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Our planet is not ‘full’

We need not panic about overpopulation – despite what some of my more excitable correspondents say

By on Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Babies – a good thing (CNS)

Babies – a good thing (CNS)

My blog last Friday, “The Guardian’s list of great online talks shows Catholics what we’re up against”, attracted some comments – not least several energetic posts by “JByrne24”. I had challenged a physics professor, Albert Bartlett, who had used the phrase “the inevitability of overpopulation” and Mr Byrne had in turn challenged me. Among other remarks, he stated that “The matters concerning population growth are not beliefs but facts…the facts are not debatable”; “the population of Europe…is still increasing”; “The facts are that the earth is already grossly over-populated”; and, re me (did I detect a whiff of sexism here?), “She is no doubt a good person… but IMO she does lack understanding of some matters that are numerical and scientific.” (Incidentally, I am not a good person; I am a sinner, like “JByrne24”; as Jesus said, “Only God is good.”)

I hope Mr Byrne will not think I am quoting him out of context or deliberately twisting his comments. We deeply disagree on the question of population. It is a subject of some importance that should be argued often, so it is alarming when he says “the facts are not debatable”. Though I am not a physicist, economist, demographer or statistician, I have read enough articles by informed people, more knowledgeable than I, who do dispute his statements and his supposed facts. The latest, by Professor Jack Scarisbrick, LIFE National Chairman, is reprinted in the September 2013 edition of the ACW Review, from the Spring/Summer edition of Lifenews.

Scarisbrick, a respected historian of the Tudor period who certainly has more academic clout and rigour than me, writes, “The world is facing a grave demographic crisis. No, not overpopulation. That is old hat and probably a ‘never was’ anyway. No, the crisis which threatens is of irreversible population decline worldwide. The number of people on our planet will continue to rise for a decade or so. But then it will start falling – with momentous consequences for us all. That decline is already apparent in many parts of the world. The birth-rate in Japan is well below replacement level, as it is in Russia, much of Western Europe and Mediterranean countries. To maintain a steady state in a normal population every woman should have 2.2 children. In parts of Italy, the figure is half that; in Greece and Spain little better.”

So who is right; those who fear overpopulation (especially in Third World countries which might threaten their own western standard of living), or those who record the seemingly obvious evidence of demographic decline? Mr Byrne’s posts are temperate compared with a letter from an 82-year-old (Catholic) man from California that I received on Monday: it starts, “When I read religious zealots like you, I wonder WHAT PLANET YOU ARE LIVING ON? Do you pay ANY attention to what is happening in this, the ONLY world we have? I read your monograph on your proclamation that “we need more babies”. Well, God DIDN’T say to OVERFILL the earth. Most of us think that IT IS FULL…Now it just passed 7 billion, at the rate of 250,000 PER DAY.”

The author of this letter – a bit over-keen on the Caps key in my view – is referring to my blogs of 26 and 29 July in which I had certainly said that we need more babies. If he doesn’t believe me, he should contact President Putin of Russia who has appealed to his countrymen on many occasions to increase the birth-rate (incidentally, this might be the reason, rather than homophobia, as Stephen Fry thinks, which makes the Russians reluctant to promote homosexuality in schools.)

Anyway, reading articles about demography is not the only way to have an informed opinion on the subject. I recently read a fascinating book The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough, a writer and journalist based in Russia (and not someone with an axe to grind, a “religious zealot” like me). He comments that Russia had 153,000 villages in 1989; 20,000 have since been abandoned and a further 35,000 now have fewer than 10 inhabitants. He adds that in 2010 deaths in Russia outnumbered births by 240,000 due, in his view, to rampant alcoholism as well as widespread access to abortion.

Another interesting book I read, this time on China and published in 2008, written by former diplomat and fluent Russian and Chinese speaker George Walden, also refers to Russia’s population crisis: he said that its population stood at 146 million; checking Wiki I see that an official estimate for 1 April 2013 puts it now at 143,400,000m. Walden was putting forward the thesis that the populous Chinese dragon will one day look greedily on the mineral-rich but barely inhabited eastern regions of the Russian bear. I merely mention these two books, on two particular countries that have considerable geographic, economic and political importance for the rest of the world and which are written by men who know the territory, to show Mr Byrne and Mr Capital Letters that there is indeed much still to argue on this subject. “Overpopulation” is by no means a foregone conclusion.