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Wednesday 3 July 2013 07.40 EDT  

Sharing planet Earth’s finite resources in a better way is a more practical way of managing the needs of a rising population

 

Earth population reaching seven billion

Juhu beach in Mumbai, India, is crowded out with people. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

 

At any public meeting on the environment over the past decade , there’s one question that almost always came up. It is a variation of ‘Why will no one talk about population?’ As a result, population is discussed endlessly while people grumble that no one ever talks about it.

The same oddly circular conversation happened in the Observer Review section in an article relating to the new book, 10 Billion, by Stephen Emmott, head of Microsoft’s Research Lab. Five full pages of extract and interview warned, ‘we’re ignoring … the biggest crisis in human history.’

Yet it’s hard to ignore, in the circumstances.

We have World Population Day, the UN Population Awards, numerous organisations dedicated specifically to the issue, and just two weeks ago the UN published its latest, and widely reported, update on global population figures.

Government policies around the world on population are untiringly controversial and debated, from countries in Europe (like Germany) worried about declining populations, to those in Asia (like China) worried about the opposite.

Emmott, of course, does not appear to be anti-people, just concerned about the impact we’re having on the planet, with climate change being key. He covers what is now very familiar ground describing human pressure on resources, talks generally about the need to reduce consumption, identifies rising population more specifically within poorer countries and suggests that we could be facing a world of 28 billion people by the end of the century (a dangerously loose and wildly unlikely figure to use for someone with a scientific reputation).

It’s welcome to have such a senior, corporate figure concerned about the prospects for life on earth. The tone and alarmism echo Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 classic, The Population Bomb.

You might expect from someone associated with a dominant, hard-nosed global corporation like Microsoft, a hard-nosed strategy and business plan to sort the problem out. But, having lamented ‘the debate we urgently need,’ on ‘how billions more want to live, behave and consume,’ it was frustratingly difficult across five pages to find a single, specific, constructive proposal about what we might do differently.

New energy from ‘artificial photosynthesis’, which Emmott mentions as one possible solution, might have novelty appeal but, you suspect, might be some way off from solving immediate problems. It was disappointing too because less novel but far more proven approaches are common knowledge. We’ve known for decades that universal primary education for women and good health services will do more to relieve the pressure for large families than any fiddling in the ‘magic bullet’ food lab.

 

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