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Historical Population Control

January 6, 2013

Our world is slowly filling up, the population is booming and is becoming a crisis point in many countries. As a world, according to the US Census Bureau, we have reached a number of 7 billion, which is a staggering number of people, who are all inevitably going to fight over the world’s dwindling resources. There are forms of population control that can be seen all over the world, in China, a one child policy was adopted and many countries are attempting to educate people further on the use of contraception. But it wasn’t always like this, in fact the population of England was around 6 million, that is of course until the Black Death. The thought I always had, that I am sure many others share is that if world tragedies like the Black Death, Spanish Flu and the two World Wars did not happen, would we have a higher population now, therefore making these events not so bad.

I want to first take a look at the Black Death in England in the mid-14th century. The plague came to England after it had hit Asia and mainland Europe, and around 50% of the English population died. If we extrapolate that, it is likely that half of the population of the world died from the Black Death. With a population of around 6 million, the Black Death left England with 3 million people. Some people were unlikely to be grateful of the gift of surviving after watching many loved ones and friends dying in such a horrific way. Of course, the plague returned to Europe, famously in 1665, killing many more of the population. But, now, forgetting those people’s personal experiences, we can easily say, well, it is good for population control, if those 3 million had lived, then where would we be now. But is this the right view to have?

The Spanish Flu was a similar but far harsher concept. Those returning from World War I helped to spread the disease across Europe, killing between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. If we put this in terms we can understand, London and New York both have a population of around 8 million, so if everyone in these cities were to die of an illness, it still would not be enough. I’m sure there are some people still alive who lived through the Spanish Flu, who, like their medieval ancestors, will have lost loved ones.

Moving closer towards 2013, we have seen two World Wars in the 20th century, these wars killing not only soldiers, but many civilians. The death toll in the Great War from 1914-1918 was around 16 million (remember, this is still not as many killed during the Spanish Flu). World War II trumps this though, with over 60 million people killed, which is the current population of the United Kingdom. Surely, these deaths can be considered a good thing when looking at the world’s population, and what it would have been had these events not taken place?

I used to think that this kind of population control, death, was a benefit. That was until I read the Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, who did also briefly broach this topic. He wrote about the Black Death, the loss of life and that it could be considered to be a good thing. That is until you thought about those left living and indeed those who have died. He wrote that the wife and mother of victims of the Black Death would not agree with you, her pain would be very real, with no benefits of the death of her family. I do agree, but it is difficult to picture this, with it happening 700 years ago.

The Spanish Flu is equally as difficult, especially if you are under 50 years old. However, what really made me think that my view on population control was wrong was when I thought about the two World Wars, the latter of which happened just 40 years prior to my birth. I think about the stories my Grandparents told me of how they were evacuated and the bombs killing their friends. Then I think about those still alive who lost husbands, wives, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers. I do not think that any life is worth more than another’s. I think that we as a population need to come to terms with the fact that our population is too large, and that we need to do something about it without blaming previous generations. Above all, I do not think that an innocent person’s death can be thought of as a benefit, yet alone millions of innocent people.

I’m glad I read Ian Mortimer’s book and his opinion on those who died during the Black Death, it has certainly made me think, maybe it will make you think too.

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