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John Stuart Mill on nature, population size & the value of solitude

I’ve used it before but, who cares, its my favourite Mill quote.  Its about the most sensible general statement on “optimal population” and the need to co-exist with nature that I have come across.

‘There is room in the world, no doubt, and even in old countries, for a great increase in population, supposing the arts of life to go on improving, and capital to increase. But even if innocuous, I confess I see very little reason for desiring it. The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain, in the greatest degree, all the advantages both of cooperation and of social intercourse, has, in all the most populous countries, been attained.

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.

If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on. Even the industrial arts might be as earnestly and as successfully cultivated, with the sole difference, that instead of serving no purpose but the increase of wealth, industrial improvements would produce their legitimate effect, that of abridging labor.

Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and other to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish. Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoverers, become the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot’.

John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy. Book IV, Chapter VI, Section II, as it first appeared in 1848.

3 comments to John Stuart Mill on nature, population size & the value of solitude

  • Lee Miller

    Alss, we did not heed Mill’s advice and have gone from one billion to seven billion since he wrote this good, sound advice to achieve a stable future for our species. There have been many such warnings about overpopulation and overconsumption. One of my favorites is this little ditty by Ken Boulding. This was written as I graduated from high school, over fifty years ago. I didn’t read it until 1972. It cleverly and artfully summarizes our environmental predicament-long before Silent Spring and The Population Bomb.

    Conservationist’s Lament
    By Kenneth Boulding
    In: Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, 1956
    University of Chicago Press, p. 1087

    The world is finite, resources are scarce,
    Things are bad and will be worse.
    Coal is burned and gas exploded,
    Forests cut and soils eroded.
    Wells are dry and air’s polluted,
    Dust is blowing, trees uprooted,
    Oil is going, ores depleted,
    Drains receive what is excreted.
    Land is sinking, seas are rising,
    Man is far too enterprising,
    Fire will rage with Man to fan it,
    Soon we’ll have a plundered planet.
    People breed like fertile rabbits,
    People have disgusting habits.

    Moral: The evolutionary plan went astray by evolving Man.

  • hc

    Thanks for that Lee. I am a long-standing fan of Kenneth Boulding. You might have included the Boulding technologist response:

    The Technologist’s Reply

    Man’s potential is quite terrific,
    You can’t go back to the Neolithic.
    The cream is there for us to skim it,
    Knowledge is power, and the sky’s the limit.
    Every mouth has hands to feed it,
    Food is found when people need it.
    All we need is found in granite
    Once we have the men to plan it.
    Yeast and algae give us meat,
    Soil is almost obsolete.
    Men can grow to pastures greener
    Till all the earth is Pasadena.


    Man’s a nuisance, Man’s a crackpot.
    But only Man can hit the jackpot.

  • Abby

    Hi, I’m a uni student doing an essay on how John Stuart Mill would view the modern problem of Asylum Seekers. What policies do you believe he would suggest? And his overall opinion on it?

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