The Royal Society Takes Another Step Away from Science

15/04/2012 17:00:05

Ben Pile discusses 'science in the service of politics'.

Ben Pile Climate Resistence

Back in October 2010, I wrote an article for Spiked,

It is no coincidence that, as it was preparing to moderate its statements on climate change, the Society has been seeking to intervene in the debate about population. In July this year, it announced that it would be ‘undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures’.

Climate change has served as the encompassing environmental narrative. It was used to connect the human and natural worlds, and to provide a basis for many political institutions that, without a climate crisis, would simply lack legitimacy. The forcefulness with which claims about climate change were presented and their abstract nature made climate-centric politics ever less plausible. However, if players in the climate debate are beginning to sense the exhaustion of the climate issue, they are able simply to slide into the population debate.

The perspectives of environmentalism do not begin with science, but with the anti-human and unscientific premise of our dependence on the natural world. This outlook goes unchallenged because of a perception that environmentalism is a pragmatic solution to purely scientifically-defined problems, and a belief that it can be answered in purely scientific terms. This encourages a sense of passivity, a sense of ‘leave it to the experts’.

A longer version of the argument is on this blog, here.

Shortly after the Royal Society announced it was to revise its advice on climate change, it announced [PDF]:


The Royal Society is undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures over the next forty years and beyond. The aims of the study are to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study will be global but it will explicitly acknowledge regional variations in population dynamics and the impact of policy interventions. We aim to complete the project by early 2012.

The timing is no accident. The character of the public discussion of environmental issues is changing. While it is welcome that there has been a marginally more sober reflection on the climate, there is little to celebrate. The scientific academy has sensed that it in today’s world, it wields political power. As the call for evidencesuggests, the Royal Society has already decided that population is a problem, and the size of the population ought to be managed by political power, not by the individuals it consists of.


We invite feedback on the following questions.  [... ]
  • What scientific evidence is available to show how fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation will affect or be affected by population levels and rates of change, at both regional and global levels, over the next forty years and beyond?
  • How fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation are influenced by and influence environments, economies, societies and cultures?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of different population modelling methodologies?
  • What are the key interconnections among population change, environments, economies, societies and cultures? How do these relate to any of the examples listed in the second bullet point of the terms of reference above?
  • What are the key linkages among population, technology and consumption.
  • What are the best (or worst) examples of how policy has been effective in managing population changes?
  • What other issues should our study addresses?


The implication of these question is the same idea that operated at the core of the RS’s climate perspective. The idea of our dependence on ecosystems is still the premise of its neomalthusianism. The climate story emphasised the damage that climate change would do to these systems, resulting in calamity. A weaker form of the same climate story serves as an adjunct to the population story. Neomalthusians can now acknowledge the uncertainty of the climate science, but make the claim that the degree to which climate change is certain is a function of population. The more people, the greater the possibility that climate change is a problem. Climate change has been the principal narrative which connected human society to the natural world, but now population has become the ‘master’ issue. It connects fears about biodiversity, climate change, resource-depletion, pollution, and so on. We can jump up and down with joy when climate science is shown to have been exaggerated by politicians, or is embarrassed by the excesses of a researcher. But it won’t have been the result of attempts to understand the phenomenon of environmentalism, and environmentalists will simply regroup under the population issue, as we predicted they would.

The Royal Society has finally published its report on population, ‘People and planet‘.

This project was a major study investigating the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet.

The final report People and the Planet was published on 26 April 2012.

Rapid and widespread changes in the world’s human population, coupled with unprecedented levels of consumption present profound challenges to human health and wellbeing, and the natural environment.

The combination of these factors is likely to have far reaching and long-lasting consequences for our finite planet and will impact on future generations as well as our own. These impacts raise serious concerns and challenge us to consider the relationship between people and the planet. It is not surprising then, that debates about population have tended to inspire controversy.

This report is offered, not as a definitive statement on these complex topics, but as an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption on the planet. It raises questions about how best to seize the opportunities that changes in population could bring – and how to avoid the most harmful impacts.

The aims of the study were to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study was global. It explicitly acknowledged regional variations in population dynamics, and the inequality that exists in consumption patterns around the world.

The report concludes with several key recommendations:

1. The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development, education, family planning and health.
2. The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels through: dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including: reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.
3. Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues. Demographic changes, and the influences on them, should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning at international meetings, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and subsequent meetings.

So when did inequality, poverty, reproductive rights, and the issue of what levels of material wealth people should be entitled to become matters of ‘science’?

(It’s a rhetorical question).

As discussed previously — follow the links to the articles above — the Royal Society’s sideways step from climate alarmism to Malthusianism is also a step backwards. Before climate change became the dominant narrative of political environmentalism, the principle issues were ‘limits to growth’ and ‘the population bomb’. Those vehicles failed to give the environmentalists’ political project the profile it needed. Malthusianism was, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, too easily rebutted. And in the dark days of the cold war, we seemed to have bigger problems to face. The end of the cold war arrived, and the brief era of optimism ended with climate change. It filled the nuclear-winter-shaped hole. But now there is widespread acknowledgement that climate change has been over-stated, the institutions which have sought to attach themselves to the issue have had to find a new story. And the new story is an old story. The Royal Society’s report is not at all ashamed of its origins in the work of Malthus…

The relationship between population growth and economic development has long been debated. Malthus in the 18th century was interested in the economic effects of rapid population growth and the relationship with the capacity of the earth to sustain it. These concerns resurfaced in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that an era of unprecedented, rapid increase in the populations of the developing countries had started. Since Malthus, other authors have highlighted the potentially negative impact of continued population growth (eg Coale and Hoover 1958; Ehrlich 1968, 2008; Turner 2009) while others have argued that technological advance and institutional development could counter negative effects of rapid population growth on development (Kuznets 1967; Boserup 1981; Simon 1981). It is clear from this debate that economic development and the demographic transition are linked in complicated and reciprocal ways, and that different challenges and opportunities are presented at different stages of the transition.

In terms of the effect of population factors on economic growth the common view is that rapidly increasing populations have a negative effect on economic growth and employment, due to declines in natural resources and other forms of capital per head. The nature of the relationship between population growth and economic growth will depend on the rate of population growth; a slow population growth rate, of say 1% per annum might have an advantage over a negative growth rate, whilst higher growth rates, of say 2% or more, are unlikely to have a positive impact on economic growth. The rate of capital accumulation is also important; without major accumulation of capital per capita, no major economy has or is likely to make the low-to middle-income transition. Though not sufficient, capital accumulation for growth is absolutely essential to economic growth (Turner 2009).

It can be no coincidence then, that Paul Ehrlich was made a fellow of the Royal Society last week. The Royal Society has embraced Malthus, just as it has embraced the malthusian.

And in doing so, the Royal Society abandons its claim to be a scientific authority. It has embraced a particular ideology… a nasty, anti-human perspective on the world. It can no longer say Nullius in Verba (on the word of no one). It’s perspective is no longer fixed on the material world. The object of its ‘science’ is now the human world, and control over it.

And it took just minutes after the publication of the report for the environmental alarmists to seize the opportunity.

Earth faces a century of disasters, report warns
Economic and environmental catastrophes unavoidable unless rich countries cut consumption and global population stabilises

It’s John Vadal, in the Guardian, of course.

World population needs to be stabilised quickly and high consumption in rich countries rapidly reduced to avoid “a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills”, warns a major report from the Royal Society.

Contraception must be offered to all women who want it and consumption cut to reduce inequality, says the study published on Thursday, which was chaired by Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir John Sulston.

The assessment of humanity’s prospects in the next 100 years, which has taken 21 months to complete, argues strongly that to achieve long and healthy lives for all 9 billion people expected to be living in 2050, the twin issues of population and consumption must pushed to the top of political and economic agendas. Both issues have been largely ignored by politicians and played down by environment and development groups for 20 years, the report says.


The authors declined to put a figure on sustainable population, saying it depended on lifestyle choices and consumption. But they warned that without urgent action humanity would be in deep trouble. “The pressure on a finite planet will make us radically change human activity”, said Pretty.

“The planet has sufficient resources to sustain 9 billion, but we can only ensure a sustainable future for all if we address grossly unequal levels of consumption. Fairly redistributing the lion’s share of the earth’s resources consumed by the richest 10% would bring development so that infant mortality rates are reduced, many more people are educated and women are empowered to determine their family size – all of which will bring down birth rates”, said an Oxfam spokeswoman.

There are perfectly good arguments for equality, for access to contraception, and for many other things which offer the possibility — albeit contested — of improving the lives of humans. But not in this report. Not in Vidal’s articles in the Guardian. And not from Oxfam, either. None of these organisations and individuals can make an argument for anything progressive while they pretend that it is ‘science’ which is speaking, and not them. Science has nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of inequality, the rights of women, and the material entitlements of people. And only a fool could think that science could make such an argument. The plight of poor people, and people who live without the freedom to determine their own future are not the concern of people who hide their politics behind ‘science’. In their narrative, the Royal Society make instrumental use of the poor, to make a political argument for their own ends. Just as Malthus did.