The American Geographical Society is a collection of geographical organisations from across America. But what makes it special is that it’s 168 years’ old and from its founding in 1851, it was explicitly supposed to be where government, industry and academia convenes to address the critical issues of the day through a geographic lens.
In the post World War Two era, geography as a discipline didn’t fare so well in the United States. But we have had some successes in the face of those downward trends. Some of us at least believe that the US has ended up in intractable trillion-dollar wars around the world because, in part, America has been geographically illiterate and has lacked geographic understanding. It’s climate change as well. Had we been more geographically literate as a population, able to understand the vital trends shaping the future – what would we have done differently over the past 30 years? Probably a lot.
The central question A Planet of 3 Billion answers is: how many people can the Earth support? It isn’t what Thomas Malthus said: how many people can we feed? It’s the question of how many people can the planet support, and what is the burden that humanity has put on the planet’s ability to support us and all species?
We’ve been growing by around 85 million a year in recent decades. Not 85 million babies – net 85 million added to the population – which is the equivalent of ten New York Cities a year. Even if everybody cut their carbon emissions in half – if you double the population the result is still the same.
I worked through what the various literature from different disciplines and perspectives say about how many people the Earth can actually support and came to the three billion answer that is the book’s title. But I’m happy to be wrong. I would love for the number to somehow be higher. And I challenge everyone who reads it to disagree with me – just show me your data and show me your maths. But if, indeed, it is three billion, there are many implications since we just rounded 7.7 billion and are still growing.
It’s actually quite simple to reverse course. It turns out that in every geography where women are empowered, educated, integrated in the workforce and have access to the full spectrum of family planning technologies, you have numbers that are below replacement value fertility [falling population rates]. But it would never be easy. In the second half of my book, I look at the geostrategic implications if we were to bend the population curve. How would we rethink ways to run a global economy that has been predicated on growth?
Of course, it’s somewhat different in a place such as the UK or Europe where, without immigration, we’re already at low replacement value. Same with Japan, Thailand or South Korea. But we have to have a responsible, respectful conversation globally. Different countries are at different points on the development curve, and they’re just trying to improve their own lot in life, but are perhaps harnessing fertility patterns from a previous era as they move from an agricultural to an urban environment.
Probably one of the most important trends for us right now is urbanisation. Even though cities, almost by definition, destroy, eliminate or delete any ecological resources where they are, the more people who are in urban centres, and if we can run those places as smart, resilient and sustainable urban centres, then there are more opportunities for rewilding and rebuilding ecological resources.
There is a weird silence around the population issue. It’s a massive taboo that no one wants to touch because it seems impolite. Where I grew up in the American South, they always tell you, ‘son, don’t talk about sex, don’t talk about politics, and don’t talk about religion in polite company’. Turns out, you really can’t talk about population without talking about sex, religion and politics. And I think that for that reason it magnifies the taboo and makes many people not want to touch the issue. But this is the central issue driving the fate of our planet and our species. Hopefully [the book] can at least instigate a bit of an adult conversation about it.
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!