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10 Billion

Gerry Taylor-Aiken

Stephen Emmott


What is an expectant parent, a position I find myself in, to make of the increase in the world's population? Two recent books make much of the current projections of 10 billion by 2050. Danny Dorling, a geographer with impeccable credentials, says perhaps too simply that everything will be fine if we live in well-designed cities. 'Stop worrying and enjoy your life' as an atheist on the side of a bus might put it. Emmott takes the opposite view. 'We're fucked' is his pithy, profane proclivity.

Worries about rising population have a long history. Assuming more people means an inevitable crisis starts with the ideas of Thomas Malthus, what Engels called 'the crudest most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair.' The assumption being that the planet cannot support levels of population above a certain level (usually a round number, handily abstract). Thus, 10 billion is especially scary. Who knows what would happen if we (like the Mayans) used a counting system on base 20. Would the planet's carrying capacity be even higher if we counted with toes?

The best known 'cure' for a population explosion is feminism, women having later births, greater life expectancy, and education (particularly in the developing world). Here, as in so many instances, what is just socially is also environmentally. Answers to environmental issues can often be found in social injustices (feminism for population growth, or taxing the high consuming rich) and vice versa (forest schools addressing nature deficit disorder in young deviants). Yet, the point is still to be made that rising numbers of people is in itself a bad thing. Often this relies on a silent original sin. Are people good or bad? Or rather, what is leading the sixth great age of mass extinction: People? Or what people do?

That great phrase evangelism bequeathed to the world seems apt: 'love the sinner, hate the sin'. I think Engels was right here, people are not the problem. But that is far from saying there is nothing we can do to stop the world going to hell in a handcart, as Emmott believes. Emmott's book combines reams of statistics, hockey- stick graphs and short sentences. Like this one. Sort of makes you. Stop. And. Think. Or at least that's probably the intended effect. It just annoyed me. The stop-start narrative I imagine was intended to overwhelm the reader with the ever-accumulating evidence. However there are little to no references. When so much of the argument is built on these statistics, building persuasion requires their acceptance. But stopping to think about each of them provokes more questions. The result is a collection of unreferenced platitudes, for instance 'Arctic coastlines are retreating by 14m a year'. In height or inshore? On average, universally or in one instance? The whole Arctic, really? Does he mean the coastline where land and sea meet, or - as I suspect - only where calving glaciers and ice streams reach the ocean? These platitudes are combined with what appear as banal truisms: 'The loss of ecosystems services poses a real threat to survival'. You. Don't. Say. Such cavalier use of statistics and language undermines the cause of environmentalism rather than winning new converts. Would you trust a man who, alongside his diagnosis above, concludes with a sentence: 'Teach my son how to use a gun'?

I think Emmott is wrong. The planet will not become a 'hell hole', to quote another of his short sentences, simply because human population reaches an arbitrary round number like 10 billion. But this book is a lie wrapped in uncomfortable truths; our current way of living is unsustainable. It is not the number of mouths we have to feed, but what we put in them that counts. 10 billion consuming the UK average is a luxury the planet cannot afford. 10 billion vegetarians who don't fly or own a car, consuming the Malawian average? That's more manageable.

With the belief in 10 billion being inherently scary, Emmott assumes that people are simply not capable of selfless acts. As a species we are incapable of setting aside selfish desires to eat what we like, or travel as fast as we want. The human condition he assumes, is to does not care about with far away others or future generations.

Some humans seem like that. Especially on my morning commute. But are we as a species fundamentally incapable of selflessness? That would be a pretty good definition of original sin. I do believe my faith in humankind will be tested, but it is ultimately down to us what we do with the knowledge of the effects of our actions on the world. We have a choice.

So what are we to do with this knowledge? Well, if we are eating meat daily, or flying more than once every two years, the planet probably cannot afford more of us. But people are not the problem. No matter what big scary round number we can count to. But, if we care about the world around us, if stewardship is even slightly more than a 5,000-year-old nicety dreamt up by someone somewhere in the middle east, then we have to acknowledge that our lifestyle - what we do, eat, consume - is having catastrophic consequences for the world around us. Maybe in 2050 we will have 10 billion of us happy living a lifestyle denied to others (far away, or in the future). If you're ok with that, stop worrying and enjoy your life.