Ten Billion Loose Ends

Two new books come to different conclusions about the geo-political impact of the coming population boom

Population has been a sensitive political issue since the birth of quantified forms of demography in the 17th century. Indeed, demography was always pitched from the time of William Petty onwards as a branch of “political arithmetic”. Our modern sense of the political issues around population was born somewhat later, however, in  the fervour and fear which gripped Europe in the wake of the French Revolution. Utopian supporters of the revolution, led by Condorcet and William Godwin, imagined futures where human life would be indefinitely extended and where liberty, equality and fraternity would allow for far greater numbers to be sustained in comfort. It was against these visions that Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), arguing instead that population always tended to outstrip resources, the result being that schemes of social welfare were bound to fail, creating the very poverty they were meant to alleviate. 

In the two centuries since Malthus wrote his Essay, population has periodically bubbled to the surface of political debate. The 1930s, for example, saw some panic that a declining birthrate would lead to the dwindling of Western societies, something which was luridly framed as “race suicide”, and encouraged the formation of state-sponsored pro-natal financial incentives of which the UK’s recently dismantled child benefit scheme was but one example. By the late 1960s, the reverse fear of a “population explosion” had emerged, being peddled in apocalyptic tones by so-called “neo-Malthusians” led by Paul Ehrlich, who memorably opened his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, with the arresting claim: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over”. And against Ehrlich were ranged a group of neoconservatives who only saw, in the equally memorable phrase of one of their number, a “nonsense explosion”. 

It seems that 2013 is witnessing another moment when demographic concerns come to the surface, as embodied in Danny Dorling’s and Stephen Emmott’s very similarly titled books. They are published when global population has just topped seven billion and the United Nations has predicted that it will not level out until it has reached 11 figures. Both Dorling and Emmott pose, unsurprisingly, a rather similar question: what do these astounding figures mean for the future of the human habitation of the earth? However, they reach very different conclusions. 

Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University, is sanguine about humanity’s future, therefore being ranged with the utopian Godwin and the neoconservatives of previous generations. Population 10 Billion asks us not to look at the total numbers of people on the planet but rather at the rate of change in their number, which is slowing such that Dorling feels we may never reach the 11-figure number the UN has projected. But even if we do, Dorling’s rather wearyingly facile optimism suggests this will not lead to Ehrlich’s apocalypse. Dorling sees a future where moves towards greater equality in distribution are being made, as are small steps in our daily lives which are leading towards more sustainable futures. For Dorling — and here he really is descended from Godwin and each succeeding generation of anti-Malthusians — if there is a “resource problem”, it is generated not by population size per se, but by the inequitable distribution of resources and the consumption culture of advanced societies. What Dorling does not explain, however, is how one ties together the small steps he sees modern societies making towards sustainability with the massive transitions that would be needed to roll them out globally. He also seems reticent about the fact that developing countries aspire to the conspicuous consumption culture of advanced societies. 

Dorling does not seem overly concerned to explain or provide evidence for the positions he adopts in Population 10 Billion. We learn a great deal about how he views the world, when he was born, how he dislikes SUVs and so forth, but we don’t get closely reasoned arguments about population and resource usage. Most of Dorling’s projections are of his own views and not of demographic data, which is infuriating given his skills as a quantitative geographer.

Of even greater concern is his breezy willingness simply to ignore evidence or travesty it in his sheer pleasure at the flow of his writing. Take Malthus, for example. Dorling styles Malthus’s advocacy of family limitation as resulting from “the sexual hang-ups of an economist of the cloth”. Malthus (as I presume Dorling knows) was in fact a happily married father of three with no recorded sexual hang-ups. He advocated smaller families as a way to alleviate the lot of the poor, an aspiration Dorling would clearly endorse. Surely it behoves a book aimed at the general public to explain the arguments it wants to rebut properly and then respond to them patiently? To do otherwise is to demean that public’s intelligence, to assume it does not want to or is not able to follow the detail of the argument. As a historian myself, I am left worried by such authorial legerdemain: how can one trust someone’s projections for humanity’s future if they do not attend to demonstrable facts about its past?

Similar strictures apply to Stephen Emmott. He has a swathe of academic credentials and runs the Microsoft Lab in Cambridge. Ten Billion emerges from a stage show performed in London in 2012 and betrays its “occasional” origins in that its format is akin to a Powerpoint presentation. 

Emmott’s stance is the reverse of Dorling’s, suggesting that the resource usage of ten billion people will lead us beyond tipping points in the earth’s climatic system and thereby to societal breakdown. He is also clear that we can already see tokens of that collapse today. In framing himself as a scientist and predicting disaster, Emmott falls squarely into the lineage of population jeremiahs from Paul Ehrlich onwards, both the tone and the pamphlet style of Ten Billion echoing The Population Bomb from half a century ago. 

Alas, the comparison with Ehrlich does not end there, for Emmott shares with Ehrlich a certain laziness in argumentation, papered over by his appeal to his scientific pedigree. For example, Emmott conflates the fact that 87 per cent of the world’s fisheries are now “fully exploited” with the idea that they are “exhausted”. This is simply not true; a fully exploited fishery is one which is being harvested at its sustainable maximum, not one which is exhausted. Examples could be multiplied, but each would lead to the same point: Emmott’s case for us to pause for thought would be stronger without such basic errors. Such exaggerations dent his credibility as assuredly as Dorling’s short-cuts undermine his claims to our confidence. 

In sum, one emerges from reading both of these books with a sense of intense frustration. The questions which revolve around the Malthusian fare of population levels, resource usage and climate change are of enormous significance. Politicians and the general public deserve and should demand discussions of the topic which are driven by evidence, not sensationalism, optimistic or pessimistic. 

And here, perhaps, both Dorling and Emmott should look to their predecessors, Dorling the optimist to Godwin and Emmott the pessimist to Malthus. After their initial spat in the 1790s, both Godwin and Malthus devoted years to bolstering their arguments, Godwin publishing a massive treatise, Of Population, in 1820 and Malthus a version of the Essay in 1803 which was four times longer than the original edition thanks to dense statistical argumentation. 

Both Godwin and Malthus matured to realise that population was too politically important to be the plaything of scandal. One can only hope that Emmott and Dorling  come to the same realisation and stage their argument anew with more respect for both the evidence they marshal and the audience to whom they speak. 

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