, weeds proliferated, fertility and yields declined. Farmers were forced to develop new techniques. Simple digging sticks gave way to hoes, then to ox and horse-drawn ploughs. To maintain soil fertility they were forced to introduce manure, compost, crop rotations with legumes, irrigation. Irrigation allowed more than one crop to be grown each year.

All these developments kept food production up with population growth. They all involved more labour, and people would invest more labour only when they had no alternative. Population growth provided the compulsion. Without population growth they would not have come about.

Boserup extols the virtues of population growth in occasionally evangelical style. `Primitive communities with sustained population growth,' she writes, ` have a better chance to get into a process of genuine economic development. . . A small and stagnant population is unlikely to get beyond the stage of primitive agriculture to a higher level of technique and cultural development.' 13


The modern Malthusians


It is surprising how little the terms of the debate on population have changed: today's disputes and political alignments echo those of the nineteenth century.

On one side we have the Cassandras. The more extreme blame overpopulation. for almost every ill that human flesh is heir to, from disease and poverty, through dictatorship, revolution, war and slow economic growth, to environmental degradation.

Attacking the Cassandras from the left flank are the socialists. For them inequality in all its forms is the disease, and population growth is only a symptom. On the right flank, free market conservatives see interference in free markets as the only obstacle to everlasting prosperity. They welcome population growth and can see no reason why it should not continue till we have colonised the entire galaxy.

US ecologist Paul Ehrlich has assumed the role of modern Malthus. His 1967 book The Population Bomb relaunched the controversy in sensational fashion. `No geological event in a billion years,' he wrote in 1970, `has posed a threat to terrestrial life comparable to that of human overpopulation.' Ehrlich predicted that sometime between 1970 and 1985 there would be vast famines. `Hundreds of millions' of people were going to starve to death - that is, unless plague or thermo-nuclear war killed them first.' 14

Ehrlich advocated compulsory measures if voluntary efforts failed. He condemned the giving of aid to `short sighted programmes on death control' - in other words, health programmes in the Third World. He took up the infamous `triage' doctrine. The term is used when doctors classify war-wounded soldiers, to prioritize medical care. In the same way nations should be classified and the hopeless cases abandoned to their fate. Ehrlich urged that the United States should halt food aid shipments to countries such as India `where dispassionate analysis indicates that the unbalance between food and population is hopeless.' 15

A more sober and more complex, but still essentially Malthusian approach, came with The Limits to Growth in 1972, by US economist Dennis Meadows and his team. This Club of Rome Study used a simple computer model to project trends in population, resource use, food production, industrial output, and pollution. If business continued as usual, it predicted that there would be a catastrophic collapse of population around the year 2025, due to a dramatic decline in mineral and land resources. This would be followed by a `dismal, depleted existence' for the survivors. `Whatever fraction of the human population remained at the end of the process would have very little left with which to build a new society in any form we can now envision.' 16

Meadows and colleagues tested more optimistic alternatives. But whichever way they turned, growth of population and output always overshot the long term carrying capacity of the earth, and sudden collapse ensued. If resources were assumed to be unlimited, then massive pollution brought our doom. If pollution was controlled, the crash came when the limits of arable land were reached and food production per person began to decline. If higher food yields were achieved, pollution finished us off a few decades later due to huge rises in industrial output. One way or another cataclysm came, sometime before the end of the twenty first century.

The limits to growth approach was caricatured by critics as a doomsday prediction. But there was one scenario that avoided a catastrophic collapse. This involved massively reduced resource use and pollution per unit of gross national product; reliance on solar energy; a shift out of manufacturing into services; soil conservation; recycling of all wastes including sewage; and stablization of population at 1970 levels.


Cornucopias and injustices


Extreme positions like those of Ehrlich invited the inevitable reaction. Ehrlich was accused of diverting attention from social reform, from the need to alleviate poverty and curb inequalities in the United States and the world. Critics like US economist Julian Simon detected a whiff of racism in Ehrlich's emotive description of his conversion to the Malthusian cause: Ehrlich `came to understand the population problem emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi. People eating, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People, people, people, people.' 17

Simon has been the most thoroughgoing critic of the neo-Malthusian position.

The anti-people tone of much of Ehrlich's writing clearly offended him and he responded with a positive pro-life position: pro human life, that is. He endorsed British philosopher Jeremy Bentham's rule for judging actions: the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham clearly meant the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number of the existing community. Simon means the greatest good for the greatest number of human beings possible. The more the merrier. Other things being equal, a greater numer of people is a good thing in itself. 18

The infant Zeus was nursed by the daughters of Melisseus. In gratitude he gave them a horn of the goat-nymph Amalthea, with the promise that it should always be full of whatever food or drink they might desire. It was the original cornucopia.

Simon's cornucopia is not the result of divine grace, but of human ingenuity. Throughout recorded history the standard of living has continued to rise as human populations have risen. This parallel growth has not come about by chance. The principle cause of increased wealth, says Simon, is population growth. More people mean bigger markets, easier communications. Economies of scale become possible. Productivity improves as larger numbers of factories with higher output learn by each other's mistakes. Above all more people bring more brains to dream up more technical solutions to problems.

Increased population, Simon says, has led to more resources, not less. Almost every significant mineral costs less, in comparison to wages or consumer prices, than it did a hundred years ago. Resources have increased, not depleted, with use. Far from decreasing through erosion, agricultural land has increased and continues to increase. With increased wealth come demands for a cleaner environment, so pollution control measures tighten. 19

Simon admits that resource shortages can and do occur, but they are never more than temporary. Human inventiveness responds. New methods of extraction are developed, subsitutes that are cheaper and better than the original. We end up better off than before the problem arose. And population growth is the engine that drives us forwards.

Simon carries on Henry George's capitalist arguments. The radical side of George's analysis has its modern followers among left wing writers like Susan George, Frances Moore Lappé, Piers Blaikie and the British charity Oxfam. Rapid population growth may not be desirable, but it is a symptom of other more deep-rooted problems, not a cause.

I will simplify and summarize the case that underlies individual nuances. The root cause of population growth is poverty. The poor are `forced' to have large families, so that children can bring in wages or to care for them in old age. Poverty, in turn, is the result of exploitation, expropriation, inequality and injustice. Western colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism are all blamed. An unjust economic world order, multinational companies, the growing of cash crops, exploitation of migrant labour - all conspire to keep poor people poor. And they are `compelled' to overexploit whatever corner of land the wealthy may have left them. Thus population growth is the main cause of land degradation and deforestation. 20

Flanking the socialists are those, like US Barry Commoner, who exonerate population growth and lay the blame at the feet of technology: a wasteful modern technology whose products and waste output have grown less and less degradable, with an ever increasing impact on the natural environment. 21


Ideological chaos


Who is right?

It's not easy to see clear. Population has become a battleground on which everyone wields their favourite sword. For free market conservatives free markets are the answer. Social justice is the solution for egalitarian socialists. A more gentle technology for the neo-Romantics.

And there are other armies on the field. Third World nationalists still see concern with population problems as a smokescreen for Western fears of increasing Southern strength - or a new excuse for meddling in their internal affairs. Minority groups cry genocide when there is talk of `population control.'

Religious groups have weighed into the melee. Islam is split over divergent traditions. Orthodox Catholics follow papal opposition to modern contraceptives - based on conceptions of sexuality inherited from the ascetic first centuries of our era. Anti-abortion stances easily turn anti family planning - despite the fact that family planning is the best way of reducing abortions.

Sexual politics enters the fray. Male supremacy - though never explicitly - manoeuvres to deny women the right to determine their own fertility. In Latin countries unfaithful husbands object to contraceptives that might give their wives the power to retaliate.

Unlikely allies fight side by side against family planning: socialists and conservatives, fundamentalist moslems and Catholics, male chauvinists and feminists horrified by stories of compulsion in China or Bangladesh.

The battlefield has been stamped into a morass. Each ideological position distorts or slants the subject to suit its own needs. Evidence is highly selective, or anecdotal.

Can we reach a more objective view? This book will try. And we shall find that all sides of the serious debate have some part of wisdom, some element of the truth. But only if we move towards a wider synthesis can we get a complete picture.


1. Ricklefs, Robert, Ecology, Third Edition, W. H. Freeman, New York, 1990, pp320-21.

2. Highest births figure from Guinness Book of Records 1987, Guiness Books, London 1987, p12.

3. Population densities from Polgar, Stephen, ed, Population, Ecology and Social Evolution, Mouton, The Hague, 1975, pp29 and table 1, p182; pre-1950 populations from McEvedy, Colin and Jones, Richard, Atlas of World Population History, Penguin, London, 1978, p342.

4. Post 1950 populations from United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs ,World Population Prospects 1990, ST/ESA/SER.A/120, New York, 1991.

5. Plato, Republic, 460 sq, and Laws, 740 sq, Aristotle, Politics, 1325-6 and 1334.

6. Godwin, William, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Ed. Isaac Kramnick, Penguin, London, 1976, p 767-777.

7. This version, and the much modified and qualified second edition, are given in Himmerlfarb, Gertrude, ed., On Population: Thomas Robert Malthus, Randomn House, New York, 1960.

8. Malthus, Thomas, An Essay on the Principle of Population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, 1798; the second edition, much expanded, was published in 1803 and greatly qualifies the blunt arguments of the first. But it is the first that has been remembered.

9. Ricardo, David, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, London, 1817.

10. Cited in Himmelfarb, op. cit., pxxvi.

11. Letter to J. B. Schweitzer, January 24, 1865, in Works, 2: 391; Critique of the Gotha Programme, Works, 1: 29; Engels, letter to Albert Lange, March 29, 1865.

12. Boserup, Ester, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, Allen and Unwin, London, 1965; expanded and updated in Population and Technology, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.

13. Boserup, Ester, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, Allen and Unwin, London, 1965, p118.

14. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment, W. H. Freeman, San Francisco, 1970; New Scientist 36: 652.

15. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, Ballantine, New York, 1969; Reader's Digest, Feb 1969; New Scientist 36: 655.

16. Meadows, Dennis, et al, The Limits to Growth, Potomac Associates, Washington DC, 1972, p170.

17. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, Ballantine, New York, 1969.

18. Bentham, Jeremy, An Introductory View of the Rationale of Evidence.

19. Simon, Julian, The Ultimate Resource, Princeton University Press, 1981; Simon, Julian, Theory of Population and Economic Growth, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986.

20. See for example Lappé, Frances Moore, Food First, Souvenir Press, London, 1980; and Blaikie, Piers, The Political Economy of Soil Erosion, Longman, London 1985.

21. Commoner, Barry, The environmental cost of economic growth, Chemistry in Britain, 8 (2): 52-65.

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