Monday, 10 June 2013

Shared Planet - Programme 1, Population

A male fur seal taking advantage of a patch of warm, hard concrete on S Georgia.

Shared Planet starts tomorrow - the first in a 30 part series for Radio 4 - and I am one of the producers.  It is being presented by Monty Don who is thoughtful and passionate about conservation. It is an ambitious and huge ranging series that examines the relationship between the growing human population and wildlife.

Monty Don - presenter of Shared Planet

Mention population growth and people feel uncomfortable, especially if it is couched in terms of how to slow the seemingly inexorable rise.

As most growth is expected in the developing world - Africa in particular -  racist, eugenic notions, as well as population control in China with their one child policy, are quickly brought to the fore as reasons not to discuss this issue and to concentrate on dealing with the consequences.  Population has become the proverbial elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge and I can understand the sensitivities.  We must not however let fear of extreme views dominate sensible discussion, and that is what I hope Shared Planet will do.

Professor Lord Robert May is the studio guest in programme 1, arguably the most decorated and distinguished scientist alive.  He spells out the rise on human population, which is startling over the last 50 years.  If you are a baby boomer, born in the 1950s or 60s you have seen population nearly triple in your lifetime

YearTotal world population
(mid-year figures)
Ten-year growth
rate (%)

This has multiple impacts in terms of pressure on resources, distribution of food and water, living space, demand for energy and competition with animals and plants.  Some of nature is used directly as food or useful materials such as fish and wood, other parts of the natural world are collateral damage in our search for what we need.   Wetlands turned into ports, forests into pastureland, upland bogs into commercial forestry etc.  There is no doubt humanity is putting huge pressure on the natural world and we are beginning to see what that means as species after species disappears from the earth.

Lets make a leap of imagination - think of a gorgeous flying carpet hurtling through space carrying all of us humans on it.  It is stunning,  made of many different coloured threads woven into an intricate pattern and we humans are riding on it.  Most of us in the developed world are well fed and comfortable, many in other places that are still developing are not. But rich or poor we are all on the same carpet.  Now imagine if we take out threads as we ride along - some take out more than others but we are all involved.  At first it may not make much difference to the carpet's ability to carry us, but if we keep on pulling out more and more threads then eventually the pattern looks less beautiful for sure, but the structure of the carpet gets weaker, unable to withstand the pressure all of us are putting on it.  Guess what happens when a carpet gets too threadbare?  

Thanks to Atomic Think Tank for image

Another way to look at this is illustrated in the field report in the programme which comes from Connecticut in N America.  The Audubon Society recently produced a report documenting the rapid decline in aerial insectivores (birds that eat insects in the air rather than on the ground).  Chimney swifts were once a very common summer migrant, coming to N America for the summer months from S America.  Numbers are down by 40%, and not just chimney swifts but other aerial insectivores too like purple martens and night hawks.  In fact a whole range of these insect eating migrant birds are rapidly declining.  Why?  No one knows for sure but our use of pesticides is a strong contender which are used in large amounts in our intensive food production.  The continued use of DDT in S America, where the birds spend the winter, is also on the list of culprits.  There are other theories (you can read the report here) - and they all have to do with us.  Our industrial, resource heavy lifestyle is stripping away whatever it is these birds need and they are disappearing.  Margaret Rubega, the scientist in the interview,  likens what we are doing to us playing a game of Jenga with nature.  Jenga is the children's game where you pull out wooden blocks that are piled one upon the other until the tower falls down.  You can hear a clip of Margaret describing this beautifully here.

So what do we do about it?  Population is rising, that is a fact, and we need more resources to develop those on earth now and those to come in the future.  We are already stressing the earth so how will it cope?  Seems a difficult puzzle to solve.  

Some think this is too gloomy a picture?  Professor Wolfgang Lutz is interviewed in the programme and he is Mr World Population Expert.  Director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Human Global Capital, Leader of the World Population Programme and many other titles.  His assessment from all the stats he has looked at thinks there is an 80% chance of population levelling off and may even start declining by 2060 or so as the countries with high birth rates, mainly in Africa, see those rates fall as their societies develop and education of women becomes more available.  He couldn't stress more clearly the direct relationship between education of women and a fall in birth rate - across the board.  Do listen to the interview, it is fascinating.  In countries where this has been studied in detail it is found that even primary level education is effective and that effectiveness dramatically increases as girls gain more general knowledge.

We also discuss whether the religion of a country has an effect on birth rate - surprisingly not really. Even in Catholic countries when women feel empowered enough to make their own choices they chose to have fewer children - despite doctrine.

One interesting thing Professor Lutz did say (but didn't make it into the programme) was that according to his, and others' calculations the earth could support up to 20 billion people if we get transport of supplies organised.  It is not so much there isn't enough to go around, it is a matter of getting resources spread fairly between us all.  I'm not sure about that - the thought of a more crowded world leaves me fearful for quality of life.  Will there really be enough space for people to people to do what John Muir thought was essential - "Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and to pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike."

We will continue to struggle with the balance between the needs of a growing population and the needs of other life on earth, that struggle will be longer and more bitter if we fail to look the issues straight on and talk about them.  It is the only way to develop solutions. This is what Shared Planet wants to do, to invite everyone to be part of the conversation.

1 comment:

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