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The ten billion mark: The authors reach very different conclusions about what population growth will mean for the human habitation (credit: Nash Photos)

Population has been a sensitive political issue since the birth of quantified forms of demography in the 17th century. Indeed, demography was always pitched from the time of William Petty onwards as a branch of "political arithmetic". Our modern sense of the political issues around population was born somewhat later, however, in  the fervour and fear which gripped Europe in the wake of the French Revolution. Utopian supporters of the revolution, led by Condorcet and William Godwin, imagined futures where human life would be indefinitely extended and where liberty, equality and fraternity would allow for far greater numbers to be sustained in comfort. It was against these visions that Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), arguing instead that population always tended to outstrip resources, the result being that schemes of social welfare were bound to fail, creating the very poverty they were meant to alleviate. 

In the two centuries since Malthus wrote his Essay, population has periodically bubbled to the surface of political debate. The 1930s, for example, saw some panic that a declining birthrate would lead to the dwindling of Western societies, something which was luridly framed as "race suicide", and encouraged the formation of state-sponsored pro-natal financial incentives of which the UK's recently dismantled child benefit scheme was but one example. By the late 1960s, the reverse fear of a "population explosion" had emerged, being peddled in apocalyptic tones by so-called "neo-Malthusians" led by Paul Ehrlich, who memorably opened his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, with the arresting claim: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over". And against Ehrlich were ranged a group of neoconservatives who only saw, in the equally memorable phrase of one of their number, a "nonsense explosion". 

It seems that 2013 is witnessing another moment when demographic concerns come to the surface, as embodied in Danny Dorling's and Stephen Emmott's very similarly titled books. They are published when global population has just topped seven billion and the United Nations has predicted that it will not level out until it has reached 11 figures. Both Dorling and Emmott pose, unsurprisingly, a rather similar question: what do these astounding figures mean for the future of the human habitation of the earth? However, they reach very different conclusions. 

Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University, is sanguine about humanity's future, therefore being ranged with the utopian Godwin and the neoconservatives of previous generations. Population 10 Billion asks us not to look at the total numbers of people on the planet but rather at the rate of change in their number, which is slowing such that Dorling feels we may never reach the 11-figure number the UN has projected. But even if we do, Dorling's rather wearyingly facile optimism suggests this will not lead to Ehrlich's apocalypse. Dorling sees a future where moves towards greater equality in distribution are being made, as are small steps in our daily lives which are leading towards more sustainable futures. For Dorling — and here he really is descended from Godwin and each succeeding generation of anti-Malthusians — if there is a "resource problem", it is generated not by population size per se, but by the inequitable distribution of resources and the consumption culture of advanced societies. What Dorling does not explain, however, is how one ties together the small steps he sees modern societies making towards sustainability with the massive transitions that would be needed to roll them out globally. He also seems reticent about the fact that developing countries aspire to the conspicuous consumption culture of advanced societies. 

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