Have we defused the ‘population bomb’?

Saturday 13 October, 12:0013:00, ConservatoryMoral matters

Fifty years on from the publication of Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s bestseller, The Population Bomb, are their terrifying forecasts about the dangers of population growth set to come true? In the book, the Ehrlichs claim: ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…’ Were the Ehrlichs right about the threat, but simply wrong about the timing?

Even more sober and mainstream voices believe we have a problem. Sir David Attenborough summed up the case for population control when he said: ‘All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder — and ultimately impossible — to solve with ever more people.’ We are adding a lot more people: the world’s population has all but quadrupled in the past century. More people means more resource consumption, more greenhouse-gas emissions, more pressure on soil and fresh water, and less space for wildlife and biodiversity. For some, rapidly rising population is nothing short of an existential crisis for humanity. We are, they argue, exhausting the Earth’s carrying capacity – and no amount of smart algorithms or slick new inventions can get us out of that jam.

Yet others point to trends that could bring population growth under control, particularly by empowering women. Where women are given economic opportunity, and their daughters have access to education, population growth rates plummet. In Bangladesh, for example, where such policies have been pursued with some vigour, the average new family size has fallen from more than six to just over two in under 50 years.

While empowering women is a good thing in itself, it may look a little sinister if the motive is to stop them having ‘too many’ children. What if women decide to have large families despite – or because of – their new-found empowerment – should they be stopped? Must we have recourse to more draconian measures, like China’s dubious ‘one child’ policy – now largely abandoned?

Is a growing population really such a disaster anyway? It’s been over two centuries since Thomas Malthus – godfather of the population control enthusiasts – predicted that catastrophe would soon strike as we’d be unable to feed all those extra mouths. But history has shown there is no association between rising numbers of people and levels of destitution; quite the opposite, in fact. In 1968, when The Population Bomb was published, world population was 3.5 billion. Since then, it has more than doubled, to 7.5 billion. Yet far from leading to mass starvation, major famines are now largely a thing of the past. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has plummeted, lifespans are increasing and infectious diseases are in decline. Fewer children go to bed hungry now than they did when the population was half that of today.

Can we really go on blithely adding billions of people to the planet without eventually bumping up against natural limits? Is the real problem overconsumption in the developed world rather than too many people in poorer countries? Is the whole idea of ‘limits to growth’ a dispiriting denial of our capacity to come up with solutions that can make life better for everyone on the planet? Should we be celebrating the triumph of humanity – or doing our level best to defuse the bomb that could ultimately destroy us?