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 Population Pressure and War  (1957)*

By Bertrand Russell

The world is faced at the present day with two antithetical dangers. There is the risk, which has begun to sink into popular consciousness, that the human race may put an end to itself by a too lavish use of H-bombs. There is an opposite risk, not nearly so widely appreciated, that the human population of our planet may increase to the point where only a starved and miserable existence is possible except for a small minority of powerful people. These risks, though diametrically opposed to each other, are nevertheless connected. Nothing is more likely to lead to an H-bomb war than the threat of universal destitution through over-population. It is with the nature of this threat and with the means for averting it that I shall be concerned in what follows.

Wars caused by pressure of population are no novelty. Four times—so the historians of antiquity assure us—the population of Arabia was led to over-run neighbouring countries by drought at home. The results were many and of many kinds. They included Babylon and Nineveh, the Code of Hammurabi, the art of predicting eclipses, the Old Testament, and finally Islam. The barbarians who destroyed the Roman Empire did not keep accurate vital statistics, but there can be little doubt that population outgrew the resources of their northern forests and that this pressure precipitated them against the rich Mediterranean lands. During the last few centuries population pressure in Europe has been relieved by emigration to the Western hemisphere, and, as Red Indians do not write history, we have thought of this process as peaceable. The East, however, has enjoyed no such outlet. It was mainly population pressure that precipitated Japan’s disastrous excursion into imperialism. In China, the Taiping Rebellion, civil war, and Japanese aggression, for a time kept the population in check. In India, the population grew and grows unchecked, producing a downward plunge towards misery and starvation.

But, although population pressure has been a vital element in human affairs from time immemorial, there are several new factors which make the present situation different from anything that has preceded it. The first of these is the utter disastrousness of scientific warfare which means that war makes the survival of anything doubtful and the survival of any good thing almost certainly impossible. The second is the absence of empty or nearly empty lands such as those into which the white man overflowed from the time of Columbus to the present day. The third, which has an immense importance but has hardly begun to be recognized, is the success of medicine in diminishing the death rate. These three factors taken together have produced a situation which is new in human history. It must be coped with if utter disaster is to be avoided. The East has been awakening to this necessity; the West, largely for ideological reasons, has been more backward.

A few facts are necessary to make the situation clear, but I shall deal with them briefly as Professor Huxley’s previous article [“World Population,” in The Human Sum.] has dealt with most of them. The population of the world, which at most periods has been very nearly stationary, began to grow with unprecedented rapidity about the year 1650. Since then the rate of growth has been not merely maintained but continually increased and is now much more rapid than it was even twenty years ago. The present rate of increase in the population of the world is, roughly, one a second or eighty thousand a day or thirty million a year, and there is every reason to think that during the next decade the rate of population growth will become even greater. As a consequence of the growth in numbers during the last twenty years, human beings, on the average, are less well-nourished than they were before the Second World War. It is considered that 2,200 calories is the least upon which health and vigour can be maintained and that those who have less than this are under-nourished. Adopting this standard, half the world was under-nourished during the thirties and two-thirds of it is under-nourished now. To this process of deterioration no limit can be set except by a slowing-up of the increase in numbers. A careful survey of the world’s resources in the matter of food leads to the conclusion that technical advances in agriculture cannot keep pace with the great army of new mouths to be fed. Moreover, technical advances can barely hold their own against the deterioration of the soil which results from a desire for quick returns. There is yet another matter of policy which has played a great part in the USSR and is destined to play a great part in China as well as in various other countries. This is the determination, for reasons of national power and prestige, to industrialize very quickly and even at the expense of agriculture. In the existing state of the world, one can hardly blame countries for this policy. Before the First World War, Russia had little industry but was an exporter of grain. Before the Second World War, Russia had much industry and had ceased to export grain. Russia was defeated in the First World War and was victorious in the Second. In view of such facts, we cannot wonder at the race towards rapid industrializing on which many under-developed countries have embarked.

All these reasons make it nearly certain that poverty and under-nourishment will increase in many of the most important parts of the world during at least the next twenty years, even if everything possible is done to prevent this result. The downward trend will continue until the growth of population has been slowed up. The deterioration in living conditions must be expected to produce increasing discontent and increasing envy of the more prosperous parts of the world. Such feelings tend to produce war even if, on a sane survey, no good can come of war to anybody.

In regard to the population problem there is an enormous difference between the white and non-white parts of the world. In most white countries there has been a continual decline in the birth rate during the last eighty years and, at the same time, such a rapid advance in technique that the growth in population has not been incompatible with a rise in the standard of life. But in the East, in Africa, and in tropical America the situation is very different. While the death rate has declined enormously, the birth rate has remained nearly stationary and the nations concerned have not enjoyed those outlets which enabled Western Europe to prosper during the nineteenth century. Let us consider the three most important countries of the East: India, China, and Japan. These three countries, between them, contain two-fifths of the population of the world. China, where the vital statistics are somewhat uncertain, is estimated to have a population of 583 million and an annual increase of 11.6 million. India has a population of 372 million and an annual increase of 4.8 million. Japan has a population of 86.7 million and an annual increase of 1.2 million. All these three countries, as well as the USSR, have recently undergone a change of policy in regard to population. In India and Japan, this change has been very notable. Nehru inaugurated the change by a pronouncement which had no precedent among the leading statesmen of the world: “We should,” he said, “be a far more advanced nation if our population were about half what it is.” In pursuance of this policy, his government inaugurated a birth control campaign. Unfortunately, so far, economic and ideological reasons combined have led to the adoption of ineffective methods, but there is every reason to hope that better methods will be adopted before long. The Japanese government in an official bulletin published in December, 1940, just one year before Pearl Harbor, said: “If we think of the distant future of mutual prosperity in Asia, and if we give heed to the glorious mission of the Japanese race, the one thing of which we can never have enough is the number of superior people belonging to the Imperial nation.” Defeat in war has changed the attitude of the Japanese government, which is now doing everything in its power to lower the rate of population growth. In the absence of birth control information, abortions in Japan have become extremely prevalent. According to Dr Yasuaki Koguchi there were between one million eight hundred thousand and two million three hundred thousand induced abortions in the one year 1953. So desperate is the economic situation that large numbers of women have resorted to sterilization. The Japanese government, although it does not forbid abortion, is aware that contraception would be preferable and does what it can to encourage it.

Both China and Russia have been compelled by hard facts to take up an attitude not consistent with what Communists have hitherto regarded as Marxist orthodoxy. They have been in the habit hitherto of proclaiming that only under capitalism does a population problem exist and that under communism overpopulation cannot occur in any foreseeable future. In Russia abortion, which Stalin had made illegal, was made again legal by a decree of November 23, 1955. China, during the past two years, has permitted and even encouraged propaganda for scientific methods of contraception avowedly “at the general request of the masses” and in the hope of bringing about a steady fall in the Chinese birth rate.

In all these four countries—Russia, India, China, and Japan— the main difficulty is not now the opposition of government or of public opinion to birth control, but the lack of the necessary appliances and the extreme poverty which would prevent their purchase even if they were obtainable. It is for this reason that abortion is common in spite of the danger to health that it involves. But, however great the difficulties may be, there is good reason to hope that in all four countries the birth rate will be much reduced within a generation.

In under-developed countries that are still under Western domination, a less enlightened policy prevails. In Africa, the West Indies and the tropical part of Central and South America nothing is done to check the increase of population, and the standard of life is, in consequence, continually falling. Western nations, and especially the United States, spend great sums of money in the hope of benefiting under-developed nations, but the hoped-for benefit does not result because it is not accompanied by control of population. On the balance, what the West spends philanthropically on under-developed regions merely increases the number of sufferers and augments the terrible sum of human misery. It is a humiliating reflection for those who are inclined to feel complacent about what are called “Western values” that on this supremely important question, upon which the whole future of mankind depends, the West is less enlightened than the East and less capable of rational adjustment to circumstances. This is due, no doubt, in large part to the fact that the most powerful Western countries, owing to their low birth rates, do not have a serious domestic population problem. Western practice at home is at variance with Western theory. What people do is right, but what they think they ought to do is wrong. What they think they ought to do has disastrous consequences, not at home, but wherever Western nations dominate less developed regions either directly or through financial and medical assistance. By their superstitious and benighted policy, they are breeding great areas of discontent and hostility.

There are in the world at present sharply marked divisions between areas of prosperity and areas of poverty. In Western Europe and North America and Australia, the immense majority of the population are adequately nourished. In Africa, India, and China, a large majority have less food than is necessary for health and vigour. This situation is not getting better. On the contrary, it is getting worse. The poorer countries are growing poorer, while the richer ones grow richer. It is mainly the increase of population that causes the poverty of the poorer countries. The resulting situation is explosive. It is hardly to be expected that the less prosperous parts of the world will tamely acquiesce in the continually widening inequality. The situation is of just that kind that in the past has always led to war and conquest. However irrational a resort to war in modern circumstances may be, hunger and sullen anger may, in desperation, produce an outbreak that can end only in utter disaster. There cannot be secure peace in the world while the present economic inequalities persist. If peace is to become secure, it can only be through an improvement in the standard of life in undeveloped regions, and this improvement will have to be so great and so long-continued as to give a prospect of ultimate economic equality. As things are at present, if the world’s supply of food were divided equally among all the populations of the world, there would have to be a catastrophic decline in the Western standard of life, and it is obvious that Western nations would not submit to such a decline except as a result of defeat in war. Hopes of peace, therefore, must rest on measures designed to benefit the East without injuring the West, and such measures are impossible unless they involve a very great fall in the birth rate of the more prolific countries.

It is difficult not to be filled with despair when one contemplates the blindness of statesmanship and of everyday popular thought on the issues with which modern man is faced. The leading powers of the world spend enormous sums and devote their best brains to the production of methods of killing each other. Eminent moral leaders give their blessing to such efforts, and at the same time tell us that it is wicked to prevent the births which, by their excessive number, drive the nations on to the invention of H-bombs. I could wish to see it generally recognized in the West, as it is coming to be recognized in the East, that the problem of over-population could probably be painlessly solved by the devotion to birth control of one-hundredth or even one-thousandth of the sum at present devoted to armament. The most urgent practical need is research into some method of birth control which could be easily and cheaply adopted by even very poor populations. There is, at present, only an infinitesimal research on this all-important matter, although it is in the highest degree probable that rather more research and rather more public encouragement could produce incalculably beneficial results.

Given a successful outcome to such research, there should be in every town and village of the more prolific countries centres of birth control information and public assistance as regards the supply of birth control apparatus. The Western nations have a special responsibility in this matter, for it is the discoveries of Western medicine that have so lowered the death rate as to produce a lack of balance that, on a global scale, is a wholly new phenomenon. I will give two illustrations out of many. In Ceylon, when DDT was introduced to combat malaria, the death rate fell within two or three years to the level of Western death rates, while the birth rate remained constant, with the result that there is at present an increase of population at the rate of 2.7 per cent per year. The figures of the death rate in Japan are even more remarkable. In the five years before the Second World War, the average death rate in Japan was 17.4. In 1946, it had risen to 17.6. In the following years it fell with extraordinary suddenness: in 1951 it was 10.0 and, in 1954, 7.9. A large part of this fall is attributable to American methods of public health. In spite of the very highest motives, those Western medical missions and medical scientists who have with extraordinary suddenness brought about the great decline in the death rate, have incidentally done very much more harm than good. The desirable remedy does not lie in restoring the death rate to its former level. It does not lie in the promotion of new pestilences. Least of all does it lie in the vast destruction that a new war may bring. It lies in adapting births to deaths. The stern limits of the earth’s fertility will see to it before long that the balance between births and deaths is restored. It will see to it with an arithmetical inevitability which is independent of human wisdom or folly. But if the balance is restored by human folly, immense suffering throughout the world will be involved; while, if it is restored in accordance with the dictates of good sense and humanity, there can be an end to poverty and an end to the vast hopelessness of female lives devoted to the production of children who ought not to exist and whose existence must almost inevitably be filled with misery.

During what remains of the present century, the world has to choose between two possible destinies. It can continue the reckless increase of population until war, more savage and more dreadful than any yet known, sweeps away not only the excess but probably all except a miserable remnant. Or, if the other course is chosen, there can be progress, rapid progress, towards the extinction of poverty, the end of war, and the establishment of a harmonious family of nations. It seems that the East is becoming alive to the problem, but the West, in its theories and in its external dealings, lags behind. Of all the long-run problems that face the world, this problem of population is the most important and fundamental for, until it is solved, other measures of amelioration are futile. It is too late to escape from great hardship in the near future, but there is good reason to believe that, if war can be averted meanwhile, the pressing needs of the world will bring amelioration before it is too late.

*  Bertrand Russell, “Population Pressure and War,” The Human Sum, ed. C.H. Rolph, London, Heinemann, 1957