Reproductive incontinence

Too many people on a finite planet

Dominic Lawson is making the only case that we really want to hear about human population in his article “A retort to the population freaks” (6 November): that it’s up to us to have as many children as we feel we want. This appeals to our reproductive urges and our innate selfishness, but it’s not compatible with the actual state of the world.

People have human rights, and those rights take fresh water, energy and food to satisfy. These are provided by a finite world, and while it’s true that human ingenuity can increase Earth’s capacity to carry its human cargo for a while, there are limits.

Farming, industry and cities already compete for limited fresh water; food supplies depend on fresh water that’s already scarce in many places, and climate change driven by our energy use is spreading deserts.

Our efforts to meet our own needs and wants are displacing a million species a year from this planet, and the ecosystem damage involved is further savaging water, soils, food and climate.

All of this has sprung upon us within half a century, so there’s been no time to adapt, to compensate, to invent new ways of living or organising ourselves.

It’s irrelevant to have faith that population growth will ebb away as people become richer, since our collective wealth cannot continue to increase without fresh water, good soils and healthy ecosystems. Every new person imposes a lifetime’s burden on the whole Earth, and at the margin of sustainability – where we now are – those burdens are eroding everyone’s rights.

So, yes, people do have human rights, but they don’t include the right to reproductive incontinence.

Julian Caldecott, published in The Independent, 8 November 2007.