Monday, September 26, 2016

Too many people? (2014)

Book Review from the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Danny Dorling: 'Population 10 Billion'. Constable £8.99.
Yet another book by the prolific Danny Dorling: this one is not about the current state of Britain but the developments in world population, past, present and future.
For tens of thousands of years, the human population grew very slowly, and only in 1820 did it reach one billion. But after that it grew very rapidly, and the rate of increase itself advanced: two billion by 1926 (perhaps slightly delayed by the Great War influenza epidemic), three billion by 1960, four billion by 1975, five billion by 1988, six billion by 2000 and seven billion by the end of 2011. The population ‘explosion’ began in 1851, and Dorling claims that, despite appearances, a slowdown started in 1971.
As for the future, eight billion is likely by 2025, and maybe nine billion by 2045. The ten billion of the title might be reached by 2100, but may well not be, owing to countervailing factors that lie behind the slowdown mentioned earlier. These factors include the widespread availability of contraception; improvements in education (for instance, university-educated women tend to have their first child later and to have fewer children); reductions in absolute poverty (destitution leads to more births, perhaps as a kind of insurance policy). In many developed countries, fertility is below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman and the population is only maintained by immigration. Migrants tend to adopt the fertility patterns of the society they have moved to, so the result is not massive numbers of births to migrant women.
Overall, then, there is little need to worry that the human population will increase at ever-expanding rates, leading to a hundred billion of us in a few centuries. One forecast is fewer than nine billion by 2300. And even if there are ten billion of us, will we be able to feed ourselves, and what is the likely impact on the environment? Dorling makes it clear that producing enough food is not a problem: plenty is currently wasted, growing crops for biofuel is a misplacing of priorities, and lots of land is left idle because that profits the owners. Water scarcity is more of a threat, though even here there is much that can be done to promote conservation. And ‘it is . . .  not true that the human environmental impact on the planet is a product of the number of humans’: it is more a matter of how we produce and consume. Car sales have already peaked, and maybe we have to consume less by way of new clothes and so on.
There is much other interesting material here, such as on the various strata within the ultra-rich. Moreover, ‘Our current demographic transition to a steady-state population is almost certainly not possible without a transformation of capitalism’, though unfortunately this does not seem to mean replacing capitalism with a classless society.
Dorling sees himself as a ‘practical possibilist’, someone who neither exudes a bland optimism nor sees the future as inevitably doom-laden. Socialists were once dismissed as ‘impossibilists’ on account of our opposition to reformism, but perhaps Dorling’s label is one we can claim for ourselves. Socialism is a practical and feasible solution to humanity’s current problems and is entirely possible once enough people want it.
Paul Bennett