Robert Malthus, born 250 years ago today, predicted famine in Britain if population growth was not addressed. He argued that food production was limited; only by having small families could society avoid crises.
Generations of Britons have been taught that Malthus was wrong. Despite a six fold increase in the British population since his day, we are generally eating better than ever. He failed to predict that coal, then oil and gas, could be harnessed to deliver massive increases in agricultural productivity and enable the import of cheap food from throughout the world.
And yet, can our numbers continue to increase indefinitely? At what point does it become a problem? Some would argue that it already has. In a recent 17 country survey by YouGov, the British were most likely to be concerned about global population growth, placing it third after terrorism and poverty, hunger and thirst but above armed conflict and climate change. That perhaps isn't surprising. England is both Europe's most densely populated large country and one of its fastest growing, adding 400,000 yearly. Net migration is at record levels and contributes to one of Europe's highest fertility rates, while we are generally living longer, too.
One consequence is a rising cost of living. Greater demand means rising housing costs and is the rationale for multiple transport and utility infrastructure projects, which have to be paid for through higher prices or taxes. Another consequence is a somewhat lower quality of life. This affects people in different ways. It could mean standing on your train to work, or being stuck in traffic more often. It might mean having to wait to see your GP or being unable to send your child to the school you want. And, of course, it means a smaller home or perhaps renting rather than buying.
We shouldn't forget our 'green and pleasant land'. Few people are keen on fracking, nuclear or wind farms. We don't like to think of natural habitats being lost to development or industrial agriculture. We're sad that there are ever fewer places that are really quiet or dark, not least because of the effect on our ever diminishing wildlife. And yet, we must get the energy for our growing numbers from somewhere. People need to eat, and travel. They also need somewhere to live, even if that means encroaching on a green belt or building on a risky flood plain.
And Britain is not an island. Well, it is, but 40% of our food already comes from abroad and the proportion is rising. As populations and living standards of food exporting countries increase, they will want their food for themselves. Already some countries ban food exports when harvests are poor. Can't we just grow more? That's not so easy when fertile land is lost to sprawling megacities, freshwater supplies are limited and rising energy and mineral costs limit fertilizer production. The impact of climate change on agriculture has yet to be fully felt, while the old adage that 'There are plenty more fish in the sea' is no longer true.
Stabilizing our population is not risky, expensive or complicated. We can address an ageing society by improving productivity and ensuring all of our people are capable of doing our jobs and enabled to do so. All we need to do is to have a small family, the single most important thing any of us can do for the environment, and of course to limit net migration.