The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population
19th April, 2012
Is population really the demographic time bomb it’s portrayed as? Author Vanessa Baird sifts through the evidence and comes up with some surprising answers, says Mark Newton
Inevitably, most discussions on the environment tend to touch on the subject of population pressure - too many people chasing too few resources; that there are huge energy and food demands; that nations’ carbon footprints will spiral out of control. It’s the issue that affects nearly everything else, and debates on the subject can be both passionate and controversial. As the world’s population heads for eight billion, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population seeks to address whether or not our fears of a population crisis are justified, and if the numbers bandied about by the media actually stack up. It tackles subjects such as women’s rights, family planning, ageing populations and climate change - and seeks to cover all of these within a relatively slender book: an ambitious aim.
The most noticeable thing about Baird’s No-Nonsense Guide is her remarkably direct and accessible prose. For what could be a dry and rather academic subject, she has made exciting, vibrant and relatively jargon-free. It’s a cross between a well-informed, personable lecturer and a chatty blog, which newcomers to the subject will find refreshing. Each chapter is a step-by-step examination of a critical point in this debate, the first being a simple question: Are too many people being born? Baird doesn’t dwell too long on the sources of these questions - harvesting a handful of newspaper headlines is enough to suggest that this is a common fear for many.
Yet, Baird decides to look at the facts and asks researchers around the world, citing evidence along the way. For this particular question, she examines global fertility rates and the number of children being born - a declining figure - and then hammers home a staggering fact: ‘But, for those who feel that the planet is too small for us all, it’s worth noting that you could fit all the people in the world today in an area the size of Texas, and they could live there with the population density currently enjoyed by the citizens of New York.’
Next, you're taken through a whistle-stop history of the key points of the population debate, as Baird discusses how the world’s population has expanded from around 10,000BCE, through to the 18th century, where Thomas Robert Malthus, a Church of England curate and ‘mathematician of the land-owning classes’, argued that population growth would ‘eventually outstrip growth in food production’ (though, wrong in his own lifetime, he didn’t anticipate improvements in food production). Birth control, eugenics, the baby boomers, China’s One Child policy, all the major points are given context. There’s not enough room for deep detail here - but that’s not really the point of the book.
Chapter by chapter, Baird picks up some larger themes. Agriculture in an ageing population, and what that means for us. Women’s control over their own bodies and fertility, and how that is being challenged by religious traditionalists. The way that the rich attempt to control the birth rates of the lower classes - ‘“Stop poor people breeding” has been the mantra of the privileged for some time’. Migration, and the impact of dynamic populations, which are immensely difficult to predict, let alone debate rationally. Baird is not afraid of making bold, well-informed statements either, smashing many of the myths surrounding the issue: ‘Poverty and hunger are the products of grossly unequal power relationships between the haves and the have-nots, regardless of human numbers.’
Eventually, Baird arrives at her conclusion and it’s certainly not the one you’d expect: ‘There’s enough room for a few billion more humans if we share the earth’s resources more equitably’. This is indeed a surprising book, but for all the right reasons. We’ve been misinformed by the media and governments on the population topic for years, and by people of all political persuasions. Baird’s book lives up to the name in delivering a thorough, passionate guide. Just as important is the fact that her arguments are concise, accessible and she do not try to confuse the reader with rhetoric. Everyone can learn something from this book.
The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population by Vanessa Baird (£7.99, New Internationalist) is available from Amazon
Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN
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