SUNDAY, 5 APRIL 2009

Too many at the dining table?

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"It's a perfect storm," Professor John Beddington, the UK governments chief science advisor told the Sustainable Development UK 09 conference last month. "There's not going to be a complete collapse, but things will start getting really worrying if we don't tackle these problems. My main concern is what will happen internationally, there will be food and water shortages," he said. "We're relatively fortunate in the UK. There may not be shortages here, but we can expect prices of food and energy to rise." Prof Beddington said the "storm" would create war, unrest and mass migration. ~ London Telegraph, Mar 19

 One often hears in the debate about overpopulation that the world is finite and, if we do not slow down the rate of population growth or even reduce the world’s population we are going to run out of resources. This argument is based on the common experience of the effect of one more person than expected turning up for dinner: everyone has to get a bit less. Putting aside the fact that in the West the diners probably have too much to start with, is there any validity in the finiteness argument?

From a certain point of view the world is finite; it occupies a certain amount of space, it has a certain size and a certain volume. However, if the world was 100,000 times bigger than it is, it would still be finite but I am sure that everyone would agree that there would be little to worry about, at least for now. How do we know that with the current size of the planet we have something to worry about? People point to us running out of this or that mineral, this or that form of energy or running out of land or water. Very few minerals are wanted for their own sake. We do not want copper per se but rather the services provided by copper, for example, the transmission of electricity. If we found a cheaper and better replacement or a better way of recycling, copper would no longer be mined and no one would care how much or how little there is left in the ground. Fibre optical cables may well be that replacement. Those minerals that are wanted for their own sake, for example, gold and diamonds are often sought after precisely because they are scarce. No woman is going to thank the person who finds an unlimited supply of her ‘best friend’.

If there was a mineral that really was in finite supply and once it was used up that was it, would a growing population be a problem? Not necessarily. As the mineral was in limited supply it is going to be used up at some point no matter what the population is; it is just a matter of time. If that time is say 100 years hence then no one is going to worry for about 90 years; if it is going to run out 10 years hence then people will start trying to find alternatives. What matters is when this crucial last 10 years starts and not the total period until the mineral runs out. Only when the pressure is on do humans tend to focus on doing something, ask any writer with a deadline looming. Slowing down population growth may put off the day when something will have to be done but there is still an underlying assumption that human ingenuity will come to the rescue. And this is where the whole concept of finiteness comes unstuck. Human ingenuity has not yet proved to be finite and in fact the more people the more ingenuity and solutions there will be.

Dermot Grenham is an actuary  in London. His briefing paper on population is available with the other MercatorNet backgrounders. 


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Welcome to Demography Is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog about human dignity and population. We launched this after seeing two themes crop up constantly in the media: that humans are a cancer which is destroying our planet and that world population is spiralling up to unsustainable levels. 

Although many people dress up these concerns in global warming T-shirts, the underlying issue is the Population Bomb. Back in the 1960s the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich proclaimed that Malthus was right: the world faced mass starvation because there was too little food and too many people. Well, Ehrlich was proved wrong over and over again, and over and over again the fear comes back, like a vampire sucking optimism and hope out of modern society. I hope that this blog helps to put a stake through the heart of this dangerous and indefensible idea.

Dangerous, because the unsupported notion that the world cannot support its population is being used to promote human rights abuses, including coercive population programs. And indefensible, because world population, is actually on track to a steep decline. You could call it catastrophic, except that we are trying to avoid fostering apocalyptic fears on MercatorNet. We prefer to leave that to climate-change scaremongers. But it will certainly bring about enormous problems. At the moment, world population is about 6.8 billion. By the year 2050, it will rise to 9 billion, according to a United Nations scenario for mid-range fertility rates. But this global statistic conceals the fact that populations in many developed countries will actually decline. The number of elderly will increase enormously. Russia’s population will decline by one-fifth by 2050, for instance.

Huge problems are looming because of this “demographic winter” – social, financial, human rights, geo-political, cultural, and religious. We hope to track these changes, puncture illusions, and foster hope with Demography Is Destiny. And there is plenty of room for hope. After all, in the oft-quoted words of economist Julian Simon, people are the “ultimate resource”. We may not be over-populated, but we do have plenty of intelligent, inventive, adaptive people.

Where did we get the name? The catchphrase “Demography is Destiny” has almost become a cliché. It seems that it was coined by the French philosopher and sociologist August Comte in the 19th Century. But it still rings true.


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