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. We launched this to counter two media memes: that humans are a cancer which is destroying our planet and that world population is spiralling to unsustainable levels. The real story is that intelligent and inventive humans will rise to the challenge of climate change and that our real problem is the coming demographic winter. The editors of Demography is Destiny are Marcus and Shannon Roberts, who live in Auckland, New Zealand. Send them your comments and suggestions. 

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