Last night the Cabot Institute hosted a recording of the BBC Radio 4 programme Saving Species from the Great Hall here at the University of Bristol. The panel comprised the philosopher and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency Professor Jacequeline McGlade, Professor Aubery Manning of the University of Edinburgh and the Cabot Institute's own Dr. Jon Bridle, who is a Senior Lecturer in Bristol's School of Biological Sciences. As Cabot's Director I was delighted to welcome such an eminent panel to the University and to run an event with the very dynamic Julian Hector from the BBC Natural History Unit which is based here in Bristol. The topic of the show was "Saving species: sustaining life" which the panel debated in response to audience questions. The idea was to explore the extent to which an increasing human population can be made compatible with efforts to preserve the natural world.
The thing that amazed me is how effortless every involved in the production, both the BBC crew and the major events people here at the University, made it look. I've rarely been to such a large event that has been pulled together so quickly and yet which seemed so serene. I wandered along a hour before the event to help with last minute panics and found myself very surplus to requirements. In the end I really could just stroll around meeting and greeting which was great. The other pleasing thing was that even on a wet and cold Monday evening in November the city of Bristol still turned out an audience of over 700 to watch the recording. I don't know many other cities where this would happen and where the audience questions would be so perceptive and challenging.
I guess the crux of the programme was the extent to which one adopts an essentially neo-Malthusian stance and argues that there are finite limits to population growth that can only met through population control, or whether one argues that it is not only how many people there are but how those people actually live that matters. The paradox seems to be that the things that lead populations to naturally restrict their growth (female education and emancipation, access to better healthcare and contraception, growing economic opportunities etc) have also historically led to significant increases in resource consumption: the development of aspirational middle classes in the developed world has significantly increased the total amount of the Earth's resources that we use. How we construct a future development path for the planet that doesn't lead to the resource depletion associated with the current western world economic model is a tough question to answer. There were some quite radically different views on this expressed by the panel, but instead of spoiling the plot I'll let you listen to the broadcast to find out.
For me the event was excellent, and hopefully the audience enjoyed things too. If you'd like to listen to the programme it will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 8.00pm on Friday 23rd December.
Professor Paul Bates is Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol and undertakes research into flood risk and uncertainty.