Prof. Eng. R.A.A. Oldeman
Former Professor of Forest Ecology and Management at Wageningen University
The word overpopulation is often used casually, it being taken for granted that everyone knows what it signifies. Everybody claims know what it means, although, unfortunately, the ways in
which people understand the term vary. We are dealing with a confusion of tongues. That is why we are going to dissect the term here, to see what elements it contains.
At school we were taught that, up until Napoleon, let’s say until 1800, the world was very sparsely populated, and that the population started to grow more and more rapidly after that point. We were told that estimates such as the one made by the ancient Greek Xenophon, of Persian armies numbering hundreds of thousands of soldiers, were the result of the primitive Greeks not being able to count properly. This judgement is mistaken, however.
A 1973 study by Jean-Charles Pichon, based on ancient censuses from Rome and China, amongst other data, points towards a world population of about three billion people in the third century AD. According to historians such as Montesquieu (18th century) there were still about as many people around 1100. After that point the population started to shrink dramatically. By 1580, 400 million people remained. The population then started to grow again, slowly. Religious exhortations encouraging high birth numbers date from the periods after the Black Death, failed crops, fires and wars. It was not until after 1930 that the three billion mark was reached once more.
In actual fact the population curve follows a zigzag movement. A Period of growth, which leads towards a peak followed by stabilisation, is always succeeded by a collapse, which results in low population numbers again.
The scientific study of forests has also brought to light evidence of this pattern. Deforestation has occurred in all parts of the globe at different stages during the last millennium. In South America, for instance, the soil under the rainforest contains many charcoal layers, at various depths. This shows how the idea of the “virgin” forest, untouched by human interventions, is another myth.
The stages of birth, flowering and decline which civilizations pass through correspond to developments in population size. During periods of vigorous growth societies tend to boast of their “scientific” knowledge and technology (Egypt, around 2000 BC; Egypt and Greece around the time of Christ as well as the civilization of our own times). The stages of stabilization and slump are followed by periods of religious revival. These times of collapse are of course dark and disastrous periods in human history and, for a long time afterwards, people do not wish to be reminded of such periods.
This is the bigger picture which informs our striving for a population of 10 million. Those Dutch citizens who are unaware of the issue are “lemmings with passports”. Our population is nearing a peak in the zigzag curve. Faith in simplistic growth curves and our ability to control nature will not help us, because these beliefs are based on myths.
The Inevitability of the Zigzag Curve in Population Numbers
Zigzag curves occur in all natural plant and animal populations. Despite this, many people believe that population numbers remain constant in the natural world. This myth must stem, if only in part, from bitter collective memories of death on a mass scale, many centuries back. It has made people proclaim the growing or stable population as the norm, even though this is not founded on reality.
In protected nature parks animals receive supplementary feeding, which counteracts the natural falls in numbers that would normally occur in deer and boar populations after harsh winters. Hunting is also prohibited, ostensibly in order to prevent extreme fluctuations. Where plants are concerned, population shrinkage in foods crops, in particular, is prevented. After all, smaller harvests of these crops equal famine and death among the human population. Between 1845 and 1847 the potato blight ruined the entire potato harvest in Ireland. Around a million people died and another million emigrated, leaving for America. By 1976, the number of inhabitants still only totalled 4.4 million.
The above examples illustrate the human mismanagement of animal populations and the terrible consequences of crop failure. Cute, doe-eyed animals, furthermore, tend to appeal to our human sentiments. Our overprotection of these creatures is not based on any reasonable arguments. Some species, such as the fox and the crow, are growing rife while others are shrinking in numbers, like the sparrow. At the moment, our protection of plants and animals, while urgently needed as a measure in itself, is being applied in a counterproductive way.
Two of the most powerful factors in human population problems are sentimentality and fear. Although hidden, the hysterical fear of famine remains strong, as the survivors of the “hunger winter” (the last winter of WWII when parts of the Netherlands suffered from acute food shortages) well know. We also have a habit of identifying with different types of animals out of sentimentality, while other species are loathed for no good reason. There is no society for the protection of grass snakes, neither is there one for most plant species, but there is one aimed at protecting red deer. Fear is a bad counsellor, as is sentimentality. What we are in dire need of are qualities to counterbalance those feelings, namely foresight, love and respect for all living things, including people.
Human Populations, other Populations and “Overpopulations”
It is in times of war that most innovations and inventions are thought up. Computers developed out of the automated tracking and targeting devices on allied anti-aircraft guns. The fear of hunger is a strong motive for declaring war on cruel Mother Nature, in order to tame her and to be able to feed ourselves in a sustainable way. What Darwin’s “Struggle for life” represents is belligerent human thinking, not natural evolution.
Human use of the land is a form of warfare. Everything that is of direct use is conquered and subjugated, all the rest is considered unimportant, unless it appeals to our sentiments. Wars are fought between populations and groups, not between individuals. There is, therefore, a fundamental difference between murder, which is the act of a culpable individual, and killing in wartime when a collective decision have been taken to suspend the normal rules. This only happens when a population, which is its members’ ground of existence, is threatened, which does not happen frequently. The main motive is, once again, fear. Dutch is the only European language that includes an unpleasant word for dying during wartime, which is “sneuvelen” or “sneven”.
It is no coincidence that since 1945, when its population hit the ten million mark, the Netherlands has led the way in the worldwide trend towards a heightened production in farming. This role is represented by the figure of minister Mansholt, who was the man behind the European Common Agricultural Policy. Neither was it a coincidence that, as the process of intensifying agricultural production began, so did the slow death of “natural” woodlands, savannas, steppes and seas.
Human societies are not concerned with basic, day-to-day survival. International aid which is limited to shelter, food and clothes is sometimes regarded as insulting. Such cultural and mental products as music, buildings and refined cuisines, are purely human phenomena. We share our need for food, reproduction and sleep with the animals, though. As a peak in the zigzag curve is approached, the population increase that has occurred initially results in a concurrent increase in talent and prosperity. New weapons are invented. Galileo was actually working in the town arsenal when he discovered the paths of the planets by comparing their movements to the trajectories of cannon balls.
The initial reaction to population problems is to conquer more land in order to spread out the nation’s population (the Nazis’ infamous “Lebensraum” policy). This results in mass migration and colonization. As a population gets nearer to its peak, this is no longer an option and other measures are called for. Innovation is often aimed at intensifying production on the land which is available. If the limits of that available land are reached, wars tend to result, along with the invention of increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Sometimes these conflicts are civil wars, in which populations are reduced from within, as in the actions of Pol Pot.
Overpopulation always depends on the relation between three factors, which are the size of the population, the size of the total surface of available land and the population’s “wish list” in a particular civilization at a particular period in history.
In the case of the Netherlands, the zigzag curve is abundantly clear. Dilemmas have been alternately answered by periods of warfare and periods of creative innovation. Within our collective memory those latter periods are known as “golden ages”. These days, we can no longer expand our land surface through conquest. Neither is there much more to be gained by way of stepping up production even further. In some sense, we are living on a manure heap (which really does stink at times). Someone once called our most common type of landscape “cultural steppe”. All the woods that we have in the Netherlands have been planted deliberately, apart from a couple of vary small areas which developed “naturally”, by accident, around the Oostvaarder and Lepelaar ponds.
We are certainly living in a golden age, rich in thought and invention. We are, however, nearing the limits of the potential of our land area and our use of it here in the Netherlands. The only factor that we might still be able to change is our population size. At present, an internal state of affairs is simmering which can be likened to a state of war, which is driving more and more people to drink themselves to death, overdose on drugs or kill each other through “senseless” violence: all primitive, lemming-like responses.
The Lemmings’ true Passport
The revolution of 1968 blew up old structures and ideas. These could no longer be used to steer the changing societies around the world in a stable course. This was primarily due to space limitations and wild growth of the population.
Our real passport is a substantial set of new solutions to traditional problems. In the Netherlands we are obliged to consider possible restrictions on our wish lists first. This however, will not take us very far. Who, after all, is prepared to give up their car or sailing boat, or is willing to accept sub-standard health care? In the past, such interference in individual matters only succeeded when enforced under totalitarian or religious regimes, such as those of Chinese emperors or Buddhist monks. Frequently, these lasted for centuries or even millennia, and can certainly be considered to possess some merit where sustainability is concerned.
However, unmistakably at the top of our wish lists presently are freedom, democracy, well-being, prosperity, and justice. Unfortunately, in our current society, these values are expressed in a highly puerile fashion and are, therefore, effectively counter-productive. The key to a sound population politics seems to lie in a radical change in the way we apply our desire for these values. Rather than being considered as “presents” from the Netherlands to its citizens, they should become the means by which we achieve a properly functioning society. This is possible only if we give them significance within the framework of our culture.
What is required is a shift in our perspective on things: by no longer constantly laying claim to my individual rights and freedoms, but by claiming my freedom as an individual by doing what’s right; by no longer wishing to be wealthy as an individual, but rather by wanting to be the citizen of a prosperous country; by no longer expecting the NHS to take care of me, but by making care for each another the norm; by no longer desiring power for my party, but rather power for and by everyone, to which all submit themselves voluntarily; by no longer claiming my freedom to do whatever I please, but rather by claiming our freedom to collectively do what is necessary, and to entrust this power to the best of us.
Like overpopulation, the term corruption is often held to be self-explanatory, although it rarely means the same thing to any two people. In Latin the word connotes dissolution and putrefaction. It does not refer to money per se, therefore, but, more generally, to the demise of honesty, care, compassion and such. In the previous paragraph, living ideals and values are contrasted with their corrupted forms.
Moving away from corrupt, debased ideas, towards an invigorated way of life will inevitably bring forth solutions to the problems of overpopulation. A good first step would be to thoroughly think this subject through, so that it may be taken up in the standard school curriculum, informative web sites may be set up etc. After all, the current school-going generation is the one that will have to find a viable solution to said challenges. Furthermore, their education and formation into thinking, empathetic human beings is crucial if we are to get past the stage of lemmings-with-a-passport.
This should be taken as the touchstone for all measures taken within the context of population politics.