At any public meeting on the environment, there’s one question that almost always came up. It is a variation of ‘Why will no one talk about population?’ As a result, population is discussed endlessly while people grumble that no one ever talks about it.
The same oddly circular conversation happened in the Observer Review section in an article relating to the new book, 10 Billion, by Stephen Emmott, head of Microsoft’s Research Lab. Five full pages of extract and interview warned, ‘we’re ignoring … the biggest crisis in human history.’
Government policies around the world on population are untiringly controversial and debated, from countries in Europe (like Germany) worried about declining populations, to those in Asia (like China) worried about the opposite.
Emmott, of course, does not appear to be anti-people, just concerned about the impact we’re having on the planet, with climate change being key. He covers what is now very familiar ground describing human pressure on resources, talks generally about the need to reduce consumption, identifies rising population more specifically within poorer countries and suggests that we could be facing a world of 28 billion people by the end of the century.
New energy from ‘artificial photosynthesis’, which Emmott mentions as one possible solution, might have novelty appeal but, you suspect, might be some way off from solving immediate problems. It was disappointing too because less novel but far more proven approaches are common knowledge. We’ve known for decades that universal primary education for women and good health services will do more to relieve the pressure for large families than any fiddling in the ‘magic bullet’ food lab.
Three years ago the science writer Fred Pearce, a knowledgeable and long-term observer of climate change and other natural resource issues, published a book called Peoplequake. If there is an explosive problem, he wrote, it is to do with consumption, and it is a problem for a wealthy minority of humankind. The poorest three billion people on earth, short of half the world population accounted for about 7% of carbon emissions, while conversely, the richest 7% of people accounted for about half of all emissions.
More recently still the economist Danny Dorling wrote Population 10 Billion, accepting head-on that rising number. But Dorling too, like Pearce, is more sanguine. And, like many before, he makes the point that with better, much more equal distribution of resources, managing the needs of a rising population is far from impossible. ‘There is more than enough to go round,’ he writes.
Last week, President Obama waded into the climate debate saying, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society ... I am here to say we need to act.” A few years ago speaking in Cairo he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.’ Apply that principle to the economy everywhere and we could solve several problems at once.