Population Crises
and Population Cycles

A review of the book Population Crises and Population cycles by Claire Russell and W M S Russell. Published by the Galton Institute,19 Northfields Prospect, Northfield, London SW18 lPE. 1999. 124 pp with tables, graphs, index and 22 pages of classified bibliography. £5.00 ISBN 0-9504066-5-1.

This short but well-documented book surveys the consequences of population cycles and stresses throughout human history. It covers the little-known population histories of China, Monsoon Asia, Central and South America, Southern and Northern Europe, Oceania, Northern Africa and the Middle East, and and countries without written histories, and looks at the modern world in the light of the past.

It traces a theme that can be observed in the cycles and crashes of many animal populations, but has unique human manifestations in the way that people so often have failed to deal with the problems ahead of them. Cities lie in deserts of their own making.

Professor Russell is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Reading, with a distinguished reputation in social biology and animal studies. He emphasises that he is not a sociobiologist, as he does not share the belief that there are inherent differences in intelligence and behaviour between genders and races. The late Dr Claire Russell was an ethologist, poet and psychoanalyst. The content of their book deserves a full review and debate.
My own country of Australia has ecosystems, soils, water resources and climate that make the lessons of history critically relevant to our present situation. We have the paradoxical conjunction of the crisis of 23 million economic refugees in the world, with the number growing, and hundreds of them setting out in boats for Australia, - and business concerns about the economic effects of a reduced domestic birthrate.

"In 1900, a visitor from another sphere might reasonably have decided that man, as one met him in Europe or America, was a kindly, merciful and generous creature.
In 1940 he might have decided, with an equal show of justice, that this creature was diabolically malignant. And yet it was the same creature, under different conditions of stress."

H G Wells, in The Shape of Things to Come, 1933

Animal population crises and cycles

The Russells trace a theme through the histories of known civilisations that can be observed in the population cycles of many animal species. When there are insufficient predators or other external means to keep their populations relatively stable, inbuilt stratagems can appear to try to avoid extinction when increasing numbers could threaten to outstrip and irretrievably destroy their food resources. Potentially dangerous overcrowding becomes a stimulus to reversals of usual behaviour, in order to reduce numbers and therefore consumption. When there is overcrowding in zoos, laboratories, factory farms or the wild, animals can tend to show signs of stress and to try to reduce their populations by various unpleasant strategies, before food supplies actually run out. Co-operation is replaced by competition and aggressive violence, immune systems become more vulnerable to epidemics, females and young are more vulnerable to attack, and breeding is less successful.

The 'saw-tooth' graph of the growth and
decline of human populations.

There is a great difference between the population histories of human and other mammals, however. Human population graphs show a 'sawtooth' effect, because again and again humans have found escapes from over-population by methods to increase their food supplies through new inventions - weapons to hunt with, then agriculture, irrigation, plant breeding and fertilisers and now genetic engineering - as well as by wars, conquests, migrations and imports. But this does not permanently solve the risk of over-population, because what then happens is that each invention has permitted a further leap in population that then brings on another crisis.

That is, human population crises either result in catastrophe, or are solved by further increases in food production, which have resulted in further population increase, that once again outgrows the current level of resources.

Each consequent population stress has generally involved famine, violence and disease, and resource damage has sometimes been irretrievable. The accumulated effects of the crisis periods are likely in the long run to outweigh the constructive effects of the relief periods when food production has increased with greater regional development, new waterworks or new crops.

Ancient cities lie among the deserts that their societies made out of once fertile lands. Human responses to population stress have often been unable to achieve their evolutionary function of population reduction in time to prevent critical depletion of resources.

Thomas Malthus (1803,1830) saw population increase at the rate of compound interest as only limited by 'natural' and social mechanisms such as famine, wars, disease, infanticide, and human sacrifice. Today humans have managed to stop or alleviate the major killers. Some alternative means are required to prevent geometric population increase. We are pinning our hopes of avoiding population disaster on unending agricultural improvements, such as genetic engineering, in order to feed astronomical numbers, whatever the environmental cost and without consideration of eventual limitation. Family planning now appears the only certain humane way to avoid imminent and future population disasters. But meanwhile, the twentieth century has seen a global rise in our societies of the types of symptoms that Russell and Russell describe as mammalian responses to population stress, together with extensive and often irretrievable destruction of environmental resources .

"The overcrowding of the planet .. out of which all the other evils that afflicted the human race arose." (H G Wells 1923 )

Any single-line explanation of history is over simplistic, and to some extent the Russells, like Wells, can rightly be accused of oversimplifying, and in some cases overgeneralising their thesis beyond its valid applications. Even the destructiveness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is attributed to a consequence of population crisis. Nevertheless the historical trail they follow should be studied seriously. Enough evidence is presented to make us very uneasy, to see how many societies in the past have destroyed themselves through destroying their resources, so often permanently. History gives no grounds to assume comfortably that the present exponential increase in the world's human population can safely continue and will be supported through some miraculous intervention by the gods we worship, even by trusting science as our god.

In Australia, our population of 18 million already takes toll of the earth and runs short of water, while talking of further growth - and diverting ourselves by making a major issue of who should be head of our parlous state. All adult Australians should read about how earlier societies that began to outgrow their available resources, endured a period of violence and social decay and then collapsed . Then also look around at the rest of the world today, to compare with the history of the past, such as the Russells present.

Food and history

Where there has been food surplus in the world, high civilisations can develop, as in regions like China and the dry belt of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, but then high population density and the demands of water-control engineering have produced what Karl Wittfogel (1956) called 'hydraulic societies' -with arbitrary autocracy, bureaucratic elites and mass labor, with few really free.


The history of China is interpreted as a series of advances in food production through irrigation and flood control, which would then result in further excessive growth of population in a series of crises and cycles. The first recorded overpopulation crises in the later lst millennium BC were mitigated by huge deathrates in the wars leading to the first major Chinese state. 'As Chinese historians observed', supported by the records of regular censuses in China, each major dynasty rose and fell in a cycle of reduced population pressure, followed by population growth, then overpopulation and population crisis. Population pressure has been a major factor in Chinese imperialism, and it still is. Each time that population has outrun the increase in resources or new areas for emigration, China has tended to fall apart into warring regions.

Northern Africa and Western Asia.

Australians should be particularly aware of The history of Northern Africa and Western Asia is particularly relevant to Australians. In an area of irregular and often scanty rainfall, salination as well as the ravages of invaders has turned fertile and populous lands into deserts.

The irrigation areas of Sumer and Akkad were ruined by salt. In the 9th century AD a desperate but futile attempt was made in Khuzestan to remove the saline surface crust with impressed slave labor. The Russells find abundant evidence from archeological surveys, numbers of settlements and tax records, of recurrent population crises with their accompaniments of inflation, famine, violence and epidemics. These crisis included Babylon in mid-second millennium BC, near the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, and periods identified by the Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun of Tunis in AD 1377. Rainfall has not diminished since at least Roman times - all the deserts have been man-made.

The population of Iraq, estimated as around 30 millions around AD 800, had shrunk to under 5 million by the early 20th century. The great Arab civilisation went through the same cycle, and now, again, the Islamic civilisation that had begun to revive in the 19th century with a much reduced population, is threatened by over-population, with resulting violence and increasing environmental degradation and economic refugees.

The Northern Mediterranean

The peoples of the less fertile northern Mediterranean lacked food surpluses of their own, but exploited the surplus of the neighbouring dry belt by piracy, trade and conquest. Population crisis developed with their own population increases and failures of food imports.
The collapse in Crete was hastened by a colossal volcanic eruption but already there had been high population density, timber loss, famine, epidemics, internecine war, human sacrifice and cannibalism. Next, the Mycenean civilisation collapsed with a catastrophic population crisis in the Agean, and towns disappeared during a Dark Age from about 1100-800 BC.
With improvements in arable farming, Grecian population increased again until it outstripped resources, and it was only eased by planting widespread colonies. In the early 5th century BC the Athenian silver monopoly gave it control of grain imports, and its temporary surplus of resources over population fostered unparalleled creative development. But population increase again led to food supply problems, and there were major intercity wars, unemployment, food shortages and epidemics, and finally Macedonian domination. In 431 BC the populations of the Aegean Greek settlements had been higher than the modern figure of six millions excluding Athens, but during the Hellenistic period it shrank back to the reduced carrying capacity of their own lands, with deforestation and exhausted mines.

The Roman empire

Rome's enormous wealth in loot and imperial taxes made possible a brilliant civilisation by BC 167, supported by imported food, but a grave Italian population crisis set in almost at once, that lasted variably for three centuries, accompanied by violence. Rome's population passed a million by the end of the lst century BC, and was 80% ex-slaves. Around AD 210 Tertullian wrote that human numbers were now a burden to the earth which could hardly support them, and that famine, epidemics and wars were the means of cutting them back. Unemployment was a nightmare. In the final catastrophic crisis in the 6th century AD, the Western Empire disintegrated into barbarian kingdoms and the population shrank to the low level permitted by purely local food. The crises culminated in the pandemic of AD 542-3 which killed 40% of the Empire's population.

The greatest environmental damage in the Northern Mediterranean, however , was done by the Spanish sheep-owning 'mafia', the Mesta, which destroyed 'most of the forests and farmlands' in Spain, and then after 1504, in Southern Italy. Following the Renaissance flowering in Northern Italy, the Northern Mediterranean countries then became backwaters, only reviving in the 19th century as they profited from the flow-on achievements of Northern Europe. Now the old problems increase again - Athens, for example, which had 7.7% of the Greek population in 1920, contained 31% by 1981, with urban population almost doubled to nearly 10 million people in highly polluted conditions.

NorthWestern Europe

made the technological breakthroughs that have made the modern world, often through developing crucial inventions from elsewhere, notably China. Why so? Russell & Russell attribute its success to its far lower population densities and provide statistical tables. In 1750 Britain's population density was only 31 per square kilometre - although by 1900 it was 155, and by 1992 236, despite relief by massive emigration and war. Britain is now no longer the power and the powerhouse that it was.

For a thousand years from 1 AD the population of North Western Europe vacillated around 20-30 million, with relief periods in the 12th and 15th centuries, then rose, punctuated by plagues and war, to around 40 million in 1800. In the early modern period, unemployed paupers comprised up to a quarter of the population; there were massive persecutions of Jews, heretics, and later witches, high child death-rates, constant threat of famine, wars that ran for a hundred years, thirty years . Then the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions facilitated an exponential rise of population in the next 200 years, that reached over 300 million despite huge emigrations that to fill the most fertile empty spaces of two 'new' continents. Between 1851 and 1931 18 million people emigrated from Britain and 17 million from the Continent. The Russells would argue that high-density agricultural practices and population as in the fertile Netherlands is not sustainable unless stabilised.

North-Eastern Europe was periodically devastated by massive nomad invasions, but population increase was supported by a series of improvements in agriculture. However, there was still the classical sawtooth curve of population crises, as with every advance in food production, population soon outgrew the new level of resources.

Monsoon Asia

developed hydraulic societies with irrigation and dams to cope with high population density, similar to China and the dry belt, and also with its population cycles and crises, in which high civilisations disintegrated into small states, dreadful famines and destructive invasions.

Indian civilisation reached its peak during the low population Gupta Empire of 320-480, but with the population increase following, crisis responses included the practice of sati, widow-burning. The British dangerously intensified Indian agriculture, resulting in a population explosion. There has been crisis from 1947 with bloody disintegration, high unemployment, riots, and huge environmental damage. Seventy percent of the water is polluted, and in many places in short supply. Extensive aid-supported well-digging in Bangladesh and elsewhere is now often proving a disastrous solution, when the groundwater supplies arsenic or other killing chemicals. In Pakistan with a growth rate of 3.1%, the characteristic subjection of women has increased, and 68% of irrigated land is waterlogged or salinised.

Russell & Russell connect the 1965-6 Indonesian hysterical massacre of half a million alleged communists with stress from population pressure, especially in Java and Madura, where populations rose from 4.5 millions in 1815 to 107.5 million in 1989. The continuing population explosion is an pressure on the centralised Javanese government's imperialist to control more territories to allow massive transmigrations, and for the catastrophic destruction of Indonesia's forests for farmland as well as plantations.

Central Asia

The Russells do not cover population explosions in Central Asia or Scandinavia, but some such crises must have triggered the great waves of nomadic invasions that have periodically, over millennia, spread havoc and new blood over the civilisations of the south in Europe and Asia. And how has it happened that in the remains of cities lie in deserts in Central Asia? What were the deserts before?

Central and South America

The worst population crises in recorded history was in Mexico, where irrigation and terracing had made possible population densities of up to 360 people per square kilometre. A succession of brilliant centres of civilisation succumbed in turn to population crises with famines, epidemics and often desolated countrysides. Barbarian invasions set up progressively more stressful civilisations, culminating in the Aztec, the cruellest of all, whose whole culture was built around human sacrifice. By the time of the population crisis and famine of the 1450s, the Aztecs were importing food, sacrificing tens of thousands of victims, and the constant internecine warfare made them vulnerable to the Spanish conquest of 1519-1521. The Spanish invaders were never more than 1000 strong, and despite their horses, gunpowder, ships and military brilliance, they could neve have conquered an empire of millions if they had not met a culture in crisis. The following population crash resulted not only from slaughter and imported diseases, but also by 1620 from the drastic environmental destruction caused the overgrazing of sheep and cattle imported by the Spanish.

The Inca empire of the Andes had also been showing the signs of population crises. Then the population crash following the European conquest reduced the population of the region from ten to two million in a century, and the wealth of the Andes was ruined by Spanish neglect of the agricultural terraces and irrigation works.

The remarkable Maya civilisation was, like many other societies in tropical Asia and Africa, based on swidden farming, in which a cleared area in forests is farmed briefly and then lies fallow to regenerate as the farmers move on. This is a good method of farming in areas where 78% of soils are acid and infertile because plant nutrients that are taken or washed out of topsoil are not replaced by silt or volcanic fertility. But it requires low population density. If a critical density of population is exceeded, the fallow periods have to become shorter, the forest cannot recover, and the eroded soil can bake permanently into hard laterite substances. At the height of Mayan civilisation AD 300-600 their pattern of settlement included only 80 small townships and around 200 lesser centres, but as the population grew steadily, densities rose to up to 888 per square kilometre. All the signs of overpopulation crisis appeared - malnutrition, warfare, revolts, and abandoned cities, and following the invasions at the end of the 10th century, chronic warfare and large-scale human sacrifice. Most of the old Mayan areas have become 'a green wilderness', with continuing depopulation due to the lasting environmental damage, and further damage occurring where the population is rising again.

Societies without recorded history have still left signs of population crises and cycles in archaeological evidence and spoken traditions. In Later Old Stone Age Europe, the existence of peaceful hunter-gathering societies is suggested by a wide distribution of trade-goods and art forms. But in the ninth millennium BC, glaciers receded, big game herds became extinct, and battles and human sacrifices have been found depicted in caves. In the sixth millennium BC the first farmers of the fertile loess soils of Europe lived peacefully, but as easily-worked land gave out, villages were increasingly fortified, and the changes in types of crop and stock farming suggest series of population crises and cycles.

In 1602 a Dutch writer compared the capital city of the glorious African kingdom of Benin in Africa to Amsterdam, the greatest trading city of Europe. But by 1897 the great city had become a collection of ruined mud houses, depopulated by civil war and human sacrifice. The surrounding forest shows past swidden clearance, and the present day soil is notoriously poor - which suggests Maya type population crises.

The Anasazi people in what is now part of the southern United States had a fine culture between the 8th and 13th centuries AD, based on irrigation by flash-floods and dry upland farming . But with overpopulation came malnutrition, then population crashes and survivors moving to new less devastated sites.

The Hohokam in what is now Southern Arizona constructed enormous irrigation works and produced fine artefacts, between the 7th and 15th centuries, but with over population and crisis, the culture collapsed and the canals were abandoned.

In the Pacific, it is likely that it was population pressures that stimulated the extremely dangerous sea adventures by canoe to find unknown and distant islands to settle. Russell and Russell describe how population pressures built up within colonised islands such as the Marquesas. The fertile areas were settled about 1000 BC, but growing populations spread out to the less fertile and to the smaller islands, and ferocious warfare and cannibalism helped to keep numbers under control for centuries.

In the 4th century AD a party of Marquesans colonised Easter Island. The typical great building projects undertaken as population grows produced the famous gigantic stone heads, but by the 16th century a population of 8000 confined within 160 square kilometres was in crisis. Savage warfare, cannibalism, famine, epidemics, deforestation and almost total destruction of resources brought the population down to its present numbers of about 2000.

(While on the other side of the earth, the remote island of St Kilda in the Atlantic was finally deserted in 1930, through loss of soil fertility and high child mortality, added to the temptations of a softer life in Britain.)

The modern world

The Russells claim that, far from the common belief that population growth is reduced by industrialisation, from 1790-1850 North Western Europe experienced an incipient population crisis, with inflation, unemployment, revolution, war, epidemics and famines especially during the 'hungry forties'. But instead of crashing, the population exploded, and has been exploding world-wide.

This explosion has been due to two massive increases in the food supply - the first unrepeatable, the second unsustainable. The first unrepeatable increase was due to the vast new croplands in the New World. The second unsustainable increase is the huge increase in food yield per land area through factory farming and high-energy-input crop agriculture using enormous amounts of mineral fertilisers and pesticides, a cost which genetic engineering of plants and livestock may not sufficiently reduce. The disastrous consequences of destruction and waste of resources are increasing, and the social contradictions seen in previous hydraulic societies are now appearing.

The universal crisis today,
and alternatives to the 'Malthusian solution'.

The modern population crisis is unique because it is universal.
It is not, as in the past, staggered between major regions, with their different crises and relief periods. It is marked by increasing problems of water shortages and pollution. A UN report in 1994 warned that 'one third of the world land surface is threatened with desertification', following deforestation, overgrazing, overcropping and over-irrigation, with resulting erosion, silting, salinisation, laterisation and bare earth. In 1990 a report of the World Health Organisation estimated that 25 million agricultural workers are acutely poisoned by pesticides every year. Unusual climate changes and increases in climatic disasters are now being attributed to the extensive forest loss and atmospheric pollution with greenhouse gases and holes in the ozone layer. The environmental damage caused by the population explosion that is chiefly in developing countries, is more than matched by the consumption explosion in developed countries - and now more peoples seek to emulate that development.

Population crises today show the typical economic and social effects - high unemployment, gross inequality, desperate poverty, increasing violations of human rights, and resurgences of incessant local, national and civil wars that now kill more civilians than since the 17th century crisis in Northern Europe. The violent imaginations that mark the cultures of the affluent West may even reflect that growing stress.

The Russells' final claim is that if we could eliminate the stress cultures that result from population crises and cycles, a permanent renaissance could ensue. Any such 'single-solution' theory about the bad that happens in history is as sweeping as claiming to know the cause of original sin. But there is a case all the same that overpopulation has been a critical factor in the crimes and disasters of mankind, and that population must rank high among the issues for our future. It is ironic that we worry about eating too much and about what to do with all we waste, in a world where more and more people are hungry and homeless - and we have less time than we think to avoid the same fate.

Robert Malthus observed that populations grow at a rate of compound interest unless either death rates go up (as has happened in the past) or birth rates go down. Unlike animals, we can consciously now choose which.
The people of Australia could suffer the environmental fate of overpopulation relative to resources earlier than other continents, for we have less left to consume. Or we may meet the challenge, to lead the world with the example of a responsible population policy that avoids both genocide and suicide.

And see:

William Stanton's The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000:Histories, Consequences, Issues, Nation by Nation. William. NI: Multiscience Publishing Company Ltd. 2003

Relevant web-pages about population and poverty on ozideas:

Concepts, economic
Jobs, Alternativ jobs
for the future
Preventing poverty
Notes on population growth

Further notes on population growth as a coming tsunami

World population growth
- graphs (and see pdf) World population growth - tables (and see pdf)
Population crises and cycles
throughout history. An important book by Claire and W M S Russell.

An ageing population is not disastrous