The question of human over-population of our planet seems to resurface every few decades, driven by fears that there are too many people to feed, clothe and shelter, or that the sheer volume of human beings working, travelling and polluting is causing environmental damage. But the persuasiveness of such claims is weakened empirically and normatively. In terms of facts, it does not help the over-population claimants that every time the population question is raised, humanity seems to deal with the problem. People do find food, clothing and shelter. And in terms of values, the notion of limiting or reducing the number of human beings appears a slippery slope to calls for coercion and perhaps eugenics in the name of ‘the greater good’. But in 2010 the question is being asked again.
At Royal Holloway last night, Professor Diana Coole presented early analyses from her new three year project, Too many bodies? The politics and ethics of the world population question. She is interested in why the question is re-emerging now and why it is in developed countries that calls are loudest for something to be done, according to her analysis of media and policy documents. Size of world population seems to have causal links to the development of climate change, water and food security, managing waste, and preserving diversity. The Royal Society’s working group People on the Planet raises this explicitly, as did the Stern Report – though neither recommended any proposals to intervene in human population numbers. As Coole argued, the tools we have for managing demography – fertility, mortality and migration – are all political minefields. Governments quietly manage birthrates through tax and welfare regimes and campaigns on family planning, but few policymakers in liberal democracies would explicitly institute a one-child or two-child policy for families.
It is interesting that Coole, a critical theorist in the continental tradition, should be asking why the population question remains a taboo. Materiality, vital matter, the non-human and post-human futures have all been on the critical theory agenda recently, in IR and more broadly. People are not the only things that matter. This scholarly focus parallels public-political claims for ‘sustainability’ in which the maintenance of ecosystems are considered more pressing than the continuation of humanity and certainly more pressing than economic growth. Might it be that a new strategic narrative will be formed and brought to bear on policy, a ‘smaller, better humanity’ narrative? Population projection statistics are ambiguous and can easily be used to support Malthusian narratives. And Coole’s project may unpick the factual and normative discourses that silence talk of the population question, so that the smaller-better narrative can be heard.