The euphoria will pass. And then what?

Today, as the Olympic Games draw to a close, David Cameron hosts a two-hour summit meeting on hunger. It’s an excellent opportunity to talk about everything but the real issue. No doubt there’ll be much condemnation of barriers to global free enterprise (like communal land rights), a little token hand-wringing about over-consumption by the rich developed world, and no mention of exploding population. It will end with agreement to give money to the Third World, and with appeals to private corporations’ consciences, all with no clear aim in mind about what good any of it will do.

Desertification in Africa’s Sahel is a disaster for those who live there, but it’s no good blaming man-made climate change and feeling fashionably awful about it. Niger, one of the countries worst affected, has the highest rate of population growth in the world. Already unable to feed half its 16 million folk, it is projected to have 55 million by 2050. Between 2010 and 2110 the Democratic Republic of Congo’s population is set to grow from 68 million to 149 million, Ethiopia from 85 million to 174 million and Nigeria from 158 million to 433 million. Bob Geldof will need rather more than a sticking plaster next time famine takes its toll.

Population experts Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the USA, have written about the problem as being principally one of perception (or wilful lack of it), as the following extracts from their work explain:

“To a large extent, refusal to recognize that continued population growth is a serious threat to the future of civilization can be blamed on the failure of educational systems to bridge key parts of the culture gap, the growing chasm between what we each know as individuals and all of the knowledge society possesses corporately. That gap leaves many well-educated people ignorant of today’s crucial environmental problems.

Misunderstanding of how demographic and environmental connections interact is common even among people who are interested in population problems. For instance, [many are] convinced that over-consumption is a much larger contributor to environmental deterioration than over-population. This is roughly like being convinced that the length of a rectangle is a much larger contributor to its area than its width.

This entire situation is made worse by ‘non-linearities’ in the population-consumption growth picture. Being clever, human beings use the easiest, most accessible resources first. This means that the richest farmland was ploughed first and the richest ores mined first. Now each additional person must be fed from more marginal land and use metals won from poorer ores. Thus, on average, each person added to the population disproportionately increases the destruction of environmental systems. The non-linearities involved in resource extraction were dramatically underlined by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. It started at the ground surface and struck oil at 69.5 feet. The Deepwater Horizon drill rig, 150 years later, started a well in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling began under almost a mile of water and had penetrated almost three miles below the sea floor when the explosion occurred. Such diminishing returns are now evident everywhere, affecting virtually all the resources civilization needs to persist.

In addition, as the population grows, efforts to keep people supplied with consumer goods release more toxic compounds into the global environment. The toxification of Earth may be an even more dangerous trend than climate disruption or the extinction crisis, but it is increasingly clear that the scientific community has not even begun to address it properly.

People also should understand that population size is a major factor in the deterioration of the human epidemiological environment. The larger the human population (and the more hungry and thus immune-compromised people there are), the greater the chance of vast epidemics.

The history of claims that technological innovation will save us is instructive. When The Population Bomb (P.R. Ehrlich 1971) was published, the global population was 3.5 billion people, and we were assured that technological innovation would allow society to give rich, fulfilling lives to 5 billion or more people. They would be fed by algae grown on sewage, whales herded into atolls, leaf protein, or the production from nuclear agro-industrial complexes. That, of course, never happened. The population now exceeds 7 billion, and the number of hungry and malnourished people today is roughly equivalent to Earth’s entire population when we were born in the 1930s. Clueless European politicians, demographers, and pundits fear the ageing of the population that inevitably occurs when population growth ends. But all one really needs to appreciate the silliness of fearing an ageing population is realizing that the only way to avoid it is to keep the population growing forever.”

Africa’s problems may seem remote to us here in Wessex. We should reappraise, and do it fast. We live off food imports from countries that will one day stop sending us their food. Their young and growing populations will demand it and the political clout those growing populations will provide will ensure that there will be no negotiation over this. We have nothing vital to offer in return that they cannot get for themselves. Yet we gladly suffer fools like Jon Snow who would build four million new homes in England, as if farmland does nothing else besides look pretty. Joined-up thinking? We wish!