“In the Brave New World of my fable, the problem of human numbers in their relation to natural resources had been effectively solved. An optimum figure for world population had been calculated and numbers were maintained at this figure (a little under two billion, if I remember rightly) generation after generation. In the real contemporary world, the population problem has not been solved. On the contrary it is becoming graver and more formidable with every passing year. It is against this grim biological background that all the political, economic, cultural and psychological dramas of our time are being played out.

 As the twentieth century wears on, as the new billions are added to the existing billions (there will be more than five and a half billion of us by the time my granddaughter is fifty), this biological background will advance, ever more insistently, ever more menacingly, toward the front and center of the historical stage. The problem of rapidly increasing numbers in relation to natural resources, to social stability and to the well-being of individuals—this is now the central problem of mankind; and it will remain the central problem certainly for another century, and perhaps for several centuries thereafter. 

A new age is supposed to have begun on October 4, 1957. But actually, in the present context, all our exuberant post-Sputnik talk is irrelevant and even nonsensical. So far as the masses of mankind are concerned, the coming time will not be the Space Age; it will be the Age of Over-population.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The Age of Over-population

When highlighting the challenges to humanity and individual freedom that are presented in the various pathways to a Brave New World, Huxley argues that the straightest and the broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases. This will be applied to trends of organization and digitalization as we move forward, but Huxley places the blame for the central problem of mankind, as the problem of rapidly increasing numbers in relation to natural resources, to social stability, and to the well-being of individuals, that is, over-population.

Huxley’s argument is that as societies (global, regional, and national) experience rapid increases in population growth, these rapid increases strain the economic and cultural fabric of a society. These strains often result in central governments taking on larger roles to attempt to control and stabilize the situation. The consequences of these trends and the government responses being significant loss of freedom for the individual. That is, rapid population growth is not easily governed democratically. And, societies without a rich democratic tradition struggle all the more to maintain or create democratic societies in the midst of these strains and their consequences. 

However, is this really the case? Is it true that we live in an age of over-population? 

As a starting point, global population growth rates have been falling since 1968. Seems promising?

As with most complicated and controversial topics, it depends on what we mean by “over-population.” In fact, you may find it strange that given concerns in the west of declining fertility rates, that concerns of an over populated world are overblown. You may also have some recognition of the fact that in some meaningful ways the world is NOT over-populated in the way that many mid-20th century commentators expected. 

For example, these commentators were sometimes concerned about the ability to produce enough food for a rising global population. This turned out to not be the problem that was anticipated. In fact, one of the great science and technology success stories of the 20th century, is that despite fast growing populations across the globe, generally speaking, most societies have been able to avoid having their populations die of mass starvation.

This idea of mass starvation and our ability to collectively avoid it seems to be remembered by some as the only evidence needed to close the door on the concerns of over-population, but an inability to produce enough food is only one of a number of concerns presented by over-population. The wikipedia article on human overpopulation categorizes five general types of concerns from the conversation on human overpopulation. These include:

  1. Poverty, and infant and child mortality 
  2. Environmental impacts  
  3. Resource depletion  
  4. Political systems and social conflict  
  5. Epidemics and pandemics

Of these 5 categories, the evidence since the late 1950s suggests that we’ve done a reasonably good job of dealing with challenges 1 & 3. For challenge 1 poverty rates, infant mortality rates, and child mortality rates have declined at the same time that global population has rapidly increased. For challenge 3, we’ve already noted that at least for food production, we have not seen a severe resource depletion. But, this still leaves negative environmental impacts (climate change anyone?), political system and social conflict (see section below), and epidemics and pandemics (Maybe it is unfair to overgeneralize from one example, but COVID-19).

Population Growth, Global Democracy, & Social Conflict 

A brief examination of the Global Democracy Index and World Population Growth Data provide more recent evidence in this direction, while not conclusive, it is clear that the global regions with high population growth (Asia and Africa) are also the same regions ranked as predominantly authoritarian. There are, of course, additional complex reasons for why democracy is ranked lower in these same global regions. However, it also remains the case that democracy remains inaccessible to the many, as The Economist, presenting its 2021 Global Democracy Index reminds us:

“Global democracy continued its precipitous decline in 2021, according to the latest edition of the Democracy Index from our sister company, EIU. The annual survey, which rates the state of democracy across 167 countries on the basis of five measures—electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties—finds that more than a third of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule while just 6.4% enjoy a full democracy. The global score fell from 5.37 to a new low of 5.28 out of ten. The only equivalent drop since 2006 was in 2010 after the global financial crisis.”

The Economist reminds us that Global Democracy is in a troubling state. In addition to this precipitous decline is the troubling pattern that can be observed across the Global Democracy Index Map and a World Population Growth Rate Map. That pattern is that the same global regions with a low democracy score are often the same global regions with high population growth rate.

In addition to this troubling connection between population growth rates and lower scores on the democracy index, there is a troubling empirical connection between population growth rates and social conflict. In 2017 economists Daron Acemoglu, Leopoldo Fergusson & Simon Johnson, describe their findings with the following abstract:

“Medical and public health innovations in the 1940s quickly resulted in significant health improvements around the world. Countries with initially higher mortality from infectious diseases experienced greater increases in life expectancy, population, and – over the following 40 years – social conflict. This result is robust across alternative measures of conflict and is not driven by differential trends between countries with varying baseline characteristics. At least during this time period, a faster increase in population made social conflict more likely, probably because it increased competition for scarce resources in low income countries.”

In this section and the previous one, we’ve focused on population growth rates to illustrate that fast increases in population may have significant negative social impacts, including the presence of authoritarian governments and social conflict. On these points alone, we should be concerned about how the rate of human population growth may threaten democracy and human freedom. But, the growth rates themselves are only part of the problem. As the categories of challenges resulting from human overpopulation suggest, we may also be concerned with environmental impacts (degradation) and pandemics, and these concerns are more about the size of the human population (and how connected it is), not as much about the rate of growth. Here, this graph is helpful, because by any reasonable read the recent leap in human population has quickly achieved a very large number by comparison to historical estimates. Before the year 1800 the world had never seen a billion humans, now the global number approaches 8 billion.

Once a group reaches a certain size, and contains enough individuals, it reaches a new level of emergence. In this way, humans may collectively  become giants. The challenge is that groups of humans have emergent behavioral patterns at different sizes and across different types and number of interactions. 

For example, the dynamics of a team effort, a violent mob, and a bellowing crowd, each can be described by their relative size and the types of interactions among the individuals that constitute the group. These interactions include their degrees of purposefulness and behavioral contagion, explored briefly below.


The Team Effort, The Violent Mob, The Bellowing Crowd

John paused. Then with a sigh he resumed. “It’s no good going on about it. The upshot is simple enough. Homo sapiens is at the end of his tether, and I’m not going to spend my life tinkering a doomed species.”

“You’re mighty sure of yourself, aren’t you?” I put in. “

Yes,” he said, “perfectly sure of myself in some ways, and still utterly unsure in others, in ways I can’t explain. But on this is stark clear. If I were to take over Hom. sap. I should freeze up inside, and grow quite incapable of doing what is my real job. That job is what I’m not yet sure about, and can’t possibly explain. But it begins with something very interior to me. Of course, it’s not just saving my soul. I, as an individual, might damn myself without spoiling the world. Indeed, damning myself might happen to be ad added beauty to the world. I don’t matter on my own account, but I have it in me to do something that does matter. This I know.  And I’m pretty sure I have to begin with — well, interior discovery of objective reality, in preparation for objective creation. Can you make anything of that?”

“Not much,” I said, “but go on.”

“No,” he said, “I won’t go on along that line, but I’ll tell you something else. I’ve had the hell of a fright lately. And I’m not easily frightened. This was only the second time, ever. I went to the Cup Tie Final Last week to see the crowd. You remember, it was a close fight (and a damned good game from the beginning to end) and three minutes before time there was trouble over a foul. The ball went into the goal before the referee’s whistle had got going for the foul, and that goal would have won the match. Well the crowd got all het up about it, as you probably heard. That’s what frightened me. I don’t mean I was scared of being hurt in a row. No I should have quite enjoyed a bit of a row, if I’d known which side to be on, and there’d been something to fight about. But there wasn’t. It clearly was a foul. Their precious ‘sporting instinct’ out to have kept them straight, but it didn’t. They just lost their heads, went brute-made over it. What got me was the sudden sense of being different from everyone else, of being a human being alone in a vast herd of cattle. Here was a fair sample of the world’s population, of the sixteen hundred millions of Homo sapiens. And this fair sample was expressing itself in a thoroughly characteristic way, an inarticulate bellowing and braying, and here was I, a raw, ignorant, blundering little creature, but human, really human, perhaps the only real human being in the world; and just because I was really human, and had in me the possibility of some new and transcendent spiritual achievement, I was more important that all the rest of the sixteen hundred million put together. That was a terrifying thought in itself. What made matters worse was the bellowing crowd. Not that I was afraid of them, but of the thing they were a sample of. Not that I was afraid as a private individual so to speak. If they had turned on me I’d have made a damned good fight for it. What terrified me was the thought of the immense responsibility, and the immense odds against me fulfilling it.”

John fell silent; and I was so stunned by his prodigious self-importance that I have nothing to say.”

-Olaf Stapledon, Odd John

The point to be made here again, is that as you have more individuals of something, there may be a point at which new behaviors emerge among those individuals. This is also true of water molecules, cells, plants, and animals, and for many mechanical and artificial objects. This is also true of humans. And those emergent behaviors may be violent and they may become contagious.

Group emergent behavior, directly influencing observed individual behavior, can easily be found in the team effort, the violent mob, and, as Stapledon put it, the bellowing crowd. One important note here is that these groups of individuals seem to deteriorate in their “individualness” and bend towards dehumanization and behavioral contagion as their size increases.

This relationship between size of group of humans and behavioral contagion, alongside the pressure for organization and stability that comes with an increasing size of a population, when married with the empirical observation of social conflict within nations that experienced more rapid population growth, all taken together, highlight the immense challenges that over-population present to the individual human, groups of humans, and societies of humans.

Over-population, Economic Insecurity, and Social Unrest

Here’s a nightmare scenario from Huxley:

“Whenever the economic life of a nation becomes precarious, the central government is forced to assume additional responsibilities for the general welfare. It must work out elaborate plans for dealing with a critical situation; it must impose ever greater restrictions upon the activities of its subjects; and if, as is very likely, worsening economic conditions result in political unrest, or open rebellion, the central government must intervene to preserve public order and its own authority. More and more power is thus concentrated in the hands of the executives and their bureaucratic managers. But the nature of power is such that even those who have not sought it, but have had it forced upon them, tend to acquire a taste for more. 

“Lead us not into temptation,” we pray—and with good reason; for when human beings are tempted too enticingly or too long, they generally yield. A democratic constitution is a device for preventing the local rulers from yielding to those particularly dangerous temptations that arise when too much power is concentrated in too few hands. Such a constitution works pretty well where, as in Britain or the United States, there is a traditional respect for constitutional procedures. Where the republican or limited monarchical tradition is weak, the best of constitutions will not prevent ambitious politicians from succumbing with glee and gusto to the temptations of power. And in any country where numbers have begun to press heavily upon available resources, these temptations cannot fail to arise. 

Over-population leads to economic insecurity and social unrest. Unrest and insecurity lead to more control by central governments and an increase of their power. In the absence of a constitutional tradition, this increased power will probably be exercised in a dictatorial fashion. Even if Communism had never been invented, this would be likely to happen. But Communism has been invented. Given this fact, the probability of over-population leading through unrest to dictatorship becomes a virtual certainty. It is a pretty safe bet that, twenty years from now, all the world’s over-populated and underdeveloped countries will be under some form of totalitarian rule—probably by the Communist party.”

Over-population, Over-organization, and Freedom

The picture of the Age of Over-Population and its freedom hampering tendencies have been highlighted through the challenges both of higher human population growth rates and the challenges that come with emergent behaviors across increasingly large groups of humans for which behavioral contagion may quickly spread. I have only attempted to point to the contours of the arguments and some of the evidence available for them, and illustrate some points with short stories.

While concerns for resource depletion, poverty, and infant mortality rates are reduced thanks to advances in science and technology, as the global population approaches 8 billion humans, and the global growth rate remains about 1% (and significantly higher in particular regions), significant concerns remain for environmental degradation, pandemics, and political and social conflict, and correspondingly human freedom.

The Age of Over-population has aided in ushering in the Age of Over-organization. With more people, more crowded together, with more complex technologies all shuffled together in a sea of rapidly rising increases, there has been pressure towards more organization and organizations themselves have evolved into new and more powerful structures as they too have responded to an environment of increasing numbers of humans with increasingly powerful technologies. 

In the next post, we will examine the case for over-organization as a pressing influence on our journey to Our Brave New Word.