So then, some point this week the people who guess these things reckon the planet will pass the 7 billion people mark.
The debate sparked is predictable. On the one hand you have folk who really, really fret. “Too many people, too few resources”. Their rants will variously make mention of global warming, deforestation, fresh water limitations, the inefficiencies of farming meat over the energy returns from arable crop yields, you’ll often hear the words ‘peak oil’ and increasingly, though it isn’t really linked, ‘the collapse of capitalism’. Yada, yada, yada. Most of all you will hear the word ‘sustainability’.
On the other side you have folk who roll their eyes at this laundry list of angst. They point out the doom mongers have been wrongly banging on about “too many people, too few resources” since even before Malthus wrote his ‘scientific proof’ we passed that tipping point 200 years ago. Malthus was spectacularly wrong because he underestimated his fellow man’s ingenuity and innovation. Breakthroughs in agricultural techniques blew out his calculations on crop yields, just as breakthroughs in GM will blow out the calculations of his modern successors. ‘Progressives’ in the literal sense of the word, rather than the hijacked political version, believe that technological advance will continue to provide answers to the problems we encounter, and acknowledge that at the same time those solutions create whole new issues for the next generation. Thats ok. That’s the cycle. It was ever thus. It’s why we no longer fret about how to spear dinner and instead fret about the weather and iPhone battery life. Yada, yada, yada.
The debate has morphed into a battle of ideas on the natural human condition between two schools of thought: one pessimistic the other optimistic. The trouble with these ideological battles is that they tend to polarise those who engage to the extremes. If you’re a natural pessimist you get lumped with the loons who would have a ‘year zero’ and retreat to Amish or North Korean lifestyles yelling ‘stop’ at history and frowning at human breeding. On the other hand if you’re an optimist, like me, and engage on the debate you quickly get lumped with the loons who would open-cast mine the pristine Antarctic if there was a quick buck in it.
Big issues need clear heads. There are a number of reasons not to panic about the level of population. Not least of which is that the evidence suggests once a society gets to a certain level of development, the rate of childbirth per woman falls bellow two. Once you reach that number you will see the population fall over the span of a natural lifetime. Japan is already there. Britain, France, Italy and the US would be there if you took immigration out of the analysis (2009 ONS stats showed the average UK-born woman has 1.84 children, while women living here who were born abroad have about 2.5 children). Put simply, when they reach a certain standard of living, healthcare provision and opportunity people choose to have fewer kids without government intervention. It strikes me that the best way to stabilise and lower the population is therefore to help under-developed nations develop. It is development that brings that standard of living, healthcare provision and opportunity. That means a firm commitment to global trade and an outright rejection of protectionism.
At the same time, we shouldn’t mock the word ‘sustainability’. Natural resources are indeed finite. Eventually, over the long-term course of history, the doom mongers will be right and man-kind will destroy itself with a generous helping hand from nature. We have an obligation to our children to make sure we’re not hurrying that day along. So the development we strive for does indeed need to be ‘sustainable’. We just need to be very careful that we’re not held hostage to the word ‘sustainable’ by pedlars of bad science. Over-zealously embracing this weeks trendy ‘sustainabilty’ thinking will slow development, delay our goal of population reduction and be harmful to the life outcomes of billions of people. Not paying regard where there is sound science could end the life chances of our entire species. That’s quite a balance to navigate. As I said earlier, big issues need clear heads – I’m never sure when I follow these big environmental debates that the usual spokespeople on either side of the debate have ‘clear heads’. That leaves us all with an obligation to take an interest in these issues and nudge our policy makers to approach these big questions based not on lobby pressure, but upon clear-headed reason.