Can this planet sustain the number of people our population is heading for? Almost certainly not, but rarely do we hear calls to reduce our numbers. 2011 Edinburgh Medal recipient Carl Djerassi, co-inventor of the contraceptive pill, Sara Parkin, founding director of Forum for the Future and Aubrey Manning, zoologist and broadcaster, discuss the thorny issues of religion, contraception, economics and women’s right to choose, as they take on the population taboo. Chaired by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is chock-a-block full of all sorts of events and one of them was the above described event. I am glad we went.

No answers were forthcoming – as usual. The topic itself has been of interest to thinking people since at least Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population that was published in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed ‘misery and vice’.

This is Darfur repeated throughout the world

I first started reading about the impact of global population growth in 1970 in a book called The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler. I have watched this exponential population growth with increasing horror ever since. It is virtually impossible to discuss or otherwise politicise such debate as is necessary if we are not to become the shortest lived species on this planet.

I think all of us would agree that as a species we are disunited individually and nationally, politically and economically. The only thing we do as a species imperative and with gay abandon is reproduce like rabbits.

Yep. Thats us.

Aubrey Manning mentioned that death control has worked extremely well over the past 50 or so years but birth control still has to come to the party. He is absolutely correct. The tracking of global population figures since I have been alive attests this. As David Attenborough said within his address to the Royal Society in March this year:

 Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion. Over twice as many – and every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools and roads and airfields. A little of that space might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had to themselves.

 The impact of these extra millions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically occupy. Their industries have changed the chemical constituency of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all – the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.

Logic alone should tell us that the resources and habitable land available to us and all other species (people in their arrogance seem to forget that we only share this sphere not own it outright and to the detriment of everything else) is limited on a finite planet. But developing countries have every right to tell us post industrial nations to pull out heads in if we try to curtail their development by preaching to them whilst we enjoy the over-ripe fruits of our own development.

There is no more water now than there ever was but it gets used with such profligacy that anyone looking at us from afar could be forgiven for thinking that water was being manufactured at an ever faster rate of knots.

Desertification is rampant and rising sea levels encroach more and more on (at this stage) small Pacific islands. The Boxing Day tsunami showed us what would happen to The Maldives and other low lying atolls and shores that Kubla Khan wouldn’t even have dreamt of building on.

Carteret Islands abandoned to rising seas in 2009

Carl Djerassi  peppered his address with figures for abortions both legal and illegal at about 1 million per 24 hour period worldwide. Of course Djerassi was a co-founder of the oral contraceptive pill for women in the 1950s. He hasn’t got an answer either, but he was combative about what he sees as wishy washy talk fests that don’t address the large and looming problem that is likely to have devastating effect around 2050.

Sara Parkin is the founder of Forum for the Future. Her concern is with women’s reproductive health and education. She talked about sustainable population growth. I actually do not think there is any such concept in reality. It sounds good but doesn’t take into account the nature of our species.

We all want more. Maybe not children if you live in poverty and watch at least half of your live births die within a few years. But we always seem to want more for ourselves – more food, clothing, space to live, accoutrements for pleasure and lifestyle. That just isn’t sustainable at the levels we desire. We can’t (or won’t) afford to feed our current refugees let alone try to feed a growing population.

Most of these kids wont make it - 2011

So what to do? Question time after the talk included one from a woman who postulated punitive measures like increased taxation and decreased support availability for families birthing more than two children. It is one of my ideas as well. Djerassi pooh poohed it as virtually useless in a global sense since only developed post-industrial countries could implement such measures. Of course, he is right.

I have mentioned before that Australia’s worst Treasurer (in recent times), Peter Costello, implemented a scheme whereby he gave Australian women a one-off payment of $A5,000 to have a third child ‘for the country’; talk about wilful irresponsibility! He later resigned though not because of that!

Djerassi pointed out that, although Italy has a below replacement population growth, the contraceptive measure in that supposedly most Roman Catholic of countries is by far condom use. The contraceptive pill accounts for only 5% of Italian contraceptive measures. Until recently the most common contraceptive measure in Soviet Russia was multiple abortions!

The problem is still an unmentionable – the elephant in the room. It seems to me we are unlikely to see the end of this century in any sort of good evolutionary shape. We shall be sliding off this rather nice planet that will keep whizzing around in this rather nice galaxy without us.

These are some essentials in this race against time and space:

Contraception of all sorts, including free, safe abortion is essential.

Education of women everywhere in family planning and taking control of their reproductive functions is essential.

The removal of religious and political interference in human reproduction is essential.

Are we up for it? Somehow I don’t think so. Only in our increasingly nightmarish dreams.



  1. Dod says:

    Nobody has the “right” answer to this problem, even if such were found implementation would require the co-operation of nations on a planetary scale. Given that humanity is beset with cultural, religious and numerous other superstitions the chances of achieving the required support of all nations seems slim.

    Unity is the key, without it we are doomed; we have perhaps another century at best.

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