Of course, the data is not nearly accurate enough to pinpoint the seven billionth human being. On the contrary, the UN concedes it could be a year or two out in its prediction. But the symbolic date is important and bound to stir up a heated debate.
Are there simply too many of us? Or — and this is the unspoken subtext all too often — are there too many of “them”? Because beneath the raw figures lie huge variations. Over the next 40 years, Africa’s population is projected to double while in parts of Europe, notably in the east, populations will actually shrink.
Here in Ireland, of course, the population is growing fast although the highest birth rate and lowest death rate in the EU are also coupled by the highest rate of migration. The Republic’s population today is roughly what it was in the 1870s before it fell to its lowest point in the late 1960s, four decades after independence.
All of this matters for very good non-historical reasons. If there are going to be lots more of us, we need to prepare for it. All those half-finished apartment blocks will be needed one day — if just not this year or next. Equally, countries like Russia and Ukraine are going to feel increasingly less crowded in decades to come, if crowded is the right word for a country like Russia with its vast Siberian wilderness.
And without getting too deeply into an argument about the Famine, do these trends mean we can manage because the Irish population historically was even larger? Or was the Famine, in some part at least, a warning that a population of over 6 million in what is now the Republic is unsustainable? Do we really want more of us and, since the global region with the highest birth rate — sub-Saharan Africa — is also the world’s poorest, do we want more of “them”?
Actually, I would argue, yes we do. Still, I accept, the Malthusians with their craving for population control are bound to get another shot in the arm towards the end of next month. Revered Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798) is the seed from which so much of today’s concern about global overpopulation stems.
Why he is still in vogue is anyone’s guess because Malthus himself had nothing but disdain for the burgeoning (and increasingly radicalised) lower classes. Malthus thought penury and hunger were happy correctives to there just being too damn many of us – or them.
But the moral is that population-fiddling ideas — whether in Germany in the 1930s, or India in the 1970s, or China in the 1980s — have only illustrated man’s inhumanity to man. Yet there are many so-called progressives of an apparently caring disposition who still claim that humanity’s consumption habits threaten to bring about eco-disaster. In Ireland, they loiter in what remains of the Green Party but their influence crosses party lines.
They dress up Malthusianism in PC jargon, arguing that it’s not little black babies but big fat Western whites who need to be curbed, using terms such as “fragile biodiversity” and claiming that humanity’s overconsumption of stuff will lead to the wrecking of Earth’s life-support systems. They worry endlessly about limited resources, so-called “peak oil”, running out of dumps to put our waste in, or simply running out of room as the planet becomes ever more overcrowded.
But the notion that we inhabit a finite planet and, therefore, we can only have a certain maximum number of people, living in a certain number of homes, eating a certain amount of food, must be challenged.
It might appear commonsensical to say that the Earth is finite, and slightly perverse to say that it isn’t, but it’s imperative to understand how fluid and changeable resources apparently limited are. It’s important to recognise that the utility and longevity of a resource is determined as much by humankind — by the level of social development we have reached – as it is by the amount and availability of that resource in the first place.
It’s all very well if there is oil beneath Paris but can we access it? Conversely, new ways of maximising the efficiency of car engines and other motors are being developed every year. So, resources are not static in any meaningful sense. Resources have a past and a future, just as human beings do. The issue of what we consider to be a resource changes as society changes.
It doesn’t seem to matter to the eco-warriors, though, that the supposed limits to resource-use have been transgressed time and time again by advances in human productivity — whether that is in terms of discovering that coal could be used not just for jewellery, as it was in Roman times, but to power an entire Industrial Revolution, or the use of uranium to heat and light (or destroy) entire cities, or the so-called “green revolution” in agriculture.
Malthus argued that food production wouldn’t be able to maintain pace with human fertility. Yet in his time, there were only one million people on Earth; today, there are more than that in China alone and they all have food to eat. In 1949, life expectancy in China was under 40; today it is over 70. A similar story can be observed in India. Its population has almost doubled in my lifetime. Yes, there is grinding poverty, but living standards have improved immensely in the last two decades.
Malthus’s problem — shared by much of the environmental lobby today — was that he saw natural limits where in fact there were social limits. His essential pessimism meant he thought it impossible for mankind to advance beyond a certain, nature-enforced level.
And yet, shortly after he made his population pronouncements, through the Industrial Revolution, mankind did overcome many social limitations and discovered new ways to make food and transport it to people around the globe.
The difficulties we have today in feeding Africa, for example, are principallymanmade, and they can be solved by people, too. Moreover, the pessimistic view that the human “footprint” is too big is itself an obstacle to the economic growth that is required to meet humanity’s needs now and in the future.
Indeed, the whole idea of sustainability is, at core, anti-exploration and anti-experimentation — the qualities we need if we are going to replicate earlier generations’ innovation breakthroughs.
We can sustain a few more million in Ireland — and a few more billion globally — if we change our outlook. We need to think about people as positive agents of change not mere users of resources, destroyers of things.
Look at our track record. We created the means for extracting and transforming mineral resources. We created cities, workplaces and homes on the back of those resources. Every decade that passes, as a species, we have managed to get more and more stuff from fewer resources and create new resources along the way.
The fact that more and more of us can live on Earth — while living conditions continue, in the main, to improve — suggests that people are the solution, not the problem. So we should welcome the seven billionth arrival, not fear her.