This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dan Brown's "Inferno" Has Helped to Stimulate Thinking About Population Growth

It was inevitable that when an author as popular as Dan Brown (and I mean the novelist, not the geographer at the University of Michigan) put population growth front and center in his latest book "Inferno"people were going to pay attention. Journalist Sam Kornell was inspired to get on a plane and fly to a huge slum (Mukuru) in Nairobi, Kenya to see for himself what all this fuss is about, and then to report back to us in a column in Slate. His conclusion is that consumption is the problem, rather than population growth. Poor people do not make the same demands on the earth as do the rich, so if there were fewer rich people, we would not be having this discussion. 

Not so fast! The problem is the COMBINATION of population growth and increasing consumption. It is our growing scientific knowledge and use of resources over the past two hundred years, especially since the end of WWII, that has allowed the world to bring down death rates and, at the same time, increase the food supply. Yes, the birth rate is declining (thanks to scientific knowledge applied to the issue of reproduction), but in much of the world births still vastly outnumber deaths. Now, if we all were willing to live at the same level as residents of slums in Nairobi, the world could support a larger population, but I have never talked to anyone who preferred that to a standard level of living. People everywhere aspire to the level of living that implies a higher per-person use of resources (with the accompanying piling up of waste in the air, ground, and water). The more of us there are who want a higher level of living, the sooner will we overshoot our sustainability (if we haven't already).

It is true that Malthus was wrong in almost all of the details of his theory, as I discuss in detail in Chapter 3, but we still talk about Malthus because the big idea of his is still a real possibility--there is a real chance that we will overrun our resources. It hasn't happened in the way that Malthus worried about, nor as Paul Ehrlich worried about 150 years later, but that doesn't mean that it won't happen.

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