Magazine article Geographical

The Science of Slums

Magazine article Geographical

The Science of Slums

Article excerpt

In an edited extract from his new book, Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, argues that the idea of the population bomb is a fallacy and that the human population is checking its rise without the need for a grand plan

The 'population bomb' is a solecism, a grammatical mistake, an absurdity. In 1968, it was a neologism, a newly coined phrase or doctrine: today, it appears antiquated as a term. Now simply 'population' without the suffix 'bomb' has a self-evident power. We should be 'concerned about population', we're told--no longer scared out of our wits, as any sane person would be about a bomb, but concerned.

We became scared. We moved from five to six billion in just 12 years, during the year 2000. To be a little more precise, it was announced (by the statisticians relied upon for the figures used here) that there were 6,071,144,000 of us at that point. Later, their revised estimates suggested that we had actually hit that magic number earlier and that by 2000, we numbered 6,122,770,000 people; we just had not known it.

Was this due to cataclysmic growth? One sign that it might be was that by then, around one in six of us, some 927 million souls, were living in slums.

A simple observer who just looked at the totals would conclude that if human population growth were to continue at the pre-millennial rate of acceleration. then by 2050, there would be 13 billion of us; by 2100, 44 billion: by 2200, some 1,775 billion and by 2300, some 133,592 billion. I'm not making these numbers up; they are the 'constant projection' of the UN

The UN produces its ridiculous multi-billion figures partly to illustrate that what humans have just experienced is the equivalent to what happens when sewage floods a sea and there is an algal bloom. The 133 billion is what would happen if we were algae floating on an almost endless newly nutrient-rich ocean, but humans aren't algae, and our growth in numbers is slowing down.


We're slowing because we have to; it's simply that we're only just starting to see it and are surprised to find this slowdown happening without a grand plan. Those of us who think we're particularly clever and needed, those of us who understand ideas such as parabolas and derivatives, ask ourselves conceitedly: how did this happen without our help?

In the decade to the year 2000, there was a significant change in what's called the second derivative of population. Imagine you throw a cricket ball straight up into the air. Before it begins to fall back to Earth, it has to slow down, and before it can begin to slow down, it has to decelerate.

When it comes to a cricket ball, it's from the point that it leaves your hand that it starts to decelerate. When it comes to human beings, that point--the time at which the speeding up stopped, even though the total population continued to rise--was 1971, although that only started to become clear in the dozen years up to 1989. And so it wasn't until the 1990s that the first reports of optimism were released to an unbelieving world.

Before the 1990s, doom-mongering was normal. The world had good reason not to believe that a positive turning point was being reached. When you have just added a billion people in a dozen years or less, on top of another billion added in the 13 years before that, you get slums, you get fears of pandemic, you get a great many reports of the growth of shanty towns spreading out of control.


To counter this diet of doom, it's worth beginning with the strongest evidence first. Evidence, that is, that all is not lost. This evidence concerns how poor is the record of those who forecast doom. The greatest failure came when the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus wrote that essay claiming that the end was nigh when it came to the ultimate results of human population growth.

Malthus had little chance of realising the significance, but he was writing 300 years after the demographic shock of the discovery of the Americas, and the data he was looking at reflected a great deal of the influence of that event. …

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