About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tom Flynn on overpopulation

Good post by Tom Flynn over on the CFI site.

"The scientific community has spoken many times," Stanford's Paul R. Ehrlich told The Chronicle of Higher Education. "But nobody's paying any attention." Ehrlich, an occasional contributor to Free Inquiry, is best remembered for his 1968 book The Population Bomb which predicted imminent catastrophe due to population pressures. The specific disasters Ehrlich foresaw did not occur when he said they would. Ever since, believers that overpopulation is not a threat have pointed to Ehrlich as an example of "Chicken Little" thinking. Yet if the disasters Ehrlich foretold failed to unfold in the 1970s -- partly due to developments in agriculture and technology that may have bought humanity a few decades -- they seem to be looming now. Look at depleted fish stocks, growing shortages of freshwater, and commodity prices continuing to climb despite a worldwide recession, to name just a few.
In  my article on overpopulation in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (which you all need in your university libraries, as it's a wonderful resource - end of shameless plug), I wrote:

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, projections of a peaking global population in the middle of the century, combined with a declining birthrate in European and Western nations, had reduced Malthusian fears. Declines in national birthrates, more than global overpopulation, had become a focus of political attention in European and Western countries.

Nonetheless, the Earth's carrying capacity remains under stress, huge conurbations continue to grow in the developing nations, and there is the specter of massive unregulated migration to the industrialized First World. This opens the way for science fiction writers to explore a possible future of racial and cultural clashes, as demographic issues play themselves out through the twenty-first century.

Some years later, this still seems to be correct. The problem turned out to be less urgent than people like Ehrlich feared in the 1960s. I should add that it has little to do with whether people are living longer in Western countries, and further extensions in life span would have little effect. What really matter are female fertility rates (go and do some calculations yourself if you don't believe me). But the world remains under threat to its carrying capacity, and this will get worse as more countries industrialise (something that we can hardly deny to those countries).

We'll probably see some stabilisation of the global population in a few decades, but meanwhile a lot of further damage could be done. There's a limit to what can be achieved here, and some of it will have to involve steps to bring down the environmental impact per person in an industrialised country. Unfortunately, there's little political will to achieve this - or so it appears from the pathetic outcomes of negotiations on how to address global warming.

But we can certainly be more sceptical about pro-natalist policies and memes. People who think about the future, such as science fiction writers, could maybe be a bit more encouraged not to forget this threat to the well-being of future people and the environment, despite the events that led them away from it in relatively recent times.

Btw, anyone know any really solid works of fiction that actually do focus on this ... written over the last eight years, say, since I last researched the issue in some depth?


Anonymous said...

The 2007 IPCC report. In fact anything from the IPCC is fiction.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, right.