Modest Proposals

Thomas Jones

According to the Office for National Statistics, the population of England and Wales has risen by 3.7 million to 56.1 million over the past ten years. That's not only more people than have ever lived here before, but also the fastest growth over any decade since records began in 1801. The world population over the same period has grown from 6.2 billion to 7 billion, and it will probably reach 10 billion by the end of the century.

On Wednesday, John Collier from Population Matters will be giving a lecture on 'Breaking the Taboo about Human Population Growth', and on Thursday, Ten Billion, 'a new kind of scientific lecture, highlighting key issues being lost in translation in our discussion of the environment', opens upstairs at the Royal Court. Overpopulation, like so many so-called taboos, would seem to be nothing of the kind.

 Ten Billion is a collaboration between the theatre director Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott, a professor of computing at Oxford and the head of Microsoft's Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge. Emmott told the Observer on Sunday that the 'swelling numbers' of people on the planet 'are destroying ecosystems, polluting the atmosphere and the sea, raising temperatures and melting ice caps and we have no idea what the outcome will be'. 'It is really important to talk about overpopulation,' he says.

It's also really important to talk about inequality. First, because there's an inverse correlation between wealth and fertility: the rich have fewer children than the poor. As Karan Singh put it in 1974, 'development is the best contraceptive.' (Though condoms are good too.)

And second – since groups like Population Matters think Singh's argument is back-to-front – because some of us are destroying ecosystems, polluting the atmosphere and the sea, raising temperatures and melting ice caps faster than others. Population trends are meaningless if you don't take consumption trends into account too. According to the Global Footprint Network, 'if everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need five planets.' India has nearly four times the population of the US, but less than half the consumption footprint.

The GFN calculates that in 2008, the world's total ecological footprint – the amount of land and water required to produce the resources we consume and to absorb our waste – was 2.7 global hectares per person (ghp), one-and-a-half times the world's biocapacity of 1.8 ghp. But that unsustainable consumption isn't evenly distributed. High-income countries had an ecological footprint of 5.6 ghp; the figure for low-income countries was only 1.1 ghp.

The Democratic Republic of Congo may have a population of 66 million and a total fertility rate of more than six children per woman, but its ecological footprint is only 0.8 ghp, while its biocapacity is 3.1 ghp. The United Kingdom, by contrast, has a population of 62 million and a fertility rate of only 1.8 children per woman, but our ecological footprint is 4.7 ghp and our biocapacity a mere 1.3 ghp. (This isn't an argument against immigration: the problem's global and can't be solved by mining the English Channel.)

Rather than fretting about overpopulation – which can quickly turn into pointing the finger at feckless fuckers in poorer parts of the world, or even arguing for enforced sterilisation – it might be more worthwhile to concentrate on ways to cut down on excess consumption, increase biocapacity and distribute the spoils more equitably. Either that, or stop pussyfooting about and try to make a taboo-breaking neo-Malthusian case for mass murder.


  • 21 July 2012 at 7:07am
    streetsj says:
    If you've never seen them I recommend Hans Rosling's talks on TED.COM.
    He argues, convincingly, that the way to control population is to raise living standards. Low population growth is a direct function of wealth. Increasing wealth has been the trend for almost all countries anyway and it feels as though the current trend of investment in Africa might lift the main laggards.
    All of which is to say that things are changing anyway and that extrapolation is a dangerous form of forecasting. We might want to speed things up but the consequences are rarely predictable.