Gannet Earth

'Even if it's theoretically possible to sustain 10.2 billion people on the planet, is this what we aspire to as a species?'

Print media may not have the clout of yore, but most Americans are still eager to talk to the New York Times.  Yet strikingly, in last month’s “Breaking a Long Silence on Population Control”, Mireya Navarro reported that most environmental groups contacted for the article “generally declined to discuss the issue or did not return calls”. 

Back when Paul Ehrlich was forecasting reproductive Armageddon in 1968, slowing world population growth was a chief green cause. But when Western fertility rates unexpectedly plummeted, while those in the developing world remained high, population as an issue got awkward. Even organisations specifically dedicated to lowering population growth played down support of family planning per se, cloaking their rhetoric largely in terms of improving “women’s rights”, which roughly correlate with fewer births — thus reducing the prime directive of the UN Population Fund to a quiet little knock-on effect.

Rising population is a magnifier of every environmental issue out there —biodiversity, energy, water table and fish stock depletion, deforestation, pollution and climate change. Stubbornly high growth rates in countries like Niger and Yemen also exacerbate economic inequality, for poor, high-fertility nations cannot keep up with the ever-rising demand for jobs, education and healthcare. So why, for liberally-minded greens, has population grown so toxic?

Simple: it was all very well to plead for us to have smaller families; pleading for them to curtail fertility smacks — of imperialism. Environmentalists thrive on the appearance of self-excoriation — we are too numerous, we are destroying Mother Earth — although, in the movement’s holier-than-thou parlance, we means you. But it’s no fun feeling loftier than destitute people halfway round the world. Sanctimony only gratifies when one feels more righteous than the neighbour next door. If poverty is entrenched by excessive breeding too, low-growth advocates are in danger of seeming to blame the poor for their plight, and to put the onus on the weakest to ameliorate problems that weren’t of their making. It doesn’t seem fair.

How much more preferable, then, to concentrate on “consumption” as the driver of environmental degradation, which keeps the West in the hot seat. In the lead-up to the birth of the world’s seven billionth baby last month, green activists on discussion shows were eager to observe that one American generates the carbon emissions of seven Chinese or 169 Bangladeshis. Yet economically, reduced consumption is the last thing poor countries need, with large, young populations desperate for work. Per capita consumption in countries like India and China, too, is on the rise.

Besides, the evil empire itself continues to swell. Having increased by more than 50 per cent during my lifetime, the US population is expected to grow from 311 to 478 million greedy Americans within this century. But how is this possible, with a total fertility rate of 2 per cent — slightly below replacement rate?

More awkwardness! Just as in Britain, American population growth is fuelled by…OH, NO! The I-WORD! Virtually all those additional consumers will be the foreign-born and their descendants. For the Left, immigration is sacrosanct, an unqualified Good Thing.

Best estimates suggest that we will run out of fresh water at about 9.5 billion people, a number the UN now expects the species to exceed — and that is only on the unreal assumption that the water is equally distributed. Desalination has become cheaper, but still demands massive amounts of energy, with the attendant emissions. Right-on folks who stipulate that “if we all live on soy pellets” there will be plenty to go around posit a world that will never happen. There’s no getting around the fact that the population of 10.2 billion the UN now forecasts we’ll reach this century will eat more, require more energy, and generally rubbish the place more than seven billion do. Population is an environmental issue, and if environmentalists are serious about their purported concerns it’s time to muck in with the uncomfortable — that big, messy, politically inconvenient world.

A parting thought: population is also an existential concern. Even if it is theoretically possible to sustain 10.2 billion people, is this what we aspire to as a species — to cram as many of our kind on this planet as it will bear? Do we want to apply our ingenuity primarily to solving how to feed and shelter a population half again as large as today’s? Isn’t there more to nurture in the human race than sheer multitude? Or do we most want to achieve a purely numerical miracle? Because I hate to break it to you, but in this area the insects have got us beat.

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