A Scientist’s Silly Musings on the Serious Subject of Population Growth

Deep knowledge and professional acumen in one area does not confer expertise in all subjects. The false alarm sounded about ostensible population decline in a recent Irish Times commentary entitled Reducing World Population May Be a Bad Idea by Dr. William Reville, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Ireland’s University College Cork, is an excruciating case in point.

Toward the outset, Dr. Reville asserts that by 2013 “world population growth had significantly slowed down.” While it is true that the rate of global population growth has slowed substantially, we’re still adding about 81 million people to the planet every year, which is only slightly below the peak figure of nearly 92 million recorded in 1988. No doubt, Dr. Reville understands quite well the difference between percentages and numbers. He seems intent on spinning the data to fit his preferred conclusion. That’s not sound science, and it won’t lead to sound policy.

He aligns himself with those who consider it “jaw-dropping” that, according to some projections, we may only (only!) add an additional one billion people to our planet by 2100. As to the impact of that growth, Dr. Reville engages in magical thinking that, somehow, technology will solve all of our problems. More than 13,000 scientists from 156 nations would beg to differ.

In his Irish Times article, Dr. Reville aligns himself with the infinitesimally tiny group of scientists who take issue with the vast majority of experts who view climate change as an “existential threat,” and deny “good evidence that this fear is misplaced.” I trust he will open the doors of his personal abode to at least a few of the 143 million more climate migrants projected by 2050 by the World Bank. It’s one thing to sit in a comfortable study and deny basic facts about climate change. It’s quite another to do so when flooded out of a modest dwelling in, say, Bangladesh—with nowhere to go.

Bizarrely, he contends that humanity may be at risk of “fading away.” To quote the great British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, “the contingency is a remote one, sir.” Since 1800, our numbers have soared from less than one billion to nearly eight billion today. The damage we’re doing to the natural world is apparent even to the most casual observer, though not, it seems, to Dr. Reville.

No one can predict the future, but we can project likely outcomes. Every serious demographic projection, including that done by the UN, concludes that human population will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. In the wildly unlikely event that, perhaps thousands of years from now, ultralow human birthrates might pose a threat to the survival of our species, there is a readily available biological mechanism called human reproduction.

With all the clear and present challenges we face on this planet—ranging from extreme poverty, to pandemics caused by human incursion into wild areas, to nuclear proliferation, to the extinction of endangered species—there are plenty of real problems that demand our attention.

Let’s not give credence to silly ideas even when presented by well-credentialed individuals.

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