I read this piece from the front page of the Guardian newspaper’s website with some trepidation, I must say. “Here we go”, I thought, “another piece about us breeding life on this planet into extinction: another David Attenborough ‘Humanity is a plague’ article”. As it turns out however, my blood didn’t boil quite so much as I thought. It is an extract from the book Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott and it’s a look at what our future holds for us as we move towards a global population of ten billion people by the end of the century. The picture according to Emmott is pretty bleak: lack of water; lack of food; drastic climate change; militarised western societies keeping out hordes of less fortunate ‘climate migrants’ etc etc. The conclusion by Emmott is bleak, resigned defeatism:
“Science is essentially organised scepticism. I spend my life trying to prove my work wrong or look for alternative explanations for my results. It’s called the Popperian condition of falsifiability. I hope I’m wrong. But the science points to my not being wrong. We can rightly call the situation we’re in an unprecedented emergency. We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will…I asked one of the most rational, brightest scientists I know – a scientist working in this area, a young scientist, a scientist in my lab – if there was just one thing he had to do about the situation we face, what would it be? His reply? ‘Teach my son how to use a gun.’”
Now, I don’t agree with a couple of minor details. First, I don’t think that we are all that lost. In fact, I think that it is more likely that we will be witnessing economic collapse as societies around the world age and decline in population by the end of the century. As we’ve mentioned before, some analysts are predicting the global population to stabilise and then decline by 2050. And if we do see countries enter into population decline in peacetime, then who knows what will happen, such a widespread occurrence of population decline has never ever happened before in peacetime. As Emmott states in his book extract:
“Saying ‘Don’t have children’ is utterly ridiculous. It contradicts every genetically coded piece of information we contain, and one of the most important (and fun) impulses we have.”
Now, I think that we are seeing the “utterly ridiculous” in many societies around the globe: Portugal, Italy, Germany and Japan to name a few. Countries where the genetic code isn’t being listened to. Countries where the fun is had without the babies. In short, many countries in the West are slowly dying because they are refusing to procreate. When this becomes more and more widespread, who knows what the world will look like. Economic collapse? Or just gentle and senile decline into a drug-assisted suicide?
I also disagree with Emmott’s call to “do something”. When we get a call that there are too many of us, that we are endangering life on this planet and that some countries (mainly Asian and African) are having too many children, then what could be the response? Drastic action of the Chinese one-child policy kind? After all, ift he threat is that real then anything is justifiable for the good of the planet right?
And this is where the danger lies – if we listen to these prophets of doom too seriously (remember Paul E….I promised I wouldn’t mention his name again, you know who I mean…) then we risk taking some drastic medicine to counteract the supposed disease. And the trouble is that this medicine could consist of forced abortions and sterilisations. Maybe even a bit of population culling (all for the greater good of course). What makes it more appealing for some of the Guardian readers is that the procreating nations are not Western, they are far off with names like Nigeria or Guatemala and therefore we won’t need to see any of this medicine up close and personal.
However, as I said at the start of this post, the article didn’t make me too hot under the collar. There were some parts I basically agreed with. Particularly his call for those of us in the West to consume less, radically less. Emmott tells us:
“We need to consume less. A lot less. Less food, less energy, less stuff. Fewer cars, electric cars, cotton T-shirts, laptops, mobile phone upgrades. Far fewer. And here it is worth pointing out that “we” refers to the people who live in the west and north of the globe.”
I agree with that call – a simpler life focussed not on what useless stuff we have but rather the important things like family is surely something worth striving for. And pointing the finger at those in the west whose lives really leave an ecological footprint (as opposed to someone in the Democratic Republic of Congo) is to be welcomed. We should strenuously resist every call for others to have fewer children so that we can have more stuff. But if Emmott is followed and we all consume radically less stuff, I can imagine our entire economic system crashing to a halt. But hey, maybe that’s not a bad thing? Now, I’ve stirred the pot, what do you think? Is Emmott right? Is he crying wolf? Are we doomed? Doomed?