Thursday, June 23, 2016

Global Overpopulation Circa 200 AD

Global population is now almost 7.3 billion. But almost two millennia in the past, when total world population was (roughly) 200 million people, concerns about overpopulation were already being expressed.

I am deeply ignorant concerning the early centuries of the Catholic Church, but even I have heard of Tertullian, for his formulation of Trinitarian doctrine and his nickname as "The Father of Latin Christianity." Here's a comment from his A Treatise on the Soul, in a  chapter where part of the heading reads, "The State of Contemporary Civilization" (from the 1868 translation by Peter Holmes):
Surely it is obvious enough, if one looks at the whole world, that it is becoming daily better cultivated and more fully peopled than anciently. All places are now accessible, all are well known, all open to commerce; most pleasant farms have obliterated all traces of what were once dreary and dangerous wastes; cultivated fields have subdued forests; flocks and herds have expelled wild beasts; sandy deserts are sown; rocks are planted; marshes are drained; and where once were hardly solitary cottages, there are now large cities. No longer are (savage) islands dreaded, nor their rocky shores feared; everywhere are houses, and inhabitants, and settled government, and civilized life. What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint), is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race ...

Of course, the fact that a writer in 200 AD had some mistaken views that the "teeming population" had already overwhelmed the natural resources of the the world doesn't mean that modern writers with similar views are incorrect in their concerns. Similarly, the fact that the economist Thomas Malthus was expressing concerns about global overpopulation back around 1800 when the world population had reached about 800 million doesn't doesn't mean that modern writers with similar views are incorrect in their concerns, either.

But these examples of the ongoing fear of overpopulation, and many more examples that can be given through history, do suggest that worries about overpopulation--together with an inability to imagine how the population might be fed--may represent an internal bias that is baked deeply into the human psyche. Sometimes biases turn out to be right, eventually--after all, even a stopped clock shows the correct time twice each day--but it's still worth being aware of their existence.