Is human population growth really a problem?
Are we impotent to address population predicament?
By Ticky Fullerton for Lateline
About 90 per cent of the world’s population growth has come from less developed regions, the least able to cope. (Reuters: Enny Nuraheni)
In 1935 prime minister Billy Hughes gave his famous orders to Australia: Populate or perish.
Seventy-five years on, it is a different world, with global population set to hit seven billion early in 2012 and top nine billion in 2050.
Only last month Australia’s forecast was revised upwards by 20 per cent to 35 million.
But with climate change and growing resource pressures, some global experts are now warning it is a case of populate and perish.
Every year, more than 110 million children are born, the fastest growth the world has experienced.
Global population exploded after World War II from 2.5 billion, with about 90 per cent of this growth coming from less developed regions, the least able to cope.
From 1950 to 2000, Kenya’s population grew five-fold to 30 million. And projections for 2050 have recently been revised from 44 million, made in 2002, to 85 million.
While talk of over-population is not new, in the 18th century Thomas Malthus was blunt in his assessment. Today his supporters are growing louder and more influential.
Sir Crispin Tickell speaks for the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), a British-based think tank warning of dire consequences of human proliferation.
The trust boasts other powerful voices including Sir David Attenborough, Gaia thinker James Lovelock and Paul Ehrlich, the man who became a household name in 1968 with his book The Population Bomb.
While Mr Ehrlich’s predictions of mass starvation have not come true, now at 81, he is adamant that world leaders are avoiding the most serious threat.
“And the problem is that the Al Gores and so on of the world actually refuse to look at what are the really inconvenient truths,” he said.
“What are the inconvenient truths? There’s a maldistribution of power. We have a population problem.
“When you look at the Inconvenient Truth movie, the solutions in the end are all brick-in-the-toilet type; that is the sort of things that if we did every single one of them as well as we could, it would delay the collapse of our civilisation by maybe 10 hours.”
Refugee pressures will be one of many miserable consequences, according to Sir Crispin.
“The inhuman migration that would flow from increase in population is a major issue and countries are going to be keen to resist migrants from overseas,” he said.
So dire are their predictions, the OPT does not believe there will be anything like the forecast nine billion people on Earth by the end of the century.
Professor Ehrlich paints a dystopic picture of the next 100 years.
“Great increases in hunger, the high likelihood of nuclear war, much bigger problems with plagues than we are having now with the H1N1 flu virus,” he said.
“And a general deterioration in standard of living of everybody and many, many, many more premature deaths.”
If there is even a chance these predictions are right, then where is the media and where are world leaders engaging in the population debate?
And why is it that most leaders accept nine billion as inevitable and focus on other issues like climate change?
Sir Crispin says leaders are frightened of offending powerful groups including the Catholic Church.
In March, Pope Benedict warned against condom use in Africa, even suggesting it would worsen the Aids problem. In July, he condemned all development funding linked to birth control.
Not far from Capitol Hill in Washington is another influential force; the Population Research Institute (PRI) has a network of pro-life groups in more than 30 countries.
Its goal is to expose what it calls “the myth” of over-population.
What population growth?
PRI spokesman Steven Mosher has testified in Congress and appeared on many US talk shows.
“What population growth? Europe is dying. The US continues to increase because of immigration from other countries,” he said.
“Remember this, the Food and Agriculture Organisation based in Rome, part of the UN, says that with current agricultural technology we can feed 14 billion people. We will never get to 14 billion. We might get to eight billion.
“I have seen first hand what happens when governments take over control of fertility in a country. I was in China when the one-child policy began.
“I witnessed the forced abortion of women at six, seven, and eight months of pregnancy and I suspect that if Professor Ehrlich had been with me in the operating room and seen these forced abortions, that he might feel a little bit differently about his population control proposals.
“We’ve documented human rights abuses in 42 different counties as a direct result of population control ideas promoted by people like the Optimum Population Trust.”
Thanks in part to the PRI’s campaigning, the body charged with world population policy, the United Nations, is itself pretty impotent.
Accused of supporting sterilisation programs in Peru and forced abortions in China, US funding was cut off by all three Republican presidents for any UN-related aid groups that might offer abortion.
But this year has brought change. Barack Obama has restored funding to the UN, and significantly former president Bill Clinton has spoken out on the dangers of population growth.
“There is really one fool-proof way to slow the world’s population growth, in a way that will not violate the values of any religion, and that is to dramatically accelerate our efforts to put every single girl in the world in school,” Mr Clinton said.
Research presented this month to the UN supports Mr Clinton’s push, educating women as the key to population restraint.
Sir Crispin say it is also the main message of the OPT, which does not support forced population control.
“Where women have the proper, same rights and the rest as men and where they have control over their own bodies, then you find the population very rapidly gets into balance and you can see this illustrated very well in India,” he said.
“In the tropical south west, the small state of Kerala has succeeded where the rest of India has failed by controlling population growth.
“The women in this predominantly Christian state are better educated and have more rights than elsewhere.”
Ironically, the best example of such female empowerment is fundamentalist Iran, now the condom capital of the Middle East.
The PRI supports education but argues that it is poverty, not populations, that destroy the environment. And Mr Mosher claims the UN Population Fund still has a much tougher agenda.
“How can they on the one hand be claiming espousing choice, and on the other hand be instructing governments that they have a population problem and they must do something about that problem, and ‘here, we will give you the means to reduce the fertility among your people’,” he said.
Too many rich babies
The big shock for experts has been the forecast population growth in western countries like Australia and the United States.
While the poor masses may die off in a cruel natural selection, Professor Ehrlich says population policy needs to address the gluttony of the West.
“The problem isn’t too many poor babies. It’s too many rich babies,” he said.
“They’re the ones that put pressure on our life support systems, so there should be gigantic penalties on rich people for having too many children.”
But father-of-nine Mr Mosher is unrepentant.
“Children have an economic value. Every child born in the US over his or her lifetime will contribute about two thirds of a million dollars more than they consume,” he said.
“That is that they will leave America a better place.”
But as America’s environmental footprint grows and the population clock ticks away, expect little talk of population at Copenhagen in December.
Great discussion here! Just a few comments from my side
Firstly – it is true that mathematically speaking we are experiencing exponential population growth, and that at some point this can collide with the carrying capacity of the earth, but there are so many factors which may influence the outcome of population growth, most of which have not been considered publicly.
Consider this – most rural families in India and many other emerging or not so emerging countries – have +3 kids so that the parents can be supported by their childrenin their old age. A system that operates a bit like a pension scheme. The more kids you have – the better looked after you are! People in the west don’t think this way, because we have built a more prosperous society that so far has allowed individuals to generate wealth, retire and live off their savings – not requiring people to have kids in order to provide for them in their old age.
Add to this the fact,
… that it is poverty, not populations, that destroy the environment .
And we can thus conclude that raising the standard of living whilst providing a system that protects peoples savings would be a way to change attitudes and thus reduce population growth.
Secondly, we have barely scratched the surface of human ingenuity in regards to tackling sustainability. While I do believe there will be hickups along the way – especially as a result of peak oil – I don’t believe that we are not able to find ways of producing energy, water and food in sufficient amounts to support an even larger population than we currently have on this planet.
Let’s consider water. It is true, that rivers are running dry, and that we experience droughts every so often – and sometimes for decades – and that the water table in some countries is becoming ever more contaminated etc. etc.. However, water is present in many forms around the world; from condensation, to ice, rain etc – and I am sure that we can find sufficient ways to capture it so that we sustain ourselves. For example – here’s an ingenious product that condenses water from air (http://www.air2water.net). And this is just the start!
People are not a drain on the wealth and resources , they are the producers of it . People produce more than they consume .
so – why are we assuming that over the coming decades, or centuries – we are constrained to the physical limits of only the earth? It might sound like a dream now, but maybe one day we will figure out how to create an atmosphere on Mars, and colonize it. Landing on the moon was a fantasy 70-80 years ago – until JFK established it as a goal.
The question I have – is not whether we will manage to find the answers to the challenges we face (I am sure we will!), but whether we will be allowed to follow through and solve these problems to build a more equitable and sustainable world.
So far the TPTB are not allowing open, and fair debate on the subject of population – similar to other subjects: peak oil, global warming etc… So, I checked out the National Population Institute site: (http://pop.org/). It has an interesting group of articles called pop 101.Check it out!
I am still not sure of the motive behind the agenda here. I know I am getting old and tired and if it takes 6 people working to support one person on social security /Medicare we do not have enough young people .Who will grow our food ? Who will build our bridges ,?Who will fight our wars? Who will wipe our butts ? We need people . I would rather depend on and hug a grandchild than a bigger tractor , bigger combine,or bar of gold . But hey , if I am the only one among the 1000 or so who visit here that believe Children are a gift from God, then you might not have as big a worry as you think and we will see 0 population growth very soon .
• Dividing an ever shrinking pie of resources among an ever expanding population is not a recipe for prosperity. It’s a Ponzi scheme.
• It’s not how many people the earth can contain; it’s how many people the earth can sustain.
• Sooner or later, human population will decline. The only question is whether it’s due to falling birth rates…or rising death rates.
• Can we continue to feed an ever expanding human population? As they say on Wall Street, “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”
• How do we add 2.5 billion more people to the planet, eradicate poverty, feed the hungry, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%? Good question.
The Real “Inconvenient Truth”
Most Americans believe that we are “exceptional”—both as a society and as a species. We believe that America was ordained through divine providence to be the societal role model for the world. And we believe that through our superior intellect, we can harness and even conquer Nature in our continuous quest to improve the material living standards associated with our ever-increasing population.
The truth is that our pioneering predecessors drifted, quite by accident, upon a veritable treasure trove of natural resources and natural habitats, which they wrested by force from the native inhabitants, and which we have persistently overexploited in order to create and perpetuate our American way of life. The truth is that through our “divine ordination” and “superior intellect”, we have been persistently and systematically eliminating the very resources upon which our way of life and our existence depend.
http://wakeupamerika.com/intro.html Brief intro
Chris Clugston on American Sustainability Summary (PDF, 218 KB)
http://www.wakeupamerika.com/PDFs/On-American-Sustainability.pdf contains the models, evidence, and references for the conclusions reached in the above summary.
http://dieoff.org lots of great sources: search for “Population” and “Carrying Capacity” on this page
Given the long-term contribution that a turnaround in population growth could make in easing our most recalcitrant challenges, why doesn’t the idea get more respect and attention? Politicians’ apathy toward long-term solutions is part of the answer. But the more obvious reason is the discomfort most of us feel in grappling with the topics of sex, contraception, abortion, immigration and family sizes that differ by ethnicity and income. What in the population mix is not a hot button? Especially when the word “control” is added, and when the world’s biggest religions have fruitful multiplication embedded in their philosophical DNA. And so critics from left, right and the intellectual center gang up on the handful of environmentalists and other activists who try to get population into national and global discussions.
But hey , if I am the only one among the 1000 or so who visit here that believe Children are a gift from God…
“But hey , if I am the only one among the 1000 or so who visit here that believe Children are a gift from God…”
Children, like everything else you use and own, are gifts from NATURE, and Nature has the ultimate right to take back what it has given…..
[quote=Full Moon]. . . if I am the only one among the 1000 or so who visit here that believe Children are a gift from God . . .
We may be rare, my lunar friend, but you’re not the only one . . .
Children, like everything else you use and own, are gifts from NATURE, and Nature has the ultimate right to take back what it has given…..
then doesn’t that mean that nature is committing conscious acts of giving and taking through the excercise of it’s “ultimate right”. And since nature’s ultimate right therefore includes the giving and taking back of everything we use and own, even children, doesn’t that thereby signify the superiority of nature above all things (even humans)?. Aren’t all these things attributes of God? And isn’t it then logical to conclude from your post here (and reinforced by your other posts) that you your Supreme Being, i.e. nature, is your God?
yes, children brought into the natural world are a gift to live in harmony with it.
but given the destructive, exponential systems of empire we’ve built, we’ve thrown things out of harmony.
I was simply writing metaphorically, I don’t believe Nature is “conscious”. In the same way, I think Gaia behaves like an organism, but it isn’t one. I stand in awe of the energies of the Universe, but I don’t idolise it, it isn’t alive, it doesn’t make choices about whether we exist or not, and there may well be many more Universes we will never know about. Why should we think “our” Universe is the only one? So anthropocentric…….!