Dominic Lawson: The population timebomb is a myth

The doom-sayers are becoming more fashionable just as experts are coming to the view it has all been one giant false alarm.

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The human appetite for bad news knows no bounds. That is why gossip is usually malicious and why, on a grander scale, prophets of doom are always guaranteed a credulous audience. Conversely, good news – however well attested – is generally squeezed in the margins of newspapers.

For example, The Independent buried in a few paragraphs a story with the headline "Population growth not a threat, say engineers". But at least The Independent found some space to cover the publication of a report last week by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers entitled Population: One Planet, Too Many People? – I could find nothing about it in other newspapers.

The reason for that distinct lack of column inches is that the institution answered its own question in the negative. No, there are not (and will never be) too many people for the planet to feed. As the report's lead author, Dr Tim Fox, pointed out, its verdict is not based on speculative guesses about the development of new agricultural processes as yet unknown: "We can meet the challenge of feeding a planet of 9 billion people through the application of existing technologies". For example, Dr Fox pointed out, in Africa, no less than half the food produced is destroyed before it reaches its local marketplace: with refrigeration and good roads, the developing world could avoid this horrendous waste.

Interestingly, another detailed report on "sustainability" published last week by the French national agricultural and development research agencies came up with the same answer. The French scientists set themselves the goal of discovering whether a global population of 9 billion, the likely peak according to the UN, could readily have access to 3,000 calories a day, even as farms take measures to cut down on the use of fossil fuels and refrain from cutting down more forests: their answer was, you will be thrilled to know, "yes".

Some people will not be so thrilled. There is an increasingly noisy claque of Malthusians who insist that an "exploding" global population (as they put it) is going to lead to disaster – from Boris Johnson to Joanna Lumley, not to mention Jeremy Irons and Prince Charles. For example, last weekend The Independent published a lengthy interview with the Bermuda-based philanthropist James Martin, who has given Oxford University $125m to set up a forecasting institute in his name. Mr Martin's own forecast is that "by mid-century we're going to be using the term 'giga-famine', meaning a famine where more than a billion people will die, a catastrophe on a scale that's never been known before on Earth."

Martin sounds uncannily like Paul Ehrlich, the secular saint of the neo-Malthusian movement. Back in the 1970s, Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb became a global best-seller on the back of his forecast that by the end of the century even the United States would be enduring mass famine and that there was no better than a 50 per chance of anyone remaining alive in Great Britain by the year 2000. You might have thought that events would have discredited Ehrlich as a forecaster, but he is still constantly cited as an authority by the population control freaks, and is himself remarkably unbothered by the fact that agricultural techniques had rapidly developed in a way which he was unable to envisage. Asked in 2000 about his prediction of a wipe-out of the UK by famine, he replied: "If you look closely at England, what can I tell you? They're having all kinds of problems just like everybody else." If his original forecast had merely been that "The world – including Britain – will have all kinds of problems", I somehow doubt he would have found a publisher.

One reason why the population doomsters have come out in force in recent weeks is that, according to the UN Population Division, this year will see the number of living inhabitants hit the figure of 7 billion; or according to an imaginative piece of global palm-reading by The Guardian: "Later this year, on 31 October to be precise, a boy will be born in a rural village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His parents will not know it, but his birth will prove to be a considerable landmark for our species as his arrival will mark the moment when the human population reaches 7 billion."

Or it might not; but we get the drift: lacking only the prognosticated presence of three wise men from the East, this is a Big Moment. It's also not a bad moment, either for the parents (they'll probably be delighted it's a boy) or for the planet. While the misanthropic Malthusians will gloomily see his arrival as just "another mouth to feed", he might more charitably be seen as another human whose ingenuity, creativity and intellect can be of benefit to the world.

As a matter of fact the population doom-sayers among the media and showbusiness are becoming more fashionable just as the experts are coming round to the view that it has all been one giant false alarm. This year National Geographic magazine is making population its theme; but its lengthy opening essay was notable for its lack of alarmism. It quoted Hania Zlotnik, the director of the UN's Population Division, saying: "We still don't understand why fertility has gone down so fast in so many societies, so many cultures and religions. It's just mind-boggling. At this moment, much as I want to say there's still a problem of high fertility rates, it's only about 16 per cent of the world's population, mostly in Africa."

The most fashionable of all arguments for some sort of global anti-natalist legislation comes in the form of professed concern for the atmosphere – too many people produce too much CO2, thus damaging the planet via climate change. The Malthusians have seized on this as grist to their mill, having been refuted on every other argument. Yet Joel Cohen, the professor of populations at Columbia University's Earth Institute, told National Geographic: "Those who say the whole problem is population are wrong. It's not even the dominant factor."

Apart from anything else, the developed world, which uses vastly more energy per capita than sub-Saharan Africa (the only part of the globe with high fertility rates), is going through a period of rapid demographic decline. As Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, pointed out last week, the world's population is not "exploding" but growing at 1 per cent a year, and the actual number of people added to the figure each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.

Still, morbid pessimism about the ability of the Earth to support its population has always been with us. In AD200, Tertullian wrote: "We are burdensome to the world; the resources are scarcely adequate for us." Of course, the resources of the planet are not, in the purely mathematical sense, infinite; but neither is the population.

This thought ought to be of some cheer; but I fear that even if the entire world of science and engineering accepts this form of rational optimism, it will not change the mind of a single Malthusian. They've been wrong for so long. Why stop now?



d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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