With effective international governmental action to tackle climate change well and truly off the agenda, perhaps it is no accident that attempts are under way to make global population levels a central issue once again.
The thinking, as always, is that there are too many people on the planet for “sustainable development” as well as concerns about the “impacts” of growing populations on resources. At least that is how the Royal Society, Britain’s self-appointed national academy of science, wants us to see the issue.
It has announced an inquiry into population levels that has a real ring of the late 18th century about it. The cleric-turned-economist Thomas Malthus then predicted that humanity would grow faster than the food supply. This “principle”, claimed Malthus, was "one of the causes that have hitherto impeded the progress of mankind towards happiness".
Modern supporters of variations of Malthus’s notions are on the panel. They include Jonathan Porritt, former government chief environmental adviser and head of the Sustainable Development Commission, and naturalist and film-maker David Attenborough, who is a leading light in the disturbing Optimum Population Trust (OPT).
The OPT’s Roger Martin believes that people have to live “within the limits of the place we inhabit” while its website claims that population growth is “rapidly destabilising our climate and destroying the natural world on which we depend for future life”. Britain’s “optimum” population is put at 30 million – under half its present size.
The whole argument is muddle-headed and is based on accepting how capitalist society functions (or, in many instances, does not) as an eternal, natural law. Even a glance at the figures since Malthus disproves his assertion. In 1800, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, there were about a 1 billion people, which rose to 1.7 billion by 1900.
By 2000, it had quadrupled to 6 billion during a century of advances in public health, technology, food production and cheaper energy sources. In other words, the world’s population grew because there was a potential and capacity for it to survive. Absolute numbers continue to grow and projections are for a total of 8.3 billion by 2030. But the percentage rate of increase is falling. In many countries, a declining birth-rate points to an eventual fall in absolute numbers.
The biologist and writer Colin Tudge fiercely disputes the Malthusian argument, insisting that the failure to feed the present population is a result of feeding half of all staple crops to livestock, and then wasting about a third of what we do produce. “We already produce enough for nine billion, if only we used it properly. And we don't need to be vegetarian. Cattle and sheep do best on grass and browse, and there is plenty of those,” he insists.
As Tudge suggests, the real issues are about how food is produced, distributed and sold as well as how natural resources are used. The Royal Society, as an establishment institution, won’t question the framework of capitalist society. Instead, it wants us to accept that we cannot reach beyond the present, or conceive of another way of organising society. A truly anti-scientific approach if there ever was one.
Global society has indeed reached a “limit” - one that actually prevents us from establishing a conscious, sustainable self-relationship with nature. The limit is to be found in a capitalist society’s social relations that commodify everything and alienates producers from the fruits of their labour and the world around them.
For the last word, I can do no better than cite Tudge again: “For governments and corporations, Malthusian gloom is not an inconvenient truth but an all-too convenient lie. We are still told from on high that even to keep pace with human numbers we need to double food supply in the next few decades – so we need more big-time industrial farming with hi-tech inputs. There is no reason for this – except that it's profitable, and would maintain the political status quo. The future is indeed promising; but if we want to gather its fruits, then we need to find a very different way of running our affairs.”