Ehrlich’s Endarkenment, Emmott’s Ten Billion, and the War in Mali

[I can't get the graph to work. Follow the link for a similar one]

Professor Ehrlich and Professor Emmott are quite right.

World population is likely to increase from its current 7 billion to about 9.5 billion in 2050 and 10 billion in 2100. [1] This increase will very probably cause significant problems, which need addressing.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, let’s get down to discussing why the ludicrous Emmott and the Loathsome Ehrlich should be opposed and exposed as the dangerous fools they are.

Three events last year brought Malthusianism back into fashion:

- The Royal Society report “People and the planet “ by Sir John Sulston [2]

- The election of Professor Paul Ehrlich as a fellow of the Royal Society in April 2012, and the publication (Jan 9th 2013) of his paper [3]

- The success of the lecture / performance “Ten Billion” by Stephen Emmott  and Katie Mitchell at the Royal Court Theatre [4]

All three documents – the official Royal Society Report; the paper by Royal Society Fellow Paul Ehrlich; and the Royal Court show – offer identical  analyses of the problems facing the world. In two sentences: Population increase, economic growth and consumption, plus climate change, will lead to resource depletion and catastrophe. Only massive organised behaviour change can save us from disaster.

There the resemblance between the three works ends.

The Sulston report is a thorough and rather dull scientific assessment of the evidence for this thesis – an attempt to update the anonymous thriller “Limits to Growth” which told us, back in 1974, that we must stop getting richer or face catastrophe. What the Royal Society is doing publishing it , Gaia only knows, but it’s worthy enough, and full of useful diuretic statistics, for those who like that sort of thing.

The Emmott/Mitchell work exists only as a Platonic entity in the reports of theatre critics, and in a three minute video [5] [7] (though it’s due to be published as a book by Penguin in May). It was obviously wildly inaccurate, but possibly amusing in a surrealist sort of way – a sort of Green Ubu for nerds – which is what you’d expect from a performance cobbled together by a trendy London theatre director and an unworldly Cambridge professor who spent six hours on a high speed train together discussing the ecological cost of fucking lettuce. [6]

In the forty years that Ehrlich has been prophesying doom, his forecasts have gone from the false to the downright peculiar. Apparently, Climate Denial is a manifestation of “..endarkenment – a rapidly growing movement towards religious orthodoxies that reject enlightenment values”. [3] I’ll leave discussion of that  for another time. (Thanks to SunGCR for the links to Ehrlich he provided in comments to my article [7]. I haven’t used them here, but will certainly do so in a future article).

All three works base their prediction of future population trends on this graph (fig. 2.3 in the Sulston report) based on UNPD 2011.[8]

The UNPD 2011 document is an update of the 2004 report which has population peaking at 9 billion in mid-century  and then declining. As I said in our fisking of Emmott [4] there are suspicions that the 2011 update is deliberately designed to be alarming. While the 2004 document is a proper report, with lengthy discussion of its predictions by experts, the 2011 update is simply a number of graphs with a list of FAQs attached. Only an expert can judge whether its pessimistic upgrading of population estimates is valid or not. But let’s accept it anyway.

The “medium variant” in the graph above, based on best estimates of future fertility rates, gives a total population of about 9.3 billion in 2050, and 10 billion in 2100. Slight changes in estimates of fertility rates (adding or subtracting half a child to estimated family size) give huge variations in population estimates for the end of the century, from 16 billion and rising, to 6 billion and falling. (The grey line, which shows a population of 27 billion, is pure fantasy, based on fertility rates staying constant. Emmott apparently mentioned this figure in his show, and was evidently embarrassed when challenged about it in a post show Q&A session) [9]

Predicting future population trends is not as absurd as it might seem, despite these wide variations. There are good data for over a hundred countries, and what is known as the Demographic Transition is well understood. Briefly: a rise in living standards leads to a fall in infant mortality, a rise in life expectation, and, later, a fall in fertility (average family size). This process is repeated all over the world in countries of differing religions and cultures. The uncertainty in estimates of future population comes from the time lag between lower infant mortality and lower fertility. There’s a period of maximum population expansion, lasting a matter of decades, when life expectancy goes up, infant mortality comes down, yet fertility remains high. Then it drops, and population levels off and start to drop a generation later. Hence population is declining in Europe, levelling off in Asia and Central America, and still rising in Africa, despite the fact that fertility rates are dropping there too, sometimes spectacularly.

All this and much more is brilliantly explained at Professor Hans Rosling’s delightful site Gapminder [10].

Declining fertility is correlated with economic development, but with a lot of other things too, making  identification of  cause and effect a delicate business. Countries where fertility remains obstinately high include Afghanistan, the Congo, Palestine, and among the Arab and Jewish Orthodox population of Israel. Professor Emmott’s proposal of universal gun ownership for children as a solution to the population problem is clearly not a good one. War and unresolved political conflict cause  population to increase.

Literacy, particularly female literacy, is clearly an important factor, and I’d naively assumed, as I imagine had many other people, that it’s all about women being able to read the instructions on the contraceptive packet.

Then Tim Worstall pointed me to an article from way back in 1994, Lant Pritchett: “Desired Fertility and the Impact of Population Policies” [11], which overturns everything you thought you knew about population growth. It demonstrates, as clearly as anything can ever be demonstrated in the social sciences, that the key driver of fertility rates is the parents’ optimum desired family size, accounting for 90% of variance. In other words, women have the number of children they want to have. Of course, literacy, economic development, availability of contraception, government health campaigns, etc., have an effect, but not much, or at least, not directly.

The article is a delight to read, and if your reading of scientific papers has been limited to the field of climate science, it’ll be an eye opener. In his quaint old-fashioned way, Pritchett puts forward the evidence for his hypothesis,  and then proceeds to look for flaws in it. (For example, how much faith can you put in surveys into ideal family size in a country like Yemen, where 30% of women, when asked: “How many children would you like?” reply “Allah will decide”?) I looked around the net for refutations. As far as I could see, Pritchett’s work has been politely ignored. (Perhaps the fact that he was born in Utah and graduated from Brigham Young University has something to do with it? Surely not.)

This is embarrassing. Demographic research is carried out by or on behalf of governments, UN organisations, and university departments whose financing depends on the discover of problems and their possible solutions. If it turns out that women have kids because they want them, and they  stop having them when they don’t want them any more, an awful lot of academics and bureaucrats, not to mention think tank personnel, NGOers and marketing men, are going to find themselves at a loose end. Of course, we still need contraceptives, and nurses and doctors to administer them, and clinics and hospitals and roads to get there and electricity to power them – economic development, in other words. What we clearly don’t need are  vast international programmes of education and indoctrination. What we don’t need is the Royal Society and their pontificating Professors. Women will decide. Maybe on the advice of the local nurse, maybe out of a desire to participate more fully in the development which their country is enjoying, maybe inspired by watching DVDs of Desperate Housewives – how would I know? How would you know? How, above all, would a United Nations bureaucrat know?

The neo-Malthusians have  a big problem getting over their message. Almost all the coming population growth will be in Africa. How to sell population reduction without raising the spectres of colonialism and racism? The answer, of course, is to link it with global warming, resource depletion, deforestation, and species loss. “It’s not that we’re worried about too many Africans, you understand. Of course not. But what happens when you multiply population increase by increased wealth (which of course we earnestly desire) and subtract the raw materials and agricultural land from what we have? Where will the rhinos go?”

Here’s a table of population for a sample of the major countries of the world, for 1950, 2011 and estimated for 2100. [12]

Population (millions)

Country                 1950   2011   2100

Australia                   8     22     35

Canada                     13     34     48

France                      41     63     80

Germany                  68     82     70

United Kingdom      50     62     75

United States           157   313   478

Russia                       102   142   111

Japan                         82   126     91

Brazil                          53   196   177

Afghanistan                8      32   110

Bangladesh                37   150   157

China                       550 1,347   941

India                        371 1,241 1,550

Indonesia                   74   242   254

Iran                             17     74     62

Iraq                               5     32   145

Pakistan                      37   176   261

Algeria                          8     35     39

Burkina Faso                4     16     96

Congo, Dem Rep         12     67   212

Ethiopia                       18     84   150

Kenya                             6     41   160

Malawi                           2     15   129

Mali                                4     15     80

Niger                               2     16   139

Nigeria                         37   162   729

South Africa                 13     50     54

Tanzania                         7     46   316

Uganda                            5     34   171

You see what I’m driving at. There are countries in Africa you may never have heard of  which, sixty years ago, had the populations of an average British county, and which by the end of the century are predicted to be twice the size of the UK. There are Moslem countries like Iran and Algeria, reputed to be centres of obscurantism, where the population explosion is all but over. Fanatical Iran has the same development potential as Europe. Iraq, on the other hand, recently liberated from dictatorship and set on the path of western-style democracy, is suffering a demographic explosion similar to that in the Congo or Afghanistan.

By the end of the century, Europe will be perhaps twice or three times as rich as it is now, with roughly the same population. Africa will be five or ten times as rich, but with four or five times the population. Hence the fantasies about tens of millions of climate refugees.

Professor Sir John Sulston is undoubtedly an immensely civilised chap, and Professor Ehrlich has a vast number of learned references to his paper, and Professor Emmott certainly has a huge brain. But the appeal of their thesis lies elsewhere, in the fantasy view of Africa held by us, their public, the semi-over-educated chattering classes of the Western world. We vaguely perceive a vast safari park full of giraffes and rhinos, with a sprinkling of goldmines, gas fields and tastefully designed motels. And somewhere, just out of sight, several hundred million people living in tin hut cities the size of London.

There are fascinating differences. South Africa, currently about the only sub-Saharan country vaguely familiar to most of us, will be dwarfed in size by Nigeria and Tanzania. Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe other things will happen, possibly some of them terrible, maybe even as terrible as the wars that ravaged Europe during the period of the continent’s alphabetisation – the period we think of as the Enlightenment.

Let’s hope the rhino survives. Let’s hope that Africans manage to surmount the problems they undoubtedly face with a minimum of pain. Let’s forget about the dangers of warmer weather and start thinking seriously about the future of  the world.

Take Mali, for example, where the Western world has been plunged into one of its frequent bouts of bedwetting by a few hundred tribesmen in jeeps. Thirty of them turned up on a gas field in Algeria, threatening to blow up a major source of Europe’s energy supply. It was undoubtedly a serious situation, efficiently dealt with by the Algerian Army, whose failure to rescue a score or so out of six hundred hostages is being treated in the Western press as a crime against humanity.

Mali, where the French army (2,000 of them) are efficiently dealing with a few hundred bandits, will see its population go from 4 million to 80 million rather faster than the UK made a similar bound in the past couple of centuries, thanks largely to medical progress. We think of those two centuries during which our population leapt from a few million to its current  62 million as a rather successful time in our history, on the whole. Maybe the inhabitants of Mali feel similarly about the present.

Mali was the centre of a major West African empire in the 13th century, apparently. Until recently it was relatively wealthy because of the flourishing cotton industry, which has been all but destroyed by US protectionism. But it has gold and other resources. The US has been training its army in order to resist possible Islamic disruption. Last year, half the US-trained army staged a military coup in the capital in the south, while the other half deserted to join the Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists in the north. [13]

I’ve been following coverage of the French intervention in Mali and the Algerian hostage drama on French TV, which, I imagine, has been much like TV coverage around the world -  journalists and experts sitting round a table and speculating in front of a large screen with the same images passing in a loop. One of the faces round the table will normally be brown – an Algerian energy expert or a journalist from “Jeune Afrique”. From time to time the French journalists will turn to him, he’ll explain politely that they haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking about, they’ll listen politely, then go back to their speculation.

In 2100 the population of Mali will be greater than that of France or the United Kingdom, and they’ll be richer and better educated than we are now. What will that world be like? Maybe it’s time to start speculating about that. Maybe it’s time to forget  about Emmott’s dreams of arming his children against the hordes of climate refugees, and Ehrlich’s Royal Society fantasies of Endarkenment, forget about the dangers of warm weather, and start thinking about the world we will be sharing with our intellectual and demographic equals.






discussed at

[4] discussed at’s-a-fct-we’re-fcked.html

and on this blog, passim



Katie Mitchell: “He just looks at the world in a completely different way. So if you have a salad with him, he tells you about all of the processes by which the fucking lettuce got onto your plate. So it’s – you can see now I’m a bit, you know, low. It’s because I did about six hours travelling with him yesterday. So I had to look at the world from his devastatingly depressing point of view.”



[9] transcript at

Royal Court video no longer available





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17 Responses to Ehrlich’s Endarkenment, Emmott’s Ten Billion, and the War in Mali

  1. Mooloo says:

    The image you are trying to embed is called “application.pdf”. A pdf won’t embed like that. You need a gif, jpg or png file for the picture.

  2. Can I please remind you that Emmott is not actually an Oxford Professor? We have many faults, but he isn’t one of them.

  3. Mooloo
    Thanks for the advice. I’ve been fiddling around with jpgs and pngs to no avail. The UNPD graph linked to is just as good, but not as pretty, As Struton’s version and I’ve reproduced the stats on population projections as a list instead of a table.

    Jonathan Jones
    Sorry. I believe Emmott is a visiting Professor at Oxford and London, but I’ve changed Oxford to Cambridge so as not to cause offence. Or rather, to spread the offence around evenly.

  4. j ferguson says:

    The fecundity trend seems to track inversely but lagging with improvements in the economy, reductions in mortality, etc. While things are improving, Ehrlich’s predictions are unlikely to come to pass.

    Suppose things stop improving, or get worse. Will there then be an increase in fecundity and if so will this increase power a vicious cycle downward, worse to worst?

    It seems likely that the data for an increase in fecundity in persistent bad times following good might be out there, but where to look?

    I pose this, not because I think that things might stop getting better, but to consider a circumstance in which Ehrlich might have it right.

  5. Mooloo says:

    The fecundity trend seems to track inversely but lagging with improvements in the economy,

    Not the economy, as such. Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums for years, yet its fertility rate remains very low. Russia’s economy sucks, and they risk a demographic crisis.

    I believe that the real driver is whether children are an economic asset or a liability. In most of the West children are now a very expensive thing. They cost their parents a fortune, but because they leave home early, do not contribute in their prime to the family. Having five doesn’t particularly increase your chances one will be around to support you in your old age when they will already be retiring by the time you need the money. So people increasingly refuse to have more than two.

    So I believe the change is a social revolution, usually driven by absolute wealth, but sometimes externally (as in the USSR). It would take a reverse social revolution to change the fertility decline. A collapse in the economic order would not do this unless it was permanent.

  6. j ferguson says:

    Mooloo. thanks for your thoughts which seem convincing.

  7. jferguson, Mooloo
    Excellent observations, excellent questions. Why can’t we read anything as thoughtful in the mainstream media?
    One wouldn’t expect a simple correlation between fecundity and anything else. The huge differences between neighbouring European states shows that superficial factors must be playing a part (fashion? house prices? who knows?)
    An African woman has simpler lifestyle choices anyway, so the day she decides not to get married at 14, but get an education, can show up fast in the fecundity statistics.
    One of the first signs of the coming demise of the Soviet Union was the rise in infant mortality rates, noted by the French demographer Emmanuel Todd in 1976 (“La Chute Finale”). All functioning states bring infant mortality rates down.
    Todd had studied at Cambridge under the historian Peter Laslett, who was one of the first to identify literacy (and not industrialisation or capital accumulation) as the key driver of modern society. Near universal literacy among the adult male population is a sure precursor of revolution – Germany in the 16th, England in the 17th, France in the 18th, Russia in the early 19th centuries. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Todd was on the telly saying that Tunisia and Syria were ready, Egypt not.
    Lant Pritchett, (who is now at the Kennedy Business School, so hardly unknown) seems to me to be a social scientist in the same mould as Todd – making original, testable hypotheses on the basis of empirical data. Yet they are effectively ignored. The media prefer speculators and system builders, and the scientific spirit is stifled at source.
    I make the comparison with Freud. His highly original theories were hardly testable, partly because of the difficulty of reconciling empiricism with medical ethics and the timespan of anything as complex of a psychological “cure”. Yet any intelligent person could spot their revolutionary nature, and within twenty years of his first publications he was, if not exactly a household name, a subject of earnest discussion worldwide. English poets and French surrealist painters and South American novelists shared this common intellectual heritage.
    Today we drown in data, but how many intellectuals show an interest in anything outside their own narrow field? Without a kernel of intellectuals who have made the effort to educate themselves about climate science (or demography, or nanotechnology) we might as well be living in a Soviet system, where the truth is handed down by authority.

  8. Dodgy Geezer says:

    …What we clearly don’t need are vast international programmes of education and indoctrination. What we don’t need is the Royal Society and their pontificating Professors….

    True. But irrelevant. Because the people who decide how to allocate the money and the contracts are the big UN Programme managers and their tame pontificating professors…

  9. j ferguson says:

    you said

    The media prefer speculators and system builders, and the scientific spirit is stifled at source.

    could you expand on this a little? Particularly “system builders.” ??

  10. dearieme says:

    This reminds me of my (patentable?) method of finding out how old someone is. Ask them what they first learned the population of Australia to be. It works until you reach the generations who were never ever taught a fact lest it harm their self-actualisation or sumfink.

  11. dearieme
    It would only work, I think, for generations like mine, because when I was a kid there were no video games and not a lot on the telly for kids. So I amused myself by reading the facts and figures in my stamp album and junior atlas. I’m not recommending this state of affairs. There are more interesting things to know than the population of Australia. But still…
    Interesting fact I didn’t note: Europe, Russia, and Japan see their populations drop, often drastically. Australia, Canada, and the USA see them rise. It’s a question of population density and land prices, and of immigration policies. But these countries are culturally just like us! There is nothing inevitable about one country’s population expanding to the point of asphyxiation, and another’s withering away into senility. Demographers know that their projections are nothing more than statistical constructs, and they never pretend otherwise, unlike climate scientists.

    I was perhaps careless in my use of language when i said “system builders”. The media like intellectuals they can slot into a three minute item, or treat in depth in a forty-minute special if they have something simple and astounding to say. Huntington: Ah! Shock of Civilisations! Fukuyama! Ooh! End of History!
    Todd is my intellectual hero, because he doesn’t do that, though he’s had his share of intellectual success and media coverage. Predicting the fall of the Soviet Union in 1976 wasn’t bad for starters. But he didn’t do it by pontificating, but by quoting statistics. Journalists hate that. Manipulating an endless exchange of opinions is their stock-in-trade. Facts kill opinions stone dead.
    Todd pointed out that the correlation between Communism and the existence of an oppressed proletariat is precisely zero. What links Russia, China, Vietnam, Tuscany, the Indian state of Kerala and parts of Portugal, Greece and the South of France where I live is a certain family structure, involving equal distribution of inheritance and a tendency for three generations to live under the same roof. How else do you explain that the ultra-rich bourgeois cities of Bologna and Florence elected communist mayors until quite recently? Or the dormitory village near here inhabited by middle-class commuters which still has a communist town council, is twinned with a town in Kenya, puts on radical film festivals, etc? They no longer live under the same roof with grandma and share the work in the vineyards, but it’s there, in their blood or their sociological DNA or something.
    Close attention to the way people live, how they’re educated, how they form their opinions, is the key to understanding our society. The sociologists whose job it is have been largely recruited to address “problems” (drugs, crime, climate scepticism). If it’s not a problem, don’t think about it. The fact that the ruling super-rich élite live in a bubble far moved from all contact with the outside world is not seen as a problem. The fact that the university-educated 20% who are the political and economical actors who see to the day-to-day running of our society are increasingly out of touch with the other 80% – that’s not a problem – since the social scientists have a privileged position within the 20%.
    Doesn’t really answer your question, but I’ve had my little rant.

  12. Barry Woods says:

    I had a little chat about this tweet with Paul today on twitter..

    Paul R. Ehrlich ‏@PaulREhrlich
    O must use bully pulpit against climate-denier, racist, sexist, plutocratic, anti-science, anti-education, Republicans

    Barry Woods ‏@BarryJWoods
    forgive me for being concerned that a very powerful politician – should use his role as a’ bully pi’t about anything. @PaulREhrlich

    Paul R. Ehrlich ‏@PaulREhrlich
    @BarryJWoods Remember “A bully pulpit is a position sufficiently conspicuous to provide an opportunity to speak out and be listened to.”

    Barry Woods ‏@BarryJWoods
    why use this language not helping, I get called a denier,but am not republican, nor anti-sci, nor racist, nor sexist, etc,etc @PaulREhrlich

    Paul R. Ehrlich ‏@PaulREhrlich
    @BarryJWoods Sorry — it’s increasingly a package, but obviously not everyone fits. Are you a denier or a sceptic — and why?

    Barry Woods ‏@BarryJWoods
    ‘denier’ of what exactly – @PaulREhrlich for thinking the low end of IPCC figures for sensitivity more likely – makes me a ‘lukewarmer’

    oddly he has been following me for quite a while (thought he’d have stopped by now)

  13. Barry
    Wow! Being stalked by a Fellow of the Royal Society! That’s quite something. Particularly one who was forecasting that the British Isles would have lapsed into barbarism – what was it – ten, twenty, years ago?
    His line: “Are you a denier or a sceptic — and why?” reminds me strangely of Smaug the dragon trying to identify Bilbo the Hobbit by his smell. (It’s nearly sixty years since I read that passage, and the film version isn’t out yet. But some things stick in the mind). I’m not a big Tolkien fan these days, but his terrifying fantasies came out of his experiences in the trenches in 1914. What’s Ehrlich’s excuse?
    I’m not a fan of Twitter either, but those of you who are, please keep it up. It’s obviously a great Leveller. The electronic version of the Putney Debates.

  14. Barry Woods says:

    Update on my last tweet – Paul’s reply

    Barry Woods @BarryJWoods 24 Jan
    ‘denier’ of what exactly – @PaulREhrlich for thinking the low end of IPCC figures for sensitivity more likely – makes me a ‘lukewarmer’

    Paul R. Ehrlich @PaulREhrlich
    @BarryJWoods That’s sure not a denier or a sceptic — sure hope you are right.


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  16. j ferguson says:

    I found this an astonishing article.

    I keep imagining a fight over the 20-40 cohort in a world turned upside-down. Countries would contend to attract mobile youth to come, work, pay taxes to support the retirees. This presupposes the host country can find something for them to do, mining for example. NZ is losing (sending?) 5,000 people/month to Oz to work in the resources industry. Population loss annually in NZ is apparently about 4,000 with larger losses made up by immigration from England and Asia. Some of the new folks come to work and others to live out their lives as pensioners in a nice place.

    Importation of workers into middle east Arab states to do work not suitable for the locals is supported by resources, in this case oil.

    Assuming a decline in fecundity, it does seem worthwhile to think about how the bulge in the snake will be supported, maybe via continuing increases in economic efficiency? Or maybe through “grabbing” the youth that are there.

    I’m still a bit incoherent on all this, but I think these trend are susceptible to theory, certainly not Ehrlich’s, but one that isn’t quite there yet.

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