Peoplequake – conclusions and questions

(Colin Bell)

This is the second part of some thoughts based on Fred Pearce’s Peoplequake. The first part is a general summary of the book, and this provides some more focussed observations.

A fundamental point to make is that our changes take time to affect things, and can have unforseen consequences. A good proportion of the people of 2030 and 2040 are already alive, and we can’t effect a sudden fall in the birth rate without coercive action. Those who want to argue that population reduction is the key issue for sustainability thus need to explain how we can reach 2040 securely with a larger population then than now. (Which is not to deny the need for measures to be taken now to affect the later part of the century, but our immediate danger will come before that, it seems.)

The interesting questions relate to the links between culture and fertility rates. Probably some thinking has been done along these lines, but these are some ideas off the top of my head:

  • Assuming that fertility rates drop in recessions (which seems to be generally supported, if not definitely proved) what effects could a long slump have on the UK? Probably few in the short-term, particularly as we’ve had a bit of a baby boom in the last decade, but it could get us to a more elderly population faster than we thought.
  • What are the demographic consequences of a more sustainable culture? It seems to me that the kind of society proposed by Transition and others – localised, stronger communities, shorter working hours, less obsession with material things – is in almost every respect easier to raise a child in than our current system. And, assuming they settle down and are seen to work, it will raise confidence in the future. It would not surprise me at all if UK fertility rates rose back to replacement levels, with potential longer-term issues if they started exceeding them again.
  • To what extent can we assume purely cultural and voluntary effects will yield us a broadly stable and sustainable world population? Or do we need some sort of government action? (Assuming it can be made to do anything, of course.)

Thoughts on these would be interesting to hear. Hopefully I may come up with some of my own in due course!

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