Thursday, August 10, 2006

Claim of UK Overpopulation is Bad Maths

Journalist Rod Liddle writing in today's 'Spectator' magazine claims that the UK is catastrophically overpopulated:

"If you live in the south-east of England you will already be familiar with the iniquities imposed by overpopulation: the railway network which collapses under the weight of numbers... the waiting list for treatment at your local hospital; the bulging school rolls... the incessant angry growl of traffic during the day, the eerily pale mauve night sky, deprived of its right to darkness by the street lights; the queues everywhere, for everything... You cannot water your garden because there is not enough of the stuff to go around... the strange re-occurrence of TB in our inner cities...the lack of community in your town... and the sense of alienation which this engenders; the loss of habitat for our indigenous wildlife."

He then goes on to state:

"We can be sure that Britain is one of the ten or 15 most crowded countries on earth..."

But this just isn't true - a brief search on the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia reveals that the UK is in fact ranked 48th in the world for population density
(Wikipedia: List_of_countries_by_population_density)

Furthermore, the article is wrong in my opinion to blame 'overpopulation' for various social and environmental problems. The UK has 60 million acres, 1 for every person in the country. The 2001 National Census gives a figure of 21 million UK households - that's almost 3 acres per household (equivalent in size to an entire football pitch per household).

The real problem is the poor distribution of land ownership throughout the UK: 90% of the population of Britain live on just 10% of the land, with 69% of the UK's acreage owned by just 0.6% of the population (people like the Duke of Buccleuch who owns 270,900 acres).

The fact is that people naturally cluster together in cities, towns and villages - many like 'hustle and bustle', others prefer greater quiet and seclusion. The lack of community and sense of alienation, cited in the article as a consequence of overpopulation, has probably more to do with factors such as family breakdown: the 2001 census reported that 30% of all UK households are occupied by a single person.

The myth of overpopulation has a long history going back centuries. But the fact is that fertility rates in the UK (and across Europe) are falling: there were 1,014,700 births in Britain in 1964 compared with 716,000 in 2004. 1 in 5 British women do not have any children at all (compared to 1 in 10 a generation ago). The UK's low fertility rate ranks 153rd in the world
(Wikipedia: List_of_countries_and_territories_by_fertility_rate)

The UK has many problems and faces many challenges, but overpopulation isn't one of them.


Anonymous said...

The problems cited in that article might be remedied by better management of resources and better organization of cities.

It would be worthwhile to ponder the differences in living conditions between Tokyo and Mexico City.

Mexico has 500% as much land as Japan, but Mexico's population is only 80% as large as Japan's.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Compared with UK, China is the one who should face the onverpopulation problem seriously.

BTW, I'Yiyang from China, hope my english didnt bother you:)

Anonymous said...

A great post, well-argued and accurate. I do wish national newspapers were not so inflammatory with their articles, although I suppose if they were not they would never sell enough copies.

Anonymous said...

...But all this still doesn't alter the fact that there are far too many humans in the world!

Daniel Tammet said...

I don't agree that there are far too many people in the world.

Anonymous said...

6.5 billion isn't "too many"? :/ It's a human plague!

Daniel Tammet said...

Needless to say I don't agree that lots of people constitute a 'plague'. The problem isn't one of overpopulation but of underdistribution - of food and of land in particular.

Anonymous said...

I think that the current amount of humans on the planet can be thought of as a dangerous amount (or a plague, to use more inflammatory language) because of our current practices - poor distribution of land and food, as well as poor farming, production, mining and living methods.
If we were to change our ecologically damaging practises, then our population level wouldn't be as damaging to the rest of the planet. This is assuming that the a whole lot of locusts become a plague only when they eat more grain than you can spare.

Anonymous said...

You link the wikipedia page showing UK population density to be 48th in the world

But the population density of England alone ( would slot right in at number 24, adding 131 people/km^2 compared to the UK as a whole

To completely dismiss claims of overpopulation based on the entirety of the UK is, in my opinion, misguided and misleading. You really do have to look at rates of social ills compared with areas of population density rather than just looking at large-scale population density itself.

I'm not personally privvy to such information off the top of my head, but I would imagine you would find much higher crime rates in big cities like London (10% of the population living within the M25!), Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester than you would in more rural areas like Hampshire and the Lake District.

This would suggest to me that population density really is an issue, even if only on a citywide level, and the most effective way of reducing population density is to reduce the population.

Proportionally speaking more people want to live in larger towns than in smaller villages, fair enough, people like to clump together. But I seriously believe that there are so many people in the country that the sheer numbers in these larger towns and cities are too high and inevitably lead to overcrowding-related issues like the article-mentioned water shortages and possible lack of sufficient jobs to go around, at least locally (and that's not including the volume of people who commute from small towns to big ones each day, taking up even more jobs).
The overall population density may well be ok, but it's the small pockets of vastly increased population density that are the problem - also you say that there are 3 acres per household, and 1 per individual, but that is in itself misleading as we need room for power plants, places of work and commerce, fields for farmers to grow our food and roads to travel on. I seriously doubt that 1 acre per person is sufficient to fulfil all these roles, and that was just based on UK population density - if you take it as just England then there are 1.5 people per acre, that's just 2/3 of an acre each, to fit all the housing/jobs/farms we need per person. Suddenly overpopulation is starting to look like more of an issue than you make it out to be

Daniel Tammet said...

Hi Mike,

Thank you for your thoughts.

As you yourself say the problem is that there are very many people in a very small amount of land leaving large swathes of land that could be used and aren't. That is why I say the problem is one of underdistribution (of food and land) rather than overpopulation.

You say that 1 acre isn't enough for the average person, but an acre is rather a lot of space. Also most people live in families of 3-5 so that would be equivalent to 3-5 acres per family.

If more people had enough land to produce for their own needs, there would be less requirement for large, mass-producing farms or power plants.

Finally it isn't obvious that crime goes up with population. More populous areas will have more neighbours to watch your house while you're away and policemen on the beat, whereas in more isolated communities there are fewer neighbours and police.

Anonymous said...

I still think that it is likely that we find higher rates of crime in higher population densities, though admittedly I have nothing to base that on but a gut feeling relating to more rural communities feeling a stronger bond than living in suburbia where you barely know the people on your street, let alone in your entire area.

But I certainly take the point that people live in families rather than solo

I'm just not convinced that there is no problem at all with overcrowding. Assuming 4 people per household then, the pop density for England would leave 2.6 acres per household in london

That's still not a lot of room to fit in all the food/road/power that they need

London would have a 36.7m x 36.7m sqare (1.3 km^2, roughly 1/3 of an acre) per 4-person household in order to fit all the food/road/power - that is woefully inadequate

I don't think that overcrowding is the be-all and end-all of the UK's problems, but I do think that it is an issue that needs resolving