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Elephant in the greenhouse part I

By Michael Kile - posted Friday, 27 November 2015

Many folk in the 1950s and 1960s were fearful, but not about global warming. It was of a French-fry fate by other means. As Bertrand Russell suggested, humankind could ‘put an end to itself by a too lavish use of H-bombs’. There was another risk too.

In his 1963 essay, Population Pressure and War, the 91-year old Russell concluded that of all the long-run problems facing the world, ‘this problem of population is the most important and fundamental, for, until it is solved, other measures of amelioration are futile.’

Elephant in greenhouse: An obvious problem or environmental risk that is either suppressed or ignored because it might disrupt a preferred political action, narrative or paradigm.


So how, when and why did population become the elephant in today’s global greenhouse? And how do we resolve the paradox of ‘troublesome’ growth - confirmed by the latest UN projections released in late July - and deafening silence on an issue that once was, and for some still is, a source of concern?

Six decades ago the mood was driven less by data than the lack of it.  Reliable demographic statistics were so incomplete when the United Nations Population Commission (UNPC) – now the UN Population Division (UNPD) - first met in 1947 it was unable to reach confident conclusions about future trends.

In December 1951, UNPC released its first provisional estimates. The global population was estimated to be 2.40 billion people and growing at 25 million annually - revised later to 37 million, or 1.46%. Mathematically, a population with an annual growth rate of 1%, 1.5% and 2.0% doubles, respectively, every 70, 46.6 and 35 years.

Despite uncertainties in key regions, it seemed humankind had grown at least fourfold during the past three centuries. Projections suggested there would be 3.50 billion by 1980 (actually 4.45 billion) 4.00 billion by 2000 (actually 6.09 billion) and 7.00 billion by 2050. (UNPD’s most recent projection for 2050 is 9.70 billion).

By the end of the 1950s, the rapid growth rate was undeniable. With new evidence in the early 1960s came increasing public concern. Governments and international agencies were forced to address it. Earlier debate over the existence of a ‘population problem’ was replaced by a new challenge – how to solve it.

On 24 April 1961, Eugene Black, president (1949-1962) of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development - now the World Bank and a vocal climate-alarmist - stressed the importance of reducing population growth in his annual report to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).


 “There are,” he warned, issues in the less developed countries (LDCs) “which vitiate all efforts to raise world living standards. One of these obstacles is the tremendous rise in the populations of already crowded countries…Medicine has yet to make available a cheap and easy method of regulating births. And not everyone wants fewer children.”

Could LDCs deal with prevailing growth rates of 2% or more? Could nations that were expected to double in size in less than 35 years attract sufficient investment to break the poverty-population nexus?

By 1963, there were at least 3.21 billion people on the planet. Humankind was growing at an annual rate of 2.2%, or an additional 71 million a year. The annual average increase reached a historic high of 84 million during the 1980s. By 2000, the global population was 6.09 billion and still growing at 1.26%, or 77 million a year.

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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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