No need to fear a crowded world – the more the merrier

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The world’s population will soon hit 7bn, but fears of starvation and Armageddon are nonsense, Dr Alan Marshall tells Sarah Freeman.

At some point in the next few days, most likely Monday, the world’s population will nudge over the 7bn mark.

A little over a decade ago, the figure stood at 6bn and the looming landmark has prompted fears that if something isn’t done and fast, the world will be paralysed by critical food shortages and potential environmental disaster.

In fact there has been no shortage of population experts queuing up to deliver apocalyptic-style prophecies. One of them was Robert Kunzig, who wrote recently in National Geographic magazine: “With the population still growing by 80m a year, it’s hard not to be alarmed. Right now on Earth, water tables are falling, soil is eroding, glaciers are melting and fish stocks are vanishing. Close to a billion people go hungry every day.

“How we’re going to feed 9bn people by 2050 is a daunting question.”

However, it seems not everyone shares the sense of doom and to borrow a phrase from Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information, we should, says Dr Alan Marshall, keep calm and carry on.

The geographer from Leeds University is also a member of the Radical Statistics Population Group which not only says the moral panic over the latest figures lacks foundation, but that conversely the world is doing very nicely thank you.

“Current UN projections indicate that growth is actually slowing,” says Dr Marshall. “Many of the myths have been put about by an organisation called Population Matters. It describes itself as the leading environmental charity and think tank in the UK concerned with the impact of population groups on the environment.

“What they actually do is promote their own apocalyptic view through a well-funded media campaign. They are guilty of frequent overstatement, rhetoric and one-sided assertion. It’s high time their high profile patrons, including the naturalists and broadcaster David Attenborough and Chris Packham, as well as environmental campaigner Jonathan Porritt reconsider their support.”

Harsh words perhaps, but Dr Marshall insists his opposition to the group, which talks of population growth as a global crisis, is based on hard facts.

“One of the biggest myths of all is that population causes resources to run out,” he says. “Resources are not fixed or knowable and in fact they change over time. It also overlooks the potential for human ingenuity to overcome problems, discover and use resources more efficiently.”

However, while we may be able to adapt to a world which is home to an extra billion people, surely Population Matters has a point when it says that the more of us living here, the greater the impact on the environment? Not so, says Dr Marshall.

“The link between population growth and environmental damage is simply not supported by evidence, in fact there is a weak link between a country’s population growth and its carbon emissions.

“Historical evidence clearly shows that current population growth has not been the prime driver of environmental damage and degradation.”

According to Dr Marshall it’s not a lack of resources which might tip the world’s fine balance into chaos, but the unequal distribution of wealth. And that he says has absolutely nothing to do with how large or small the global population is.

“There are those who say that population growth causes poverty by preventing development in poorer countries, but again there is no evidence for this,” he says. “Poverty is a result of inequality stemming from social factors rather than population size. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, farmers produce more than the necessary nutrition to feed the world population.

“Poverty and hunger is because of how those resources are distributed not because there aren’t enough of them in the first place. It was perhaps inevitable that as we approached this 7bn mark groups like Population Matters would use it to regurgitate the familiar scare stories.

“They say that reducing teenage pregnancies in the UK would reduce the country’s population it won’t, many teenagers will simply delay having children to a later date.

“Everyone knows that there are lies, damn lies and statistics and certainly that’s true in this case. So-called facts are bandied around, but it’s a dangerous oversimplification and one that we really need to raise awareness about.”