Friday 27 June 2008

Shrink the population or get out!

I seem to have had a long gap since I last wrote this blog, but I don’t suppose anyone has noticed, as I don’t think anyone reads it. I will continue to write it occasionally, though. It is a useful way of putting my thoughts on paper, which I suppose is the point!

It is a strange quirk of history that people, both individually and corporately or nationally, often focus on one problem and miss another, frequently more serious one. I think this is happening at present over climate change and population growth. We are galloping hotfot after controlling climate change, when it is not at all certain whether human activities are the chief culprits, nor whether we can prevent such change simply by limiting CO2 emissions. But meanwhile we are saying and doing little about population growth, which is still an enormous problem in many African and Asian countries and which seems to me the single most important issue human beings face. This is already at crisis proportions, witness the recent food shortages created so easily and quickly by a dip in the amount of grain under cultivation.

Certainly we can back away from biofuels, though these might, in other circumstances, be a useful alternative to oil; we can introduce GM crops that might give better yields (at least for a time), and take the risk that there may be other unforeseen and unwanted effects; we can try to re-educate the population to eat less meat, or to demand that it is produced on land that is unsuitable for grain. But unless we tackle the problem of population increase, “we’re doomed”, as Private Fraser was wont to say in Dad’s Army.

The Earth is a wonderful self-regulating mechanism. Left to itself it has the systems to sort out climate change, and if this takes a few millennia, as it might do (witness the many millennia of cold during the Ice Ages, and the three millennia of warmth experienced during the European Bronze Age), human beings could adjust to different climates if there were not so many of them. But tackling population increase is much more difficult than following up theories and models on climate change, and attempting to limit CO2 emissions. We know what would have to be done: lower the birth rate. Nothing else will do, because the alternative, to let death rates rise exponentially, would be inhuman and create not only swathes of human misery but vast injustices, some of which are already part way to reality in the limited availability of medical procedures and life-saving drugs to the ordinary folk in poorer countries. In the end, that would benefit no one, not even the rich countries who let it happen. Yet lowering the birth rate would demand not only economic, medical and educational resources but also political will. Interfering in the most intimate area of human life, procreation, is not something that governments are very willing to undertake – nor citizens to accept, as the experience of the Republic of China with its one-child-per-couple policy reveals.

But there is another way. We can reinstate the priority in science and technological development of the Space Race. Not a race between two antithetical cultures, like that between the US and the Soviet Union, which ultimately proved futile and indeed barren, except in its very limited aims. Once the Race to the Moon was won, much less money was found to fund other space programmes. But money needs to be found now to fund a different kind of Space Race: one that discovers, as quickly as possible, how to make viable colonies on other planets and transport people there. We know that it will be difficult, and will stretch our resources and our ingenuity. But the alternatives are bleak. Human beings are not ants. We need space. And the Earth is not an anthill. Already the stresses of environmental damage are clear, and if climate change proceeds as the IGCC predict, they will become even more dangerous. Under too much population pressure Planet Earth will not be able to regenerate and heal herself. And if Earth becomes inhospitable to us, and we have nowhere else to go, what then?

Worse than climate change? Oh, I think so.