Duke has raised an important issue

IT makes me a little uneasy to agree with anything the Duke of Edinburgh says, but for once he's opened up an issue that needed raising.

Aidan Semmens

IT makes me a little uneasy to agree with anything the Duke of Edinburgh says, but for once he's opened up an issue that needed raising.

It's a tricky area, for sure. One where it would be all too easy to blunder into morally awkward - maybe even indefensible - positions.

But Big Phil has never been one to hold his tongue for reasons of political correctness. And this time he may have a point. A big, fat, difficult, important point.

You can blame ignorance. You can blame human greed. You can - I often do - blame that personification of greed the United States of America.

But there is another deep-lying, fundamental cause of the catastrophic harm our species has done and is doing to our planet and ourselves.

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There are simply too many of us.

The idea that population growth will continue until it outstrips the food supply, bringing mass starvation, disease and war, is generally attributed to Thomas Malthus.

His 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population may have hugely under-estimated the human ability to produce more food. But ultimately he was surely right.

As Prince Philip put it: “Food prices are going up. Everyone thinks it's to do with not enough food, but it's really that demand is too great - too many people.

“It's a little embarrassing for everybody. No one quite knows how to handle it. Nobody wants their family life to be interfered with by the government.”

Which seems to put the whole matter quite neatly in a nutshell. Although “embarrassing” seems unusually restrained for the duke. “Catastrophic” would be nearer the mark.

Matthew Connelly, associate professor of history at America's prestigious Columbia University, has just published a fat and well-received book on population control, called Fatal Misconception.

In it he talks of the “untold suffering” caused by well-meaning efforts in the 1960s and 70s to reduce population growth in countries such as India and China.

He says: “Wealthy foundations, foreign aid agencies and the United Nations made 'family planning' a means to plan other people's families.

“Beginning with eugenics, the temptation to breed better people culminated in the sterilization camps of India and the horrors of China's one-child policy.”

In that synopsis Connelly has slightly confused the very different issues of “better” people and “fewer” people. Indira Gandhi was not a Nazi, or anything like one.

But I am sure Connelly is right about many of the human rights abuses brought about by those policies. His indignation is liberal and humane.

The question he doesn't properly address - the elephant in the room - is what exactly should be done about the problem. Because a problem we most certainly have.

I remember it being said in the mid-1970s that there were more people then alive than had ever died in the whole history and prehistory of the human race. It was almost certainly untrue, but it seemed plausible.

The world population at the time was around four billion. Today the figure is above 6.7bn and growing daily by about twice the population of Ipswich.

It is predicted to reach 9.2bn by 2050 - the point at which, according to some experts, there will no longer be enough fresh water for us all.

In many affluent, relatively educated countries, where birth control by choice is well established, birth rates have actually fallen below basic replacement levels.

If the typical British family of one or two children was normal everywhere, the world might not be in such trouble. But it isn't.

Another American professor, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, is patron of a British-based pressure-group, the Optimum Population Trust.

Its stated aims are education, research and political influence to bring the world's population back within sustainable limits.

Whether this can actually be done without those Malthusian spectres war, pestilence and famine is doubtful, but I respect the OPT for trying. (Perhaps the spectre list should also include hurricane, earthquake, flooding and drought.)

Ehrlich first got himself known 40 years ago with his book The Population Bomb. His dire predictions of world famine by the end of the 20th century proved so off-beam that he has been widely written off as a nutter.

But his projected figures for population growth, scorned at the time as wild exaggerations, have turned out to be pretty accurate.

- Like Malthus, he may have been wrong on timescale and detail, but right in general principle.

Of course the OPT is better at defining the problem than in finding a workable solution.

And when it comes to considering the UK specifically there is an elephant in my room too.

Few things make me angrier quicker than the knee-jerk racism that attaches to most discussions of immigration.

One of the things this country can be proudest of is its record in welcoming incomers from a variety of lands and cultures. On the whole, we've done it pretty well.

But backing away from racism shouldn't make us back away from the essential fact that our little island is already overcrowded.

We can't go on indefinitely adding three Ipswiches to the total each year without consequences.

If one of those consequences is a rise in racism and cultural tensions, we might be saddened, but we shouldn't be surprised.

We need a grown-up, civilised policy to deal with the problem. I don't have the answer. Unfortunately, none of our political parties seems to have one either.