Sydney historian Alison Bashford puzzles at a lack of overpopulation panic:

The world population is 6.6 billion. This far exceeds early 20th-century predictions that it would reach about 3.9 billion by 2009. And yet overpopulation barely registers now as a public issue …

This would have been inconceivable for earlier generations. And not just the 1970s generation, who read texts like Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb.

They also read Chariots of the Gods – a slightly more believable work.

In 1911 the Australian statistician Sir George Knibbs warned: “The limits of human expansion are much nearer than popular opinion imagines. The exhaustion of sources of energy is perilously near.”

Turned out he was wrong.

At the time, influential experts the world over were listening to Knibbs. His warnings circulated through the US and Britain, and from India to France. He was the Al Gore of an earlier generation.

As we’ve already noted.

His message found a ready audience: population growth was cast, not just by him, as “the world’s greatest crisis”, “the world’s basic problem” and “the greatest disaster of all time”. (Sound anything like the climate change warnings?)

Sounds exactly  like climate change warnings. Is Bashford – having cited a discredited book and a pre-Gore whose predictions proved inaccurate – building towards a warning of her own, about misguided belief in end-of-worldism? Not exactly:

When John D. Rockefeller III called together world experts to his Population Council in 1952, his team still thought of the problem as Knibbs did: catastrophic, urgent, global. “Time is running out – there will be a crisis in a few generations,” Rockefeller wrote.

Reading through the Population Council’s deliberations I’m struck by how astutely his scientists grasped reproduction and energy consumption as twin sides of the coin.

Whoa! Wait up, sister. Knibbs was convinced in 1911 that we’d soon run out of energy, due to too many people; Rockefeller felt much the same (about the “problem”) forty years later. Both wrong. Not astute. Wrong. Following an excursion into eugenics – according to Bashford, discussion of overpopulation has been curbed by the unpleasant human-reducing notions of Knibbs and Rockefeller – Bashford reaches this surprising conclusion:

Past scientists and commentators typically saw the planetary problem as necessarily about both reproduction and resources. Population and global futures are linked. In many ways, this was understood much more clearly in the past.

Given the examples Bashford herself offers, it was clearly misunderstood. She’s an historian who doesn’t learn from history.

Posted by Tim B. on 04/07/2008 at 12:05 PM
(51) CommentsPermalink