The current issue of The Ecologist includes an article around a forthcoming Royal Society report on population issues People and the Planet, which will be issued this coming April. As the Ecologist article makes clear, the battle lines are already being drawn over what is sure to be a heated and acrimonious debate, no matter what conclusions the Royal Society arrives at.
Population is ‘our biggest challenge’ says government chief scientist Sir John Beddington
The next world population milestone of 8 billion will come sooner than we think - perhaps as early as 2025 - yet we remain reluctant to debate the issue. A forthcoming Royal Society report may force us to.
While many commentators look ahead to 9 billion by 2050 there is a more immediate statistic that ‘frightens’ the UK government’s chief scientist: 1 billion extra people in the next 13 years.
Speaking at a joint WWF and Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) event last week, which looked ahead to the Rio+20 conference in June, John Beddington told an audience that half of that population increase would come from Asia and most of the other half from Africa. Based on the UN’s projections, he said Africa’s population would grow ‘frighteningly fast’ from 1 billion today to 1.5 billion by 2025-2030.
He went on to lament the issue of population as ‘under thought’ and ‘our biggest challenge’ as it exacerbates existing problems over access to water and other resources.
An early entrant into the lists is the British journalist and ubiquitous commentator on environmental matters, Fred Pearce, who is frequently wheeled out on these occasions to offer a refutation of the ‘overpopulation myth’. Mr. Pearce is quoted as saying:
... ‘Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising headcount as a threat to the planet. And most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population, while most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet. By almost any measure you choose, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution.
‘The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians or 250 Ethiopians. The truth is that the population bomb is being defused round the world. But the consumption bomb is still primed and ever more dangerous
In the past, Mr. Pierce has referred to migration controls as the ‘New Apartheid’ and, according to a 2010 interview, believes that
”... overpopulation worries are a potentially racist distraction”.
I have often suggested that a heightened focus on environmental concerns, and overpopulation specifically - as an alternative to some of our other preoccupations (the JQ, say) - offers the possibility of attractive political gains for radical nationalists who are able to exploit them fully. The question is, can we do so without drawing down upon ourselves the charge of eco-fascism? If so, how? The plain fact of the matter is that the earth is certainly incapable of sustaining several billion people in the longer term at anything even close to current western levels of material consumption, even allowing for the Deus ex machina sort of just-in-time technological solutions that cornucopians insist are just around the corner.
We seem to be facing, in reality, a stark choice between a dramatic Malthusian-style culling and (much-reduced) fair shares all round. How should we play this one?