Last month heralded the ground-breaking news that human eggs can be grown entirely from stem cells in a laboratory setting. What this signals is a revolution to fertility treatment as well as the theoretical application of a technology that could end menopause, making it possible for much older women to have babies.
Whilst this is marvellous, amazing, awe-inspiring and all that, I can't help but think we are are yet another step closer to disaster as a species. Although this technology has other potential applications such as preventing osteoporosis (brittle bone disease) and heart disease; common risks in post-menopausal women, this so-called 'elixir of youth' will upset the very order of nature in such a way that once started, there will be no going back. Natural selection and survival of the fittest; the very principles that govern nature will be a thing of the past and can only spell doom for the human race producing sub-standard offspring and Lord knows, a myriad of other problems perhaps that accompany any process that tampers with nature.
Do we really need any further technological help to add to an over-populated planet? Who will have access to this technology? Will bio-information be used wisely and selectively (if the race to patent the human genome is anything to go by, highly unlikely!). The reality is that only those who can afford such services will be able to access treatment and let's face it, are these the best genes that we want to salvage for the human race - they may regard it as a gift to humanity but personally, I think nature has had the answer all along but continues to be ignored.
I, along with many of my colleagues already have numerous reservations about IVF and previous revolutionary technologies that have gone before in fertility treatments and whilst it has brought infinite joy to millions of infertile couples, no one seems to be bothered enough to tackle the reasons why men and women (some as young as early 20s) are infertile when they should be in the prime of their youth. Surely, this is not a normal or healthy state of affairs?
Certainly, in the UK, the unnecessary pressures and stresses placed upon the 'squeezed middle' classes has already created an unnatural social structure where women are opting to have children later in life (some as late as their 40s!), some deciding to wait until they are financially secure before embarking on starting a family (let's face it, children cost money!) and for some, they are so unhealthy having been subjected to prolonged stints of stress from work that they simply become infertile. I defy anyone to tell me that stress plays no part in adversely influencing the endocrine profile and reproductive function of healthy young individuals, both men and women (and I have seen both in my clinical practice). Of course, what all this means is that on a social scale, it is only those who are at the very top (the uber-rich, aristocracy and landed gentry) and the lower classes (some categorise them as the underclass or those culturally adjusted to not working) who enjoy the luxury of wealth and immorality to be able to procreate with such reckless abandonment) that are actually breeding. One can only despair of the gene pool. To be fair, in the UK, the immigrant population have also benefitted from years of free services from the NHS to further add to the burgeoning UK population. But the UK is only one country and only one example of the increase in population but it is by no means the worst offender in increasing birth rates.
The global picture is a worrying one, not least of which the strategy to implement a reduced birth rate or a zero population growth is complex. The world population is set to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050 (in 2009 it was 6.8 billion). The planet is already struggling to support the people we currently have, how on Earth (literally!) is it going to manage an increase of 2.4 billion? Human consumption of non-renewable resources (especially our love affair with fossil fuels) is already overshooting Earth's capacity to provide it. Resources are becoming scarcer and the number of hungry people increases every year. Lack of water is going to be the biggest environmental problem of the 21st century. However, I am enormously encouraged to note that there are a number of organisations, charities and campaign groups already 'on the case' in tackling this issue of over-population - clearly there are others who are worried just like me. The planet cannot continue to support the rising world population indefinitely as there are limited resources and human activity alone has been the cause of many environmental problems we are witnessing today: global warming, pollution, climate change, poverty, loss of biodiversity, depletion of non-renewal energy sources..... Further, the quality of life for many will be infinitley reduced and we may well see a return to infant mortality rates and death rates in developed nations similar to the Victorian era and a poverty-stricken Dickensian kind of living - not good!
Planet Earth cannot sustain an infinite number of people so what can be done?
By far the easiest and most efficient strategy is through education and technology (namely, access to family planning and contraception). Poorer nations struggle with both, especially women and there is a concerted effort by international campaign groups to address this. Unintended pregnancies remain the biggest problem in such countries and adds to child poverty, famine and disease. Optimistically, the world can gain useful insight into the shining example that is Kerala in India which suffered from all the classic hallmarks of over-population but managed to turn it around through education of their women and providing them access to contraception, something that is often taken for granted in the wealthier nations such as the UK.
Interestingly, given the access to free contraception and family planning services, the UK still has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe and given that children of poorer nations are clamouring to get any kind of education or schooling, the UK has to devise strategies to keep the delinquents in school and the government has recently started to impose fines for truancy. Extraordinary!
Although China once had an over-population problem about 50-60 years ago, their 1-child policy which was implemented around that time, was (and still is) thought to be far too radical and savage which offends our democratic sensibilities. However, the actions taken then have worked and what we see today is a sustainable population, substantial economic growth and wealth that is perhaps the envy of many other nations? A coercive policy such as this may not work in many countries but why wait until this is the only option available? We can do something now but it requires a global effort, immense political will and a change in mindset from arrogance that we as humans have a right to breed to that of every conception being a blessing. We as humans have also neglected the rights of other species and it we continue on this trajectory of birth rates, human activity alone will spell disaster for biodiversity which has suffered irreversibly already with extinction of so many species on a catastrophic scale. All this, in addition to significant loss of some of our important natural ecosystems (think slash & burn activities of the Amazonian rainforests).
And what of subsistence economies where children are regarded as a pension especially in remote and rural communities? Again, policy and incentives that enable individuals to be better supported in old age will certainly help. But in the meantime, we have to tackle and eradicate the corrupt leaders of our nations that support global companies that place profit above humanity and greed above morality. Moreover, we have to rein in the religious rhetoric about abortion and anti-contraception. Introduce a 2-child policy (or better still, a 1-child policy).
What is shocking however is that even some of the big environmental charities and campaign groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam (to name but a few) do not support the tackling of over-population as they believe that the Earth is capable of supporting this increase in world population through technology. And whilst they may be right regarding technology saving the day, what state will the world be in by then? If ever there was a counter argument to technology, it would be food production - yes, we have the technology to produce enough food to feed the entire world population; no-one should be starving in the 21st century but the problem remains with one of distribution (corrupt & greedy governments, leaders and food manufacturers will always scupper this drive). All such campaign groups seen to shy away from discussing over-population, an issue which is so glaringly obvious to the rest of us. I cannot fathom this at all especially if they have seen the figures on human impact on Earth and have done the sums. Are they so blinkered, they cannot see the impending avalanche on the horizon?
If we are to enjoy the bounties of planet Earth and what Mother Nature has so abundantly provided for us, we need to tackle the issue of over-population now and leave the Earth in a fit and healthy state so that our children and subsequent generations can enjoy a quality of life not blighted by the consequences of over-population. Stabilising populations and ensuring a sustainable future is surely the only way out of this dismal mess.
For more information, please visit: Population Matters (previously The Optimum Population Trust) www.populationmatters.org (UK charity) or Sustainable Population Australia www.population.org.au/ (Australian national organisation).