Perspectives on Global Population


Taboo subject finally being broached

Your coverage of the Royal Society’s investigation into global population (12 July) is welcome, not least because it shows that a global taboo on this subject may be breaking down.  There has long been a reluctance, for example, to question the UN’s view that humanity will number only around nine billion people in 2050.  This is based on the assumption that average material wealth will increase in the poorer countries, where most people live and where an indirect effect of development will be to reduce fertility.

But how can this actually be achieved?  Countervailing factors include the widespread lack of reproductive education and empowerment for women, intransigent poverty, development goals that cannot be met, the failure of water supplies and ecosystems on a continental scale, and climate change that undermines and degrades everything.  Thus there are many who silently worry that our numbers are much more likely to overshoot and crash, than to gently stabilise in mid-century amidst universal prosperity.

To head off such doubts a confusing story is told, based on assertions and calculations that are designed to reassure everyone while offending no one. By not challenging this optimistic story, we have ceded the intellectual and policy territory on population issues to bureaucrats, politicians, opportunists and obscurantists. This is much too serious a matter to accept such barriers to our thought.  For our erupting population and exploding demand for every kind of resource truly has the capacity to destroy all our futures.  If that doesn’t need to be discussed seriously and fiercely, nothing does.

Julian Caldecott, published in The Independent 15 July 2010.