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The Boiling, Breathing Masses

Spring / Summer 2010 Epigram

The Boiling, Breathing Masses

In the multitude of people is the king’s honour; but in the want of people is the destruction of the prince

Imagine a tabletop. It seethes with tiny homunculi, surging this way and that, gathered in frenzied knots here, elsewhere spread out. At one end of the table, newcomers climb rickety ladders and bound off to join the mass; at the other end, startled souls tumble and leap into the ether (think swan dives, jackknives, pikes and reverse tucks). This is what the word ‘population’ means.

Population is the boiling, breathing mass of people between the twin absolutes of birth and death. In one sense, this is a fragile, even temporary circumstance. Science tells us that it is impossible to extend human life past 120 years; if we all stopped having sex, the tabletop could be cleared in less than a century, a couple of million years of evolution and species success wiped out in a nonce. But, as Thomas Malthus, in his notorious 1798 essay, portentously observed, “passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.” The seething mass increases relentlessly, the crowd presses ever closer to the edge, the air is difficult to breath, eyes dart in panic.

We have never needed Malthus to tell us that we are living a biological paradox: success equals failure. Hunting peoples, farmers and scientists have ever been familiar with the cycles of rising and collapsing populations. Lemmings are a shining example of natural control; every seven years, the surplus cheerfully rushes over a handy cliff (think tabletop), thus freeing up the ecosystem for another few years of guilt-free procreation amid plentiful food and housing possibilities (granted, perhaps the concept of a guilty lemming is a little de trop).

Only twice in history have we encountered significant setbacks: in the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out nearly a quarter of the world’s people; and about 73,000 years ago, the Toba supervolcanic eruption in Sumatra caused a population ‘bottleneck’ that knocked us back to perhaps 10,000 individuals worldwide, or about a thousand ‘breeding pairs’ (in the jargon of population studies, romance is all). On the tabletop, there are just under seven billion of us now; but there will be nine billion by 2050. This is wonderful news if you still hew to the biblical line: “In the multitude of people is the king’s honour; but in the want of people is the destruction of the prince.” (Proverbs 14:28) But the gloomy sort, who throws around disagreeable phrases like ‘carrying capacity’ and ‘world food stocks,’ as likely as not will take a dim view of such developments. The picture on the tabletop is further complicated by regional disparities in terms of relative want and plenty, creature comforts and population density. Birth rates fluctuate around the world; these days, some countries hover at or even below ‘replacement level,’ an austere phrase that brings to mind inventory control software, auto parts and cans of beans.

Paradoxically, some of the world’s wealthiest and most civil countries are among those reaching a steady-state or even contracting, while some of the poorest are reproducing rapidly. Wealth, technology, industrialization, ecological degradation and food shortages create dramatic anomalies, inequities and relative vacuums; people are irrepressibly mobile; the crowd on the tabletop roils and concentrates and flows like a living thing.

Once we wandered about in extended family hunting bands spread thinly over the land. In the Neolithic Age, the world convulsed, cities sucked up people, rural agriculturalists gathered in fertile rural hinterlands that served more and more cities. In the 18th century, industrialization accelerated the process, hoovering up even more people into larger and larger cities, vortices of wealth and production, and the first great modern migrations began as Ireland, then Britain and Eastern Europe shipped their surplus poor off to America. Nowadays, America does not welcome those teeming hordes, but the surging poor are battering at the gates, and everywhere along the lines that divide the wealthy from the impoverished, high-tech walls of wire and concrete try to stem the tide.

The underworld traffics in drugs and people these days. Classic demographic transition theorists predict that population growth will hit a near steady-state worldwide by the middle of this new century. This is an optimistic view if one is the gregarious type and does not mind standing room-only on the tabletop. We are a tenacious and resilient lot, each one his own special case (possibly the true meaning of the word ‘soul’), much given, as Malthus observed, to cheerful venery, with an un-lemming-like passion for self-preservation. Yet, increasingly, these days we are haunted by history and finitude, cursed with too much knowledge. The ghosts of the previous inhabitants, revealed to us daily by modern science, are sombre reminders of other populations long gone. We are only renting the room (or the tabletop), they tell us; others will certainly follow.


Douglas Glover is a Governor-General’s Award-winning novelist and short story writer. His last book was The Enamoured Knight, a study of Cervantes and Don Quixote.

(Illustration: Elise Gravel)

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