Population Delusion

From latest New Scientist population feature reinforce much of our recent discussion.

The population delusion

* 25 September 2009 by Alison George
* New Scientist Magazine issue 2727.

THINK of the biggest crowd you’ve ever been in – perhaps 50,000 in a sports stadium. Just 6 hours from now there will be that many more people in the world, and another 50,000 in the following 6 hours, and on and on… No wonder that the burgeoning human population is often seen as is the single biggest problem facing our world.

There are nearly 7 billion humans alive today, twice as many as there were in 1965, with 75 million more being added each year. UN predictions say there could be an extra 2 to 4 billion of us by 2050. The planet has never experienced anything like it.

Can the world sustain this growing horde? It’s a contentious question. While it is clear that the population cannot go on increasing forever, history is littered with dire but failed predictions of famine and death resulting from over-population. Most famously, Thomas Malthus warned more than two centuries ago that population would be held in check by rising mortality. What he failed to anticipate was the ability of newly industrialised societies to support large numbers of people.

Today, the “population problem” is firmly back on the agenda. Earlier this year the UK government’s chief scientific adviser John Beddington predicted a population-led global crisis by 2030, and a group of influential billionaires including Bill Gates and George Soros identified overpopulation as the greatest threat facing humanity. Every time we publish an article in New Scientist detailing yet another of the planet’s environmental woes, readers respond by arguing that the real problem is overpopulation.

The population statistics are indeed staggering. Yet the raw numbers hide a multitude of complexities. Look closely, and it becomes clear that the common-sense assumption that population is the root of all evil is simplistic.

For example, while the human population is growing in absolute terms, the rate of growth is slowing – from a peak of 2 per cent in the early 1960s to around 1 per cent today. In Japan , Russia and many European countries, women are having so few children that populations are shrinking or will do so soon – an unprecedented state of affairs other than in times of war or plague. At the same time, the populations of many of the least developed nations are exploding, with women in some countries giving birth to more than five children on average.

In the articles that follow, we unpick some of these complexities. Paul Ehrlich, who reignited debate a generation ago with his best-seller The Population Bomb, is sticking to his assertion that we need to act to rein in fertility (“Paul Ehrlich: Population, development and the poor”). Conversely, Fred Pearce insists on page 40 that focusing on population is a dangerous distraction from the real issue: consumption. Then there’s the brave new world of population shrinkage that Europe is entering, as demographer Reiner Klingholz explains on page 41. Lastly, perhaps human ingenuity will solve the problem. Techno-optimist Jesse Ausubel certainly thinks so, and in our interview on page 38 he explains why.

“We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.” So wrote Tertullian, an early Christian, back in the 3rd century. At that time, the world population stood at some 200 million. Eighteen centuries on and with 34 times as many people on the planet, the debate continues.

Population: Enough of us now

* 25 September 2009 by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich
* New Scientist Magazine issue 2727

GLOBAL population growth has slowed significantly, but it hasn’t stopped. By 2050 there may be about 35 per cent more people on Earth than there are today. We are already seeing increasing shortages of food, water and other resources and growing numbers of hungry people.

Yet to embark on any discussion about limiting our numbers is to enter sensitive and controversial territory. Perhaps this is not surprising, as in the 1960s, when population growth became an issue of widespread concern, the discussions often had a racist undertone, in which the “well-off” focused on the exploding populations of “underdeveloped nations”.

Nowadays it is understood that the key population-related issue is the destructive pressure human activity is exerting on our life-support systems, posing a growing threat to the sustainability of civilisation. Of course, this is not all because of human numbers; it also has to do with how much each of us consumes. That’s why, in our view, the US with its population of over 300 million and high per capita consumption should be seen as Earth’s most overpopulated nation. It is also why the emergence of “new consumers” constitutes a major additional assault on global life-support systems. Moreover, the 2.3 billion people likely to be added to the human population by 2050 will undermine those systems much more seriously than did the previous 2.3 billion, as each additional person will, on average, have to be supported by scarcer, lower-quality resources imposing ever greater environmental costs.

Yet many people still assume that humanity will easily manage to support more than 9 billion people in 2050 and beyond. Such confidence ignores some grim possibilities. There are only two ways by which population can stop increasing: a falling birth rate or rising death rates. We have already seen a rise in death rates in southern Africa and Russia , and there may well be further increases in death rate ahead, especially as disruption to the global climate increasingly destabilises agricultural systems. Even today, more than a billion people are going hungry.

We often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies… they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even for now, for only one billion people . The environmental deterioration resulting from ever more people consuming ever more resources will place the heaviest burdens on those least able to cope, as the great majority of those additional billions of people will be in the poorest nations, where poverty and high birth rates are inextricably linked. Uganda ‘s population, for example, is predicted to almost treble by 2050, growing from around 33 million today to 91 million in the next 40 years. Rapid population growth undermines development efforts. The resulting poor education, lack of public health facilities, and inadequate infrastructure in turn foster high birth rates.

Yet the priority given to population issues has diminished compared with concerns about development. If population growth continues unabated, we fear the problems of development will be “solved” by rises in death rates. For this reason, efforts to slow population growth should be treated as a human rights issue.

The way to reduce fertility rates is well known. It involves a cultural shift towards improving the education and status of women, making family planning and safe abortion more widely available, and moving towards a world where every child is a wanted child.

Nearly all developing countries have family planning programmes, but they are badly in need of renewed support. There has to be a recognition, at the highest political level, of the importance of reducing birth rates both as a pressing human rights issue and as a proven contributor to successful development.

This has to be linked to family health and welfare programmes, to education (especially for girls) and to the opening up of opportunities for women to participate in their nations’ economies. An example of what can be achieved is provided by the Grameen bank, which offers credit to the poor people of Bangladesh, especially women, and has no doubt helped reduce birth rates there simply by boosting grassroots economic development.

Somehow, cultural attitudes toward large families everywhere need to be changed. It should be considered immoral to have excessive numbers of children – an attitude that already exists in most industrialised nations with low birth rates. Nothing is more clearly a governmental responsibility than keeping a nation’s population size sustainable by benevolent measures.

As well as curbing population growth, we shouldn’t forget the pressing issue of excessive consumption by the rich. Humanity needs to get behind a global discussion of these issues, perhaps through a framework we have devised called the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (http://mahb.stanford.edu). This is a forum for global discussion of key ethical and cultural issues related to the human predicament. A major element of that discussion must be how to end the growth of the total human population humanely and begin a slow decline similar to the one that has so fortunately started in Europe and Japan . If that can be done, then a sustainable future for civilisation might be possible.
Days when the world has shrunk

The inexorable rise of the human population has been the dominant theme of our planet for centuries. In recent history, days that we know to have ended with fewer people than they started with are extremely rare.

The most recent was 26 December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami killed nearly 250,000 people. Another 160,000 died that day of other causes, and the day’s 370,000 births couldn’t compensate, according to environmentalist Robert Engelman in his book.

You have to go back to the 1970s to find other days of world population shrinkage, such as the Tangshan earthquake in China on 28 July 1976 and the devastating cyclone that hit Bangladesh on 12 November 1970, both of which killed at least 250,000 people. Even China ‘s great famine of 1958 to 1961, which caused around 15 million deaths, dented rather than stalled world population growth.

Further back in time, the 70,000 deaths caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima , Japan , on 6 August 1945 outweighed the population growth of around 60,000 people that would otherwise have taken place that day. With a lower death toll, the same probably isn’t true of the bombing of Nagasaki three days later. Even a particularly bad day during the first world war, such as 1 July 1916 when the British alone lost around 20,000 men at the battle of the Somme , probably didn’t stall the world’s upward population trend. However, the flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920, which killed about 50 million people, almost certainly did.

The biggest hit to world population in (relatively) recent times is the Black Death of the 14th century, which killed perhaps 75 million people and reduced Europe ‘s population by 30 per cent.

Things will be very different in the future. There will still be disasters and wars, of course, but some time after 2050 the world will enter a new era when the population will shrink on many days. We will simply be having fewer children.



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