Is population growth the right problem?

I was listening to the RSA President’s lecture given by David Attenborough – which is worth the time just to hear the Duke of Edinburgh speak too: he is very funny and very well informed, at almost 90 years old.

Attenborough’s lecture is about the human population explosion and the damage that does to the natural world. By 2050, the world’s population will have grown to 9.2 billion, if current predictions hold. Extinctions and degradations follow human habitation as night follows day. The message: curtail population, not by fiat, but by education, particularly of women, and economic development. With those advantages, people automatically have smaller families.

But I wondered if that is quite right. It strikes me that it is not population growth that does the damage, but economic development. After all, are not the most environmentally damaging nations today those with static populations? Clearly, if the population continues to grow, then escalating natural destruction will follow, though not to such an extent if it is not accompanied by economic development. And presumably the damage will continue even if the population levels off, as a result of the resource demands of economic development.

You could argue that technological advances are likely to allow economic growth to continue sustainably, though Attenborough also argues that ‘sustainable growth’ is ultimately an oxymoron on a planet with limited resources such as our own.

So whilst he was adamant that population growth is a taboo subject amongst politicians, which may well be so, I came away wondering whether it’s a proxy issue, if the natural world is your concern.