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The elephant in the room: overpopulation in the environment debate

Since I was a kid I've been a bit of an environmentalist. I remember asking the headteacher at my primary school if we could have an environmental officer who, like the road safety officer, would be a child at the school who would stand up in assembly every now and then and tell everyone something important or useful. It turned out that the road safety officer was a Council funded initiative, so a few of us started our own environment club instead - the Environmentally Green Group (EGG). We had regular meetings, a small garden, even membership cards. It's something that's stayed with me as I've grown up.

Last week, John Feeney wrote a piece for the BBC's Green Room about a topic that I first encountered at the start of my GCSE history course: population statistics and the problem of overpopulation. It's a topic that is often totally avoided in debates about the environment, and it does have something of an uncomfortable history. Malthus wrote a famous piece on population, first published in 1798 which influenced British politics and the poor reforms, and Darwin's ideas on evolution and survival of the fittest. (Incidentally, I'm reading On the Origin of Species at the moment, I'd highly recommend it.)

In any environmental system, the available resources can only support a certain size of population. The problem the human race has is the same: our planet (which is a closed system) can only support a finite number of people, Thanks to the agricultural revolution and the continued development of techniques, chemicals and technology ever since, a given patch of ground has become capable of supporting more and more people, which is good since the population has been increasing at quite a rate thanks to the industrial revolution, developments in medicine and general healthcare, and so on. But, at some point, the population will pass the point at which there isn't enough available land to support it. Has this already happened? According to Feeney, there is a growing number of experts who say that yes, we have.

So what can we do about it? Let's get this clear: this does not have to mean population control. We can learn a lot from the negative historical examples. Education can go a long way. As Feeney points out in his article, which is the greater threat? That humane ways to attempt to slow population growth might be abused, or that we carry on as we are and end up with an ecological catastrophe which causes devastation and results in the deaths of millions? We are heading for a crash, and it will be devastrating. We need to do something about it, and simply reducing our current overconsumption in the West just won't avert a disaster. If we don't do it ourselves, nature will do it for us.

There's an ongoing effort to get the problem into the media spotlight during February via the Global Population Speak Out. The idea is to get as many people as possible to talk publicly about the issue. Many of those involved are experts in environmental issues or social policy, politicians or other public figures, activists and science writers. It's not much, but this is my effort. Think about it.

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 10th Feb 2009 (13:45 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


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