Population pressures: the species that ate itself to extinction?

Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

Ancient philosophers may have mused about how many angels could stand on the top of a pin. The modern question is how many people should stand on the planet, for its health and theirs.  And in particular, how many people should a resilient society or nation or indeed world contain?

I have been made to think about these questions repeatedly over the last fortnight by things I have read or seen.  There was the news that a sell-out hit at a London theatre was Ten Billion, with its star being no less than a professor of computational science at Oxford.  Robin McKie in the Observer described it as “the most effective theatrical work that has attempted to illustrate our planet’s environmental woes that I have seen.”  Professor Stephen Emmott told the audience at the Royal Court Theatre that we face a future in which billions will starve and Britain will be turned into a military outpost dedicated to keeping out immigrants.

On cue, there came the news of Niger’s famine, with thousands starving because of failed crops, and refugees arriving by the thousand from Mali.  This took me back.   In the seventies, when working for the Observer, I crossed the Sahara to Mali and Niger with a Christian Aid team, to report on the relief to great famine of that time.  We travelled in Landrovers and Army trucks. I remember to this day being stopped outside my comfortable hotel in Gao, northern Mali, by a famished mother with a baby, who mimed that her baby was starving because she had no breast milk.  She pleaded for her skeletal baby. I got her some powdered milk but went away from her with a depressing sense that the baby would not live for long.  Outside an even more comfortable hotel in Niamey, capital of Niger, there were swarms of young girls, selling their bodies for foods.  Some of the British squaddies who drove the trucks took up their offers.

Niger is the subject of a short case study in the Royal Society’s excellent study People and the Planet.  It reports that Niger has one of the highest population growth rates in the world at 3.5 percent, implying a doubling of its population every 20 years.  A quarter of women over 40 have given birth to more than 10 children.  An “optimistic projection” is that Niger’s population will grow from 15.5 million to 55.5 million by 2050.  A pessimistic projection, presumably, would have suggested 60 million.  It has the youngest population in the world.  Niger men regard 13 children as the ideal family.

Hardened optimists will say that Niger’s population problems will be sorted in time by the mechanism of the ‘demographic transition’, which sets out how populations swell rapidly when infant mortality is limited – this is the stage that Niger now occupies – and after a time lag, fertility declines but populations continue to grow because of the great number of women of reproductive age. In the fourth stage, however, the population stabilises and may even decline.  Problem solved.

The trouble for Niger and many other least or less developed countries is that it may take decades before such stability could be achieved.  By which time, Niger will have its 50 million people in a very unproductive landscape struggling to survive.

My hunch is that Niger and many other countries with very high birth rates such as Nigeria and Uganda will never get to the stability stage.   By the time that they might have done, the Niger’s and indeed the world’s capacity to produce food will be badly damaged by climate change. (Only this morning on Farming Today, I listened to American farmers in the Mid-West talking about their crops almost completely destroyed by drought – “the worst since the 1930s, which my Pa told us kids about.”).  Any approach now to limit populations should be embraced – better education for young girls (women in Niger who experience secondary education have much smaller families than the women who don’t get beyond primary school.)  Getting birth control methods out to the women who want them is a priority.  Marie Stopes International should be a charity as popular as Oxfam.

Some countries, though, don’t share my mindset at all.  They point to China, how its huge population has given it a massive internal market and great economic growth.   Some Indian economists have espoused this view. Now there are doubts, not least in India.   An analyst and investment banker, Ruchir Sharma, believes that India has only a 50-50 chance of joining the club of developed nations and that the so-called demographic dividend may prove to be a demographic disaster.  Jason Burke in the Observer talks of seeing huge numbers of young men, often drunk, out on the streets of Indian towns at night.  He writes of the worst case scenarios in which “the consequence of a combination of tens of millions of people with unrealistically high aspirations, deteriorating prospects of improvement and a consistently mediocre standard of living will be high levels of social unrest.

Last night I was reading Tim Birkhead’s fascinating book on what it is like to be a bird, Bird Sense.  In it he describes the way guillemots collaborate to bring up chicks.  If a guillemot is away from its nest, leaving its chick unattended, a neighbour guillemot will usually care for it  – keeping it warm and fighting off predatory gulls.  But this civilised society collapses when the food runs out.  When guillemots breeding off the Isle of May, on the east coast of Scotland, in 2007 became short of sand eels, the guillemots turned on unattended chicks.   Chicks were even picked up, swung around in the air, and thrown off the cliffs.

There’s some evidence that food shortage played a part in the Rwanda massacres; the farming plots, divided and then sub-divided for each generation, had become so small they could not support the burgeoning population.

So what, in terms of resilience, is an optimal population?  Effective resilience requires some slack, some give, so that food and support systems are not stretched.

Britain, of course, does not feed itself.  It didn’t when we had 50 million people and now we have 62 million.  It isn’t necessary for every nation to be self-sufficient in food – they can trade other goods for food. But it would seem wise not to load ourselves to the gunnels.  The same must be true for every nation, developed or developing.

One of the merits of the Royal Society report People and the Planet is that it places as much emphasis on lowering the consumption of people who have enough as it does on controlling population growth. In the UK and the West, many of us have more than enough, although the unequal way wealth is divided makes some people very much needing more.

How do we get comfortable Brits and Yanks and Europeans to reduce consumption?  Search me.  How’s this for an election slogan VOTE FOR US: WE WILL GIVE YOU LESS.

Stephen Emmott ended his drama Ten Billion with the cheerful message: “we’re fucked.”  Others demur.   Being a miserable bastard at times, I have to fight a tendency to agree with Emmott. So let me just ask:  is homo sapiens a species that is just unsuited for the future, unable to adapt, senselessly fucking and eating its way out of existence?

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.