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The David Attenborough talk on Population Print E-mail
March 10, 2011   thersa.org

Fifty years ago the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was created by a group of dedicated naturalists in the United Kingdom who had noticed that all over the world charismatic animals, that were once numerous, were beginning to disappear. 
The WWF bred some of the animals and then took them back to their original homes or released them into great areas of unspoiled country set aside as National Parks where the animals could be protected from poachers and encroaching human settlements.  In other areas ways were found of ensuring that local people, who also had claims on the land where such animals lived, were able to benefit financially from the creatures they were protecting by attracting visitors. The world awoke to conservation. Billions of dollars were raised.

Yet today there are more problems - not less - more species at risk of disappearance than ever before.

When the WWF was founded there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion - all of them needing space for their homes, to grow their food, to build schools and roads. Most of the space has been taken from land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had to themselves. The industries of all these people have changed the chemical constituency of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified.
Thomas Malthus, an Englishman born in the eighteenth century, was the first forecaster of our current predicament. In his book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, published in 1798, he said that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed 'misery and vice'. He did not foresee the Green Revolution which greatly increased the amount of food that could be produced in any given area of arable land - but that great advance only delayed things. There is, however, a fundamental truth in what he said in 1798. There cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.

Many people think Malthus was wrong and some instead believe in 'sustainable growth’.  Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy's environmental advisor forty five years ago, said "Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet is either mad - or an economist."

The population of the world is now growing by nearly 80 million a year. The  population in the United Kingdom will increase by ten million (the equivalent of ten more Birminghams) in the next twenty-two years - every one of them consuming far more of the earth's resources than an average African.
The last President of the Royal Society has referred to the approaching 'perfect storm' of population growth, climate change and peak oil production, leading inexorably to more and more insecurity in the supply of food, water and energy.

A billion people today - four times as many as the entire human population of this planet at the time of Christ - suffer hunger as part of their daily lives.

The Government's "Foresight Report on the Future of Food and Farming" reports that soil erosion, salinisation, the depletion of aquifers, over-grazing, the spread of plant diseases as a result of globalisation, the absurd growing of food crops to turn into biofuels to feed motor cars instead of people - all of these will make it desperately difficult to feed a population that is projected to stabilise in the range of eight to ten billion people by the year 2050.

While the report makes a number of eminently sensible recommendations, including a second 'green revolution', it doesn't state the obvious fact that it would be much easier to feed eight billion people rather than ten, or that measures to achieve such a number - such as family planning and the education and empowerment of women - should be a central part of any programme of active food security.

Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Laureate and father of the first Green Revolution, said that all he had done was to give us a 'breathing space' in which to stabilise our numbers. The report anticipates that food prices may rise with oil prices and makes it clear that this will affect the poorest people the worst and discusses various ways to help them. But it doesn't mention what every mother subsisting on the equivalent of a dollar a day already knows - that her children would be better fed if there were four of them around the table instead of ten.

In 1960 there was half a hectare of good cropland per person in the world - enough to sustain a reasonable European diet. Today there is only 0.2 of a hectare each. In China it is only 0.1 of a hectare because of their dramatic soil degradation problems.

Another Government report discusses all the rising pressures on wildlife in the United Kingdom, but it doesn't mention our growing population as being one of them. And yet another report, this by a Royal Commission on the environmental impact of demographic change in the U.K., denied that population size was a problem at all - as though twenty million extra people more or less would have no real impact.

No one - except flat-earthers - can deny that the planet is finite. There seems to be some bizarre taboo around the subject. It remains an obvious and brutal fact that on a finite planet human population will quite definitely stop at some point. That can happen sooner, by fewer human births, or by an increased death rate by famine or disease, or war over oil or water or food or minerals or grazing rights or just living space.
We should make family planning and other reproductive health services freely available to everyone, and empower and encourage them to use it - though of course without any kind of coercion.

The Global Footprint Network says there are already over a hundred countries whose combination of numbers and affluence have already pushed them past the sustainable level, including almost all developed countries. In developed countries like the U.K. the aim should be to reduce, over time, both the consumption of natural resources per person and the number of people while, needless to say, using the best technology to help maintain living standards.

Unfortunately many developed countries are attempting to increase their birth-rate in order to look after the growing number of old people. The notion of ever more old people needing ever more young people, who will in turn grow old and need ever more young people, is an obvious ecological Ponzi scheme.

Wherever women have the vote, wherever they are literate, and have the medical facilities to control the number of children they bear, the birth rate falls. An example is the southern Indian state of Kerala, where in 2007 the fertility rate was 1.7 births per woman, compared with 2.8 in India as a whole.

You as an individual can help break the taboo, in private and in public - as best you can. Wherever and whenever we speak of the environment add a few words to ensure that the population element is not ignored. If you belong to a Church - and especially if you are a Catholic because its doctrine on contraception is a major factor in this problem - suggest they consider the ethical issues involved. If you have contacts in Government ask why the growth of our population, which affects every department, is yet no one's responsibility.

All environmental and social problems today become more difficult - and ultimately impossible to solve - with ever more people.

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