Boris Johnson: Global overpopulation is the real issue

By Boris Johnson | 25 October 2007
The Telegraph

The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11 billion by the end of the century. (Photo: Carl Court / Getty Images)

It is a tragic measure of how far the world has changed – and the infinite capacity of modern man for taking offence – that there are no two subjects that can get you more swiftly into political trouble than motherhood and apple pie.

The last time I tentatively suggested that there was something to be said in favour of apple pie, I caused a frenzy of hatred in the healthy-eating lobby. It reached such a pitch that journalists were actually pelting me with pies, and demanding a retraction, and an apology, and a formal denunciation of the role of apple pie in causing obesity.

As for motherhood – the fertility of the human race – we are getting to the point where you simply can’t discuss it, and we are thereby refusing to say anything sensible about the biggest single challenge facing the Earth; and no, whatever it may now be conventional to say, that single biggest challenge is not global warming. That is a secondary challenge. The primary challenge facing our species is the reproduction of our species itself.

Depending on how fast you read, the population of the planet is growing with every word that skitters beneath your eyeball. There are more than 211,000 people being added every day, and a population the size of Germany every year.

As someone who has now been travelling around the world for decades, I see this change, and I feel it. You can smell it in the traffic jams of the Middle East. You can see it as you fly over Africa at night, and you see mile after mile of fires burning red in the dark, as the scrub is removed to make way for human beings.

You can see it in the satellite pictures of nocturnal Europe, with the whole place lit up like a fairground. You can see it in the crazy dentition of the Shanghai skyline, where new skyscrapers are going up round the clock.

You can see it as you fly over Mexico City, a vast checkerboard of smog-bound, low-rise dwellings stretching from one horizon to the other; and when you look down on what we are doing to the planet, you have a horrifying vision of habitations multiplying and replicating like bacilli in a Petri dish.

The world’s population is now 6.7 billion, roughly double what it was when I was born. If I live to be in my mid-eighties, then it will have trebled in my lifetime.

The UN last year revised its forecasts upwards, predicting that there will be 9.2 billion people by 2050, and I simply cannot understand why no one discusses this impending calamity, and why no world statesmen have the guts to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves.

How the hell can we witter on about tackling global warming, and reducing consumption, when we are continuing to add so relentlessly to the number of consumers? The answer is politics, and political cowardice.

There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when people such as my father, Stanley, were becoming interested in demography, and the UN would hold giant conferences on the subject, and it was perfectly respectable to talk about saving the planet by reducing the growth in the number of human beings.

But over the years, the argument changed, and certain words became taboo, and certain concepts became forbidden, and we have reached the stage where the very discussion of overall human fertility – global motherhood – has become more or less banned.

We seem to have given up on population control, and all sorts of explanations are offered for the surrender. Some say Indira Gandhi gave it all a bad name, by her demented plan to sterilise Indian men with the lure of a transistor radio.

Some attribute our complacency to the Green Revolution, which seemed to prove Malthus wrong. It became the received wisdom that the world’s population could rise to umpteen billions, as mankind learnt to make several ears of corn grow where one had grown before.

And then, in recent years, the idea of global population control has been more or less stifled by a pincer movement from the Right and the Left. American Right-wingers disapprove of anything that sounds like birth control, and so George W. Bush withholds the tiny contribution America makes to the UN Fund for Population Activities, regardless of the impact on the health of women in developing countries.

As for the Left, they dislike suggestions of population control because they seem to smack of colonialism and imperialism and telling the Third World what to do; and so we have reached the absurd position in which humanity bleats about the destruction of the environment, and yet there is not a peep in any communiqué from any summit of the EU, G8 or UN about the population growth that is causing that destruction.

The debate is surely now unavoidable. Look at food prices, driven ever higher by population growth in India and China. Look at the insatiable Chinese desire for meat, which has pushed the cost of feed so high that Vladimir Putin has been obliged to institute price controls in the doomed fashion of Diocletian or Edward Heath.

Even in Britain, chicken farmers are finding that the cost of chickenfeed is no longer exactly chickenfeed, and, though the food crisis may once again be solved by the wit of man, the damage to the environment may be irreversible.

It is time we had a grown-up discussion about the optimum quantity of human beings in this country and on this planet. Do we want the south-east of Britain, already the most densely populated major country in Europe, to resemble a giant suburbia?

This is not, repeat not, an argument about immigration per se, since in a sense it does not matter where people come from, and with their skill and their industry, immigrants add hugely to the economy.

This is a straightforward question of population, and the eventual size of the human race.

All the evidence shows that we can help reduce population growth, and world poverty, by promoting literacy and female emancipation and access to birth control. Isn’t it time politicians stopped being so timid, and started talking about the real number one issue?

Boris Johnson is a British politician, popular historian and journalist who served as Mayor of London and as Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since 2015.

Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

How the world went from 170 million people to 7.3 billion, in one map

Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion, Trailer | The Future of Our Planet

Al Bartlett – Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation

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18 COMMENTS

  1. All this from an individual who has fathered four children and one abortion. Also interesting how you refer to ‘motherhood’ as the problem. Did all those women impregnable themselves?

  2. TO THE MAYOR OF LONDON;
    Did you know that the whole world's population could fit in the state of Texas? Yes, the entire population of the world can be housed in the state of Texas very comfortably. Consider these facts: The land area of Texas is some 268,820 square miles* and current UN estimates of the world's population are about 6 billion. Calculations show that if we wanted to make everyone in Earth live on a space that had the same population density as New York City, we could fit everyone in state of Texas.

    So, every man, woman, and child could fit pretty comfortably within the perimeter of the state of Texas. Not only does that leave the other 49 United States open, but it leaves all the other countries clear and open, too.

    • You must be joking? Have you been outside your back yard, read a paper,. Actually seen this world. Its not all a travel brochure??? seen the massive poverty and starvation, total destruction of wilderness, the extinction of wildlife, wilderness areas now devoid of animals and birds, the water crisis that is affecting the world, the nations now on rationing because they cannot supply the water needs to the ever expanding population, soil destruction that is gripping the world with millions upon millions of hectares destroyed by salinity, acidity and erosion. Australia alone is losing the equivalent of 20 football fields a day of land to soil acidity. The streams and rivers poisoned through man made pollution. Fresh water rivers and streams now so saline, that they can not sustain fish life. Many are now up to 4x saltier than the ocean. Try sticking your global population into Texas, keep it breeding and dont let it out! Let the rest of the world grow back…

    • and the by product of the stuff they eat? you cant get humans to live in harmony the way things are now, how is it going to work with them all in small area ??? not to worry nature will take care of overpopulation on its own ;)

    • I hear this stupid comment from other religious nuts all the time. Obviously you don’t consider the power usage the disposal of waste and the food. All that takes land. We won’t even start talking about the health and medical problems. Get real.

  3. Jesse it is not a question of space…but fuel. The resources to sustain the population is what is will be our downfall.

  4. To Jesse DeMoll – Ignorance is bliss!
    The consumption per person is increasing ever year. Are you aware of how much viable land is required to support each individual? It is currently calculated at around 2.3 Hectares per person. Considering that the majority of cities are built on and have expanded over some of the best agricultural land. Also, we are over-fishing the oceans by 60% above sustainable levels. You really need to do some scientific study on carrying capacity, resource use and population growth. Such a simplistic metric as land size is a completely useless measure. I am sure the population of the globe could easily fit in the Sahara desert as well. You are however completely ignoring the simple metric's of humanity being able to grow enough food and source enough water.
    It also appears that you are completely anthropocentric as well. What about all the other forms of life on the planet that deserve to live just as much as homo sapiens. Every animal deserves the opportunity to have enough food, clean water and sufficient land to survive in.

    According to you simple assumptions, if every human was squeezed into a living density of New York where are the resources going to come from? Under your premise, every citizen living in New York should be able to source all their resources from the area they are living in. Is New York sustainable? I think you will easily find that there are insufficient places or land area to grow all the required food and source all the required water if New York was to survive sustainably just using its own footprint.

    Time to actually educate yourself on the issue Jesse. Time to escape from the false growth is good, imperialistic, capitalistic system. Particularly as we are currently going through the 6th mass extinction the world has seen.

    How can you have continuous growth (the modern economic paradigm) in a finite world with finite resources?

  5. Depopulation in the name of overpopulation, is an old human phenomenon. In the 12th century BC, after the greeks had declared war on the Trojans, a man who was passing by asked a soldier why they wanted to kill the Trojans. The soldier answered, that there are too many people and the earth can not handle it. At the time the world population was only about 20 million people. Think about it. Until recent times, only the rich were complaining about over population. Then they created large cities like New York, Paris and London where the average person would also think that the world is overpopulated. But in reality, France is empty, and let's not talk about America.

  6. PRINCE PHILIP, IN HIS OWN WORDS:
    "We Need To 'Cull' The Surplus Population. In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, in order to contribute something to solve overpopulation".

    I want to remind Prince Philip that America fought a bloody war of independence against viruses like him. We are immune to his kind.

  7. 4 major catastrophes await us: Overpopulation; Nuclear accident; Global Warming; Collapse of the Dollar. In that order. Yes, Overpopulation is at the core of each. The population of the USA HAS DOUBLED in my short lifetime. This is completely unsustainable and the cause of our DECLINING STANDARD OF LIVING. It's going to get tough friends.

    • The reduction of land mass and arable land associated with climate change will be the driver making depopulation a necessity. Beyond that, the decline of our standard of living is a direct result of the oligarchal takeover of the US government along with those of the EU, Russia and so on, transferring all wealth to the .01% while the costs and liabilities for running the country have been placed on the working classes, all of whom have been educated to believe the poor are responsible for their burdens.

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