ESRC Festival of Social Sciences: ‘The World at 7 Billion’

by Louise McCudden

What does it mean for us that the world’s population has reached 7 billion? Is it sustainable? Will there be enough food, energy, land space, or even enough oxygen, for not just the 7 billion we have now, but the 9 billion we are estimated to have by 2015? What can we do about it? The Festival of Social Sciences event ‘The World at 7 Billion’ is certainly not shying away from brave questions.

Population change is an issue of immediate critical magnitude. Natural historian David Attenborough has already called for population management to be made a centrepiece of policy-making, not because overpopulation is in itself the biggest problem, but because every other serious problem, from crime to climate change; disease to international development, are all made so much worse by overpopulation that if don’t fix that, there’s little point in even beginning to worry about anything else.

To take just one life-or-death example, we are told at ‘The World at 7 Billion’ that water is being drained at 2 ½ times its natural replacement rate. Water is not some superfluous luxury. It’s the thing that differentiates our planet from all the other similar but lifeless rocks pulled around the sun. We cannot sit on our hands about this; diminishing water supply alone means the galloping gap in the ratio of resource to population needs fixing yesterday.

The hall, almost as if to demonstrate the event’s subject matter, is full to bursting. As everybody settles into their seats, leafs through colourful ESRC literature, or tries to avoid/get caught in the cameras, you can feel the excitement bustle from all sides. 

The popularity of this event may be explained in part by public, not to mention media, attraction to anything with even the faintest intimation of potential controversy. Thanks to the cross-purpose lobbying of Catholics and feminists, racial purists and civil libertarians, population control has been pushed out of polite political conversation and made into a “taboo” topic. Or so says Professor Ian Diamond (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and Professor of Statistics). Scared of cries about curbing hard-won sexual civil liberties, the promotion of immoral lifestyle choices, or even racism, possibly all at once, politicians have largely held their breath and prayed for rain (not literally, although it's not like it wouldn't help on the water thing) on population change.

But the Abbey Centre was packed with not just crowds squinting for a vivacious argument or quotable offensive comment, but also with people filled with hope. Hope that the expert evidential findings of social scientists could answer questions that churches, politicians, physical scientists, doctors, engineers, and philosophers could not.

The controversy-hunters will have got their juice though. Notable discomfort teased the room when the discussion turned (fairly quickly) to condoms, AIDs, and sex education. One Catholic member of the audience even took offense at the extent to which blame for unsustainably large families in the third world was being laid at the doorstep of Rome, and put up his hand to say so – politely, but also sounding genuinely rather hurt at the assertion that Catholic teachings are directly responsible for overpopulation, and extraordinarily unpleasant deaths.

But social scientists deal only in facts and evidence, not emotional currency. And the impartial, in-depth research into the population problems by Professor Jane Falkingham (Director of the ESRC’s Centre for Population Change), Ian Diamond (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and Professor of Statistics), and Roger Martin (Chair of Population Matters), along with the voices of two impressively bright young sixth formers, shows quite unequivocally that the teachings of the Catholic church – however well-meaning they might be – are radically limiting of women’s life choices (and it is mainly women and girls), leading to a soaring world population.

Religion and reproductive planning are not the only reason for population change, of course. Positive developments in medicine and other areas of science – even as far back as the Industrial Revolution, as Roger Martin showed us – have caused booms. And poverty is also a factor: when families need many sources of income, they will have more children. Especially if they believe some of them won’t survive due to war or famine.

But even if poor family planning isn’t the only reason for the population increase, it is certainly seems to be our main hope of resolving it. 

The enormous population spurt over the past decade has been almost entirely in parts of the world where women have least control over their own romantic and reproductive choices: the biggest increase happened in Africa, and the second biggest happened in Asia.

Meanwhile, despite around 2-3 billion of the world’s 7 billion being born in the past two decades, the birth rate has actually dropped in countries where women have the best human rights.

Right Honourable Malcolm Bruce (Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon) states that whenever women are allowed to decide if and when they want to get married, and if and when they want to have babies, the population always falls.

This is why Roger Martin agrees with the many experts who argue that a serious investment in worldwide family planning could do more good than investments in far more costly technology. There is no need to worry about infringing civil liberties in the way China has resorted to (although their situation is definitely a little more urgent than ours): all we have to do, the evidence shows us, is give women (and by women we are including individuals that in Europe we’d regard as female children, frankly) more choice, not less.

So why, asks Ian Diamond, when we know the good it will do, is the percentage of EU aid used for family planning only 0.04%? Why, he says, does the bonus pot for Goldman Sachs add up to more than the $400bn total amount of family planning aid given? (This may have been intended as merely a joke; it certainly went down well.)

It is clear that nobody is trying to be controversial or cause offense, but Ian Diamond says we must consider the hold that the Catholic Church has over European politics, and the hold that the Christian Right has over American politics too, if we want to actually solve this life-and-death problem.

It’s difficult to see how this wouldn’t make people angry and frustrated. One event guest (who did not want to be named) said to me in the reception afterwards – after a glass or two of wine, it should be added: “So, basically, religion and misogyny are killing our planet. It’s that simple. It really is actually that simple.”

Strong feeling of this kind isn’t surprising. But is panic really justified? Just how unmanageable is population change?

While Professor Jane Falkingham says population change at its current rate is critically unsustainable, Ian Diamond actually raises the optimism levels in the room a good few notches – which wouldn’t be hard at this point – and argues that a world population of 9 billion by 2015 is manageable – but we have to get cracking on some practical evidence-based solutions now. Energy production, food efficiency, sexual health, poverty: all of these and more need to be front and centre if we want to make this work. 

What kind of solutions? Well, China, says Mr Diamond, sounding genuinely rather excited, has found a way of making windmills work without any wind. Ideas like this – mould-breaking, game-changing, courageous, difficult ideas – are where our world leadership needs to be putting its best minds. It’s not just a matter of changing our lifestyles, says Diamond; we must make sure the countries with enough wealth and freedom to do so demonstrate full political will, as well.

Will it happen? Who knows what’s happening in the lobbies of Westminster or Washington, but right here in the Abbey Centre, in the warm lights of the ESRC’s own reception, students, business professionals, academics, and retired people really do seem to have taken his advice to heart. Some guests are chatting about the sandwiches, the wine, and the dips. But as you wander between babbling guests, you hear snatches of passionate voices: vegan and vegetarian campaigners calling for revolutions in farming, earnest-looking women discussing the merits of statist approaches compared with choice-based approaches, and young people in hip clothes unpicking ethical conundrums surrounding GM crops and nuclear power.

The Festival of Social Sciences event ‘The World at 7 Billion’ seems to have done exactly what evidence-based policy is supposed to do: it has got everybody bursting with ideas together about how to fix even the most enormous of social problems, by using facts, research, and creative experimentation, all together.

You can find out more the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) who fund evidence-based research here