Why population?

I’ve been meaning to jot down some thoughts about the Royal Society’s report on population. Having warmed a chair in the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre for a couple of years, I maintain an unhealthy interest in the politics of national academies – how they perceive their legitimacy, where they choose to speak and how they do so.

For a national academy, the issue of population is almost as tough as it gets. Science has a troublesome track record on the population question, and the more elite it gets, the more troublesome things become. (I don’t know as much as I should about the issue, so apologies in advance for my skip through history). Population is one of those areas in which the temptation to pluck an ought from an is has landed the scientific establishment in trouble. People like Francis Galton were too quick to jump from genetics to eugenics, reasoning that understanding human populations should in some way allow us to improve them. This hubris transcended political left and right, resurfacing in views of the progressive left elite between the wars (Jonathan Friedland has fun with this in his latest pseudonymous novel).

The ideas of Thomas Malthus re-entered polite conversation in the 70s through people like Paul Ehrlich, who published (with co-authors including John Holdren, who would go on to be Obama’s Chief Scientist) extensively on the implications of ‘the stork passing the plow’ (birthrates increasing beyond the planet’s capacity to feed new people). His debate with Barry Commoner on the population issue takes us to the heart of the science policy problem.

The split is between those who see population growth as a problem (the role of science being to elucidate this) and those who see the trajectory of progress as the problem, in which case, from a Marxist perspective, science and innovation are implicated as part of the problem, and a possible provider of solutions. This is not to agree with the blind optimism of people like Julian Simon, who bet Holdren and Ehrlich (and won) that the price of metals would decrease as human ingenuity found new ways to mine them. Rather, it returns us to the old debate in science policy, most prominently discussed by Bernal and Polanyi in the 30s, about whether and how science can be steered. Commoner suggested that our technological means and our economic ends could be reshaped to better include environmental and health concerns. For him, the emphasis on population increase as a biological problem missed the point and led to perverse, unhelpful and unethical prescriptions.

The politics of science policy play out in subtle ways. As well as emerging through the things that individuals and institutions say, they surface in the things on which institutions choose to focus. Agendas matter. When the Royal Society decided to take on the population issue, I winced. Regardless of what the report ending up saying, the perception would always be from some quarters that the choice of the issue was the telling thing. Why population? Why now? The only good reason I could come up with at the time, much like with the food security issue, was that the scientific community had some work to do in redeeming themselves, in re-establishing credibility and humility in tackling issues on which science has a historical tendency to over-speak. The reactions that I have seen suggest that the RS have succeeded. Brickbats swung mainly from the right. Most in the middle and on the left of politics regarded the report as sensitive and well-rounded (correct me if you’ve seen criticisms please). Frank Furedi tweeted that “The Royal Society’s cringing Malthusian Report on the planet has the intellectual weight of a promotion video for creationism”. But, as if to remind us of the tangled politics of the British left, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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3 Responses to Why population?

  1. alice says:

    Thanks for this post, I’ve been wondering a lot about the politics of this report because, for the reasons you outline, it’s fascinating.

    Wasn’t part of the issue that it wasn’t just population, but consumption?

    Hard to tell the left and right here, but I guess there was this, in New Stateman if that’s “left” (and if it is a critique) http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/sci-tech/2012/04/royal-society-has-beauty-pageant-moment Did you hear the Any Questions Sulston was on? The word Marxist was used (in context of other statements).

    I’ve just finished reading the final chapter of the Geek Manifesto on green issues – be interested to know what you think about that. Touches on some of the issues underlining this. I really wanted to ask a question about the RS report at the Policy Exchange event on climate comms too, but didn’t get a chance. There’s something substancial to be written on ideology, science and green issues (Yearly needs update) but not sure by who, in what context and how. Or if it’d be useful.

    And yes, the Furendi reaction was to be expected too.

  2. behrfacts says:

    Hi Jack I did a post on my blog about the report together with a SCORE one on education – call it just being lazy or trying to think across policy sections as we used to try to do when both at the RS? In terms of global policy issues population has to be up at the top of any list, tho’ providing solutions is always a tricky business as we well know ….

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