I went to Airdrie with my friend David Langworth to hear journalist and author Fred Pearce speak about his book, People Quake. I knew this would not be a pleasant journey into some foreign land. Controversy was the order of the day for this lecture. The emphasis of the talk was not what I expected.
Without reading any reviews before I went, I assumed I would hear about the burgeoning global populations, always a sensitive subject. However, our speaker announced that his writing was a good news story. In the aftermath of the great announcement of the birth of the seven-billionth child on earth, I was intrigued.
Fred led us through some statistics that he argued showed a slowing down in birth rates. For example, in Italy women are only having 1.3 children and a similar figure was shown for Iran. He also showed a picture of a female farmer in Africa who only had one child.
In a rural area in the Middle East, he showed a family with six children. He told us that this size of a family was not a burden on natural resources because they needed a large family to help on the farm. Furthermore their lifestyle meant that they used a fraction of energy used by one American.
In fact, if I remember the figures correctly, in rural India, it takes 250 people to use the same amount of energy as a single American. I noted that there was no reference to the amount of energy that British people consume.
The crux of the argument was that it is our consumer lust that is putting pressure on the world’s resources and not the size of the population. I agree that consumerism has reached apocalyptic proportions among wealthier people. He held up Jeremy Irons as a propagandist on the subject of dangerous population levels – Irons owns seven homes.
Fred also referred to a map that is skewed to show where birth rates are more than 2.1 and where they are low and decreasing. He said that if fertility rates continue to drop in developed and developing countries we may reach a point where there are not enough people to sustain the human population.
Part of the drive behind the baby boom years of the 1950s was that children are now more likely to live into adulthood and woman are less likely to die during childbirth. The opposing trend to having large families as resources become more available is the movement of people into cities where there is no room for large families.
Other factors are, of course, the availability of contraception and in predominantly Roman Catholic nations women are going against church advice to not use contraception; and women increasingly choose a career over having a family.
However, as one working mother in the audience pointed out, with the benefit system in Britain, women will opt not to work and have children.
Fred was arguing that the argument that we have an overpopulated planet is no longer relevant. Yet ironically he thought that the world population would rise to 10 billion in the next few decades. Despite the good news story he was presenting, the figures did not seem to add up for me. Furthermore he argued that we just needed to find more efficient ways of producing food.
I was not convinced that the supposedly unsustainable low birth rates across mainland Europe, Russia and parts of the Americas are enough to offset population rises in Central Africa and parts of South America. It is impossible to discuss one argument affecting the planet and her resources in isolation from another.
The old views about the world’s population increasing in an uncontrollable manner often relied on famine, disease and war as controlling factors. Medicine is advancing to almost make-believe levels, warfare has changed in the main from mass slaughter and famine is apparently not as bad as it was predicted by the harbingers of doom such as the Reverend Thomas Malthus, the 19th century economist who predicted imminent starvation if his population and crop yield assumptions proved ciorrect.
Whom are we to believe when figures are so often produced by governments to back up their own policies?