Any day now, global population will hit 7.5 billion. Experts predict that we humans will reach eight billion in number sometime around the year 2024. Does that fact fill you with trepidation? Chances are that it does, even though it’s only a number, after all. “Eight billion” says nothing about innovations in agriculture or renewable energy technologies, and certainly nothing about global social justice. How we will live as eight billion, and how we will interact with our planet’s ecosystems is still a question that is very much up in the air. Yet I can predict with relative certainty that the stories that will appear when population reaches eight billion will be couched in terms of grave concern, perhaps even catastrophic foreboding, and not solely because this is how we discussed population when we reached the milestone of seven billion in 2011. I know this because the tendency to talk about potential cataclysm when we talk about population dates back to the origins of the word “population” itself. We literally do not have the words to discuss our collective numbers with each other without invoking potential devastation.
For the first century of what we would now retroactively call population science, both population and depopulation could have similar meanings, even though today they sound like opposites. This came about in part because of etymology and in part because it has always been easier for rulers to count dead bodies (corpses need to be buried or otherwise disposed of; and unlike living people, they don’t move about on their own accord). We inherited the etymological difficulty in part because the Latin “poplo-,” meaning army, is among the word’s roots. With this martial connotation, variations of the Latin term can refer to an army and what the army does to a place when passing through it. Moreover, the Latin noun “populatio” can refer to colonialism, so when we talk of “population,” we are also invoking the after-effects of colonialism. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that writers first crafted this English word in the early 1600s, and for nearly a century, it included the meanings both of a gathering of people and a “wasting” of people; of a deliberate collection of bodies and the havoc those bodies have wrought.
Even if we dismiss all this as semantics, we still find that the history of counting people sets us up to discuss population in terms of cataclysmic events. The first censuses took place in the aftermath of invasions, such as the Norman Conquest, or as ways of taking stock after devastating events, like the medieval bubonic plagues. It was in response to terrible losses of life that local authorities in Europe and America would print the earliest forms of population statistics, called “bills of mortality,” or counts of how many people had recently died. The earliest speculations about population projections we have—including by people like Benjamin Franklin—came from these counts of the dead, not from counts of the living.
Finally, the element of foreboding that undergirds conversations about numbers of people endures in perhaps its most influential form in the Old Testament of the Bible. The first people to advocate for regular state censuses (like French political theorist Jean Bodin) had to spend considerable time dismantling the idea that the Bible forbade taking state-sponsored counts. The prohibition was known as “the sin of David,” and mentioning it had the power to shut down debates about keeping national counts of living people all the way up until just a few years before Thomas Malthus wrote his influential Essay. It comes from a moment in the book of Samuel in which God sends a devastating plague to the Israelites as punishment for King David’s hubris in telling his servant to “Go, number Israel and Judah.” Unlike other Biblical censuses, this one provoked God’s wrath because it wasn’t divinely ordained. Here again, daring to talk about population means talking about frightening devastation.
By the time Malthus intervened at the dawn of the nineteenth-century, telling a story about the future of a world population overstretching its resources, anyone paying attention to population would have been accustomed to speaking about numbers of people in apocalyptic tones. The difference was that, before Malthus, talking about population was a way of talking about a cataclysm that had happened in the past, and after him, we all talk about the cataclysm that is to come. This is not to say that our struggles with access to resources like healthy food and health care—especially reproductive health care—aren’t real, or most importantly, that climate change and ecological devastation aren’t frighteningly real problems. On the contrary, this history shows us that these problems are all too real—they are human problems that require human ingenuity to address them. Despite the deeply ingrained history of speaking about population, the problems we face are not, in fact, mythic, or inevitable, or supernatural, or to be taken for granted.
Featured image credit: “A Rolling Stones crowd” by Sérgio Valle Duarte. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.