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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A social scientist who should stay away from hard science, 18 Aug 2013
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This review is from: Population 10 Billion (Paperback)
This is a tough book to review and give a rating to (still don't get why we can't use half stars). As an environmentalist I've been of the opinion for a long time that there are simply too many of us, consuming too much. I'd love for it not to be true, to not be afraid of what future awaits the planet and our descendants, but while it has its moments Dorling's book hasn't reassured me in the least.

Population 10 Billion has one strength - the argument that income inequality is a major driver of population growth, and so by reducing income inequality we can decelerate population growth and ultimately stabilise it (although the evidence that income inequality is on the rise globally does put a dampener on this hope for me). But I found it odd how so much of the book is then devoted to deriding rich people and their ideals. I'm not sticking up for them, but I felt that far too much time was spent fixating on rich people when there are other issues related to population which needed, and in some cases did not get, attention.

Much of Dorling's belief that we don't need to be so worried about the effects of overpopulation is justified by his claims that consumption of various commodities and resources has already peaked or is about to, for example petrol or shop goods. Yet I think much of this supposed peaking can be owed to the economic problems which began in 2007 and continue to dog many countries' economies. If the 'good times' ever roll again, I expect we'll see a rise in consumption of these resources again. Elsewhere, when hard statistics aren't available, Dorling simply brushes aside concerns; on the subject of meat he rightly notes that many of us need to eat much less meat, but ends with "Luckily...increasing numbers of people are choosing to eat no meat at all" - if this is true, then even greater numbers of people are choosing to eat MORE meat, particularly in places like China.

Other environmental issues barely get a look in. Overfishing, one of the most pressing crises currently facing us, is mentioned by Dorling, with a quote added in from the brilliant work of Callum Roberts (author of Ocean of Life), but Dorling seems to have some kind of cognitive dissonance going on because he doesn't connect the issue at all to population, only remarking that aquaculture is increasing to fill the gap - a gross error given that aquaculture still relies on wild fish stocks. I'm pretty sure we can't blame rich people (themselves a tiny minority) for eating all the fish, and wasteful fishing practices are only one side of the story. Neither did Dorling satisfactorily address the use of inorganic fertilisers, which have managed to increase food yields phenomenally but at the cost of severe environmental degradation. No mention either of what'll happen if/when the availability of inorganic fertiliser decreases, and we still have so many mouths to feed!

Even more worryingly, there is a total absence of an examination of climate change and what it could mean for the human race in relation to population. Dorling pays the occasional lip-service to "human-induced climate change" and does at the end of the book say we should be worried about it, but yet again he fails to connect the dots. There is no mention of what climate change might mean for water scarcity and the resulting effect on a large (and still growing) human population, or land availability or any of other resources which are necessary to provide our needs, or climate refugees.

I'm also a bit dubious of some of Dorling's 'science'; he describes a time during our distant past when we lived as hunter-gatherers, where due to the inconvenience of caring for an infant while following migrating herds of reindeer we would routinely leave newborn babies behind to die. This simply doesn't make sense in evolutionary terms, considering the amount of energy and risk involved in gestation and childbirth. Elsewhere, while Dorling gives us the impression that he really is concerned about the environment, he seems to think that diverting oil into making plastic rather than fuelling our cars is a good thing! (Definitely not when you consider how long it takes for plastic to degrade, and the catastrophic effects it has on our ocean systems).

Dorling's overall message is "Relax - things will probably sort themselves out". But this is a monumental gamble to take, considering that the well-being and indeed the future of our species is at stake. Furthermore Dorling distracts from his own central argument that income inequality drives population with a largely irrelevant veer towards rich-bashing, to the point that he seems to isolate wealthy people into a new species, while every person on the planet who doesn't have lots of money is somehow 'noble', and only desires what they need rather than what they want. It's a lovely view, but simply untrue. Most people if given the chance will consume as much as they can, even to the detriment of the environment. And while Dorling tries to provide evidence of people in the developed changing their behaviour to reduce their consumption (for example people in the UK decreasing their water use by 1% between 2007-2010 - wow!), these are minuscule changes barely worth celebrating, considering how much people - particularly those in the developing world and not only the rich - consume. Major behavioural change is required of us all and I don't think Dorling has fully recognised this. I would also have liked to see Dorling discuss the relationship between population and employment. He tells us we need to cut down on things like buying clothes - no disagreement from me there - but he doesn't consider the knock-on effect this would have on unemployment, particularly in the developing world where so many industries get their labour force from. For example, several times I have read commentators and authors (most recently Shereen El Feki, who wrote Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World) attribute much of the tragic political instability in Egypt to there being a huge youth bulge but no corresponding availability of jobs.

Dorling uses the analogy of a car in motion, with the natural deceleration of population growth being the equivalent of depressing the brake. But I'd argue that this isn't braking; more like just taking a foot off the accelerator. The car could still crash. We still urgently need to scrutinise the relationship between overconsumption and overpopulation, and do everything we can to ensure that population growth stops - through long-term changes like educating women, establishing stable state institutions to provide welfare in old age, and preventing treatable diseases, and through more immediate changes such as family planning and widespread availability of contraception. Time will tell if places where population is still growing at an alarming rate will see a slowdown, but it may not be enough to simply hope for it.
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Chantal Lyons
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