Population growth is sometimes spoken of as the elephant in the room – a problem that will have huge impact on the environment and the global economy, but which no one dares discuss.
Fred Pearce looks squarely at that elephant and discovers that it's no more than a medium-sized cow. And a shrinking cow at that. He examines Thomas Malthus's "Essay on the Principles of Population", and concludes that Malthus was mistaken on two counts: he underestimated the effects of improved technology in feeding greater numbers, and he failed to see that people were already, even in his day, controlling their fertility, a task made easier by modern-day contraception.
After an excursus about how eugenics was an unsavoury offshoot of Malthus's theory, Pearce explores trends in population growth around the world, highlighting the falling birth rates in China, Australia, South Africa and most of Europe (on present trends, by 2100 Germany will have fewer natives than Berlin has today) and providing evidence that developing countries are following suit. His thesis is that the birth rate declines along with patriarchy (and as acceptance of homosexuality rises, interestingly). World population should peak at around eight billion mid-century, and could be down to five billion by 2100. Good news for our great-grandchildren, whom he says may well occupy a "kinder, gentler, wiser and greener world".