Population 10 Billion by Danny Dorling and Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott – review
Are we done for? John Gray on one flawed and one indispensable study of population growth
Overpopulation has become almost a forbidden concept. Thirty years ago, when there were around two and a half billion fewer human beings on the planet, the idea was actively debated. Many environmentalists accepted that smaller human numbers were necessary if humankind was ever to live in balance with the natural world, while the argument that there was no such thing as overpopulation was largely the preserve of free-market economists, doctrinaire Marxists and assorted religious fundamentalists. The debate was not always of the highest quality, with some advocates of population control making stark forecasts of imminent global starvation, and some of their opponents suggesting that a Green Revolution in agriculture would abolish hunger within a generation. Neither of these prospects was realistic, but there was a shared recognition that there might be a problem in rapidly rising human numbers.
Today, the very idea that there could be too many people on the planet has been abandoned as retrograde and anti-human. Green parties rarely raise the issue of population, saying that what matters is not the number of people but how resources are distributed among them; they insist that concern with population is a distraction from inequality and the immoralities of capitalism. No leader of any mainstream party in any country would dream of making population a key issue. The view that overpopulation is a figment of the dark reactionary imagination is undoubtedly the current orthodoxy. Yet there has not been a voice that could systematically articulate the prevailing wisdom – a gap that has been filled by Danny Dorling.
A professor of human geography at Sheffield and soon to be Halford Mackinder professor of geography at Oxford, Dorling aims to discredit any suggestion that the human species might be pressing up against the limits of natural resources. Peppering his argument with pained references to the few that persist in asking whether the planet might not already be rather crowded – David Attenborough and Joanna Lumley among those cited with purse-lipped disapproval – Dorling is the perfect anti-Malthusian. His account of the Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), in which the Reverend Thomas Malthus argued that the growth of human numbers would eventually be checked by shortage of food, follows a time-worn path. “It was the sexual hang-ups of a man of the cloth that resulted in ideas of population control making their political debut in 19th-century Britain.” Originating in sexual repression, the idea of overpopulation tells a gloomy tale of the narrow limits of social improvement. “Human beings progress by telling stories,” and it is a story of ongoing advance that we need. We should “learn to try not to estimate the carrying capacity of the Earth”, but instead focus on possibilities of changing human behaviour. Population decline is already under way in some countries, and global human numbers will peak sometime this century. By telling ourselves a story about “how ten billion people can live well on the planet”, we can exorcise the Malthusian phantasm.
Though Dorling describes Population 10 Billion as “a book for pragmatists”, it is actually intensely ideological all the way through. Reading his winningly simple narrative, you would not know that Malthus stands at the start of a long liberal tradition that acknowledged the dangers of rising human numbers but argued for contraception as the solution.
To read the full review, please click here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/05/ten-billion-stephen-emmott-review