Population: Crowd control

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Hania Zlotnik assesses two polarized takes on population growth and planetary capacity.

  • 10 Billion

    Allen Lane 2013. ISBN: 9780141976327

    Buy this book: US| UK| Japan

  • Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

    Little, Brown 2013. ISBN: 9780316097758

    Buy this book: US| UK| Japan


High-rise apartments tower in front of a breeze-block sprawl in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In June, the United Nations Population Division announced that the world's population could grow from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 billion by 2050, assuming that global fertility continues to decline. Such growth constitutes a fundamental challenge for humanity, and now two thoughtful but very different takes on it explore the implications.

In Countdown, Alan Weisman, a journalist probing whether a sustainable balance between nature and the human population can be achieved, offers a key message to guide future action. He avers that no matter what environmental, ecological or social problem we face, it will be easier to solve with fewer people. His book provides an array of examples on how to reduce population growth and, in the process, improve prospects for future generations. He makes a strong case for slowing global population growth — and even for reducing overall population numbers — as a prerequisite for achieving a sustainable future.

Stephen Emmott's 10 Billion takes for granted that the population will continue to grow, and is much less sanguine about humanity's chances of avoiding looming crises. Emmott, head of computational science for Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, leads an interdisciplinary group of scientists engaged in addressing fundamental problems through complex modelling. His slim, even terse book — based on his 2012 stage show, which presented his view on the “unprecedented planetary emergency we've created” — primarily examines the transformation of the global environment by human activity, a transformation that includes climate change, increasing water shortages and growing urbanization. Emmott's assessment of the capacity of people and technology to prevent the global crises that confront us is grim.

Weisman's book, by contrast, offers hope. Countdown emphasizes that it is possible to curb population growth by voluntarily limiting family size. He describes how societies as different as those of Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Kerala in India, and Thailand, have managed to reduce the number of children per woman through the voluntary use of contraception, buttressed by strategies to promote the adoption of a small-family norm — for example, by engaging opinion makers such as government leaders, religious authorities and media icons. Weisman explains that providing contraceptives to the quarter of a billion women worldwide who wish to prevent pregnancy but are not using effective contraception would be the first order of business.

“Weisman describes in harrowing detail the consequences of persistent high fertility.”

It will also be essential to shift attitudes away from prizing high fertility. To illustrate the barriers preventing rapid fertility reductions, Weisman cites the examples of Gaza, Niger, Pakistan and the Philippines, where a combination of religious beliefs, pro-natalist ideologies, the low status of women, weak health systems and a lack of easy access to effective contraception can lead to an average of five or more children per woman. He describes in harrowing detail the consequences of persistent high fertility, with respect to both its detrimental effects on the well-being of individuals and the negative impact of rapidly increasing numbers of people on the survival of other species and the integrity of essential ecosystems.

An important part of the narrative in Countdown hinges on how past predictions of an imminent population collapse caused by limitations in natural resources have not come to pass, largely because technology has removed those limitations, at least temporarily. Both 10 Billion and Countdown provide ample evidence that such revolutionary technology is itself causing new forms of environmental stress. The strains of wheat and rice that led to the 'Green Revolution', for instance, made it possible to feed an ever-growing world population; but the crops are thirstier, which is depleting water reserves, and also demand the use of fertilizers, which are a source of pollution.

Both Emmott and Weisman consider that curbing consumption is essential for long-term sustainability, and both despair at the lack of a concerted effort to achieve it. Whereas Emmott does not present ways to address our failures, Weisman's emphasis on expanding access to contraception as the next-best strategy is both pragmatic and workable, as past efforts have shown. It is to be hoped that his message may be heeded sooner rather than later.


  1. Report this comment #59933

    Gerry Atrickseeeker said:

    I look forward to reading both of these books. It is about time that someone clearly stated that we need not merely to stabilize global population but to dramatically reduce it in order to prevent total environmental disaster. Unfortunately the trends are not encouraging. The UN has just revised some of its global population predictions upward. Moreover, the much-hallowed ?demographic transition? whereby increased wealth leads to lower fertility is showing some strain. Thus some very recent data indicates that in China and elsewhere higher income women are having more rather than fewer offspring. It is hard to see how voluntary measures to spread use of contraception will really impact the enormous momentum of current population trends. The projections for population growth in certain less developed areas such as Africa are truly frightening and will be accompanied by increased consumption, resource depletion and environmental degradation. However, the really sad thing is that the US, which should know better, continues to pursue economic policies that emphasize rapid growth, based partly on immigration-driven rapid population increase.


  2. Report this comment #60290

    Emily Banham said:

    This comment is uploaded on behalf of Dr Daniel L. Clinciu:

    Much has been said about population control over the last decade in order to save the planet (see H. Zlotnik Nature 501, 30; 2013). However, methods aiding plausible attempts (e.g. providing self-help to people in problematic areas) get little support. Many are satisfied with sending money, food, and medicine to such places which only fuels the problem.

    A Weisman, the author of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth overlooked some ways of dealing with fertility reductions. Simply sending aid and doing nothing else can only fuel childbirth rates and bring additional problems in places taunted by religious radicalism. Are we to stop aid? No, but if we would invest a little more in teaching people to fish, rather than giving them a fish we would see improvements even in places where birth control is forbidden or the last thing on earth. For example, Pilgrim Relief Society, besides donating various necessities is focused on teaching natives in disadvantaged nations how to be self-sufficient and to learn different new things. They help install water and irrigation systems, build clinics and schools where the natives can work, treat, and teach their own. Volunteers in such projects observed among an improving quality of life a drop in pregnancies and childbirth per woman.

    S Emmott in 10 Billion mentions modified strains of wheat and rice that are thirstier. However, one of the main problems lies with an increasing number of people in developing countries (China, India and Brazil) which can now afford and want to eat more beef and meats requiring the production of additional grains. Grains used in producing more meat could instead feed a lot more people. Additionally, the demand for alternative fuels (ethanol) produced by various grains (corn, rice) worldwide is also on the rise, posing an additional problem to water shortages.

    By Daniel L. Clinciu, Usman Iqbal and Jack Y.C. Li

    Authors? affiliations

    Daniel L. Clinciu, PhD, MSc

    College of Medical Science and Technology
    No. 250, Wu-Hsing Street
    Taipei, 11031, Taiwan
    Email: celdan99@gmail.com
    Tel: +886-2-2736-1661 ext. 7333
    Fax: +886-2-6638-7537

    Institute of International Trade
    Feng Chia University
    100 Wenhua Road, Seatwen
    Taichung, 40724, Taiwan
    Tel: +886-4-2451-7250 ext. 4280
    Fax: +886-4-2451-0409

    Usman Iqbal, Pharm-D, MBA

    College of Medical Science and Technology
    No. 250, Wu-Hsing Street
    Taipei, 11031, Taiwan
    Tel: +886-2-2736-1661 ext. 7608
    Fax: +886-2-6638-7537
    Email: usman.iqbal85@gmail.com

    Yu-Chuan (Jack) Li, MD, Phd (corresponding author)

    Professor and Dean
    College of Medical Science and Technology
    Taipei Medical University, Taipei, Taiwan

    Chair, Department of Dermatology
    Wanfang Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan

    Primary Address:
    No. 250, Wu-Hsing Street
    Taipei, 11031, Taiwan
    Tel: +886-2-2736-1661 ext. 7333, 7523
    Fax: +886-2-6638-7537
    Email: jaak88@gmail.com

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