The world population question rears its head once again

There’s few sustainability questions that arouse more heated debate than the one of how big the world’s population should or can be. Each new milestone we reach prompts a new wave of opinion articles, mostly sounding a warning bell against exponential growth. The reason why, after continued debate, the same angry debates keep popping up? There’s so many arguments both ways and because of the unknowability of the future, there’s nothing to accurately adjudicate.

One article that recently set the argument alight was an interview in The Observer last Sunday of Professor Stephen Emmott, a professor of computing at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, who is putting on a solo theatrical production entitled ‘Ten Billion’ at the Royal Court in London.  The play/lecture will discuss the state of our planet if the population reaches 10 billion, which it might well do by the end of the century.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to guess some of his quotes from the interview:

“Those swelling numbers are destroying ecosystems, polluting the atmosphere and the sea, raising temperatures and melting ice caps and we have no idea what the outcome will be.”

“The show will end with my admitting to the audience that I think we are fucked.”

But what really was interesting were the comments that followed. Prof Emmott was extolling an argument that reaches back to Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb. It’s entirely logical to assume that if our population keeps growing then that will put increasing pressure on space, energy, food, raw materials and some individual freedoms as governments are forced to crisis manage. The ensuing argument in the comment section below showed that if you argue it the other way, you often end up going in circles. One question merely leads to another.

@CrabbyGit argued: “The guy is soooo behind the times! The birthrate is falling! Why? It’s technology, stupid!”

@tswash said: “A sharply rising population is always a function of the transitional period between the ‘natural’ state of humans (low life expectancy, material poverty, subsistence production and low human welfare) and the enhanced modern state of humans (high life expectancy, material wealth and high human welfare).”

But then @Jud_Lohmeyer retorted with a more Erlich-ite view: “It is clear from many of the comments that we are going to have to start with the basics, educate the educated about population growth. There are a lot of theories being batted about that are miss understood, applied or distorted. The earth is not unlimited, we can make in uninhabitable for humans through stripping it of its resources or polluting it beyond human habitation.”

Of the 87 comments, and I read most of them, I think I saw most angles and questions that the population debate poses. Permit me to take you for a stroll into my confused mind for a brief moment. Take this for a stream of consciousness…

…Population growth has, as many commenters noted, aided technological and cultural advancement. What’s to say then that we can’t keep developing our way out of problems? But the point is you can’t merely hope for the future that we’ll come up with a panacea for our woes. Then what about the environment? Biodiversity has plummeted, we’re struggling to break our fossil fuel obsession, and we’re losing much of the green space that makes our planet so beautiful. But isn’t this just an elitist argument, that the wealthy portions of the planet want to preserve their positions?…

….But then what about the fact that population growth is falling in much of the developed world? As countries get richer, the birth rate falls, it appears to be an accepted law of demography. But how then, do these rich countries cope with a top-heavy, aging population? Especially in a time of austerity it feels like there are too many people to pay for, at least in Britain!…

…How then would you go about slowing population growth in rapid growth regions, particularly Africa and Latin America? Economic development is surely the sustainable answer but you can’t just enforce it, financial injections from outside have exacerbated problems in many circumstances. Enforced birth control? Well that’s just too totalitarian for our liberal Western palates. Ok, well surely people will just get richer and the birth rate will slow?  But can we assume that? Isn’t the planet suffering as it is?…

Tell me about it, Homer

It’s a ‘face-palm’ moment for sure and if you think about it for too long, your brain becomes to grow weary of ending up at the same place all over again. I think what is certain is that extremist, one-sided arguments, for either side, are dangerous. That’s why Prof Emmott’s suggestions provoked such derision. Perhaps population growth, or more importantly how we plan for its future development, should be studied from an ecological standpoint, and one that blends, biology, economics and philosophy.

Prof Emmott isn’t entirely wrong. A world of 10 billion people will feel very different to one of six billion and there will be some significant shocks to our planet. However, population growth will simply not continue exponentially as the poorer nations become richer. There will be a point of balancing out, and that’s where those multi-disciplinary professors need to be focusing our attention. Yes there are problems now, but if there’s going to be a population re-balancing in the future, we need to be prepared for it.

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One response to “The world population question rears its head once again

  1. We’re coming to the point where changes, not only environmentally and in the way we produce our goods, but socially need to be made. Many people would disagree, but people are living too old as well as having too many children. I know that’s not a popular view, but there will come a time…

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