# A new approach for defining optimum population size

The concept of optimum population size is nothing new, but in recent decades the methodology used to calculate it has seen little development. In a recently published book, We Zijn Met Te Veel (Dutch for We Are Too Many), a new approach is proposed for calculating optimum population size.

by Fons Jena

In the available literature on calculating optimum population size one finds a common approach.[1] Researchers all start with an assumption about the impact of a desirable standard of living, then calculate optimum population size by dividing the available carrying capacity by the average individual impact. This is a logical method when you try to determine the maximum number of people who can live on the planet at an acceptable living standard, but it is hardly a population size that can be called ‘optimal’. To find the optimal population size, we need to ask where the balance lies between the disadvantages of having too few people and those of having too many.

I defined this ‘optimal condition’ in a previous blog post with the help of the SNQ model. This model states that the optimum is a condition where three parameters are maximized: the quality of life of all individuals, sustainability (a sustainable balance between environment and economy), and the room available for wild nature. The model uses four factors that define these three parameters: technology, culture, environment, and scale (which stands for population size). The impact of the scale factor on the three parameters is shown in figure 1. Sustainability and available room for nature are shown with a decreasing line as population size increases.[2] Quality of life is a less straightforward relation, as arguably greater numbers and social complexity can provide material and social benefits that improve it — up to a point. But after achieving a certain population pressure, the disadvantages of scale start to outweigh the benefits and quality of life begins to decrease.

According to the SNQ model, optimum population size is the condition where quality of life is maximized, but with minimal impact on the environment such that the sustainability and room for nature parameters also are maximized. This point is represented in figure 1 by the letter A. The letter B represents our current condition, where population pressure is already reducing quality of life and biodiversity in most of the world.

### The SNQ criteria for optimum population size

This theoretical ‘SNQ optimum’ must be translated into practical guidelines that we can use for calculating a corresponding optimum population size. For this I have defined four criteria. The first requirement, maximizing quality of life, means that a community should be large enough so that every member can obtain the material benefits they want, yet it must remain small enough so that social dynamics and the built environment remain on a human scale. This first requirement can be stated thus:

(Criterion 1) The population size of a community is limited to the minimal size necessary to provide each inhabitant of that community with all the necessary goods, services, and space that contribute to a higher quality of life.

This first criterion defines the population size of a single community; now we need to find the ideal number of communities. One community would be very sustainable (and it would leave lots of room for nature) but it has two main shortcomings. First, humanity would be very fragile; it could be wiped out if that single settlement was hit by a meteor or a pandemic. Second, the cultural and ethnic diversity within our species would be very limited. This diversity is a prerequisite for a higher quality of life because it enriches both the cultural and technological factors of the SNQ model. A third shortcoming is that not all the materials needed for a modern lifestyle are present in one location, hence some long-distance trade enhances material living standards. This leads to the following criterion:

(Criterion 2) The number of communities is at least the minimum number necessary to access sufficient geographically distributed resources and maintain the remaining diversity within the human species and ensure the long-term survival of that diversity.

These two criteria translate into the ‘quality of life’ parameter; now the ‘room for nature’ and sustainability parameters must be translated into additional requirements that the optimal population size must meet. Translating the ‘room for nature’ parameter is straightforward because it corresponds to the physical area other species need to survive and thrive:

(Criterion 3) The number, distribution and location of human communities are limited in such a way that they do not reduce biodiversity and render plant or animal species vulnerable to extinction.

Finally, the sustainability parameter can be translated into a criterion that uses the concepts of ecological footprint and carrying capacity. To further ensure the sustainability of communities, their essential resources must be acquired locally, without violating the previous three criteria:

(Criterion 4) The size and distribution of a community are limited so that its impact remains well below the carrying capacity of the local environment in terms of food, energy, renewable resources and ecosystem services.

### Calculating the optimal population size

These four criteria may still be too abstract to be used for calculating an optimum population size, but they can be approximated with available data. Each criterion represents a step in the calculation process.

Step 1: defining the optimal size of one community (about 300.000 citizens)

For calculating the optimal size of a single community, it is modeled as a single urban center with a rural belt. Urban centers are necessary for certain economic and cultural activities and rural areas are equally important, as they not only provide material resources for the urban centers, but are important for quality of life and the mental and physical health of all residents. For the optimum size of an urban center I have found a consensus in the literature that 100.000 inhabitants is the upper limit, as such a size seems to combine most of the sociological, economic and political benefits of bringing people together while preventing as much as possible the disadvantages of increasing population pressure, such as crime, social disintegration, congestion, filth and pollution.[3] For the ratio between the urban and rural population I refer to the spatial distribution of the European population prior to the twentieth century population explosion, when about 1/3 of the population lived in urban centers.[4] With these two figures we can determine the optimum size of one community, which would be about 300.000 inhabitants.

Step 2: defining the minimal number of communities (about 4000 communities)

The second criterion needs to specify the minimal number of communities that are necessary for maximizing quality of life. For this second criterion I used the UN’s list of cities with a population higher than 100.000 inhabitants.[5] This list contains about 4000 urban centers. Using each of these urban centers as the center of one community, we can say that the optimum population size of the world is 1,2 billion.

Step 3: calculating available carrying capacity (57 million km²)

This provisional value for the optimum global population size must now be checked against the other two criteria: sustainability (balance between environment and economy) and room for nature. The third criterion could be approximated by the Half Earth principle advocated by E.O Wilson, meaning that only half of the world’s biologically productive land area could be used intensively by humanity.[6] Most conservation biologists agree that reserving this much habitat for other species is necessary to avoid a mass extinction. Using ecological footprint data from the Global Footprint Network (GFN) and halving it, we obtain an available productive land surface of  5,7 billion ha (which is 37% less than what is used today). This means that with 1,2 billion people restraining themselves to use only about half of available biological productivity, we would have 4,75 ha available per capita.

Step 4: checking the sustainability of the optimum population size

To check if the proposed optimum population of 1,2 billion would not violate the fourth SNQ criterion, we must check if 5,7 billion ha would be enough to supply all necessary material resources. Estimating the ecological footprint of a person in a sustainable world is difficult, but data from the GFN can provide a rough approximation. First, the land surface necessary for CO2-compensation would be dramatically reduced as fossil fuels would not be used. Second, all products and resources that are now produced by fossil fuels would have to be produced by biomass (such as hemp, wood, and cotton). This could increase the average ecological footprint considerably. In my calculation I used an average individual ecological footprint of 3 ha as an approximation.[7] Since this number is well below the available 4,75 ha at 1,2 billion, we may conclude that the calculated optimum population size of 1,2 billion meets all SNQ criteria. That this population size is sustainable should not surprise us, since it is equal to the world population around 1850, when the use of fossil fuels was very limited.

### Notes and further refinement

Since this method for calculating the optimum population size is a work in progress, it has some shortcomings that must be addressed. First, using a list of recent cities with populations higher than 100.000 for the second criteria is arbitrary and does not necessarily assume an optimal situation for maintaining cultural and ethnic diversity. In my book, I argue that the current global population size is an unwanted side effect of a positive economic and social evolution (the demographic transition), which means that the population size and distribution prior to the population explosion should be used as a reference. Using data from around 1850 would result in a much lower optimum population size, but this could violate the redundancy criterion (criterion 2).

I also made an abstraction of the exact distribution of the 4000 communities. Since a sustainable community must be able to find its energy, food and other basic resources in its local environment, it is likely that many existing communities are located in unfavorable locations that do not meet the third and fourth criteria.

Though the Half Earth principle for land sharing has some scientific foundation, it is used here more as a moral imperative. Ethically, I find it hard to argue that humanity has a right to use more than half the world’s biological productivity and resources, especially since doing so would extinguish numerous unique forms of life. It could also be argued that the share for other species should be greater than half. In the optimal scenario calculated above, the actual share for nature is higher than half, since only 3 ha per capita of the 4,75 ha available is used.

The approximation used for ecological impact in an ideal world can be further refined. I haven’t found any calculations for ecological footprint in a fossil-fuel free world, which I find curious. It would be interesting to know what percentage of Earth’s surface would have to be devoted to sustaining people if all fossil fuel-based products were replaced by sustainable alternatives. The same can be asked about available carrying capacity, where I used GFN’s data because they are easily available, although their calculations are based in a fossil-fueled world.

The above method can also be used to calculate the optimum population size of specific regions, down to the optimal size of a single community. In these cases some additional shortcomings must be addressed. As an example, in the book I used this method to calculate the optimum population for Belgium, but since it has far too many cities for its available land surface, I had to further limit city size or the urban-rural ratio. You can decrease the population of the urban center to 75.000 inhabitants and have an equal rural population, so that the optimal size of one community is only 150.000 instead of 300.000 people. Other possibilities to reconcile reality with the ideal world involve loosening the third and fourth conditions, so that the Half Earth and basic resource self-sufficiency principles are not fully met for a certain region. It can be argued that not every community or region must be fully self-sufficient in its basic needs, or that on a local scale nature may not need half of the available productive land area. Also, for calculating regional optimum population size the calculation could be reversed, so that you start by calculating the available land surface and then check how many people have to be distributed between the existing cities.

Finally, it can also be argued that the translation from the theoretical SNQ model to the more practical SNQ criteria needs some adjustments. The four criteria seem logical to me, but maybe they can be stated differently, or perhaps additional criteria are required. For example, one could add about 400 ‘megacities’ of 500.000 inhabitants each, since many people feel attracted to larger cities. This would increase the calculated optimum population size to 1,4 billion and still not violate the other criteria.

This blog post summarizes the second appendix of the book ‘We Zijn Met Te Veel’ (We Are Too Many). It was added to the book as an impetus for further study and refinement, so any feedback is welcome. The book is currently only available in Dutch, but the author wishes to publish an English translation in 2022. For our Dutch-speaking audience the book can be ordered through www.wezijnmetteveel.be. If you are interested in helping with the English translation, or finding a publisher, you can contact the author via fons_jena@hotmail.com.

[1]    A summary of some different studies on optimum population size can be found here: https://overpopulation-project.com/what-is-the-optimal-sustainable-population-size-of-humans/.

[2]    As mentioned in my previous blog post, in reality this relation isn’t strictly linear, as the available technology can both increase or decrease an individual’s impact on sustainability and room for nature.

[3]    Kirkpatrick Sale. Human Scale Revisited. Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, 2017. The concept of ‘slow cities’ uses a limit of 50.000 inhabitants. Since I want to maximize sustainability and room for nature, I could have used an urban population size of 75.000 instead of 100.000. I have chosen the upper limit just to be sure to have a sufficiently capable community.

[4]    Urbanization, www.ourworldindata.org. In 1890 about 29% of the European population lived in urban areas.

[5]    ‘Population of capital cities and cities of 100.000 or more inhabitants: 2016’ (2 December 2018), http://www.wikipedia.org.

[6]    ‘How much wild nature do people need?’, www.natureneedshalf.org; ‘The plan to turn half the world into a reserve for nature’ (19 March 2020), www.bbc.com; ‘Half of all land must be kept in a natural state to protect Earth’ (19 April 2019), www.nationalgeographic.com; E.O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2016.

[7]    David Pimentel, et al., 2010, “Will Limited Land, Water and Energy Control Human Population Numbers in the Future?” obtains a land use of 4 ha per capita of which 1,5 ha is used for food, 1 ha for wood products and 1,5 ha for energy. If we limit the use of biomass for energy production for car fuel, then the 1,5 ha can be a significantly reduced, so I use a total footprint of 3 ha as an approximation.

## 28 thoughts on “A new approach for defining optimum population size”

1. gaiabaracetti says:

“since many people feel attracted to larger cities” – maybe a minor point, but I think the key word here is largER. I don’t think anyone actually needs or likes to live in cities that are human ant nests. People feel attracted to the biggest cities because that’s where it’s at, where many artists, scholars, politicians, entrepreneurs, etc, go live, followed by many other sorts of people that make the city diverse and exciting. But if world population was much lower, people would flock to cities that would be smaller than we see now, and still cool places to be.
Classical Athens or Dante’s Florence had a population of probably below 200,000 – yet hardly boring backwaters…

1. I agree. I believe too that only very few people would really want to live in a ‘megacity’. Like you say, a city of 200.000 would already be ‘the place to be’. Today’s cities are a result of uncontrolled population growth, and can hardly be called humane in my opinion. The same cultural and technological progress can be achieved and maintained by much smaller urban centers.

2. Your emphasis on defining terms is wonderful and refreshing.
You say, “To find the optimal population size, we need to ask where the balance lies between the disadvantages of having too few people and those of having too many.”

“Optimal” is important to define. Many readers of this column consider optimal to be maximizing ecological health and diversity. Considering the massive extinctions humans cause, the optimal population by that measure might be zero, or one per continent, or maybe 1000 per continent.

On the other hand, many readers will use economic measure of optimal–maximizing GDP.

Other readers might be religious and consider an optimal population to be maximizing the number of souls that believe in the true god and therefore go to heaven.

I like a natural definition of optimal: Human population was very stable, increasing 0.04% per year for the 12,000 years of the holocene, until about 1750. We were already spread across the globe, and this increase presumably reflected more efficient use of natural resources as we traversed stone, bronze, and iron ages. If the environment could have supported more humans, it would have. Any tribes or nations that increased (or decreased) their population too much were defeated and eliminated by those with more optimal levels.

Nature is complex, of course, so our models of what ecosystems need to be healthy will always be incomplete. Thus it’s useful to observe nature.

This decent stability (with apologies to dodo birds and wooly mammoths) ended when we rapidly tripled child survival, from about 30% to 40%, to today’s 95%. We didn’t reduce family size correspondingly–until recently. That led to today’s global population 10 times higher than in 1750.

Would you consider some of those definitions of optimal? How about the final ‘natural’ definition?

1. Thanks, you make a very good point. Defining the concepts you use is the first step.

I use ‘optimal’ in the terms of the SNQ-model I defined in the earlier post. This model defines the goal of humanity as maximizing the quality of life, sustainability and room for nature. Like you know you cannot maximize all variables in an equation with independent variables. If you maximize room for nature you have a non-existent ‘quality of life’ variable since there are no humans. You can also argue that ‘sustainability’ is also non-existent, since it is a concept that is only relevant when humans are around. So you have no other option than to maximize the quality of life variable. Since the optimum quality of life can be achieved within a broad population size range (between 1 and 4 billion for example), I added the criteria that the optimum is the lowest number within that range (so 1 billion in the example). This is in my opinion the best possible compromise for maximizing the equation.

So this definition comes close to your natural definition, since a population of +- 1 billion was achieved around 1800. But a more specific study is necessary to define what is necessary to define the maximum quality of life and how many human settlements are necessary to maximize diversity and survival of our species.

2. gaiabaracetti says:

“Any tribes or nations that increased (or decreased) their population too much were defeated and eliminated by those with more optimal levels. ” I wish that was true. What seems truer to me is that increasing your population too much is not a problem as long as you can find someplace to invade; reaching a sustainable population level makes you vulnerable to invasion.
Unfortunately.

1. Indeed, I mention that too in my book. Natural selection hasn’t been kind to humanity, since it encourages population growth and a ‘invasion strategy’. Pacifist tribes that wanted to remain within the local carrying capacity where destined to be eliminated. Only violent and imperialist cultures survived, and that is one of the reasons that humans have become so fearful animals.
So according to natural selection ‘optimum’ population size isn’t something to be proud of or something to be wanted.
A constant or shrinking population size is still an art that humanity has to master. That is why I say that we are currently still in a primitive phase of human (moral) development. But saying that in our anthropocentric culture turns you into an easy target…

2. gaiabaracetti says:

No so much in moral terms (I think we’re all pretty dismayed watching how humanity behaves) – rather, I’d argue that what makes you a target is saying things like: we want to be peaceful and live within our limits in harmony with abundant wild nature, so we will not accept any immigration (or very little).
It’s the logical conclusion to what you’re saying, but extremely unpopular in environmental circles.

3. Yes-we have a concept of how “life should be”, and the fact that a stronger culture might invade a weaker culture and prevail may be disconcerting. That preconception notwithstanding, that is the rule of the game of evolution, like it or not. Stronger cultures prevail, especially when they band together to form a larger stronger culture, such as the EU.

The point here is that a culture that weakened itself by damaging the ecosystems it depends on (due to overpopulation–essentially the definition of overpopulation, right?) will be destroyed by a stronger neighboring culture with a more optimal population. Here optimal population is measured by the ability of a culture to dominate a niche (aka region).

This is totally separate from notions of equality, of course.

4. gaiabaracetti says:

Unfortunately I think it’s the opposite (unless I misunderstand you). A culture that has damaged its ecosystem will invade a neighbouring or faraway culture that still hasn’t, and take its resources. That’s what colonialism is.

5. @gaiabaracetti: yes, not wanting to accept unlimited migration turns you into an easy target, that is the sad reality. But you can only define the ‘optimum’ when you don’t mind the feasibility of it. It is our duty to realize the optimum, whatever the cost!

6. gaiabaracetti says:

Yes. We could also include a concept of a slightly sub-optimal population, that leaves room for some influx of refugees if necessary, without going into overshoot.

7. @Peter Fiekowsky: your point is right when using the concept of sustainable population: a culture that can maintain a sustainable population will – in the long term – survive a culture who cannot achieve it.

But optimum population levels are far more difficult to achieve, since they do not fit into the mechanism of natural and cultural selection. A higher morality (which is necessary to maintain optimum population size) is like steel: it will always be decayed by nature into its more stable form: rust.

Cultures who can maintain a sustainable population size will be victorious in the long term, eliminating cultures who wish to maintain optimum population size. That is the frustrating problem of human moral improvement, it is only possible if we can transcend the limits imposed by cultural selection. But that selection pressure is omnipresent, forming ‘gated communities’ of enlightened individuals might be the only way to escape it :-).

8. @gaiabaracetti: in that case the sub-optimum level would only be a temporary situation, since refugee is a temporary condition (or it should be). So yes, it could be accepted, but only temporarily.

9. My thought exactly, Gaia. I think a lot of humanity’s deep anxiety about under-breeding relates to the ability of tribes to hold off their covetous neighbours. We are not wired for peaceful coexistence but for fierce competition.

3. Jane O'Sullivan says:

Defining an optimal population conceptually is the easy part, quantifying it is much harder. The method you use defines “half for nature” on merely an area basis, without considering the land quality or the natural ecosystems on specific areas. Humanity currently uses for agriculture just under 5 billion ha, only 38% of Earth’s land area. This is already a disastrous level of displacement of natural ecosystems, because we use all the most productive places. You advocate using 5.7 billion ha as humanity’s “fair share”. That is, more than we currently use. You are relying on Global Footprint Network’s calculations to equate the biocapacity of different locations, but GFN includes many natural ecosystems (mostly forests) in “what we use” under a hypothetical calculation of the net primary production needed to account for the fossil fuels we burn. This has a certain logic, but not one that meshes with a “half Earth” calculation. A proper calculation of the land safely available to humanity must make a more fine-grained survey of ecotypes and their sustainable scale.

1. gaiabaracetti says:

I think one of the major challenges with this “half Earth” idea is that we’re obsessed with measuring land use, but ignore: 1 inputs 2 movement
For example, agricultural land now is more productive than in the past because it’s irrigated. But this destroys the ecosystem elsewhere even though that affected land isn’t considered agricultural. It simply goes from being a river to being a desert. But that doesn’t factor anywhere. We just congratulate ourselves for producing “more food with less land”, ignoring the land use elsewhere for the inputs.
I’m trying as a project that I really hope will work to do agriculture in my hometown without taking water from somewhere else. I’ve realised that this means I need more land, for rain water catchment. But that will increase the amount of farmed land, even if it is used more sustainably.
This also applies to other inputs, such as fertilizers, or metals or plastics, and to outputs such as various forms of pollution.

The other thing is that Nature won’t politely stick to the “half” we’ve assigned to her. Again, we see this in Italy with wolves, deers, boars, etc, destroying livestock and cropland. So what do you do? My suggestion is having a more porous idea of land use – more nature in agricultural lands, while at the same time going into some wild ecosystems to hunt to protect our food sources. A balance, not an Iron Curtain.

A major problem with much of contemporary environmentalism is that it sees human-affected areas as completely “unnatural”. This creates A LOT of conceptual and practical problems, especially but not exclusively for practitioners of sustainable farming and for indigenous communities.

1. Jane O'Sullivan says:

Wise words as ever, Gaia. But you might be interested in the academic debate around “land sparing versus land sharing” – Ben Phalan argues that using agricultural land as intensively as possible, while leaving more land under natural habitat, is better for wildlife and biodiversity than “more nature in agricultural lands”. See https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.008 and https://doi.org/10.3390/su10061760 . My view is that it depends on the landscape you’re talking about. And, of course, the bigger issue is that the “land sparing” rationale presumes we use yield increases to spare more land for nature rather than to justify increasing the human population. So we’re not really ready for that strategy yet – while world population keeps rising, Jevon’s paradox prevails.

2. Hi Jane, sorry for the late reply. I say your reaction earlier but I got lost.
Is it possible we use different numbers but that none are wrong, they simply refer to two different things? I refer to the total available productive land while you refer to the surface of land already in use. The first number is equal to the total ‘usable’ land surface, so the total land surface without the deserts and (rocky) mountains. You refer to the total land surface of the earth as 13 bn ha. According to the source used in my book (ipcc report about climate change and land use) about 12% of that surface is ‘unusable’. So 13 x 0,88 = 11,44 bn ha and half of that is the 5,7 bn ha I use in the blog text. So this checks out.

There are also different sources. If 5,7 bn ha is already more than we use today than it is not good of course. And personally I would plea for more than ‘half’. But yes I agree, this approach is too crude. Which land may be used for humanity is a (complex) study on its own.

1. Jane O'Sullivan says:

Hi Fons, your calculation might be “right” but if using less than 5 bn ha resulted in halving the number of wild terrestrial vertebrates in 50 years, there is no way that using 5.7 bn ha can be the basis for a sustainable sharing of Earth’s resources with other species. I think the problem lies in the word “usable”, which evidently casts far too wide a net. There can be no sensible answer to the carrying capacity question without more granular consideration of the quality of land, how we use it, and what other resources we also draw on (water, persistent chemical pollutants etc.). Which is why I have long held the view that carrying capacity is a useful concept but a useless basis for quantitative analysis. All we need to know is that we’re currently overpopulated (defined by the fact that environmental indicators are going backward due to human activities) and we should therefore embrace population decline – together with ecosystem conservation and restoration. At what number we should stop declining is not a question we can answer now – we’ll know when we get there. It will be a very different world by then.

2. Hi Jane, yes I think the difficulty is the definition of ‘usable’. GFN uses other criteria than the IPCC data, so I’m probably comparing apples with oranges.

I agree we just have to work around population decline and see how far we can go, but I also believe we have to come with a long term vision and make it as concrete as possible. I think the overpopulation movement should start with something like The Venus Project, but than less ‘futuristic’ and where population takes a central role.

4. gaiabaracetti says:

Jane, I am aware of this argument, but I have two objections to it. One is the “Jevon’s paradox” you cite. Once we are able to produce more food on less land, there’s no guarantee we will use it to spare nature. We’ve basically never done it before, so it’s unlikely we’ll begin now.

My other objection is that this approach doesn’t seem to consider people’s quality of life as a factor. People might prefer being shepherds or farming organically to working in soulless, polluted, mechanized fields with no other form of life for as far as the eye can see. People might prefer being able to go for a walk and see both domestic and wild animals close to their home, rather than having to drive – presuming they can afford it – to “pristine” wildernesses (that might even be dangerous for them). There’s also a class element to this. Farmers in the past might have been poor, but they did have access to nature. With the intensification of agriculture, they’ve become more and more removed from animals, plants, open spaces… if you want those, you have to pay for it and be a tourist.

This approach to wilderness – something that can only be untouched by humans – has been associated with colonialism and even genocide. It’s been used to drive indigenous people off their land, it has destroyed their culture, their way of life, their connection to the land. And it’s caused a severe backlash. All these things have happened even in Italy, a country you certainly wouldn’t associate with internal colonialism.

As a side effect, maximising productivity at the expense of labour-intensive, land-extensive systems of production has resulted in widespread detachment from nature and ignorance about both agriculture and wildlife. I’ve noticed that so many people have no idea how nature actually works, because they don’t interact with it, so, for example, they support disastrous policies or have hypocritical lifestyles.

I think we should strive to have both: wild-life friendly agriculture and wild spaces. I think we should also start looking at other types of land uses that reduce the space for nature but do not provide vital services for humans either. Excessive infrastructure, for example, or all those huge houses with huge lawns…

1. gaiabaracetti says:

I’ll add a recommended reading of my own : ) That is John Clare, an English poet who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I have no words strong enough to express how much I like his poetry. For those who don’t know him, he was a poor agricultural labourer and wrote about life in the countryside – though sometimes it feels that the countryside is writing about itself through him. He appears to be one with his surroundings in a way I have never seen in any other writer. He would go mad from leaving them.

He witnessed what we now call the process of Enclosure, which paved the way for the privatization of public lands and an increase in agricultural productivity sufficient to power the Industrial Revolution.
He feels the same pain as the land does; he describes it in such powerful terms the reader cannot help feeling it all over again. The ploughing, the fencing, the cutting of trees, the straightening of watercourses… the greed of the rich, the loss of shared spaces, of landmarks tied to identity and memory… he describes this increase in agricultural output for what it really was: violence to the land. Death for living things; he watches as they mourn each other and their lost freedom.

Clare doesn’t idealise rural life, and describes its uglier aspects as well, such as poverty or cruelty to animals. But I think his poems are really worth reading. He saw things that were and are in front of everyone’s eyes, and yet most don’t ever see. Every time I hear someone talk about yields, productivity, efficiency, even veganism, I think about Clare’s poems. He shows us what natural life and connection are really like.

1. Philip Cafaro says:

A Spring Morning

by John Clare

The Spring comes in with all her hues and smells,
In freshness breathing over hills and dells;
O’er woods where May her gorgeous drapery flings,
And meads washed fragrant by their laughing springs.
Fresh are new opened flowers, untouched and free
From the bold rifling of the amorous bee.
The happy time of singing birds is come,
And Love’s lone pilgrimage now finds a home;
Among the mossy oaks now coos the dove,
And the hoarse crow finds softer notes for love.
The foxes play around their dens, and bark
In joy’s excess, ’mid woodland shadows dark.
The flowers join lips below; the leaves above;
And every sound that meets the ear is Love.

Wishing everyone the happiness and rejuvenation of the season!

2. Nice that you bring this up, because my book starts with a text from John Stuart Mill. Not a poet, but a philosopher. The fragment comes from his ‘Principles of Political Economy’, book 4, chapter 6, section 2. In that fragment he also refers to the used of land:

“A population may be too crowded, though all be amply provided with food and raiment. It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could do ill without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture plowed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture.”

So beautifully well written 200 years ago!

3. gaiabaracetti says:

Very well put indeed.

Sometimes I wonder… most of my favourite Englishmen – John Clare, William Morris, John Stuart Mill, and J.R.R. Tolkien, all lamented the damage being done to the English countryside. And yet there’s a century in between the first and the last, and the English countryside is *still* being degraded. I have a book of black-and-white pictures of rural England at home, and it looks very beautiful, more than it is now. It makes one wonder how beautiful it must have been in the past, if every generation saw it getting worse in its own lifetime.

A case of shifting baselines, I guess. It makes one wonder what we’ve lost.

I saw some paintings in an art gallery in Munich (it’s a famous one, can’t remember what it’s called) of the Italian countryside (and of cities, too). Even allowing for some idealization of the landscape, the beauty was breathtaking. Same when reading Goethe’s account of his travels through Italy, and knowing what the Po valley, or Sicily, look like now. Or reading a Friulian writer from the 19th century, Caterina Percoto – I’m Friulian, and the landscapes she describes sound so much more beautiful and full of natural life than they are now.

We really need to working on finding out what we’ve lost, or we’ll never know how much better the world could be.

4. Ah yes, the shifting baseline is our biggest enemy. Population reduction is about creating the best possible world, but more and more people are getting used to this overpopulated mess and when they see a small forest just outside the city the tell you that it’s not so bad as you say…

I’m Flemish, and I try to convince others here that a reduction from 7 to 2 million would be so good for everybody. Everybody could live comfortably and surrounded by natural landscape. The cities would be restricted to their size from 300 years ago, which was still human scale and social.

Like you say so well, if we don’t know what we are missing we don’t care about it.

2. Hi Gaia, I would also strive for both: wild-life friendly agriculture only AND more wild spaces. This is only possible with a smaller population, and that is why population shrinking is so important. The whole debate about land sharing and land sparring would become obsolete and irrelevant.

Integrating this into the model I defined means that the productivity of the productive land area would decrease, meaning that the optimal population would be lower than 1,4 billion (using the same land area based on GFN data, which is already too much). So once this model is optimized, I believe that we will be left over with an optimal population of around 1 billion.

1. gaiabaracetti says:

Agreed! Unfortunately, most human cultures see fallow / underused land as a “waste”. This is what we need to work on!

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