Sunday, 31 March 2013

Are there too many humans?

World population growth has become a serious issue for debate in recent times. At its current estimate of 6.9 billion, the number of humans on Earth has doubled in the last 50 years and some forecasters expect that number to reach 10 billion by the end of this century. Much of the debate centres around whether or not our planet can actually sustain this growing number and even argues if it might be the right time to impose population controls worldwide, along the Chinese model. Advocates of population control include a number of luminaries such as Sir David Attenborough, who has commented that humanity is 'a plague on the Earth' and that 'either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us'. But is this a viewpoint shared by all? That was the topic up for discussion when I attended The Big Question, at the J Z Young Lecture Theatre, University College London Anatomy Building in Gower Street on Wednesday 6 March. 

Before the talk began, attendees were invited to a drinks reception at the nearby Grant Museum of Zoology. The drinks receptions there usually take place after the main event (particularly their free film screenings) but this one was prior to the talk, which was a good opportunity to chat about the upcoming topic of discussion. I was approached by a woman (whose name was Marlene if I remember correctly) whilst taking a couple of photographs and engaged in conversation, only to realise soon afterwards that she was trying to sell me membership of an organisation about the conservation of some endangered species of (I think) birds that she was heavily involved in. She also told me she had once been a film extra (or 'background artiste' as some would prefer to be known!) and when I asked her for an example of her favourite work she said she had featured quite heavily in One Million Years B.C., the 1966 British-made Hammer Film co-production starring Raquel Welch (which was also famed for its complete and total historical innaccuracy!). That was when she revealed she was 70, but looking more like mid-fifties. I wondered if I'd be able to pick her out if I ever see the film again. We were then joined in conversation by another attendee, who basically pretty much admitted he got more enjoyment out of the fact that this event was totally free and that he actively researched free events calendars and had even occasionally blagged his way into paid events! He seemed to be accompanied (although I wasn't totally certain) by a woman who actually appeared to have a real interest in the population growth issue and who I think was also trying to promote awareness via a website she supported.

The drinks reception lasted around 45 minutes, after which we were all shepherded across the road to the lecture theatre. It was very soon packed out and people were even turning up after the talk had got under way and had to stand or crouch down in the stairwells.

The talk was advertised as bringing together speakers from the world of ecology, history, finance, conservation and economics. Each one of them had to select an object from the Grant Museum's collection to illustrate and support their argument. The UCL events webpage stated that six speakers would be presenting their views, but in fact there were only three. This thankfully didn't have too much of an impact on the debate, as their viewpoints widely differed, one seeming to favour population control, another insisting we could sustain the future forecast of 10 billion people (with the third speaker falling somewhere into the middle of those two opinions). Each of them had probably 15 minutes to individually make their case, after which there was an audience question and answer session. Of course no concrete conclusions were ever going to be made, but it was nevertheless a stimulating and lively discussion.

UCL Museums organise a number of free talks, exhibitions and even film screenings, on a variety of subjects - head over to their main webpage for more information. 

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