Too many at the dining table?

"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

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
by copper, for example, the transmission of electricity. If we found
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
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
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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