The modern human is a significantly different social creature to his primordial ancestors. A study published in the journal of Behavioural Ecology claims that, on many levels, we no longer resemble our closest genetic sibling, the chimp, but rather insect super-societies such as ants or termites. Having abandoned living in small units, albeit more consciously than the insects, we have entered structurally superior societies, which have developed over millennia into the current state of the human community. This, along with the ingenuity provided by our expanded brains and physical composition, has given us the potential to break the shackles of nature and become masters of our surroundings in nearly every part of the globe. Now, just like our formicidae partners-in-crime, the only real danger to our survival, apart from natural disasters and unavoidable tragedies, is ourselves. Whilst economic or political turmoil, nuclear proliferation and clashes of cultures are destructive to segments of our population, it could be that the real danger to the prolongation of humanity lies in our biological drive to see it continue; human reproduction.
The twentieth century saw improvements in human rights, medicine, and general quality of life for hundreds of millions individuals around the Earth. This has allowed us to at last fully realise our reproductive potential, with an increase in population from two to seven billion in the space of just a century. Every new individual lives on average 67.2 years, during which time they must satisfy their needs through consumption of a wide-range of resources. Recent decades saw a rise in a new type of charity in western civil society, one that deals with spreading awareness of the risks such an accelerated growth of human population can bring. Earlier on this year I chatted to Simon Ross, a CEO of the British non-governmental organisation, Population Matters, which stands at the forefront of this movement.
‘Population Matters is concerned about long-term sustainability. We’re looking for a world where people can live within the renewable resources, which means that we have to think about population growth and how we consume finite resources’ explains Simon. As expected, the very idea of stabilising population growth runs the risk, if mishandled, of clashing with other movements. ‘There was a period in the nineties, where population concerns were seen as potentially leading to repressive measures, like the Chinese one-child policy and some practices in India, so the emphasis was switched much more onto women’s rights and onto human rights, making sure that they are protected.’ Of course, now we know that hard-social engineering isn’t an option, as shown by China’s growing dilemma of what to do with a surplus of two hundred million permanent bachelors, although Simon is right in stating that ‘people are realising the problem isn’t going away, population is continuing to grow.’
‘People are more aware than they were ten or fifteen years ago, looking at climate change, biodiversity loss and resources insecurity, [and] the fact that commodity prices have increased so much over the last decade.’ In 2009, Population Matters published research which stated that the easiest way to tackle climate change is through contraception, with every £4 spent on family planning over the next four decades reducing global CO2 emissions by more than a ton, compared to each £19 spent on low-carbon technologies. ‘There’s people living longer than predicted, so how do we live with an increasingly older generation? There’s also a youth problem, there’s a lot of young people in places like Africa because of past high-birth rates.’ This rings true if we consider that, by 2040, the average population of Africa is set to double.
People are more positive about addressing this issue than they were even ten years ago and are realising that over-crowding must be managed regardless of the complexity that surrounds it. But just as with the general subject of climate change, knowing is not enough anymore. The dire situation requires action, but what action I wonder. ‘We think there’s absolutely no need for fines which is what the Chinese government is doing, people will do it on their own’ Simon starts to explain; ‘I think what we can do is get governments to say, smaller families are better for a nation, promote the idea of a smaller society. But that’s as far as it should go. In European countries there are no fines, but most people choose to have smaller families.’ However first world countries, bar the United States, or Ireland, Cyprus and Turkey in Europe, are not a significant problem within the population growth dilemma with most of their populations decreasing. There are also ‘still poor countries with low birth rates, for examples Bangladesh, Brazil or Iran.’
Population management ‘requires change in government approach, health services, and education systems, actually changing those cultures. From being enormously poor to actually ones where people prosper with opportunities and women have some say in their own lives.’ It seems, therefore, that the crucial key to stabilising this variable lies with a positive change at the very foundations of human society; elevating women to positions of full equality in their respective communities; ‘if women have family planning or smaller families, then they have more time to have jobs,’ which could have a positive impact on the issue. ‘I think that’s changing the culture and not in a negative way; not by saying ‘you have to be like Western Europe.’ You have to give people opportunities and what I also don’t agree with is people that say ‘well, you have to make them rich before you introduce family planning’ or ‘you got to concentrate on education.’ I think that family planning and promoting smaller families should go alongside that.’
Pursuing change in this dimension may seem tricky however, given that governments of developing countries may not be keen to abide to Population Matters’ vision. This may be due to cultural and historical issues, but also, in part, because of prudential ones. The backbone of every growing country is a well-functioning economy and each economy depends on a large work force as its primary fuel. Prime evidence for this is China, which over decades has elevated itself to the forefront of world affairs through a bulletproof export-economy based on cheap, gargantuan manufacturing drive. Simon seems to be optimistic on this point however; ‘I think governments are becoming more concerned about it [overpopulation] in developing countries because they do realise the impact of a very fast-growing population without proper education, in areas where there’s limited land and limited water supply’, a problem demonstrated by the already historically fraught India and Pakistan, both countries with nuclear capabilities. Of course, developing countries aren’t the only ones to blame; ‘Western countries haven’t helped either, by not putting much emphasis on family planning programs, or by coming up with negatives instead of positives.’
So where does Population Matters, and this issue generally, stand right now in the field of non-governmental movements? ‘Certainly we’re growing in the UK for sure. We lobby governments and international organisations like the United Nations, where we stress the importance of family planning and population concerns’ clarifies Simon. ‘The UN is currently considering our replacement to the Millennium Development Goals and they’re looking at our project called the Sustainable Development Goals, which deals, amongst other things, with how our world addresses poverty in the next fifteen years or so.‘ However, one NGO is not enough and this cause depends on individual participation to be recognised and approached. ‘People should ask their governments to encourage smaller families in the UK and worldwide, to encourage their populations to stagnate and then start declining to a level in which we can live with renewable resources when oil, gas and so on have run out.’
Comparing the human experience to that of an ant or a termite may seem reductionist by nature, but perhaps it allows us to understand the phenomenon of developing to a point where a species poses a threat to itself. Human problems obviously stretch beyond over-reproducing, but given that in 2011, the birth of a baby girl in the Philippines marked the seven billionth living human being, relentlessly existing and consuming just like you and I do, maybe its an angle worth considering. After all, aside from what scientific speculation and sci-fi books may say, this earth is all we have for now, and an anthill out-of-balance with itself will not survive a storm, no matter how many ants stand together within it.
Words by Michael Borowiec