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The trend of destiny: The impossibility of population growth

By Michael Kile - posted Monday, 31 October 2011

Today has been designated the birthday of the planet’s seven-thousand-millionth person, perhaps in a village in Upper Volta, or maybe an apartment in Lower Manhattan. How many billion more?

By 2050, Australia will have between 29 and 43 million people, but we will still be a very small fish in a global pond with at least nine billion other folk.

Our 2011 census was held precisely one hundred years after the first national censusCarried out under Commonwealth Statistician, Sir George Handley Knibbs, on 3rd April 1911, it was part of an ambitious project to count the British Empire’s international population, then about 400 million people.


A century ago, there were about 4,455,000 Australians. Four times larger today, the population reached 22,726,000 early this month. With one birth every 1 minute and 46 seconds, one death every 3 minutes and 40 seconds, a net gain of one immigrant every 2 minutes and 44 seconds, we are adding one new person each 1 minute and 31 seconds

Why were censuses held in 2011 and 1911, and not 2010 and 1910? It was an accident of history. The UK’s first modern census was taken in 1801. It was a policy response to Thomas Robert Malthus’s controversial first book:  An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects The Future Improvement of Society.  A national census has been held every decade since 1911, except during World War II.

In his 1798 Essay, Malthus argued the rate of human population growth would inevitably stall progress towards a more “perfectible” society: "The power of population,” he wrote, “is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, if unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second”. For him, this Principle was a law of Nature, divinely imposed to ensure virtuous behaviour.

Hidden in Volume One of Knibbs’s Statistician’s Report on the 1911 Census is his eerily prophetic Appendix A: The Mathematical Theory of Population, of its character and fluctuations, and of the factors which influence them. Like Malthus, he was emphatic about humankind’s “trend of destiny”: the impossibility that population could go on increasing at its present growth rate for a “long-continued” period.

The trend of destiny: Anyone who has seriously reflected on the facts of the last ten decades, must realise that, within the next ten, tremendous problems will arise for solution and these will touch fundamentally the following matters: the multiplying power of the human race; the organic constitution of Nature and the means at human disposal for avoiding the incidence of its unfavourable aspects; the enhancing of the productivity of Nature, and the limits of its exploitation; the mechanism of the social organism, and the scheme of its control; and internationalism and the solidarity of humanity. 

 “The limits of human expansion are much nearer than popular opinion imagines,” he concluded, echoing The Limits to Growth (1972) and other eco-manifestos. “The difficulty of future food supplies will soon be of the gravest character; the exhaustion of sources of energy necessary for any notable increase of population or advance in the standards of living, or both combined, is perilously near.”


Knibbs’s estimate of the planet’s population in 1900 was 1,700 million, with an annual rate of increase of about 1.16 percent. If this rate continued for another 100 years, he calculated there would be 3.16 times as many people by 2011, or 5,380 million. (It actually reached 7,000 million this year, a four-fold increase in 111 years.)

For him, the mathematics was undeniable. “Very soon,” he warned, “the world-politic will have to face the question whether it is better that there should be larger numbers and more modest living, or fewer numbers and lavish living; where world-morality should aim at the enjoyment of life by a great multitude; or aim at the restriction of life-experience to a few, that they may live in relative opulence.”

The statistician’s role would be to enlighten governments about the “trend of destiny” in “a world of limitations.” Only knowledge of demographic trends would enable them to see the seriousness of the situation. His concern, however, was not (yet) shared by the world-politic, especially his contemporaries in Europe, where declining birth-rates had reversed fears of over-population since Malthus.

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About the Author

Michael Kile is author of No Room at Nature's Mighty Feast: Reflections on the Growth of Humankind. He has an MSc degree from Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London and a Diploma from the College. He also has a BSc (Hons) degree in geology and geophysics from the University of Tasmania and a BA from the University of Western Australia. He is co-author of a recent paper on ancient Mesoamerica, Re-interpreting Codex Cihuacoatl: New Evidence for Climate Change Mitigation by Human Sacrifice, and author of The Aztec solution to climate change.

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