The Spectacle Blog

A Grave New World: The Political Price of Overpopulation

By on 6.17.13 | 3:51PM

Arguments about overpopulation—when the number of people in an area is believed to have exceeded the carrying capacity of that area—are traditionally grounded in environmental concerns about the decline of global resources and irreversible damage to the planet. Yet Aldous Huxley foretells of a political price to overpopulation.

In Brave New World Revisited, a 1958 non-fiction follow-up to his famous 1931 novel, Huxley argued that overpopulation threatens our freedom and indirectly breeds totalitarian systems of government:

[The coming of the Age of Population] will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. Not all dictatorships arise in the same way. There are many roads to Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and the broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases. Let us briefly review the reasons for this close correlation between too many people, too rapidly multiplying, and the formulation of authoritarian philosophies, the rise of totalitarian systems of government.

According to Huxley, higher population density causes increased interactions between humans. Laws form in order to mediate these interactions: everything from parking laws, zoning laws, noise restriction laws, traffic laws, consumption laws, and leash laws to laws governing food trucks. These laws become increasingly more restrictive and require a larger state apparatus to oversee them, a trend that is visible today. More government and more laws translates to less personal freedom.

This trend is most obvious in megacities—areas with populations greater than 10 million. These areas include New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Shanghai and Mumbai. Greater Tokyo has a higher population than Canada.

Cities serve as Democratic bastions because they are home to large numbers of minorities, low-income earners, union members, federal workers and unmarried youth—groups that traditionally vote Democrat. According to Forbes, this urban-Democratic trend is augmented by two effects, the Curley effect and the urban cocoon effect.

The Curley effect occurs when politicians seek to “increase the relative size of one’s political base through distortionary, wealth-reducing policies,” thus increasing their dependency on the politician engineers of their impoverishment, Mark Hendrickson of Forbes reports. Economic crisis supplies the opportunity for Government to expand. “Crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government,” Huxley wrote.

The urban cocoon effect makes city dwellers more likely to support higher taxes on energy or food, for example, because of their distance from production chains. They experience a mental disconnect between the energy companies and their light switch, the agricultural companies and their dinner table, that leads them to bite the hand that quite literally feeds them.

But are these fears of urban overpopulation actually the result of a lack of imagination about human potential?

Technological advancements such as vertical farming, climate engineering, more efficient methods of water desalination, news sources of renewable energy, and innovations in urban planning may offset the multitude of environmental concerns.

The tool-making revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the industrial revolution allowed humans to more efficiently use and allocate resources; an urban planning revolution may be next. Megacities, which are considered to be the root of the problem in terms of resource use and pollution, can actually become the solution. Yet urban planning in megacities is unlikely to shift the political attitudes within them. It is hard to imagine that these cities will go back to being Republican red once they’ve turned blue.

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