Nieuws - 17 november 2011

Seven billion

Numbers with a lot of zeros quite easily make me dizzy.

Earlier this month the number of human beings on our planet went over the seven billion mark. Is that a lot? Is it too many? A figure like that only means anything to me if I can picture it. All those people hand in hand could span the distance between the earth and the moon fifteen times. There and back, I mean. So it is a lot! But if we gave them all one square metre each, they would only cover less than a quarter of the Netherlands. Not so many!
In 1972, the Club of Rome published its famous report Limits to Growth, which presented the world with a doom scenario featuring overpopulation as one of the villains of the piece. Now, forty years later, have we gone beyond those concerns? The opposite appears to be the case: rising consumption, an aging population and the chances of unexpected calamities have added to our unease. At a university which addresses important issues such as land use, food production, climate change and biodiversity, the problem of population growth should be high on the agenda, if you ask me.
Perhaps something else plays a role in our concern about the future of our densely populated planet: human powerlessness. Can we resist the one-sided compulsion towards material gain, and what lessons have we learned from the distant or recent past? The aim justifies the means, said the Italian political philosopher Machiavelli in 1513, while the French philosopher Montesquieu proclaimed two centuries later that all power corrupts. If so, perhaps it applies more between the ears than between the legs.